The Daily Beast reviews *Average is Over*

by on September 18, 2013 at 6:40 am in Books | Permalink

This is by Robert Herritt, here is one excerpt:

…in filling in his vision, Cowen lets lose a barrage of teased-out implications. For one, not everyone will need to be a Zuckerberg-level coding wunderkind to stay in a job. Since machine intelligence makes it easier for businesses to orchestrate complex, team-based projects, skilled managers will be prized employees. Those put out of work by some less error-prone descendent of Siri, he predicts, will move to professions where the trustworthiness and conscientiousness of a flesh-and-blood human are most required, whether they become valets, babysitters, interior designers, or carpenters. Since, in this new world, “Rewards will flow readily to top talent, not to the socially well-connected,” self-motivation and the ability to repeatedly “reeducate” in new fields will also go a long way. In such a “hyper-meritocratic” environment, those adept at coaching will be in high demand (as Cowen sees it, everyone from CEOs to elite physicians will have a professional motivator on the payroll). Aided by machines, scientists will develop theories so complex that the general public could “be shut out from a scientific understanding of the world.” And as demographic and fiscal realities catch up with our public sector, “aid from the government will increasingly fall short of a growing set of demands.”

In stark contrast to other practitioners of freewheeling prognostication, Cowen has focused much of his energy on answering questions that have real relevance to ordinary people. Many parts of the book can be read as an advice manual for the apprehensive undergraduate struggling to pick a career path in a turbulent job market. For instance, he predicts that proliferating demands on the attention of the most well-off Americans will make marketing “a seminal sector for our future economy.” He goes on to assert that “[i]f you have an unusual ability to spot, recruit, and direct those who work well with computers, even if you don’t work well with computers yourself, the contemporary world will make you rich.”

The full review is here, and for the pointer I thank Carrie Conko.

prior_approval September 18, 2013 at 8:03 am

‘For instance, he predicts that proliferating demands on the attention of the most well-off Americans will make marketing “a seminal sector for our future economy.”’

Nope – at least not in that formulation. Unless one somehow believes that the most well-off Americans are not already being marketed to to the extent that they wish to tolerate – with the caveat that very few people having anything to do with this blog (a few donors definitely excepted) are even aware of that sort of marketing. And the fact is, the most well off Americans have little contact with anything they don’t want to – something that a growing horde of marketers, even when composed of an army of Davids (what, have we all forgotten about another seminal work with another flavor of the week message?), will not be able to change.

To give a tiny example of how one markets to the truly well-off – ‘The Centurion Card is invitation-only after an appropriate net worth, credit and spending criteria are met. American Express does not publicly disclose the requirements necessary for getting a card except that the cardholder has a substantial net worth and they are a former platinum card holder. For reference, the average Centurion cardholder has $16.3 million in assets and an annual household income of $1.3 million.’

Does any loyal reader really think that American Express will be hiring large numbers of marketers to serve this market? Or does anyone think the following business areas require large numbers of new marketers (particularly in light of the fact that, again with a couple of exceptions, no one here is likely qualifies for any of the following programs) – ‘The card, available for personal and business use, offers services such as a dedicated concierge and travel agent, complimentary, companion airline tickets on international flights on selected airlines with the purchase of a full-fare ticket, personal shoppers at retailers such as Gucci, Escada, and Saks Fifth Avenue, access to airport clubs, first-class flight upgrades, membership in Sony’s Cierge personal shopping program and dozens of other elite club memberships. Hotel benefits include one free night when at least one paid night is booked during the same stay in every Mandarin Oriental hotel worldwide once a year (except for the New York City property), and privileges at hotel chains like Ritz-Carlton, Leading Hotels of the World, and Amanresorts. All of the benefits mentioned above are for United States-issued cards. American Express Centurion Cards issued in other countries may include different benefits. The card has recently added new amenities, including access into the Gulfstream Aerospace Private Flyers Club, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club Gold, as well as US Airways Platinum Preferred and Delta SkyMiles Platinum Medallion status.’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centurion_Card

Such people don’t need marketing – they just need a steady stream of people to do their travel planning, shopping, bedmaking and food preparing to the standards expected by someone at the apex of a system designed to ensure the rich have nowhere near the daily burden of existence that most of us consider normal. Though I’m going to venture that most people here have no idea how that works – which is part of the idea, of course. Though one does have to say, at least in the past, a clearer perspective prevailed. Most serfs and peasants had a very clear idea just how much better it was to be in the aristocracy, along with the clear understanding they never would be a part of it.

After all, it isn’t as the rich actually want to let people in on how rough their life is. Which is why this has never been intended for mass publication status – ‘Since the inception of the card, members have received a copy of Departures, which is also sent to all Platinum Card cardholders. However, in 2004, American Express Centurion members in the US began receiving an exclusive “no name” magazine, which was not available by any other means. Starting with the Spring 2007 edition, this magazine was officially titled Black Ink. The magazine is available only to individual Centurion cardholders, not to the business-edition customers.’ And anyone not able to figure out why this magazine does not go through a company mailroom is also quite likely to think that marketing will be seminal in the future. Especially when looking at these circulation numbers for the non-U.S. publication of a swath of the ‘most well-off’ – ‘Centurion has been published since 2001 and has a circulation in Europe and the Middle East of 44,100, in Asia of 13,900, and in Australia of 6,000.’

Average is what the middle class was all about – in the future, that is apparently over, though one may piously proclaim that marketing will make us feel better about it as we trust our holy machines to think for us.

dirk September 18, 2013 at 1:26 pm

You don’t seem to comprehend how much marketing is aimed at businesses instead of consumers.

dirk September 18, 2013 at 1:34 pm

Sorry, my reading comprehension was bad. He does formulate it about the
“proliferating demands on the attention of the most well-off Americans.” You are right, that won’t be the reason for increasing returns to marketing.

Millian September 18, 2013 at 9:54 am

Will people trust robot auditors?

n September 18, 2013 at 10:50 am

They already trust Indian auditors. The Big 4 outsource 5% of audit work to India – the goal is 20% within a few years. Indian accountants are paid $10K USD compared to ~$50K USD for entry level Big 4 accountants in the USA. Reports re: the quality of the outsourced work product are mixed – I’ve heard good and terrible things.

Floccina September 18, 2013 at 9:59 am

If Tyler’s predictions turn out correct should our schools teach people:

How to repair their own cars
How to repair/build their own cars
How to invest and handle money
How to avid scams
How to garden economically
Enough about medicine to not waste money there
And other practical things rather than college prep?

lxm September 18, 2013 at 4:33 pm

Yes! Teach those skills that are practical in addition to college prep. How to frame a window and door. How to handle electricity. Plumbing. Teach those skills that would let you survive without having to work for some world-spanning corporate monster. The goal of education should be not having to go to work in a corporate job unless you can’t do better.

In my dreams, not that it matters since I’ll be long gone, I see a world where individuals can finally empower themselves against the encroachment of large corporate entities. Screw them. They’ve got no interest in you. They offer nothing but the new serfdom.

3D manufacturing, solar power, local food production, strong communities, cooperatives, protection of the commons.

I feel better now.

A Real Black Person September 22, 2013 at 3:25 pm

Corporations are not the enemy of your personal freedom, other people are. Corporations are made up of people. As long as we insist of having the benefits of civilization, such as complex forms of technology like solar panels, we will have the social hierarchy that comes with it. As long as humans continue to live in social groups there will be hierarchy, there will be masters, and there will be slaves.

Sam September 18, 2013 at 10:19 am

Tyler: I have yet to read your book, but from the articles I’ve so far read it seems like a work of futurism, explicitly amoral and using standard social science to forecast the look and feel of society after computers and AI start to substitute for an awful lot of human labour. Question: Do you not owe Robin an apology for stealing his book idea?

Andrew' September 18, 2013 at 11:22 am

Unless you have specific claims, let me answer this with the question I’ve asked before, how did Robin Hanson get the brand for futurism (not to mention contrarianism)? How does the balance sheet look after accounting for calling everything Hansonian? Now I don’t mind it, but it goes into my little file of the oddities of academia.

Sam September 18, 2013 at 2:18 pm

I’m not accusing Tyler of plagiarism or anything truly unethical. I’m sure his and Hanson’s book will differ markedly. My understand is simply that Robin Hanson has finished a book on futurism where he purports to use in his words “standard social science” (by which he approximately means comparative statics) to predict the implications of human-level AI on the labour market. He is also explicit in what has been reported that he is doing a positive analysis and trying to abstain from moralizing. Knowing he and Tyler have a working relationship I was simply surprised by how much what I’ve learned of Tyler’s book reminded me of what I know of Robin’s book. I tend to read Tyler’s work as being part of an on-going dialogue with his George Mason lunch group — for instance, TGS seemed to be implicitly a reply to Hanson and other’s strong singularity/innovation optimism. Average is Over, similarly, seems to be Tyler’s version of Hanson’s labour-substitution story but with the sci-fi stuff toned down.

Sam September 18, 2013 at 2:26 pm

Asking him to apologize was tongue in cheek. Though maybe his Straussian reply to Hanson should`ve been published second. I suspect Hanson’s book is languishing because of the need extensive revisions. I haven`t been reading Hanson`s blog lately but his book was explicitly about the “Em Economy” as in “whole brain emulations”. Tyler’s style is to take more radical ideas like that and ground them in current trends to disseminate his views in a way that avoids persecution.

Tyler Cowen September 18, 2013 at 2:39 pm

I explain the difference in the book!

Owen September 19, 2013 at 8:33 am

Does the book discuss (guaranteed/universal) basic income? I know you’ve spoken in support of that in that past it would be obviously be relevant here.

Justin Stobbs September 25, 2013 at 4:03 pm

The book is very thought provoking. Your references to Ray Kurzweil, “method of loci”, and mechanical Turks were especially intriguing. One must note you spend 20+ pages “beating a dead horse” with extensive analogies to chess. Would it be possible to have less techincal chess speech and more relevant economic data? In my opinion this book did not live up to your previous “Discover Your Inner Economist”. Thank you for your thoughts and I look forward to many excellent reads!

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