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What role does the human touch play in the digital age?

January 2, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
In a digital age that creates more automated services at ever lower prices, how can we retain the value of human work and relationships? Hari Sreenivasan ponders this with computer scientist Jaron Lanier, author of "Who Owns the Future?", and Andrew McAfee from MIT's Center for Digital Business at the Sloan School of Management.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Hari Sreenivasan looks at the promise and perils of Silicon’s Valley push into a realm once dominated by government contractors. 

HARI SREENIVASAN:  The race for the next big thing is already under way in the private sector.  Companies like Google call them moon shots, from the driverless cars, to computer that you can wear as glasses, to these very advanced robots. 

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos fueled the buzz last month when he announced that his company is working on using drones to deliver packages to your door. 

To help us move beyond the gee whiz of all this and think about some of the changes to society that these projects might usher in, I’m joined now by Jaron Lanier.  He’s a pioneer in the field of virtual reality.  And he’s a computer scientist.  He is the author of several books, including “Who Owns The Future?” a look at how network technologies affect our culture and economy.  And Andrew McAfee, he’s associate director of the Center for Digital Business at the Sloan School of Management at MIT and co-author of “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies.”

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So, Andrew, I want to start with you. 

How different is this moment?  Is the pace of change and technological change accelerating? 

ANDREW MCAFEE, Sloan School of Managment, MIT:  It sure feels that way to me and my co-author, Erik Brynjolfsson.

And the reason we’re calling our book “The Second Machine Age” is it feels to us like we are at an inflection point, the early stages of one where we’re starting to see digital gear do stuff that it could never, ever do before.  Hemingway has a great quote about how a man goes broke.  He said it’s gradually and then suddenly. 

And that reminds me of the kinds of progress that we’re seeing in robotics and artificial intelligence and augmented reality and a lot of these different fields, where we had really gradual, uninspiring progress for a long time, and now they’re becoming everyday reality.  I got a ride in the Google Car last summer.  It was an amazing experience and I walked away without a scratch. 


HARI SREENIVASAN:  Jaron Lanier, is technology facilitating change to our humanity faster than it used to? 

JARON LANIER, Author, “Who Owns the Future?”:  You know, it’s a little hard to say.  If you look at the early part of the 20th century, the waves of change from, you know, automobiles, and telephones, television, all these things, were really amazingly dramatic.  And they happened, in a way, more rapidly than change comes to us today. 

So I’m a little hesitant to make these comparisons.  But whatever the comparison might properly be, we can say that there are huge changes going on that could really change how people live and work and could completely change our economic and social roles.  And that’s the thing we have to focus on. 

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Andrew, is the technology primarily about increasing productivity or the economy of consumption? 

ANDREW MCAFEE:  Sure, yes, I think that is what’s going on, but I want to put it in slightly different terms. 

What we want are society’s economic engine to do is turn out more goods and services.  And when you say it that way, it’s easy to make it sound trivial, like we’re just talking about cheap plastic gear and empty calories.  But that’s the wrong way to think about it.  When I say more goods and services, I mean things like more education, better health care, better entertainment options, all of these kinds of things. 

What we want our economic engine to do is turn out lots of goods and services, more over time, higher quality over time and lower prices all the time.  That’s the miracle of the capitalist systems that we have set up. 

When I look at what the technology-producing sector is doing these days, I think it’s doing by far the best job of accelerating that economic engine, and I think it’s fundamentally great news. 


JARON LANIER:  You know, I think there’s something kind of tricky going on, which is that we’re creating more services and we’re lowering the prices of those services, which is wonderful.  But we’re doing so in a way that we pretend that a lot of people aren’t contributing economically, when they really are. 

A great example is the automatic translation between languages.  And the truth is that to translate from English to Spanish automatically requires taking as examples a constant influx of real translations done by people.  And yet professional translators are seeing their job prospects decline, just like musicians and journalists. 

And so there’s something funny going on.  We’re using human labor in a way that we erase the value of the people.  So, I mean, we want to have a productive economy.  But if it’s one that also negates human roles, it’s all for naught. 

I mean, we have to also preserve great roles for people, or the society will suffer. 

ANDREW MCAFEE:  I’m with Jaron.  There are some really interesting new wrinkles going on in how we create these goods and services, and how we take into account the contributions of different people. 

I want to return to this concept of an economic engine, and the role of an economic engine is not to insure full employment for everybody.  That would be very easy to do if, for example, we suddenly mandated that you have to plant and harvest all the crops in America by hand. 

We would immediately have full employment.  A lot of those jobs would be miserable and the prices we pay for food would go up.  So it’s really the wrong thing to focus on. 

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Jaron, you outline some of this in your book about who owns the future.  What are these destabilizing forces that technology brings with it? 

JARON LANIER:  Well, you know, you can go to two extremes.  You can either say let’s make work for everybody, like a Maoist regime.  And I think we all know that that is a road to ruin.  No one advocates that.

But we’re doing something in a way that is stupid in the other direction, where we’re pretending that people aren’t contributing economically, when they are.  We’re pretending that just making things cheaper is enough to create economic viability.  And you can’t do that. 

I mean, you have to — people have to be valued for what they actually do.  The economy has to be honest.  And so what I am concerned about is that by getting everybody to input all their productivity for free to these Silicon Valley companies, including the one that funds my lab, by the way, so I’m a beneficiary of what I’m criticizing — but in order to pretend that all this stuff, you know, it comes in for free, and what we give people in exchange is access to services, we’re taking them out of the economic cycle. 

We’re putting them into an informal economy, which is an unbalanced way to grow a society.  And that’s also a road to ruin.  I’m not asking for artificial make-work projects.  I’m asking for honesty, where we acknowledge when people generate value, and make them first-class economic citizens. 

And then I think that all of these amazing schemes of automation, the self-driving cars, the 3-D printers, these will lead to a world of happy, meaningful lives, as well as great economic growth.  You know, that’s the ticket, is honesty. 

ANDREW MCAFEE:  Yes, I have some trouble putting those ideas into practice. 

So, for example, Jaron, would you charge my brother to upload pictures of his daughters to Facebook, or would you charge me to look at my nieces? 

JARON LANIER:  You know, given what I have been seeing on Facebook lately, I think anything that sort of decreases people’s tendency to upload everything might actually be a good thing.  So I think we should economically incentivize less uploading.  So I would say let’s charge you both.  How about that?

ANDREW MCAFEE:  I think that is absolutely a terrible idea.  It takes us in exactly the opposite direction that we want from our economic engine. 

Facebook is doing this amazing feat where they are delivering a service that is valued by on the order of a billion people around the world.  And they’re not charging them hard, cold cash for using that service, and yet they’re a very profitable company.  Now, it’s not a deep secret how they do that.  It’s called advertising. 

And I don’t think many of Facebook’s users are unaware of how that works, just like I wasn’t unaware when I sat around as a kid and watched network television about what was funding that business model.  So I don’t think there’s anything either opaque or deeply sinister about what is going on.  These are just some nice economic models whereby these technology companies can put things in front of us that we value, that we use, and charge us no money for them.  I don’t see that as bad news. 

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Jaron Lanier and Andrew McAfee, thanks so much for your time.