Friday, April 15, 2016

Technology and Equity

Freeman Dyson is a professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study. He wrote an essay, "Science in Trouble," in about 1990. Here is an excerpt (my italics),.

Attacks against science are likely to become more bitter and more widespread in the future, as long as the economic inequities in our society remain sharp and science continues to be predominantly engage in building toys for the rich. To forestall such attacks, whether or not we feel guilty for the sins of society, the scientific community should invest heavily in projects that benefit all segments of our population. Such projects are not hard to find, and many individual scientists are working on them, working long hours for meager pay. Scientists can participate in the education of children and teachers in poor neighborhoods, or in the staffing of accessible public-health clinics… What is needed is a major commitment of scientific resources to the development of new technology that will bring our derelict cities and derelict children back to life, If our profession does not put its heart into such a commitment, then we shall deserve the passionate hatred that we shall sooner or later encounter. 

Dyson's remarks struck me as important, although I am quite willing to believe I am the last on the block to think this way.

Rodney Ramcharan pointed me to Goldin and Katz's The Race Between Education and Technology (2008), as being to the point of Dyson's concern. I then found a review article by Acemoglu and Autor that goes further, and I commend it to your attention--

I suspect that many of you are aware of this literature and are up to date. I was only dimly aware of it (Becker,...), and so AA's paper is a nice survey. The point is that education matters enormously, but our system of providing such has broken down--at least for males, and the structure of the skills needed has changed as a consequence of technology, hallowing out the middle-skills except for those that are human-caring centered.

Actually, none of this addresses Dyson's concern about toys for the rich, but what for the less well off? He was thinking of the Superconducting Super Collider (eventually killed by Congress, early 1990s), it would seem, and scientists as greedy--and perhaps other sorts of science would be good to encourage. None of this has to do with scientists doing their work for charity, or that science and technology have raised the lots of the poor or that such often raises the lot of all, as some have interpreted the quote.

As for the less well off, males mostly it would seem, AA suggest that the problem is to make the education system work much more effectively for them at least through community college.

Again, this says little about our investments in science. 

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