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Book Review: The Lights in the Tunnel

I was paging through the Amazon store on my Kindle when I came across a book that caught my eye: The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future (Volume 1)

It’s not every day you come across a book about Automation, and for $6, I figured, “what the heck?”

The author, Martin Ford, is a Computer Engineer from California. To summarize, he’s basically saying the following:

  • Within 80 years, we will have created machines that will displace significantly more than half of the current workforce

This is a topic that interests me. Not only do I have a career in automation, but I’ve previously wondered about exactly the same question that Ford poses. What happens if we create machines advanced enough that a certain segment of the population will become permanently unemployed?

The title of the book comes from Ford’s “Tunnel Analogy”. He tries to model the economy as a tunnel of lights, with each light representing a person, its brightness indicating its wealth, and the tunnel is lined with other patches of light: businesses. The lights float around interacting with the businesses. Some businesses grow larger and stronger while others shrink and die off, but ultimately the brightness of the tunnel (the sum of the lights) appears to be increasing.

I found the analogy to be a bit odd myself. Actually, I wasn’t quite sure why an analogy was necessary. We’re all pretty familiar with how the free market works. If you don’t get it, I don’t think the tunnel analogy is going to help you. In fact, one excerpt from his description of the tunnel makes me wonder if Ford himself even “gets” the concept of how the economy works:

As we continue to watch the lights, we can now see that they are attracted to the various panels. We watch as thousands of lights steam toward a large automaker’s panels, softly make contact and then bounce back toward the center of the tunnel. As the lights touch the panel, we notice that they dim slightly while the panel itself pulses with new energy. New cars have been purchased, and a transfer of wealth has taken place.

That particular statement irked me during the rest of the book. That’s not a good illustration of a free market; that’s an illustration of a feudal system. In a free market, we take part in mutually beneficial transactions. The automaker has a surplus of cars and wants to exchange them for other goods that it values more, and the consumer needs a car and wants to exchange his/her goods (or promise of debt) in exchange for the car. When the transaction takes place, presumably the automaker has converted a car into something they wanted more than the car, and the consumer has converted monetary instruments into something they wanted more: a car. Both the automaker and the consumer should shine brighter as a result of the transaction.

Ford has confused money with wealth, and that’s pretty dangerous. As Paul Graham points out in his excellent essay on wealth:

Money Is Not Wealth

If you want to create wealth, it will help to understand what it is. Wealth is not the same thing as money. Wealth is as old as human history. Far older, in fact; ants have wealth. Money is a comparatively recent invention.

Wealth is the fundamental thing. Wealth is stuff we want: food, clothes, houses, cars, gadgets, travel to interesting places, and so on. You can have wealth without having money. If you had a magic machine that could on command make you a car or cook you dinner or do your laundry, or do anything else you wanted, you wouldn’t need money. Whereas if you were in the middle of Antarctica, where there is nothing to buy, it wouldn’t matter how much money you had.

There are actually two ways to create wealth. First, you can make it yourself (grow your own food, fix your house, paint a picture, etc.), or secondly you can trade something you value less for something you value more. In fact, most of us combine these two methods: we go to work and create something that someone else wants so we can trade it for stuff that we want (food, cars, houses, etc.).

Later in the book, Ford makes a distinction between labor-intensive and capital-intensive industries. He uses YouTube as an example of a capital-intensive business because they were purchased (by Google) for $1.65B and they don’t have very many employees. I can’t believe he’s using YouTube as an example of a capital-intensive industry. The new crop of online companies are extremely low-overhead endeavors. Facebook was started in a dorm room. Again, Ford seems to miss the fact that money is not equal to wealth. Google didn’t buy YouTube for the capital, they bought their audience. Google’s bread and butter is online advertising, so they purchased YouTube because users are worth more to Google than they are to the shareholders of YouTube that sold out. Wealth was created during the transaction because all parties feel they have something more than they had to start.

Back to Ford’s premise for a moment: is it possible that we could create machines advanced enough that the average person would have no place in a future economy? I don’t find it hard to believe that we could eventually create machines capable of doing most of the work that we do right now. We’ve certainly already created machines that do most of the work that the population did only decades ago. The question is, can we get to the point where the average person has no value to add?

Let’s continue Ford’s thought experiment for a moment. You and I and half the population is now out of work and nobody will hire us. Presumably the applicable constitutional elements are in place so we’re still “free”. What do we do? Well, I don’t know about you, but if I had no job and I was surrounded by a bunch of other people with no job, I’d be out foraging for food. When I found some, I’d probably trade a bit of it to someone who could sew that might patch up my shirt. If I had a bit of surplus, I’d probably plant a few extra seeds the next spring and get a decent harvest to get me through the next winter.

I’m not trying to be sarcastic here. I’m trying to point out the obvious flaw in the idea that a large percentage of the population couldn’t participate in the economy. If that were the case, the large part of the population would, out of necessity, form their own economy. In fact, if we’re still playing in Ford’s dreamland here, where technology is so advanced that machines can think and perhaps even nanotechnology is real, I’d probably hang around the local dump and forage for a bit of technology there. The treasures I’d find there would probably put me in more luxury than I currently have in 2010.

So, if you take the thought experiment to the extreme, it breaks down. Given a free society divided into haves and have-nots, where the haves don’t have any use for the have-nots, then what you really have is two separate and distinct societies, each with its own bustling economy. Whether or not there is trade between those two economies, one thing is certain: almost everyone still has a job.

Of course, it’s not like we’re going to wake up tomorrow and technology will suddenly throw us all out of our jobs. The shift in technology will happen gradually over time. As technology improves, people will need to adapt (as we do every day). As I’ve said before, I think a major shift away from the mass consumption of identical items is already underway. As the supply of generic goods goes up, our perceived value of them goes down.

Ford doesn’t seem to participate in automation on a daily basis, so I think he lacks the experience of what automation really does. Automation drives down the cost, but it also increases the supply and reduces the novelty at the same time. Automated manufacturing makes products less valuable but the juxtaposition makes people more valuable.

There’s a company out there called Best Made Co. that sells $200 hand-made axes. There’s a three week waiting time. That’s a feature actually: it’s so valuable to people that there’s a three week lead time. It’s made by hand. It’s made by hand by people who are passionate about axes. Feature? I think so.

In Ford’s dystopia, when the robber-barons are sitting atop their mountains of widgets that they’ve produced in their lights-out factory, don’t you think one of them might want to buy a sincere story? Wouldn’t they be interested in seeing a movie, or going to church on Sunday, or reading a book? When all of your basic needs are met, these higher-level needs will all see more demand. They’re also hard to automate. Some things have value because they’re done by people. Some things would be worth less if you did automate them:

  • Relationships (with real people)
  • Religion
  • Sports
  • The Arts
  • “Home Cooked” or “Hand-Made”
  • Stories (of origins, extremes, rescues, journeys, relationships, redemption, and the future)

Do you recognize that list? That’s the list of things we do when we’re finished with the drudgery of providing for our survival. We cheer for our sports team on a Sunday afternoon, or go and see an emotional movie on Friday night. Some people buy $200 axes (or iPhones, anyone?) because they come with a fascinating story that they can re-tell to their friends. (Bonus points if it’ll get you laid.)

Ford scoffs at the idea of a transition to a service based economy. He suggests implementing heavy taxes on industry and redistributing that to people who otherwise would have been doing the job the robots are doing, just so they can buy the stuff the robots are producing. He can’t see anything but an economy based on the consumption of material goods. I say: go ahead and automate away the drudgery of daily existence, make the necessities of life so cheap they’re practically free, and let’s get on with building real wealth: strong relationships, a sense of purpose, and a society that values life-long self improvement (instead of life-long accumulation of crap). By making the unimportant stuff less valuable, automation is what will free us to focus more on what’s important.

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  • SueB · January 31, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    Wow that was a very well-written review. Not the sort of fare I expected from an industrial automation site.

  • Jeffrey Gordon · August 10, 2011 at 10:39 am

    Sorry, I can’t agree with your review. You say “Well, I don’t know about you, but if I had no job and I was surrounded by a bunch of other people with no job, I’d be out foraging for food.”

    I have only one question for you. Where, exactly will you be doing this “foraging”? Public land? The goverment won’t let you (for free). Also, I suspect ADM won’t be to amenable to letting you wander around their farms either.

    I’m sorry, but our current economic system leads to:

    ‘After the City of Santa Monica passed their ordinance against sleeping in all public places, I asked a high-ranking Santa Monica official a question. I said, “Of course, homeless people cannot sleep on private property, that’s against the law of trespass. However, now that the City of Santa Monica has passed a law against sleeping in all public places, where are homeless people to go?”

    He answered, “Into the sea.”‘


    I do agree his understanding of economics, like most technologists, is lacking. Despite that, I suspect Ford is very prescient. The waves of automation that will roll over humanity in the next 20 to 50 years will cause widespread displacement and suffering for many tens or hundreds of millions (billions?) of people.

    “I say: go ahead and automate away the drudgery of daily existence, make the necessities of life so cheap they’re practically free, and let’s get on with building real wealth: strong relationships, a sense of purpose, and a society that values life-long self improvement (instead of life-long accumulation of crap). By making the unimportant stuff less valuable, automation is what will free us to focus more on what’s important.”

    I totally agree with you here, but don’t underestimate how painful this transition is going to be. And I sincerely doubt there will really be anything like our current market economy on the far side. I think Ford is arguing that we should be taking active steps to ease the transition and mitigate against some of the displacement and suffering.

    Jeffrey Gordon

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