Surely You're Joking, Mr. Krugman!

The well-known <i>New York Times</i> columnist warns that IT advances are destroying the knowledge economy. But he's missing a crucial point.

Rajan Chandras, Contributor

March 14, 2011

4 Min Read

If you believe Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, rules-driven software may be your worst enemy.

Krugman, who writes for the New York Times, wrote a column last week dwelling on the correlation (or lack thereof) between education and earnings. He begins by loosely equating educated workers with knowledge workers, meaning those who work with their minds rather than their hands.

Bucking conventional wisdom -- "what everyone knows is wrong" -- Krugman hypothesizes that since technology tends to make it easier to automate routine information-driven jobs, it follows that far from giving an educated person an edge in finding jobs, technology in fact threatens the livelihood of the knowledge worker.

Krugman bases his discussion on research conducted (a while ago) by his colleagues at Princeton, who found that computers excel at cognitive and manual tasks that can be accomplished by following explicit rules. And if that describes your job, you are at risk of losing it.

The supporting example he quotes is another recent NYT article that dwells on how increasingly sophisticated, inferential analysis software is being used to replace lawyers during the discovery phase of a lawsuit, leading (not surprisingly) to dramatic savings in legal expenses.

If you don't find yourself clucking in sympathy for those proverbially high-charging lawyers, there are other examples. Computer chip designers have stagnated because much of that work can be automated. Mortgage and loan officers and tax agents are finding that automation is reducing their paperwork, which doesn't always bode well for them.

Automation (and the Internet, of course) is a key factor in sending work offshore, from high-end software development to more mundane business process outsourcing (such as helpdesk or collections), with jobs, naturally, following the work.

In other words, the US economy is being "hollowed out"; new jobs are being created at the top and bottom of the economic chain, but jobs in the middle tier are being lost, to a large extent on account of automation accelerated by research and developments in computer science and linguistics.

Even if you aren't in imminent danger of losing your job, there seems to be cause for worry. "E-discovery" software, such as that from Cataphora, is no longer constrained to reading and understanding the written word; it is acquiring the capability to follow a single conversation carried across multiple media: e-mail messages, instant messages and phone calls. Although the designated purpose may be perfectly legitimate -- for example, fraud detection -- it is easy to imagine how software of this kind can be intrusive in our daily lives.

Krugman's hypothesis is quite simple. Manual labor is safe, because by definition, it is hard to automate. Skilled workers, on the other hand, are at much greater risk on account of automation and globalization.

For me to point out a fallacy in Paul Krugman's logic is a little akin to pointing a flashlight at, say, the blazing arc-lights of the New Orleans Superdome. Yet there's one point that I think Krugman has missed altogether: As technology (and hence automation) advances, the concept of skilled labor, too, advances.

Not too long ago, typing at 40 words per minute was considered to be an impressive skill. More recently still, writing programs in Basic language was a skill held by an elite few. What was considered a skill sometime in the past becomes a routine (or redundant) human capability later. As technology has advanced, so has human capability to leverage technology for equally advanced purposes -- and to equally impressive effects. In fact, managing advanced technology, in every field of study (and life) -- has evolved into a large and growing avenue of employment in itself.

That's why we must continue to invest in the research and development of technology, and in ways to harness that technology. We must continue to be the beacon of advancement across the world, and the harbinger of new ways to use this technology to not just keep ourselves gainfully occupied, but also to enrich our lives.

Author's Note: My headline is a very humble dedication to the irrepressible Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winner and scientist extraordinaire. His book, "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" is arguably one of the best known on science. You don't have to be a physicist to enjoy this book -- or many of his other books, including the equally famous Feynman Lecture Series on fundamental principles of Physics. Rajan Chandras has more than 20 years of experience advising and leading business/technology initiatives, with a focus on strategy and information management. Write him at rchandras at gmail dot com.

About the Author(s)

Rajan Chandras


Rajan Chandras has over 20 years of experience and thought leadership in IT with a focus on enterprise data management. He is currently with a leading healthcare firm in New Jersey, where his responsibilities have included delivering complex programs in master data management, data warehousing, business intelligence, ICD-10 as well as providing architectural guidance to enterprise initiatives in healthcare reform (HCM/HCR), including care coordination programs (ACO/PCMH/EOC) and healthcare analytics (provider performance/PQR, HEDIS etc.), and customer relationship management analytics (CRM).

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