Out Of Economic Chaos, A New Order May Be Rising

Every week it seems there are more people looking for work, more companies laying people off, and more nations teetering at the edge of unrecoverable debt. But beyond the latest headlines of gloom, there is a fundamental shift going on in our economy and our world. Host Scott Simon talks with Mike Hawley, formerly of MIT's Media Lab, who says that shift may also hold great promise.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

It seems to be discouraging economic news from every quarter of the world, almost every quarter of the calendar. Each stripe of political opinion seems to blame the other. Economists of all opinions float proposals. But increasingly, there are observers and thinkers who say that the world is in the middle of what they call a tectonic shift in the way that we work - which creates the economy - and technology has made it possible to do more or build more steel, make more cars or shoes, grow more food with fewer people.

What happens to jobs? What happens to work? We're going to turn now to Michael Hawley, formerly at MIT's Media Lab. He's a computer scientist, who has held the Dreyfoos professorship at MIT. He was the principal engineer at NeXT with Steve Jobs. Michael Hawley is also a pianist. He won the Van Cliburn Competition in 2002. Dr. Hawley joins us now from the studios of NPR Member station WGBH in Boston. Thanks so much for being with us.

MICHAEL HAWLEY: It's a pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: So what's going on on this century?

HAWLEY: There are big changes and I think there always have been. You know, the story of doing more with less isn't new; that's the root of producing better economies and a better life. It's not just human tellers turning into ATM machines or toll takers turning into E-ZPasses or John Henry turning into a steam shovel. It's all of that and more. And periodically, there are events in life, whether individual or solo that kind of wipe the slate clean.

There are natural disasters. There are economic and technological ones. The real question is what we do afterwards.

SIMON: Let me get you to talk a bit about something as case-specific as the auto industry, which for years kind of in one way or another defined American workmanship.

HAWLEY: Well, let's just put a number on it, a sort of a glib number. The grand total of U.S. automotive fatalities from 1975 to the present, about one and a half million people. Now, the grand total of U.S. fatalities from 1775 to the present in every military conflict we've had is 1.3 million. So in other words, in the last roughly 35 years we've killed more people with cars than we have in more than 300 years of warfare.

I think if you step back and look at cars from a sort of 35,000 foot level, you've got to wonder why we're doing this to ourselves. And there's a tremendous amount of industry and employment built up around it. But suppose it all changed.

One way it could change is if human weren't allowed to drive cars anymore. Or let me put it differently. If cars were much more appealing because they drove themselves and did it safely.

And this isn't just Jetson stuff. There's a brilliant computer scientist, artificial intelligence researcher at Stanford, named Sebastian Thrun. He's invented a car that drives itself. You can hop in the car and you never touch the wheel or the pedals. It navigates through all the traffic snarls. It won't run over little old ladies in Pasadena. It won't even run over a squirrel.

If you could eliminate the seven million accidents per year, the 2.9 million injuries, the 40,000 fatalities, that would be enormous boon. But if you think about what would happen in the short term. Let's suppose in the next five or ten years this idea comes to fruition.

Think about all the disruption that could cause. You might not have to own a car. Well, that might be good. You'd have a garage that you could use to start up a company instead of storing a couple of rusting hulks of metal in it. You'd never have to call Tom and Ray Magliozzi again, because you wouldn't have to fix your car.

SIMON: Now, you're talking.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HAWLEY: There wouldn't be a parking problem, because you'd push a little button on your iPhone, a smart car would zip up, pick you up, drop you off where you need to go. That means no more valets, no more taxi drivers, no more meter maids, no more traffic cops. You'd never hear a car horn, because why would a robot car honk at another robot car. Makes no sense.

But that's an example of the sort of change that in the short term can cause immense of amounts of anxiety and upheaval. And if you were a political leader and you had your choice between bailing out General Motors to build the same technologies that are killing people year after year versus investing in a future that would be so much happier and healthier and less costly on every level, dollars and human lives, you know, what should you do? And how do you navigate in there?

But things have to change and there's always room to make life better. And that's I think what this quest for better technologies is about.

SIMON: For many people, the quest to make life better begins with having a job that you ideally like but that which can support you and your family.

HAWLEY: I think we have to ask the question of ourselves what are the jobs that we really would aspire to do most. And in a time of churn, like the one we're in, I think many more people have a chance to ask themselves what they can begin to do next.

And instead of looking at 9.2 percent unemployment, we could ask what are the prospects for letting those 9.2 percent of the population be reeducated and go back to school and learn new skills. Surely we can afford to do that. But we don't seem to be focused in that way.

SIMON: Michael Hawley, thank you very much.

HAWLEY: You can call me collect anytime.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: And Michael Hawley is a former engineer at MIT's media lab. He spoke with us from Boston. And, by the way, he's an accomplished pianist, too. Here he is performing the music of Alexander Scriabin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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