The Oxford Union Debate: Coming Home With Our Shields, Not On Them

Even though we both live in New England, my co-author Erik Brynjolfsson and I participated in this year’s Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford event, which just wrapped up. We were asked for a pretty specific reason: each year’s SVCO includes a debate at the Oxford Union, and this year’s motion was “This house believes that the average worker is being left behind by advances in technology.”

Since this is one of the main messages of our recent book Race Against the Machine the SVCO organizers asked me and Erik if we’d like to be part of the side for the proposition, which is Union-ese for the team that’s in favor of the motion. I agreed immediately, even though I have no formal debate experience (I like to argue, but that’s not quite the same thing). The chance to cross swords in the venerable Oxford Union was simply to great an opportunity to pass up.

And I started to feel pretty good about our chances when I learned that Valley legend Reid Hoffman would be on our team. Reid is a former Marshall Scholar at Oxford, a member of the winning side at last year’s debate, and an all-around wicked smart guy (our fourth was NEA VC Patrick Chung). Facing off against us would be a formidable team consisting of Cisco CTO Padmasree Warrior (there can be no better name for a debater), Kim Polese of Java fame, VantagePoint Capital Partners VC Kal Patel, and Marvell Technology VP of Marketing, member of the winning side in 2010, and all-around raconteur Tom Hayes.

I don’t know which side had the stronger hand going in to the debate. We could take advantage of the general economic unease of current times, and the sense that a lot of people are getting left behind. The side for the opposition had going for it the fact that SVCO is an overwhelmingly pro-technology crowd, and the wording of the proposition sounded pretty anti-tech.

In an Oxford Union debate the two sides alternate, with each person speaking for ten minutes. Reid explained to us that the first two speakers should set out their side’s arguments and supporting evidence, and so try to set the terms of the debate as favorably as possible. The latter two speakers should spend more of their time rebutting what the other side says. Because Erik and I wrote the book and were therefore most familiar with the facts and figures, we decided that we’d go first, and that Reid would bat cleanup.

The Side for the Proposition

I won’t try to summarize the whole event; it passed in a blur and I have way too few concrete memories. The only thing I can do with any confidence is reproduce my statement, since I wrote it down (in a huge rush before we left for the pre-debate dinner on Sunday night). Here it is, lightly edited to make myself sound more erudite than I was in the Union that night:

Madame President, honored guests and members, thank you for inviting us here tonight.

Our hosts at Oxford welcomed us last night with a wonderful cocktail party at the Divinity School. In the middle of it Kal Patel of the honorable opposition walked up to me and Erik and engaged in the most blatant opposition research and intelligence gathering that I’ve ever seen. After some quick chit-chat he asked, “So, have either of you actually been to India? How about China?”

Like Kal, I’ve been to both. Apparently unlike Kal, I’ve also familiarized myself with the relevant statistics for both. And those statistics directly support the proposition. Despite their recent explosive growth, industrialization, and urbanization both countries are still primarily rural, so the average worker is a farmer with a plow, not a programmer with a laptop.

And both countries have, like America, become steadily and significantly more unequal in recent years, with an elite joining the modern era of technology and trade and reaping huge benefits, and leaving the average worker behind. This elite is large in absolute numbers, but still relatively small. The Indian high tech sector, for example, employs 2.5 million people, which is fantastic. But that’s just 0.2% of the county’s population.

In his remarks Tom aimed a couple barbs at me, which is all part of the fun of an Oxford Union debate. In fact, it reflects well on him, because when he attaches himself to the long list of people who have slandered me, it marks the only time all night he’s with insightful company.

More broadly, we have been characterized as Luddites or pessimists. These charges are ridiculous on their face. The side for the proposition consists of two high tech venture capitalists, a former Silicon Valley CEO, and two scholars who have spent their careers quantifying and communicating the business benefits of technology. We are all huge technology optimists: we agree with the physicist Freeman Dyson that “Technology is a gift of God. After the gift of life it is perhaps the greatest of God’s gifts. It is the mother of civilizations, of arts and of sciences.”

But we’re not over-optimists, as the members of the honorable opposition are. If they’d like to understand the difference, I suggest they take some time while on this trip to visit the Voltaire Foundation, which is housed here at Oxford. There they can read all about Candide, who gains enough wisdom to move past his naive philosophy of “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds” to the more mature view that “We must tend our gardens.” In other words, I invite the honorable opposition to get some Enlightenment.

We will need to tend the gardens of our societies with even greater care in the future, because when it comes to the impact of technology on the labor force, we ain’t seen nothing yet. In just the past couple years we’ve seen cars that drive themselves, phones that can understand what we’re saying and talk back even in multiple languages, and computers that can beat the best human quiz show players. These innovations, which are truly the stuff of science fiction, have already left the lab, and they’re starting to enter the mainstream economy. As they do, they’ll encounter the 350 thousand call center employees in the Phillipines, the 3.5 million Americans who drive trucks, and countless other workers around the world. These encounters will be disruptive.

The response here from the honorable opposition is something like  “there have been plenty of technological disruptions before, and people always found new and better jobs. So the same will happen again.” This makes the honorable opposition less enlightened not only than Voltaire but also than John Maynard Keynes, who said “When the facts change, I change my mind.” Or to say it another way, the honorable opposition is not even reaching the level of thought demonstrated by Cambridge men such as Keynes.

So here are the changed facts: In America the unemployment rate is, depending on how you count, between 9 and 16%, the average length of unemployment, at about 40 weeks, is twice as high as it’s ever been and not getting better. Median household income has actually declined over the past 14 years. And around the world, companies in even the lowest wage countries are embracing cutting edge technologies with great enthusiasm. For example, the huge Asian electronics manufacturer Foxconn has announced plans to buy over a million robots in the coming years. The androids are coming, and they work even cheaper than the Chinese. It’s time to change our minds.

In particular, it’s time to change our minds about the role of the high tech sector. That sector is bringing many wonderful things to the world, but it’s not bringing a lot of jobs, simply because of its great productivity. Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google together employ fewer than 150,000 people, which is less than the number of people entering the American workforce every month. And the newest companies are even more productive. Dropbox is a red-hot cloud-based storage company based in San Francisco. It’s on track to do $240 million in business this year, and has over 40 million users. It employs about 70 people.

It’s also time to change our minds and broaden our definition of ‘social entrepreneurship.’ When we hear that term at present, we think of sustainability, or clean or green tech, or improving the lots and lives of people in the developing world. All of these are worthwhile and wonderful things to do. Here’s another one: create jobs for average workers. Because there aren’t enough of them right now. The greatest scarcity in our economies now is a scarcity not of resources or even of good new ideas, but of opportunity — of chances to let people realize the American Dream, and the English Dream, the Indian and Chinese and Mexican dream.

If you think I’m exaggerating, I invite you to read the new book by Jim Clifton, who’s the CEO of Gallup. His organization polled people around the globe, and came to a striking conclusion. He writes:

“The primary will of the world is no longer about peace or freedom or even democracy; it is not about having a family, and it is neither about God nor about owning a home or land. The will of the world is first and foremost to have a good job. Everything else comes after that.” Clifton tallies up a worldwide gap of over 1 billion jobs, and that gap is growing, not shrinking, as we head deeper into the digital era.

I’d like to close with two quotes, one from my side of the ocean, and one from this one. The first is from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who said in 1934 —  the last time things were this bad — “No country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources. Demoralization caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance. Morally, it is the greatest menace to our social order.”

The poet and Oxford man W. H. Auden agreed, writing that

“…no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.”

Thank you very much.

The motion passed by a vote of 173-105. Which felt really, really good.