Critique of The New Division of Labor

Critique of The New Division of Labor by Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane
August 18, 2008
For over forty years analysts have predicted that computers would transform the labor market. In the book The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market, Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane dig into this transformation to uncover the reasons and processes behind the labor shift. Four questions that Levy and Murnane identify as key to understanding the effect of computers and smart machines on our economy include: What tasks do computers perform better than humans? What tasks do humans perform better than computers? What well-paid work will be left for humans in the future? How can humans prepare to do this kind of work?
Levy and Murnane answer the first question by noting that the most easily computerized tasks are those that are rules-based. For years assembly-line robots have demonstrated at a basic level that computers are very efficient in predictable, pre-programmed situations. Now computers can work in more complex, but still rule-based situation. In The New Division of Labor one example refers to the computerization of mortgage underwriting. The process only involves a series of calculations and results in a score and a yes/no answer, so a computer can perform the task of mortgage underwriting much more quickly than a human. By extension, computers are better than humans at almost any data processing task, and can replace humans in many information service tasks that do not involve direct human interaction.
The human interaction, that saves many rules-based service jobs from computerization, is a key piece of Levy and Murnane’s response to the second question. They identify two skill areas in which humans excel relative to computers: expert thinking and complex communication. The complex communication includes direct human interaction in service jobs, as well as everyday interaction, perception, reading for meaning- all skills that have proven hard to replicate in smart machines. Not only do humans process voice in communication, but intangibles like body language or situational context. Levy and Murnane define the other difference, expert thinking, as skills including meaningful, complex pattern recognition and metacognition- the ability to analyze the efficiency of a particular style of thinking. A computer is unable to determine why one way of thought is more likely to work, but human experts use the skill often. It is important to realize that the categories of complex communication and expert thinking are a simplification of the skills that set humans apart from machines. The two categories overlap, and also may exclude some other key differences between humans and robots. The issue of whether creativity is a different skill set, for example, can be debated. Creativity can be seen as a part of expert thinking, the ability to find original solutions to problems; one way to further complicate the debate is to take the example of music, art, or poetry, where the original thinking is directly connected to the desire to communicate. Beyond semantics, the important point Levy and Murnane want to demonstrate is that there are specific skills related to sensual processing and original thinking that computers cannot replicate.
The third answer is simple to deduce once tasks have been found in which humans surpass computers: Any job requiring complex communication or expert thinking cannot be computerized. Put in another way, humans are needed for direct contact with other humans, and humans are needed to think of original ideas. An interesting phenomenon is the creation of new opportunities for expert thinking jobs through the computer industry. Although early predictions expected computerization to drive unemployment, the creation of more, better-paying jobs within the electronics industry counters technological unemployment. Computers have also complemented many jobs, in which a mundane or difficult data processing task can be automated to free humans for expert thinking or complex communication. Two examples include the business office, where productivity is generally boosted by new technology, and the hospital, where smart scanning machines enable better diagnoses by doctors.
Finally, Levy and Murnane seek to determine how humans can enhance their skills in expert thinking and complex communication to maintain careers in the era of computerization. Levy and Murnane are firm believers in a federal, standards-based education system, focusing on math and literacy and incorporating measures to even school differences creating by socio-economic status. They lay out a general plan for such a school system with the example of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System and its standards-based testing. However, Levy and Murnane do not propose any drastic changes from the current education, which is already supposed to be standards-based, and although including training for expert thinking (through logic and math) Levy and Murnane never specifically address the need for extensive peer interaction to also address complex communication skills.
Throughout The New Division of Labor, Frank Levy and Richard Murnane explain the way computers, humans, and the labor markets affect one another in an easy-to-read fashion, and continue to lead the reader through the implications of their work, but ultimately do not deliver as great an impact on how to implement an effective education system and they do with their definitions of easily computerized and non-easily computerized tasks. The division of skills into easily computerized and human tasks, and the division of human skills into complex communication and expert thinking, is an effective way to convey the course the labor market will likely take in the next several years, or even decades, and is a thought-provoking way to organize careers, tasks, and problems. This makes the book’s lack of dramatic vision in education disappointing. However, the thinking that The New Division of Labor inspires makes the book interesting and worthwile reading about the meeting of humanity and technology.

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