Book Project Kicks Off

Students and faculty discuss "The Second Machine Age"
Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Charlie Morris MILR ’16 began ILR’s book project event by saying “uncertainty” is the message he hoped everyone would take away from the student debate and faculty discussion on work’s future.

“Just because there is something with potential risk does not mean that we should not pursue it or welcome it, said Morris, referring to the content of the book, “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies.”

More than 120 people turned out Wednesday to hear Cornell Speech & Debate Society members debate the topic “This House Welcomes the Second Machine Age” and to hear a follow-up discussion by Professors George Boyer, Lee Dyer and Pamela Tolbert.

The event is available online.

Morris, Neshay Aqueel MILR ’16 and Alex Klein ’18 supported the “welcomes” motion.

The opposition team was made up of Jennifer Kim ’16, Ben Leff A&S ’16 and En Ting Lee A&S ’17.

Kim called Morris’s stance of welcoming an uncertain future “ludicrous.”

“The world of work is intrinsically transformed under their side and this change is harmful to everyone inside this room and outside it,” Kim said.

“Second, we are going to tell you about the rising inequality that the book admits is going to happen and why this inequality is so pervasive and so malicious to people less advantaged and those still advantaged, but won’t be in the future.”

Klein argued that there are more positives occurring than the opposition would want one to believe.

“When you consider the second machine age, think about how it has helped human communication, Klein said. “We able to log into Facebook and reconnect with friends that we have not seen in years or decades, even.”

Leff began his argument with a look at the second most economically productive mammal in history, the horse.

“For many centuries, technologies were created to make the horse more valuable,” Leff said. “When you look at the plow, they (horses) became infinitely more valuable and people said the role of the horse will never go away.”

“Then, in the early twentieth century, with the invention of the internal combustion engine and the car, suddenly horses declined immensely and the horse population has declined 90 percent since the early 1900s.”

People will be free from mundane work to explore other things after the second machine age, Aqueel said.

“You go back to things that are more important by thinking about the arts, aesthetics and you think about how they can be important,” Aqueel said. “Most of all, you think about solving problems that were always placed at the backburner, such as poverty.”

Lee concluded the debate by warning against the proposition of welcoming a “Second Machine Age.”

“So, let the other side welcome their new robot overlords as we stand on the side of equality and the world of work,” she said.

After the debate, Professors Boyer, Dyer and Tolbert shared their thoughts.

Boyer compared the first machine age of the industrial revolution to the second one.

“The two eras are similar, as they both witnessed rapid industrial progress,” Boyer said. “They eliminated some jobs and created others.”

Boyer offered policies to prevent the destruction of jobs caused by the second machine age.

“I agree with the authors of the book that we do not want to stop technology change,” Boyer said. “That said, we should consider taxing firms that replace workers with machinery.”

Tolbert found the book weak on the point of government regulation and added her own proposed policies.

“Somewhere around the 1980s, we forgot that government regulation could actually be good for markets and, in fact, is necessary for markets,” Tolbert said.

Dyer wrapped up the conversation by saying that it is up to us to determine where the second machine age takes workers.

“Technology is not destiny and in the end, on this issue at least, we get to decide,” Dyer concluded.