The Lights in the Tunnel

Ford’s book, The Lights in the Tunnel, is a bleak look at the future of global economies given an accelerating pace of automation. The book’s key idea is both clear and frightening: “The central thesis of this book is that, as technology accelerates, machine automation may ultimately penetrate the economy to the extent that wages no longer provide the bulk of consumers with adequate discretionary income and confidence in the future” (237). As a result, Ford suggests, governments will have to plan for radical rethink of the free market.

Ford suggests that people are too optimistic about the impact that technology will have upon the labor market. Currently people tend to focus upon the economic impact of globalization when they talk about job loss. In reality, he suggests, the deeper issue is that of automation. Ford believes that skilled jobs may be just as vulnerable to automation as factory positions (72). He begins the work with an extended metaphor of lights in the tunnel, which represent the global market place, a metaphor that he returns to throughout the book. This metaphor functions as a thought experiment, to explain why our entire economic order may be threatened by automation.

This book is an intriguing look at economics writ large. One of his central points is that technology is largely missing (115-116) from studies examining our economic future, which instead tend to privilege globalization as the dominant force driving change. He also believes that economists put too much focus on demographics. His emphasis on technology creates a radically different perspective from that of held in many popular works on economic change. For example, he is a pessimist about the economic future of China, and is deeply concerned about the future of the United States. At times, Ford’s vision seems too bleak, and his vision of the future too extreme. Still, his focus on technology gives him a different starting point than a study by economists and political scientists.

Ford’s work was written during the economic crisis, which shapes his pessimistic vision. Many of the trends to watch for in the future, which he highlights, reflect what he witnessed at that historical moment. In some respects his vision seems if anything too conservative. For example, some advancements that he foresaw are already arriving, such as the development of the self-driving car (76). Still, with unemployment in the United States at about 5%, the labor market does not seem to be collapsing as he predicted (112). As this was his fundamental prediction about the economic future, perhaps classical economics is more resilient in the face of technological change than his study might suggest. Nonetheless, his work seems to speak to the economic malaise currently plaguing the global economy. If anything, some trends -such as the rise of alternative currencies such as bitcoin- have the potential to undermine further our assumptions about the current nature of the economic system. The strength of Ford’s work is its ability to have us look at the global economic system from a radically different perspective, so as to question some of our assumptions.

Ford suggests that in the future governments will have to radically reshape the free market to ensure that the economic system continues to function as many peoples’ jobs are destroyed, and there is insufficient consumer demand for the free market to continue functioning. This vision still seems distant at this time. Still, his examination of how new technologies impact the global economy and financial system is a healthy corrective to current works that overemphasize globalization and demographics in isolation. With the announcement this week by Elon Musk and other business leaders that they would invest one billion dollars in an open artificial intelligence effort called OI, Ford’s points merit some thought. In an earlier post, I talked about Stuart Armstong’s book, Smarter than Us, which examines the dangers of artificial intelligence. Ford’s work suggests that machines do not have to achieve full artificial intelligence to complete remake our economies, and that forecasts which focus on the non-economic dangers of technology may miss the point. Recommended.

Shawn Smallman, 2016.

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