Interview with economist & author Tim Harford

About Tim Harford

Tim Harford ‘the undercover economist’ is a visiting fellow at Nuffield College Oxford and is a multi-award winning journalist. He is presenter of Radio 4’s ‘More or Less’, a senior Financial Times Columnist and the author of several highly acclaimed bestselling books- his most recent being 50 Things that Made the Modern Economy. Malcolm Gladwell has written, ‘Every Tim Harford book is a cause for celebration. More information can be found on his website.

In your book Messy you associate messiness with creativity. How has messy thinking helped you?

The most obvious way is the multi-tasking. I write and present radio programmes (in 2017, some about statistics, some about economics and technology, and even some comedy). I have my weekly Financial Times column. And there are the books. I find it hard, then, to set aside days or weeks for a single project. One of the encouraging things about Messy has been discovering that this is very common, even among highly creative and productive people – scientists, novelists and others. The small-minded multi-screening, social-media driven way of working is pretty destructive, but slow-motion multitasking, rotating between projects, getting blocked and unblocked, can be a very helpful way of working. The lack of focus does cause problems but there are many opportunities to cross-pollinate, too.

Things like barbed wire and batteries in Fifty Things that Made the Modern Economy give an insight into how the overlooked can often be the most influential. What do you think we are tending to overlook right now?

Also paper! Paper was my favourite overlooked invention. Not much point mass-producing writing with a printing press unless you can also mass-produce a writing surface.

It is always hard to say what we’re overlooking today but we do tend to focus on the spectacular (killer robots! Nuclear fusion!) and miss the everyday (cheap snap-together solar panels inspired by Ikea; simple pieces of software like the spreadsheet that overturn whole industries). The most obvious overlooked development at the moment, I think, is cheap sensors.

In what way do you think the future will more resemble the past than our idea of the ‘futuristic’?

Old inventions rarely die. Pencils, paper – there were more horses used in the Second World War than in the First, and there are many more bicycles manufactured today than cars.

A useful rule of thumb is that the older an invention is the longer it is likely to endure in the future. Today’s smart watches will probably date very very quickly; trousers, knives, bowls aren’t going anywhere.

Is there a link between seeking funding and the prominence of certain technological advances that may be confusing the public?

There are certainly some inventions that depend on gaining publicity for their success – and others (military, surveillance) that work behind the scenes. And then there are technologies such as micro-satellites which are neither secret nor widely known, because the market place for them has no direct connection to the consumer.

The future is partly determined by the effort of technology on humans, how we react to it; we give a lot of attention to the technology, but what parts of the human element are we tending to overlook?

We’re starting – too little, but never too late – to pay attention to the fact that many modern technologies are driven by advertising, which means they work well if they continually interrupt us and seek out attention. I’m hoping that a market will evolve for software that works for us rather than against us. I’d gladly pay for that.

I think we also tend to ignore the fact that successful technologies change us and our organisations. We adapt to fit them, not the other way around. Think about everything from the car to the skyscraper: our processes, production lines, living spaces and daily routines flex to accommodate the new technology.

What trades/jobs are future-proof?

Nobody really knows – Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman wrote in 1996 that there would be “no robot plumbers” in 2096. That looked smart then (plumbing is so hard to automate) but it no longer seems such a safe bet, does it?

That said, if robots really are doing the plumbing in future I think we’re starting to look at a Star-Trek future in which nobody in wealthy countries has to work at all. That would require radical change in our mindsets and our political institutions.

Until then, however, I’d suggest three general rules:

1) Don’t think of ‘jobs’, think of ‘tasks’. Most jobs are bundles of tasks, and automation tends to take some tasks and not others. For example, the spreadsheet (introduced 1979) automated a lot of what accountants used to spend hours upon hours doing with pencil and paper. But we still have accountants: they do different tasks.

2) The relevant distinction is not ‘skilled’ vs ‘unskilled’, but ‘routine’ and ‘non-routine’. Routine tasks (such as doing arithmetic on a paper spreadsheet) can be highly skilled but easy to automate. Non-routine tasks (cleaning a hotel room) don’t require a lot of skill but are very hard to automate. Non-routine tasks are more future-proof; some of them are also vastly more satisfying, but not all.

3) There will always be merit in curiosity.