Deskilling Attacks

The WSJ frightens its readers with computers making humans dumb. About automation:

This philosophy traps people in a vicious cycle of de-skilling. By isolating them from hard work, it dulls their skills and increases the odds that they will make mistakes. When those mistakes happen, designers respond by seeking to further restrict people’s responsibilities—spurring a new round of de-skilling.

By “automation,” the author means CAD, decision support, and plane navigation systems. Thanks to them, doctors and pilots become dumber.

Maybe that article was written on paper and with ink, but most people would prefer keyboard and text processor. Why? Because keyboard and software reduce routine work, just like the other technologies mentioned there. Computers can’t steal creativity they don’t have.

Deskilling is a hypothesis from classical economics. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, c. 1776:

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.

Compare to the WSJ piece:

As software improves, the people using it become less likely to sharpen their own know-how. Applications that offer lots of prompts and tips are often to blame; simpler, less solicitous programs push people harder to think, act and learn.

(The master of the deskilling genre was, of course, Karl Marx. Is anyone surprised that Rupert Murdoch publishes Marxists?)

But the 19th century technologies replaced artisans because machines plus humans did better than humans alone. Engineers and workers got the jobs that artisans had lost, with a huge surplus in productivity. Workers have never been deskilled because most of them came from agriculture, which is dull, hard labor all over the day. You had to know tricks in agriculture, but these tricks didn’t make a skilled farmer by definition.

The present. No deskilling on horizon. Jobs demand more skills, actually. Degree premia in the US are increasing, and they’re positive in other countries. Wherever you can learn more skills, they pay off. Technologies replace middle-skill jobs by reducing routine operations, but it has implications opposite to those the WSJ implies. We need more, not less, education as workers look for more skilled jobs.


The inflation fear appears here and there, but mostly around government initiatives. One problem with this fear is: regardless of how you measure it, there’s no inflation in government initiatives. Economists spend a lot of time in the media repeating this.

But “inflation” is not even a public concern. You won’t find it in polls or, for instance, Google Search trends:


In fact, “inflation” is a problem in just one place:


Ok, in two places. Wall Street made traffic for NYC. Meanwhile, elsewhere:


Employment does remain a top problem in public polls for long. You might expect the media to keep the public updated on this, but:

NYT Chronicle
NYT Chronicle

The New York Times devotes about the same attention to inflation as to unemployment, despite unemployment being a much bigger concern.

What comes after ignoring both public and experts? Correlation in the tail of the plot is suggestive:


And anyone who disagrees is a witch!


The New York Times evolved over time in words and topics (onetwo). And so did the US Congress.

To track topics in the congressional agenda, I compared the word frequency in bill titles over the last 40 years (see Appendix for details):

Education surges in the recent years, while health care does not

Health care takes about 18% of US GDP, but the US Congress mentions it only 400 times a year in its bill titles.

Security happens to be more important than freedom

About ten times more important. But the two correlate, so one serves another in certain contexts.

China replaces the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union appears in US Congress documents after 1991, when it ceased to exist. But China became popular around that time. The EU is less so, mainly because it’s still treated as two dozens of independent states, not a single union.

Unemployment periodically becomes an issue

Unemployment gets moderate attention (about 1/20th of “security”). Congresspersons ignore inflation, while the NYT devotes lot of attention to both and clearly prefer talking more about inflation:

Appendix: Data and replication

The US Congress bill titles are available from two sources:

NYT-speak continued

The New York Times’ choice of words tells much about history and the media. As seen before, their Chronicle shows great snapshots of the newspaper’s wording evolution.

Here, a few more cases.

Information sourcing

As Robert Fisk once noted, the media now rely more on what officials said, rather than sourcing news by themselves. That’s a confirmation:

Money and knowledge in crises

Though in general money and knowledge move in the same directions, money moves in greater magnitudes. Also, notice that in the Great Depression, as well as in the Great Recession, the NYT mentioned money less frequently. And the opposite happened during stagflation in the 70s.

Inflation and unemployment

Mentions of unemployment and inflation went in different directions before the 70s: right until the economy happened to have both. But it was a short period and right now there’re no mutual relations (at least, in wording).

In- and equality

Inequality never was an issue for the NYT. Even in the late 20s, when inequality was extremely high. So, it’s a new topic. Meanwhile, previous mentions of equality are generally associated with civil rights movements, as in the 60s.

“Make war, not love”

At its peak, war themes took up to 30% of the newspaper materials. But local wars, like Iraq and Afghanistan, never draw so much attention.

Referring to minorities

A similar graph was in the previous post, but here changes in wording are clearer. Especially right after the Civil War, when politicians no longer needed support from the black population, and one hundred years later, when politicians and media had to update their vocabulary.

Sports becoming more popular