A review of “Dancing with Robots” by Frank Levy and Richard Murnane (available as pdf through the link in the title)
In Dancing with Robots, Frank Levy and Richard Murnane provide a fascinating study on the changing North American workplace and how computers have affected today’s need for certain job skills. Levy and Murnane prove that the decade-long employment developments related to the growth of information technology, has, in their own words, “led to a shift toward two kinds of tasks: solving problems for which standard operating procedures do not currently exist, and working with new information—acquiring it, making sense of it, communicating it to others.” (5-6).
While computers are good at executing rules, they explain, human beings can process information on a cognitive level, meaning they can make sense of the information computers compile. Computers are good at logical, step-by-step procedures, while human minds can process information that can’t be articulated logically, or include an element of surprise, the unanticipated or the unknown. (7) In essence, “the human mind’s strength is its flexibility—the ability to process and integrate many kinds of information to perform a complex task. The computer’s strengths are speed and accuracy, not flexibility, and computers are best at performing tasks for which logical rules or a statistical model lay out a path to a solution. Much of computerized work involves complicated tasks that have been simplified by posing structure.” (9)
What does this mean for today’s job market?
The statistics of the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that, “total employment growth of 14.3% occurred between 2010 and 2020, with the fastest growing occupations involving unstructured problem-solving, working with new information, and non-routine activity. Although some of these occupations are Healthcare Support Occupations, Community and Social Services, Construction and Extraction, and Computer and Mathematical Occupations, Levy and Murnane highlight that changes in the contemporary workplace are actually much deeper since, “the actual nature of the work—the task people perform—has changed faster than these occupational numbers might suggest” (15). They found that while work centered on routine cognitive and manual tasks have declined steadily since the 1970s (leading to computer substitution and off-shoring) ”solving unstructured problems and working with new information [. . .] increased steadily between 1970 and 2000 and held steady over the subsequent decade. (19).
Levy and Murnane agree that given the ease with which computers exchange information, “working with new information” may seem like a surprising result, but “making sense of new information remains important because all information is ambiguous: there is no guarantee that the recipient of information interprets it as the information’s author intended” (17). This means that one of the “increased demand for college graduates reflects both what an individual learned in college and the college degree as a signal that an individual possesses sufficiently strong foundational skills to acquire job knowledge efficiently” (2). Levy and Murnane prove that the foundational skills needed in today’s job market are strongly dependent on a person’s literacy skills: with the constant need to acquire and work with new information, literacy requires not only the ability to sound out words phonetically, but also the background knowledge and vocabulary to make sense of newly encountered words and concepts.” (22).