The Digital Panopticon: It Knows If You’ve Been Bad or Good

Tyler Cowen was on NPR’s Morning Show last week, flogging his new book, Average is Over, and its rather dystopian view of our future. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve formed an impression of where it’s coming from. In the NBA this year, computers will track every movement of every player. Each detail of every movement will be tracked, in order, I imagine, to better analyze every defect in technique, style, and effort. The same kind of computerized tracking is becoming cheap enough to do much the same to ordinary workers in all sorts of occupations. Employers will know exactly who is doing how much for the firm, who can’t get going until his third cup of coffee, who takes ten minutes to fill out data form X instead of seven, and who looks like they tend to get sick when the crises are happening – not to mention everybody’s IQ, credit score, and grade school GPA.

Cowen sees this as a society which will reward high performers and punishes everyone else, destroying the middle class in the process. He sees an upside. Students from India, whom he claims outperform Stanford students in Coursera courses (some Coursera course or courses?) will have opportunities denied them in the past.

My own view of the trends is even gloomier. The high performers, those who prove the most able to serve the machine, will do better than the mass, probably, but the real rewards will be reserved for the lucky few who win the tournament of Capitalism. More and more, the only place that counts is first place. Facebook wins, because it was ever so slightly better than its rivals, or more likely just because it originated in a more prestigious address, and the rivals shrivel away.

So what’s to be done? Libertarian Cowen says, “Get used to it.”

I prefer an idea from the stone age: redistribution.


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