In Richards’ analysis, we did not simply wake up one morning to discover that robotics have become a real possibility; instead, we are on the growth side of an exponential curve of technological development. He argues, “what’s different about our era is not that technology makes earlier forms of work obsolete but the time scale on which this is happening...In the early twentieth century, we developed mass production, and then, in the blink of an eye, the Information Revolution was upon us.” In the twenty-first century, new technologies arrive, dominate the market, and are themselves replaced by a new innovation within just a few years. In coming years, this speed of change will only accelerate. “The disruption will surely be as profound as it was during the Industrial Revolution, when one form of life replaced another for almost all Americans.” For Richards, these technological innovations are not, at their core, dehumanizing threats to our human activity (work), but the work of the present generation to seek flourishing through stewarding the world.
If there is a weakness in The Human Advantage, it lies in Richards’ reliance on immediately relevant examples. Citing current YouTubers, recent current events, and contemporary technological innovation increases the relevance of Richards’ analysis, but it also makes this book a time-bound volume. Speaking beyond the present historical moment would require substantial revision. It will itself fall victim to the very disruption which it describes; ten years from now, the passages describing the cultivation of virtue for business will resonate, but the pain of the housing market collapse will not speak to readers with the applicability it currently does.
The Human Advantage brings the skills of a professional economist, journalist, and philosopher to bear on a pressing question: Will we have jobs in the future? With the clarity of Thomistic analysis, Richards contends that yes, we will have jobs in the future. They will not look like the jobs of the past, because our world is now a digitally connected, collaborative space with new opportunities; never before have average people had access to the tools and networks which the Information Age places at their fingertips. Richards writes, “An information economy, then, is not an economy where mindless machines take over. It’s an economy shaped by and fitted for us. It’s an economy where human minds, creativity, and freedom predominate. It’s an economy where we purposefully in-form the material and social world in more and more elaborate ways.” Work is not going away, and the best way to prepare for economic success is, in some ways, different (new skills, new ideas, new chances) but is ultimately timeless. Through the practice of virtue, man rises to happiness and, in accord with the “compensatory logic of the universe,” will also find material flourishing no matter what changes arrive.