Philip E. Auerswald


On his book The Code Economy: A Forty-Thousand Year History

Cover Interview of October 02, 2017


This may come as a surprise, but I actually think that The Code Economy is an important book. My justification for thinking so is that the raw material I had the pleasure to work with during the three years I was writing this book is as good as it gets—the insights of some of the people who, in the past four centuries, have most deeply considered the structure and evolution of human society in the long term. My role was to bring those insights together and organize them in a way that, I hope, is engaging and thought-provoking.

To be a bit blunt, the onslaught of information to which we’re all subject creates the danger of a collective myopia that turns ripples on the ocean of history into “news” while, deep below the surface, tsunamis of change pass unnoticed until they hit the shore. This book is my effort to correct that myopia. We are not as different from our distant ancestors as we might imagine; the trends of history are not as difficult to discern; the likely future not as difficult to anticipate.

As a father of three daughters, two of whom are college-aged, I have an immediate interest in understanding what sort of opportunities the evolution of the economy is creating for the next generation. One widely communicated misconception is that the evolution of the economy is somehow reversible—that past eras of (usually imagined) greatness can be wished or commanded back into existence. No one below the age of forty thinks that is going to happen. An appreciation of evolutionary economics helps show why they’re right.

A less severe, but comparably prevalent, misconception is that, because digital technologies are driving the evolution of the economy, then the secret to success in the twenty-first century is learning how to code. This is only partially true. The real lesson of history is actually subtler: every time technology (or code) has advanced suddenly as is happening now, the effect has been to humanize—not to mechanize—work. This means that opportunities in the near future for the majority of people are far more likely to involve compassionate care, authentic expression, and/or culinary creativity as they are to involve mastery of Javascript or Python.

Of course, that the advance of code will continue to generate broadly shared benefits is hardly assured. There are things we can and must do to ensure that the future impacts of the advance of code are as advantageous as they have been in the past. The good news is that we’ve been adapting to, and benefiting from, the advance of code for more than 40,000 years. My hope in writing The Code Economy is that by understanding the momentum of history we can use it in our favor.