And now for something completely different. About 15 years ago, before I became a regular columnist, The New York Times asked me and other people to contribute to a special edition celebrating the 100th anniversary of its Sunday magazine. The stated rule was that the pieces should be written as if submitted in 2096, looking back at the magazine’s second century.
As I recall, I was the only contributor who obeyed instructions; everyone else was too concerned about loss of dignity. Anyway, I decided to write the piece around a conceit: that information technology would end up reducing, not increasing, the demand for highly educated workers, because a lot of what highly educated workers do could actually be replaced by sophisticated information processing — indeed, replaced more easily than many types of manual labor. It was titled “White Collars Turn Blue.”
So here’s the question: Is this starting to happen?
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On March 4 The Times published an interesting and, if you think about it, fairly scary report about how software is replacing the teams of lawyers who used to do document research. And then there’s Watson, of course, I.B.M.’s supercomputer who — or which? — can beat almost everyone except my congressman, Rush Holt of New Jersey, at a game of “Jeopardy.”
Getting a bit more serious: Larry Mishel, the president of the Economic Policy Institute, wrote in the March edition of The American Prospect magazine about the overselling of education, pointing out that in the United States the college wage premium, after rising sharply in the 1980s and 1990s, has stagnated lately. Indeed. Look at the ratio of earnings for full-time working men with college degrees versus those with high school diplomas, on this page.
This raises several questions. One is whether emphasizing education — even aside from the fact that a big rise in inequality has taken place among the highly educated — is, in effect, fighting the last war. Another is, how can we have a decent society if and when even highly educated workers can’t command a middle-class income?
I know, this is rushing ahead a bit. But remember, the Luddites weren’t the poorest of the poor; they were skilled artisans whose skills had suddenly been devalued by new technology.