Tyler Cowen has done a good job of defying easy characterization. He is, among other things, an economist, an online-education entrepreneur, a celebrated blogger, a former chess prodigy, and perhaps the Washington, D.C., metro area’s leading authority on the local ethnic dining scene. If one had to describe his intellectual predilections in a word, it would have to be “omnivorous.” All of which makes him especially well suited to write a book like his latest, Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation.
Although the book’s subtitle presents it as a follow-up to 2011’s The Great Stagnation, in reality, the two works share little. The Great Stagnation was a pithy revisionist argument about how the U.S. found itself in an era of slow growth and anemic job creation. Average is Over, on the other hand, is a digression-filled speculation about how ever-smarter machines will affect our way of life in the near future.
Cowen’s main background assumption is that in the not-too-distant future various kinds of “genius machines” will be everywhere. In the workplace, business negotiations and client introductions “will be recorded, processed, and analyzed [and] ... [e]ach party to the communications might receive a real-time report on when the other people are likely lying ...” At the supermarket, “[y]our shopping cart will use GPS to track your moves through the store, including which aisles you visit most often.” As for our personal lives, “[a] woman might consult a pocket device in the ladies’ room during a date that tells her how much she really likes the guy. The machine could register her pulse, breathing, tone of voice ... or whichever biological features prove to have predictive power.”
Even a few years ago, this forecast would have sounded silly, but that was before many of us trusted Match.com algorithms to suggest potential spouses and smartphones came with fingerprint scanners. Cowen’s not talking about flying cars (that futurist mainstay that always seems both just out of reach and comically unnecessary), but rather slightly more sophisticated versions of the technologies that many of us already use.
The bad news, he tells us, is that the rise of the machines will only worsen the wage polarization we are seeing today. Cowen predicts a situation where 10 percent to 15 percent of Americans are “extremely wealthy” with “fantastically comfortable and stimulating lives.” Most of the rest will see stagnant or falling wages but will benefit from plenty of “cheap fun and also cheap education.” For those wondering, this vanishing middle ground is where the book gets its catch-phrase title.
What will determine whether you end up a high earner or a low-wage left-behind will be, in large part, your answer to some variation on the following questions: “Are you good at working with intelligent machines or not? Are your skills a complement to the skills of the computer, or is the computer doing better without you?”
That’s the argument, more or less, but in filling in his vision, Cowen let’s lose a barrage of teased-out implications. For one, not everyone will need to be a Zuckerberg-level coding wunderkind to stay in a job. Since machine intelligence makes it easier for businesses to orchestrate complex, team-based projects, skilled managers will be prized employees. Those put out of work by some less error-prone descendent of Siri, he predicts, will move to professions where the trustworthiness and conscientiousness of a flesh-and-blood human are most required, whether they become valets, babysitters, interior designers, or carpenters. Since, in this new world, “Rewards will flow readily to top talent, not to the socially well-connected,” self-motivation and the ability to repeatedly “reeducate” in new fields will also go a long way. In such a “hyper-meritocratic” environment, those adept at coaching will be in high demand (as Cowen sees it, everyone from CEOs to elite physicians will have a professional motivator on the payroll). Aided by machines, scientists will develop theories so complex that the general public could “be shut out from a scientific understanding of the world.” And as demographic and fiscal realities catch up with our public sector, “aid from the government will increasingly fall short of a growing set of demands.”
In stark contrast to other practitioners of freewheeling prognostication, Cowen has focused much of his energy on answering questions that have real relevance to ordinary people. Many parts of the book can be read as an advice manual for the apprehensive undergraduate struggling to pick a career path in a turbulent job market. For instance, he predicts that proliferating demands on the attention of the most well-off Americans will make marketing “a seminal sector for our future economy.” He goes on to assert that “[i]f you have an unusual ability to spot, recruit, and direct those who work well with computers, even if you don’t work well with computers yourself, the contemporary world will make you rich.”
Despite his many bleak projections, Average Is Over is frequently an enjoyable book for reasons that have less to do with Cowen’s conclusions than with the methods he uses to derive them. Consider his repeated use of an analogy between the American economy and the game of chess. Like his extended treatment of autism and its unique benefits in 2009’s Create Your Own Economy—a book so difficult to categorize that later editions bore the much different title The Age of the Infovore—Cowen doesn’t merely deploy chess as an occasional device for considering the consequences of technology; he makes the game a principal theme of the book.
Until very recently, chess, like most other pursuits, was a domain dominated by the well-trained minds of human beings. The last decade or so has brought chess programs that can make even the most skilled grandmaster look like a “hapless fool who must exert great care to keep the situation under control at all.” This development has had a variety of unforeseeable effects on the game. Computer technology, for example, has improved chess instruction so dramatically that prodigies are getting much better at a much younger age, a trend Cowen points to as a portent of online education’s coming renaissance. Chess programs have also made it possible to measure the strengths and weaknesses of top human players past and present with remarkable accuracy, an example of the kind of unforgiving “machine assessment” we will soon use when choosing a lawyer, deciding whether an employee deserves a raise, or determining if a particular customer is worthy of a salesperson’s attention.
Scientists will develop theories so complex that the general public could “be shut out from a scientific understanding of the world.”
We also learn of the emergence of Freestyle Chess, a new version of the game in which each side—often a team of people—is allowed to use whatever combination of software and human reasoning available to them in order to make the best move under fixed time constraints. Freestyle team members aren’t necessarily elite chess players, and yet, Cowen explains, their games likely represent “the greatest heights chess has ever reached, though who actually is to judge?”
Where’s this going? Well, those who excel at this freestyle form of the game, according to Cowen, display a set of skills that will be among the most sought after in our coming smart-machine economy. They know which software to consult in a given situation and when to overrule the machine’s decision. They understand the strengths and weaknesses of the various technologies at their disposal and, perhaps more important, they understand their own. In short, they make the computers better (at least for the moment, as it’s all but inevitable that chess programs will become better by themselves than any freestyle team).
Progress in chess-playing engines, Cowen argues, also serves as a model for how computers will gradually displace humans in a variety of sectors:
At first the machine hardly adds anything ... At the second step, experts—in the field of the program’s operation—will be required to work with the machines to fill the gaps in what the machines can do ... the next and third step is that the humans understand the program very well, with a minimum of expertise—but expertise nonetheless—in the relevant industry ... the next and final step is that the humans aren’t needed much at all because the program on its own is so strong.
Tyler Cowen has seen the future, and it looks a lot like ... chess.
Mixed in with his rapid-fire prophecies are plenty of provocative assessments of the present. These include a pet theory about why so many educated young people go into law, finance, and consulting (they are fields, he maintains, that reward the kind of general intelligence that is one of the few things “a smart but inexperienced and under-specialized twenty-two-year old” has to offer); a succinct and potent critique of behavioural economics; and a clear-eyed rejection of the view that economic inequality in the U.S. will inevitably lead to social unrest, a position he describes as among “the least thought-out and least well-supported arguments with wide currency.”
In a book this crowded with quick-and-dirty argumentation, there’s plenty to take issue with. One could complain that Cowen gives too little attention to the political realities that might get in the way of some of his predictions—particularly in his story of how the K–12 education sector will be overturned by online instruction—or that he fails to consider what other technological trends might muddy his picture. In a work this broad in scope, however, any list of grievances is likely to say more about the reader’s own sympathies and preoccupations than the material at hand.
In any case, Average Is Over is more notable for the pitfalls it manages to avoid. It is an exercise in futurism that is utterly practical in aim, a work of tech theory that is neither polemical nor buzzword-intoxicated, and a book that manages to say new things about some of the most talked-about issues in present-day America. In fact, if Cowen has a single core strength as a writer, it’s his taste for observations that are genuinely enlightening, interesting, and underappreciated. Provided one can look past the author’s prophetic tone—his decisive use of “will” and “in the future”—it’s worth taking Average Is Over for what it is, namely one curious and uniquely well-informed person’s reasoned guess at what’s ahead.