To be quite frank, I am not enjoying Tyler Cowen’s new book one tiny little bit. I have yet to see him express any originality. Sadly, the title appears to be its most provocative bit. I sense the title was meant to compete with the likes of Friedman’s ‘The World is Flat’ and Kevin Kelly’s ‘What Technology Wants’ (another sorry ass read).  ‘Average is Over’ is an excruciatingly painful book to read because it fails at so many different levels: it fails [so far] to deliver on its major premise, it is intellectually sloppy, and it regurgitates old economic theories in boringly long-winded detail. This is not to mention the eye-gouging, mostly irrelevant analogies and countless filler pages concerning the game of chess.

I don’t know the page number (I am reading the book from a 1st generation Kindle) but at the 45% mile-marker the author states, “On one hand, many smart people will learn how to think like smart machines, or at least enough to understand their operation, in order to become wealthy, high status earners.” I find all of this highly unlikely; a person thinking like a machine is just plain absurd or that operating a machine (no matter how smart or how skilled the operator) is going to make a person a high status earner.

And this statement more or less directly contradicts what he said a few pages earlier when he said “In any case rather than converging, man and machine are likely to become more different in some ways, including cognitively. Most of this book is about the evolution of the machines, but people will change too. I am not talking about longer-run changes in the genetic code, but rather more simple changes in how we live our lives and which skills we decide to acquire or not. To put it bluntly, we are outsourcing some parts of our brains to mechanical devices and indeed we have been doing that for millennia…we have focused more on the skills that the machines can’t bring us.”

This statement gibes more or less with his previous arguments which he sums up at the 39% mile-marker when he says “The Freestyle model seems a lot more economical, and to most people a lot more palatable, than Kurzweil’s utopian project of brain uploads.”

What he refers to as the Freestyle model is the modern worker augmenting his skills using intelligent machines whereby they both become greater than the sum of their separate parts. This idea is by no means original or revolutionary.

I am now halfway through the book and so far the author is still a very long way from delivering on the major premises of the book which were stated early on as:

“In today’s global economy here is what is scarce:

  1. Quality land and natural resources
  2. Intellectual property, or good ideas about what should be produced
  3. Quality labor with unique skills

Here is what is not scarce these days:

  1. Unskilled labor, as more countries join the global economy
  2. Money in the bank or held in government securities, which you can think of as simple capital, not attached to any special ownership rights (we know there is a lot of it because it has been earning zero or negative real rates of return)”

I really wanted to like this book. So if average is truly over (which I believe it is) then what I really wanted from this supposedly brilliant economist, however naive, was some answers. In like how does the immediate generation avoid the trap of being average?

Just before my daughter finished high school she came to me (her long-time divorced dad) and asked if I was going to help pay for her university. I said, ‘Yes, but if you accept my money I become your business partner’. So what started out as a mere economical tyranny led to the very expensive yet rewarding appointment as principal educational career coach.

And my advice to her from Day One had always been to get a hybrid education. In her case she got an under-grad degree in bio-chemistry, a masters degree in systems engineering, and now she is doing her post-grad in a yet to be determined aspect of systems biology. And I am more than satisfied with her choices.

I’ve argued the more diverse the education, the higher the energy potential and the more choices that person will have concerning their own future. For example, you want to live in Paris? Then you better have the skills, education and experience that is needed in the EU (and isn’t already possessed by a bunch of other people with EU citizenship) or you’ll never get the opportunity to live there.

There is no forgiveness in this fast-moving, highly competitive, quickly changing world. People of my generation had the luxury of being major screw-ups in their teens and twenties but were able to rebound at some point and become successful. That forgiveness is long gone. If people of Sarah’s generation don’t have a solid endgame in mind when they enter the university then they’re not just wasting their parents money (or heaven forbid, student loans!) and their time but worse, they’re literally gambling with their future.

Tyler Cowen is right in one respect and that is the gap between the haves and have-nots  is going to keep getting bigger. He states that “…workers more and more will come to be classified into two categories. The key questions will be: Are you good at working with intelligent machines of not?”

But that statement is incomplete in as much as it only addresses the lower end of the spectrum. Being able to operate a handful of new tools (for that is all an intelligent machine really is) is still just mostly manual labor.

I mean, think about it. The real money, the real power comes to those that have the skills to design the tools. And those skills to interpret the output of those tools. Not operate the damn things or understand how they work. Those are technician jobs.

So what if you aspire to be something other than a technician? A mere worker? To be something larger than just being a team member (a modern politically neutering phrase that resonates in much the same way as the phrase learning challenged); to be more than a mere cog in the means of production?

How many of you remember the broken promise from the late ’80s that the computer was going to set us all free? And that we’d all have more free time because the computer was going to do all of heaving lifting? The reality was that for many professionals like the engineer who once had a staff of designers, draftsmen, and whatnot; those tasks were subsumed by the PC and only then ironically to be administered by the engineer himself. That explained the huge jump in productivity in the ’90s. The engineer (like so many other professionals) were [then] thanks to the PC, all doing the work of several people.

Just slightly prior, designers and draftsmen got off the drafting tables and picked up mice and started punching keyboards when super smart AutoCad was released to run on high-powered workstations. And those workers were pretty indispensable right up to the point Microsoft made it smarter (drag and drop) with Visio till finally even a busy engineer could do his own drafting. And what did he need an admin for if he had Word loaded on his PC?

My conclusion is that one very important thing is going to continue happening in the future and that is the world is going to keep getting increasingly more narrow as basic skills in the workplace become more normalized through the use of these intelligent machines.

And for a person to escape the penal servitude that goes with average, they must differentiate themselves by becoming really damn good at something. And for most of you that begins by taking your education very seriously and choosing your curriculum wisely.

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