I am sorry to brag, but this really is an all-star lineup. If you’re at all interested in technological progress and its implications for our businesses, economies, and societies, you should attend the 2014 Second Machine Age conference.

MIT Second Machine Age conference It’s being held on September 10 and 11 at the gorgeous MIT Media Lab building, and organized jointly by the Institute’s Industrial Liaison Program and the Initiative on the Digital Economy (which I cofounded with Erik Brynjolfsson). Erik and I are both speaking, but that’s not the the exciting part (sorry, Erik). What’s truly exciting is the group of people who have agreed to join us and share their latest work and thinking. Where else can you, in the space of two days, hear from:

  • LinkedIn cofounder Allen Blue
  • DARPA’s Gill Pratt
  • and MIT heavy hitters Sinan Aral, Bill Aulet, David Autor, Cesar Hidalgo, Joi Ito, Fiona Murray, Sandy Pentland, Julie Shah, Scott Stern, Deb Roy, and Daniela Rus?

Nowhere, that’s where.

Most of the seats at the conference are reserved for ILP and IDE members, but there are a few available to the general public. The ILP has graciously given our social media followers a special code to use when registering for the conference. So if you’d like to attend (I can’t fathom why you wouldn’t), enter “2MA150″ during general registration and you’ll get discounted admission. There are only a few of these discounted seats available, so sign up now!

Hope to see you on campus in September…

{ 0 comments }

It’s been a while since I posted data on US employment trends, so here’s a chart created with FRED’s snazzy new graphing interface. It shows the employment rate (in other words, 100 – the standard unemployment rate) in blue, the employment-to-population ratio (the % of working-age people with work) in green, and the labor force participation rate (the percent of working-age people who have work or are actively looking for it) in red.

fredgraph1

This graph clearly shows a very steady up-then-down trajectory in the red line — of the labor force participation rate. It’s affected very little by recessions (the gray bars in the graph), and instead appears to be responding to deeper forces.

The most obvious of these forces are the demographics of the American labor force. Labor force participation went up a lot in the last two decades of the 20th century largely because women entered the workforce in large numbers. It’s pretty clear that one of the reasons it’s going down now is that lots of baby boomers are retiring.

So is retirement the main reason that the red line is going down these days? There’s a lot of debate and discussion on this topic, nicely summarized in this WaPo Wonkblog post by Brad Plumer, and not much agreement. One study estimated that retirement accounts for about 25% of the drop in the labor force participation rate since the recession’s end, while another says that it’s more than 50%.

I’m more persuaded by the lower figure. As Plumer points out, for example, the participation rate for workers 25-54 years old has been declining steadily in the new century, and these folk are clearly not retiring yet:

EmployPop2554Aug

Also, disability claims started spiking right around the year 2000, and have almost doubled since then:

disability-applications

So it feels to me like something else is going on, in addition to the graying of the US workforce — some other forces that are causing more and more people in recent years to go to school, stay in school, go on disability, get discouraged and stop jobhunting, stay home to raise kids or take care of a sick or elderly loved one, or do any of the other things that means they’re no longer categorized as ‘working or looking for work.’

As I’ve argued many times, here and (with Erik Brynjolfsson) in The Second Machine AgeI believe progress in all things digital is one of these forces, and one that will only become more powerful over time. The evidence is pretty clear that tech progress has been hollowing out the middle class for a while now, and has recently started to affect an even broader set of workers. As computers, software, and robots can do more and more we need some kinds of workers less and less. This is something that would cause more people over time to stop participating in the workforce, and so make the red line up top continue to trend downward over time even if the blue one heads up.

It would be great if the red line reversed its course in the coming months, but I don’t see that happening. Do you?

{ 1 comment }

When Using Your Smartphone Can Be the Best Thing for Your Mental Health

August 7, 2014

My last post here took on Zeynep Tufekci and, by extension, others who believe the current trend of using robots and other forms of advanced technology for caregiving is, as she put it, “an abdication of a desire to remain human, to be connected to each other through care, and to take care of each other.”  I […]

Read the full article →

Even If Grandma Embraces Her Robot, Should We Fear It?

July 29, 2014

Zeynep Tufekci‘s recent piece “Failing the Third Machine Age: When Robots Come for Grandma” has been getting some attention. It’s a polemic against the prospect of using advanced technologies to provide elder care, embedded within a larger diatribe about technological progress, automation, and capitalism. I don’t want to take on her big argument here. If you […]

Read the full article →

When Regulators Attack: Cambridge and Uber

June 19, 2014

I’m on the brink of making a big real estate commitment in Cambridge, the idiosyncratic New England city I’ve called home since 1994. But a set of proposed regulations discussed at a License Commission meeting last night are so bad and so dumb they’re causing me to rethink whether or not I really want to live […]

Read the full article →

The New Millennium’s Downward Ramp of Jobs

June 13, 2014

Recent research continues to shed light on the big trends in the US labor market. Unfortunately, many if not most of them are bad news. As Thomas Edsall describes well in his latest New York Times column, it looks like demand has slowed down for even the most cognitively demanding jobs (in other words, the highest skilled […]

Read the full article →

If There Was Already an Ocean of Data in 2007, How Much is there Now?

June 2, 2014

  I’ve been trying to figure out how to convey the scale of the ‘Big Data‘ phenomenon — the recent worldwide explosion of the volume of data encoded in digital form. Inspiration came from Randall Munroe’s fantastic “What if?” comics, which provide “Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions.” (check out his 2o14 TED talk and pre-order […]

Read the full article →

Even Sweatshops are Getting Automated. So What’s Left?

May 22, 2014

Comparison of Nike’s successive sustainability reports reveals that the company used 106,000 fewer contract employees around the world in 2013 than 2012 (a greater than 9% drop), even as both profits and revenues increased by 16% and 5%, respectively. A story in the International Business Times states that this is because the company is “shift[ing] […]

Read the full article →

Why Is Customer Service Still So Lousy? Monopolist (i.e. Comcast) Edition

April 24, 2014

Every so often I have an experience as a consumer so bad that I have to write about it. The latest were the interactions I had with Comcast to get a new TiVo box working properly at my Mom’s house in Chicago and then (having, I thought, learned from that one) ordering a Comcast DVR […]

Read the full article →

On Monday, April 21: Talking with Walter Isaacson About The Second Machine Age

April 16, 2014

Next Monday morning at Noon I’m talking with king of all media Walter Isaacson about The Second Machine Age at the Aspen Institute in Washington DC. I give Walter that title because in addition to editing Time and being CEO of CNN, he’s also written runaway bestsellers (about Steve Jobs) and Pulitzer Prize nominees (about Henry Kissinger). In […]

Read the full article →