I recently finished Learning by Doing: The Real Connection between Innovation, Wages, and Wealth, by James Bessen of the Boston University Law School. It’s a good book to check out if you are worried about whether workers will be able to weather this latest wave of technological innovation. One of the key insights of Bessen’s book is that, as with previous periods of turbulent technological change, today’s workers and businesses will obviously need find ways to adapt to rapidly-changing marketplace realities brought on by the Information Revolution, robotics, and automated systems.
That sort of adaptation takes time, but for technological revolutions to take hold and have meaningful impact on economic growth and worker conditions, it requires that large numbers of ordinary workers acquire new knowledge and skills, Bessen notes. But, “that is a slow and difficult process, and history suggests that it often requires social changes supported by accommodating institutions and culture.” (p 223) That is not a reason to resist disruptive forms of technological change, however. To the contrary, Bessen says, it is crucial to allow ongoing trial-and-error experimentation and innovation to continue precisely because it represents a learning process which helps people (and workers in particular) adapt to changing circumstances and acquire new skills to deal with them. That, in a nutshell, is “learning by doing.” As he elaborates elsewhere in the book:
Major new technologies become ‘revolutionary’ only after a long process of learning by doing and incremental improvement. Having the breakthrough idea is not enough. But learning through experience and experimentation is expensive and slow. Experimentation involves a search for productive techniques: testing and eliminating bad techniques in order to find good ones. This means that workers and equipment typically operate for extended periods at low levels of productivity using poor techniques and are able to eliminate those poor practices only when they find something better. (p. 50)
Luckily, however, history also suggests that, time and time again, that process has happened and the standard of living for workers and average citizens alike improved at the same time. Continue reading →