by W. Brian Arthur
Business processes that once took place among human beings are now being executed electronically. They are taking place in an unseen domain that is strictly digital. On the surface, this shift doesn’t seem particularly consequential—it’s almost something we take for granted. But I believe it is causing a revolution no less important and dramatic than that of the railroads. It is quietly creating a second economy, a digital one…
With the coming of the Industrial Revolution—roughly from the 1760s, when Watt’s steam engine appeared, through around 1850 and beyond—the economy developed a muscular system in the form of machine power. Now it is developing a neural system. This may sound grandiose, but actually I think the metaphor is valid. Around 1990, computers started seriously to talk to each other, and all these connections started to happen. The individual machines—servers—are like neurons, and the axons and synapses are the communication pathways and linkages that enable them to be in conversation with each other and to take appropriate action.
Is this the biggest change since the Industrial Revolution? Well, without sticking my neck out too much, I believe so. In fact, I think it may well be the biggest change ever in the economy. It is a deep qualitative change that is bringing intelligent, automatic response to the economy. There’s no upper limit to this, no place where it has to end. Now, I’m not interested in science fiction, or predicting the singularity, or talking about cyborgs. None of that interests me. What I am saying is that it would be easy to underestimate the degree to which this is going to make a difference.
I think that for the rest of this century, barring wars and pestilence, a lot of the story will be the building out of this second economy, an unseen underground economy that basically is giving us intelligent reactions to what we do above the ground. For example, if I’m driving in Los Angeles in 15 years’ time, likely it’ll be a driverless car in a flow of traffic where my car’s in a conversation with the cars around it that are in conversation with general traffic and with my car. The second economy is creating for us—slowly, quietly, and steadily—a different world.
Of course, as with most changes, there is a downside. I am concerned that there is an adverse impact on jobs. Productivity increasing, say, at 2.4 percent in a given year means either that the same number of people can produce 2.4 percent more output or that we can get the same output with 2.4 percent fewer people. Both of these are happening. We are getting more output for each person in the economy, but overall output, nationally, requires fewer people to produce it. Nowadays, fewer people are required behind the desk of an airline. Much of the work is still physical—someone still has to take your luggage and put it on the belt—but much has vanished into the digital world of sensing, digital communication, and intelligent response.
Physical jobs are disappearing into the second economy, and I believe this effect is dwarfing the much more publicized effect of jobs disappearing to places like India and China.
There are parallels with what has happened before. In the early 20th century, farm jobs became mechanized and there was less need for farm labor, and some decades later manufacturing jobs became mechanized and there was less need for factory labor. Now business processes—many in the service sector—are becoming “mechanized” and fewer people are needed, and this is exerting systematic downward pressure on jobs. We don’t have paralegals in the numbers we used to. Or draftsmen, telephone operators, typists, or bookkeeping people. A lot of that work is now done digitally. We do have police and teachers and doctors; where there’s a need for human judgment and human interaction, we still have that. But the primary cause of all of the downsizing we’ve had since the mid-1990s is that a lot of human jobs are disappearing into the second economy. Not to reappear.
Seeing things this way, it’s not surprising we are still working our way out of the bad 2008–09 recession with a great deal of joblessness.
There’s a larger lesson to be drawn from this. The second economy will certainly be the engine of growth and the provider of prosperity for the rest of this century and beyond, but it may not provide jobs, so there may be prosperity without full access for many. This suggests to me that the main challenge of the economy is shifting from producing prosperity to distributing prosperity. The second economy will produce wealth no matter what we do; distributing that wealth has become the main problem. For centuries, wealth has traditionally been apportioned in the West through jobs, and jobs have always been forthcoming. When farm jobs disappeared, we still had manufacturing jobs, and when these disappeared we migrated to service jobs. With this digital transformation, this last repository of jobs is shrinking—fewer of us in the future may have white-collar business process jobs—and we face a problem.
The system will adjust of course, though I can’t yet say exactly how. Perhaps some new part of the economy will come forward and generate a whole new set of jobs. Perhaps we will have short workweeks and long vacations so there will be more jobs to go around. Perhaps we will have to subsidize job creation. Perhaps the very idea of a job and of being productive will change over the next two or three decades. The problem is by no means insoluble. The good news is that if we do solve it we may at last have the freedom to invest our energies in creative acts.