Book Club: The Code [Robot] Economy (pt. 2)

Welcome to EvX’s book club. Today we’re discussing Philip Auerswald’s The Code Economy, Introduction.

I’ve been discussing the robot economy for years (though not necessarily via the blog.) What happens when robots take over most of the productive jobs? Most humans were once involved in directly producing the necessities of human life–food, clothing, and shelter, but mostly food. Today, machines have eliminated most food and garment production jobs. One tractor easily plows many more acres in a day than a horse or mule team did in the 1800s, allowing one man to produce as much food as dozens (or hundreds) once did.

What happened to those ex-farmers? Most of us are employed in new professions that didn’t exist (eg, computer specialist) or barely existed (health care), but there are always those who can’t find employment–and unemployment isn’t evenly distributed.

Black unemployment rate

Since 1948, the overall employment rate has rarely exceeded 7.5%; the rate for whites has been slightly lower. By contrast, the black unemployment rate has rarely dipped below 10% (since 1972, the best data I have.) The black unemployment rate has only gone below 7.5 three times–for one month in 1999, one month in 2000, and since mid-2017. 6.6% in April, 2018 is the all-time low for black unemployment. (The white record, 3.0%, was set in the ’60s.)

(As Auerswald points out, “unemployment” was a virtually unknown concept in the Medieval economy, where social station automatically dictated most people’s jobs for life.)

Now I know the books are cooked and “unemployment” figures are kept artificially low by shunting many of the unemployed into the ranks of the officially “disabled,” who aren’t counted in the statistics, but no matter how you count the numbers, blacks struggle to find jobs at the same rates as whites–a problem they didn’t face in the pre-industrial, agricultural economy (though that economy caused suffering in its own way.)

A quick glance at measures of black and white educational attainment explains most of the employment gap–blacks graduate from school at lower rates, are less likely to earn a college degree, and overall have worse SAT/ACT scores. In an increasingly “post-industrial,” knowledge-based economy where most unskilled labor can be performed by robots, what happens to unskilled humans?

What happens when all of the McDonald’s employees have been replaced by robots and computers? When even the advice given by lawyers and accountants can be more cheaply delivered by an app on your smartphone? What if society, eventually, doesn’t need humans to perform most jobs?

Will most people simply be unemployed, ruled over by the robot-owning elite and the lucky few who program the robots? Will new forms of work we haven’t even begun to dream of emerge? Will we adopt some form of universal basic income, or descend into neo-feudalism? Will we have a permanent underclass of people with no hope of success in the current economy, either despairing at their inability to live successful lives or living slothfully off the efforts of others?

Here lies the crux of Auerswald’s thesis. He provides four possible arguments for how the “advance of code” (ie, the accumulation of technological knowledge and innovation,) could turn out for humans.

The Rifkin View:

  1. The power of code is growing at an exponential rate.
  2. Code nearly perfectly substitutes for human capabilities.
  3. Therefore the (relative) power of human capabilities is shrinking at an exponential rate.

If so, we should be deeply worried.

The Kurzweil View:

  1. The power of code is growing at an exponential rate.
  2. Code nearly perfectly complements human capabilities.
  3. Therefore the (absolute) power of human capabilities is growing at an exponential rate.

If so, we may look forward to the cyborg singularity

The Auerswald View:

  1. The power of code is growing at an exponential rate [at least we all agree on something.]
  2. Code only partially substitutes for human capabilities.
  3. Therefore the (relative) power of human capabilities is shrinking at an exponential rate in those categories of work that can be performed by computers, but not in others.

Auerswald notes:

In other words, where Kurzweil talks about an impeding code-induced Singularity, the reality looks much more like one code-induced bifurcation–the division of labor between humans and machines–after another.

The answer to the question, “Is there anything that humans can do better than digital computers?” turns out to be fairly simple: humans are better at being human.


1. Creating and improving code is a key part of what we human beings do. It’s how we invent the future by building on the past.

2. The evolution of the economy is driven by the advance of code. Understanding this advance is therefore fundamental to economics, and to much of human history.

3. When we create and advance code we don’t just invent new toys, we produce new forms of meaning, new experiences, and new ways of making our way in the world.

What do you think?


Book Club: The Code Economy pt 1

I don’t think the publishers got their money’s worth on cover design

Welcome to EvX’s Book Club. Today we begin our exciting tour of Philip E. Auerswald’s The Code Eoconomy: A Forty-Thousand-Year History. with the introduction, Technology = Recipes, and Chapter one, Jobs: Divide and Coordinate if we get that far.

I’m not sure exactly how to run a book club, so just grab some coffee and let’s dive right in.

First, let’s note that Auerswald doesn’t mean code in the narrow sense of “commands fed into a computer” but in a much broader sense of all encoded processes humans have come up with. His go-to example is the cooking recipe.

The Code Economy describes the evolution of human productive activity from simplicity to complexity over the span of more than 40,000 years. I call this evolutionary process the advance of code.

I find the cooking example a bit cutesy, but otherwise it gets the job done.

How… have we humans managed to get where we are today despite our abundant failings, including wars, famine, and a demonstrably meager capacity for society-wide planning and coordination? … by developing productive activities that evolve into regular routines and standardized platforms–which is to say that we have survived, and thrived, by creating and advancing code.

There’s so much in this book that almost every sentence bears discussion. First, as I’ve noted before, social organization appears to be a spontaneous emergent feature of every human group. Without even really meaning to, humans just naturally seem compelled organize themselves. One day you’re hanging out with your friends, riding motorcycles, living like an outlaw, and the next thing you know you’re using the formal legal system to sue a toy store for infringement of your intellectual property.

Alexander Wienberger, Holodomor

At the same time, our ability to organize society at the national level is completely lacking. As one of my professors once put it, “God must hate communists, because every time a country goes communist, an “act of god” occurs and everyone dies.”

It’s a mystery why God hates communists so much, but hate ’em He does. Massive-scale social engineering is a total fail and we’ll still be suffering the results for a long time.

This creates a kind of conflict, because people can look at the small-scale organizing they do, and they look at large-scale disorganization, and struggle to understand why the small stuff can’t simply be scaled up.

And yet… society still kind of works. I can go to the grocery store and be reasonably certain that by some magical process, fresh produce has made its way from fields in California to the shelf in front of me. By some magical process, I can wave a piece of plastic around and use it to exchange enough other, unseen goods to pay for my groceries. I can climb into a car I didn’t build and cruise down a network of streets and intersections, reasonably confident that everyone else driving their own two-ton behemoth at 60 miles an hour a few feet away from me has internalized the same rules necessary for not crashing into me. Most of the time. And I can go to the gas station and pour a miracle liquid into my car and the whole system works, whether or not I have any clue how all of the parts manage to come together and do so.

The result is a miracle. Modern society is a miracle. If you don’t believe me, try using an outhouse for a few months. Try carrying all of your drinking water by hand from the local stream and chopping down all of the wood you need to boil it to make it potable. Try fighting off parasites, smallpox, or malaria without medicine or vaccinations. For all my complaints (and I know I complain a lot,) I love civilization. I love not worrying about cholera, crop failure, or dying from cavities. I love air conditioning, refrigerators, and flush toilets. I love books and the internet and domesticated strawberries. All of these are things I didn’t create and can’t take credit for, but get to enjoy nonetheless. I have been blessed.

But at the same time, “civilization” isn’t equally distributed. Millions (billions?) of the world’s peoples don’t have toilets, electricity, refrigerators, or even a decent road from their village to the next.

GDP per capita by country

Auerswald is a passionate champion of code. His answer to unemployment problems is probably “learn to code,” but in such a broad, metaphorical way that encompasses so many human activities that we can probably forgive him for it. One thing he doesn’t examine is why code takes off in some places but not others. Why is civilization more complex in Hong Kong than in Somalia? Why does France boast more Fields Medalists than the DRC?

In our next book (Niall Ferguson’s The Great Degeneration,) we’ll discuss whether specific structures like legal and tax codes can affect how well societies grow and thrive (spoiler alert: they do, just see communism,) and of course you are already familiar with the Jared Diamond environmentalist theory that folks in some parts of the world just had better natural resources to work than in other parts (also true, at least in some cases. I’m not expecting some great industry to get up and running on its own in the arctic.)

IQ by country

But laying these concerns aside, there are obviously other broad factors at work. A map of GDP per capita looks an awful lot like a map of average IQs, with obvious caveats about the accidentally oil-rich Saudis and economically depressed ex-communists.

Auerswald believes that the past 40,000 years of code have not been disasters for the human race, but rather a cascade of successes, as each new invention and expansion to our repertoir of “recipes” or “codes” has enabled a whole host of new developments. For example, the development of copper tools didn’t just put flint knappers out of business, it also opened up whole new industries because you can make more varieties of tools out of copper than flint. Now we had copper miners, copper smelters (a  new profession), copper workers. Copper tools could be sharpened and, unlike stone, resharpened, making copper tools more durable. Artists made jewelry; spools of copper wires became trade goods, traveling long distances and stimulating the prehistoric “economy.” New code bequeaths complexity and even more code, not mass flint-knapper unemployment.

Likewise, the increase in reliable food supply created by farming didn’t create mass hunter-gatherer unemployment, but stimulated the growth of cities and differentiation of humans into even more professions, like weavers, cobblers, haberdashers, writers, wheelwrights, and mathematicians.

It’s a hopeful view, and I appreciate it in these anxious times.

But it’s very easy to say that the advent of copper or bronze or agriculture was a success because we are descended from the people who succeeded. We’re not descended from the hunter-gatherers who got displaced or wiped out by agriculturalists. In recent cases where hunter-gatherer or herding societies were brought into the agriculturalist fold, the process has been rather painful.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s The Harmless People, about the Bushmen of the Kalahari, might overplay the romance and downplay the violence, but the epilogue’s description of how the arrival of “civilization” resulted in the deaths and degradation of the Bushmen brought tears to my eyes. First they died of dehydration because new fences erected to protect “private property” cut them off from the only water. No longer free to pursue the lives they had lived for centuries, they were moved onto what are essentially reservations and taught to farm and herd. Alcoholism and violence became rampant.

Among the book’s many characters was a man who had lost most of his leg to snakebite. He suffered terribly as his leg rotted away, cared for by his wife and family who brought him food. Eventually, with help, he healed and obtained a pair of crutches, learned to walk again, and resumed hunting: providing for his family.

And then in “civilization” he was murdered by one of his fellow Bushmen.

It’s a sad story and there are no easy answers. Bushman life is hard. Most people, when given the choice, seem to pick civilization. But usually we aren’t given a choice. The Bushmen weren’t. Neither were factory workers who saw their jobs automated and outsourced. Some Bushmen will adapt and thrive. Nelson Mandela was part Bushman, and he did quite well for himself. But many will suffer.

What to do about the suffering of those left behind–those who cannot cope with change, who do not have the mental or physical capacity to “learn to code” or otherwise adapt remains an unanswered question. Humanity might move on without them, ignoring their suffering because we find them undeserving of compassion–or we might get bogged down trying to save them all. Perhaps we can find a third route: sympathy for the unfortunate without encouraging obsolete behavior?

In The Great Degeneration, Ferguson wonders why the systems (“code”) that supports our society appears to be degenerating. I have a crude but answer: people are getting stupider. It takes a certain amount of intelligence to run a piece of code. Even a simple task like transcribing numbers is better performed by a smarter person than a dumber person, who is more likely to accidentally write down the wrong number. Human systems are built and executed by humans, and if the humans in them are less intelligent than the ones who made them, then they will do a bad job of running the systems.

Unfortunately for those of us over in civilization, dysgenics is a real thing:

Source: Audacious Epigone

Whether you blame IQ itself or the number of years smart people spend in school, dumb people have more kids (especially the parents of the Baby Boomers.) Epigone here only looks at white data (I believe Jayman has the black data and it’s just as bad, if not worse.)

Of course we can debate about the Flynn effect and all that, but I suspect there two competing things going on: First, a rising 50’s economic tide lifted all boats, making everyone healthier and thus smarter and better at taking IQ tests and making babies, and second, declining infant mortality since the late 1800s and possibly the Welfare state made it easier for the children of the poorest and least capable parents to survive.

The effects of these two trends probably cancel out at first, but after a while you run out of Flynn effect (maybe) and then the other starts to show up. Eventually you get Greece: once the shining light of Civilization, now defaulting on its loans.

Well, we have made it a page in!

Termite City

What do you think of the book? Have you finished it yet? What do you think of the way Auersbach conceptualizes of “code” and its basis as the building block of pretty much all human activity? Do you think Auersbach is essentially correct to be hopeful about our increasingly code-driven future, or should we beware of the tradeoffs to individual autonomy and freedom inherent in becoming a glorified colony of ants?