Category Archives: World affairs

Employment challenges – losing jobs to technology

Employment challenges – Losing jobs to technology

Employment is top of all political agendas.  And unfortunately unemployment remains at stubbornly high levels across Europe and in other economies.  Just read Race Against the Machine by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.

Key tenet

The key tenet of the books is set out in Chapter One: ‘The root of our problem is not that we’re in a Great Recession, or a Great Stagnation, but rather we are in the early throes of a Great Restructuring. Our technologies are racing ahead but many of ours skills and organisations are lagging behind.  So it’s urgent that we understand these phenomena, discuss their implications, and come up with strategies that allow human workers to race ahead with machines instead of against them’.

The authors have noted that post the most recent recessions in the US the usual steep increases in employment have not occurred.  We are hearing the arguments about problems with outsourcing, offshoring, non competitive rates of taxation (in which context Ireland is often mentioned), etc. – but Mcafee and Brynjolfsson do not believe the impact of technology is properly understood or properly articulated.  Hence the need for the book.

Very much think the reference to Kurzweil and the need to understand/ appreciate exponential growth (which is slow at first) is very relevant.  The authors and Kuzweil believe we are only now entering the steep part of the exponential growth.

Computers taking on the big issues

Pattern recognition and complex communication were seen as being beyond computers and therefore protection a significant domain of work for humans.  However developments in the areas of driverless cars (Google) and language translation (IBM/ ) would seem to counter this.

Am a little surprise that the authors have led in with much of the negatives and left the positives to the final Chapter: The Digital Frontier.  They explain their rationale for doing so – but I would still prefer to have seen more of the positives upfront in the book.

Agenda for action – including driving employment

The authors propose an agenda for action (in chapter 4) and it is interesting to consider this in an Irish and global context.  Many of the challenges are the same – some more important locally.

Rec 1 – Invest more in education – pay better teachers more.  Agreed – when we agree a mechanism for removing poor teachers.

Rec 2 – remove tenure for teachers.  Agreed (actually essential at all levels)

Rec 3 – separate education and assessment.  We have this – although current reforms plan to mess this up.

Rec 4 – increase numbers of class days for students.  agreed – year is too short (to many vacations)

Rec 5 – encourage skilled immigrants – we have this underway

Rec 6 – teach entrepreneurship – major gaps in Irish education – recently referenced by John Purdy, this years Entrepreneur of the Year (Industry)

Rec 7 – visas for founder entrepreneurs – making progress

Rec 8 – create packages for startups – more work required

Rec 9 – lower govt barriers to business creation – significant issue

Rec 10 – invest in country infrastructure – roads and broadband.  Some good progress made in Ireland.  Gov’t committed to addressing broadband blackspots

Rec 11 – More funding for basic research – YES

Rec 12 – Preserve labour flexibility.  Insufficient in Ireland – increasing EU influence

Rec 13 – Make hiring more attractive than technology.  Definitively not the case at present.

Rec 14 – Decouple health benefits from jobs: not traditionally an issue in Ireland.  But significantly rising health insurance costs may give rise to coupling.

Rec 15 – Don’t rush to regulate new network business.  EU pushing this agenda in wrong direction

Rec 16 – Eliminate home mortgage subsidy.  Now at standard rate.  May be impacting mobility between different parts of Ireland.

Rec 17 – Reduce implicit subsidies to financial services.  Very significant at present – as banking being rebuilt/ refloated.  Is an issue.

Rec 18 – Reform the patent system – no comment

Rec 19 – Shorten copyright periods – will be a tough call


Not sure that the action list caught the best of the book.  The messages are right – society and employment are changing.  Technology is and will have a huge impact.  Work with the technology, leverage the technology, promote innovation – and it can work out.  Those who fight the technology or fail to understand will fail.  Plenty innovations will fail – but only some have to succeed.

Race against the machine
Technology and impact on jobs and society
Published by: Digital Frontier PRess
Edition: 1
ISBN: eISBN 978-0-9847251-0-6
Available in: Ebook

Thinking about The New Digital Age

Just read ‘The New Digital Age’  by Eric Schmidt (Executive Chairman Google) and Jared Cohen (Director, Google Ideas).  Received a copy, gratis, when attended Google Atmosphere in London last week. I think some of the comments included on the cover praising the book may be over hyped – though interesting that Schmidt and Cohen attract high praise from such luminaries as Tony Blair, Richard Branson, Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger, amongst others.

And I should include that I currently use google apps on a daily basis – and would be lost on a regular basis without google maps.  And I am using google document to prepare this blog posting.

The title of the book very closely aligns with discussion I find myself having with many people – how is society (and business) being impacted by technologies including mobile, social networking, big data?  Recently I reviewed Keen’s excellent book, ‘Digital Vertigo’.

Schmidt and Cohen are, not surprisingly, positive about the contribution of technology and I do not disagree with them.  They see the emergence of a ‘virtual civilisation’ in coexistence with ‘physical civilisation’ – with both civilisations influencing and impacting each other.  As part of this they place great emphasis on virtual IDs and virtual institutions e.g. virtual government.

Per the authors your virtual ID or IDs have now assumed great importance – in that they have the ability to influence significantly your physical life.  Hence the emergence of third parties looking to work with individuals to help them manage their on-line reputation.  Schmidt has generated plenty of controversy previously by suggesting  the possible requirement for individuals to be able to start again with a new identity. I have always been grateful that there were no mobile phones (with powerful cameras) when I was growing up and engaged in various juvenile pursuits. Interestingly in this book the authors point out one possible issue in post war/ conflict reconstruction  being the difficulty of achieving ‘collective memory loss’ because of digital records.

Much of Keen’s book ‘Digital Vertigo’ focused on loss of privacy – as people provide information to social networks, as people are photographed, as people’s location is recorded, as companies and governments accumulate this data.  Google is in the business of accumulating this data and using it (google+, search engine, locations, etc).  In the chapters ‘ Identity, Citizen and Reporting’ and ‘Future of Sates’ Schmidt and Cohen acknowledge concerns or challenges re loss of privacy e.g. importance of parents speaking with children at an early stage about privacy and security, high levels of surveillance (‘big brother’) and activities of police states.  But they also emphasise the ‘costs of anonymity’ – the costs of opting out and potentially not being relevant.  In identifying a range of coping strategies’ they include, under ‘legal options’ the possibility of introducing the idea of ‘sealing juvenile records’ – although the impracticalities of such a step are acknowledged.

I thought the chapter ‘Future of reconstruction’ was interesting – and Schmidt was doubtless informed and influenced by his own visit to Iraq.  But the discussion re Iraq, Haiti and Egypt all pointed to opportunities to get back up and running more quickly is you can re-establish communications – in particular by taking advantage of mobile communications.  And our own Irish king of telecommunications, Denis O’Brien, has been very much to the fore in Haiti. The ideas around use of rfids to track weapons and manage handing/ handing over of weapons post conflict was interesting.

Schmidt and Cohen draw attention to some negatives associated with the Digital Word in the context of terrorism and war.  Of course the virtual worlds offer both potential for more strife and, in parallel, the opportunity to head off some conflict.  The use of drones is  very much a hot topic in the world press at the moment – with President Obama under pressure to justify their use – given a number of innocent bystander casualties.  In dealing with terrorism and crime there are now several challenges in terms of cyber-crime, use of mobile communications by prisoners – but we are reminded that terrorists only have to make one mistake to give away their location – and this happens quite often.

So what do Schmidt and Cohen see driving more digital? Dropping broadband costs (Somalia is quoted as a great example), better encryption (to address people’s security concerns), open source development and the availability of telecommunications equipment at the right price (note the importance of the four major vendors: Ericssons, Alcatel/ Lucent, Huawei, Cisco).

Overall the book was a good read and included a few interesting ideas.  It included the odd acknowledgement of the existence of a company called Microsoft.  I think it completely underplayed the influence and power of companies such as Google.  It highlighted a range of risks/ threats for society but concluded firmly that most of this is good for us and society (and the individual!) will be the winner.

Interesting comment re journalists and the internet

In today’s Sunday Times another excellent article from Terry Prone – entitled: It’s in the media’s interest to support a probe into privacy.  In the middle of the piece Terry Prone makes the following comment:

‘It must be said, however, that the openness of journalists to examine all sides of possible legislation is currently complicated by their promiscuous fascination with internet-based offerings. Few of them concentrate on the dangers that online content pose to individual journalists and to the profession as a whole. I can think of no other well-paid profession whose members compete against each other for free. You don’t get orthopaedic surgeons doing knee replacements in their leisure time without charge. Yet you get journalists writing blogs for nothing, their urge for self-expression obscuring the fact that they are undermining their own employers. After all, why should readers buy newspapers when they can get the same writers on the net for free?

Journalists who pride themselves on their maverick stance are nonetheless joining the electronic herd, submitting to the peer pressure which holds that you must have, for example, a Facebook site. ‘

I have commented in the past on the challenges facing the newspaper industry.  Journalists are not the only ones  ‘joining the electronic herd’.  An obvious example is the number of IT consultants blogging and providing thier expertise for free – in competition with themselves or their employers.

There is another element to this – some feeling (amongst those blogging) of belonging to a larger, collaborative environment – with an exchange of ideas and a sharing of knowledge.  The question as to whether this will lead to useful work, revenue, jobs is largely unanswered.

‘Peer pressure which holds that you must have, for example, a Facebook site’ – yes I think there is some definite pressure around facebook.  One reason for this is the existence of 150m+ accounts  (how many of these are active?).  But for many facebook is a useful tool, rather than something they are pressurised to use.

Terry Prone and many of the other journalists writing for the Sunday Times are the reason there is a future for this industry.  But the business model my be changing.  The news is available online almost immediately (e.g. twitter).  But the assessment, the interpretation, the commentary – this is where quality journalism is required and has a strong future – with the right business model.


Great site, Mr President elect

The use of the internet and web 2.0 technology by President elect Obama and his team is well documented.  Have a look at the site:  What a great way to communicate appointments, policy ideas and create a welcoming atmosphere – encouraging people to contribute their views.  Seems to me that we could do with something similar, given the current economic challenges for the artist formerly known as Celtic Tiger.