Why bar code swipes herald arrival of a great third sex

This month, we enter the season of goodwill to all men (and women). But there is a bitter irony. What will actually make the world go round this holiday season is not simply the labour of real-life women and men - but the silent actions of millions of interconnected machines.

Think about it. If you travel this holiday through airports or train stations, you will invariably be clutching tickets with electronic bar codes, which will be waved at automatic turnstiles or check-in desks - which will duly send signals to other machines. If you buy a holiday gift or groceries, you will wave more bar codes - and probably swipe credit cards too. Almost any action you take today involves an interconnected digital machine. One might almost call these machines the third great sex: in the labour market now, it is not simply a question of men versus women, but men, women - and machines.

Does this matter? Brian Arthur, an esteemed economist, scientist and visiting scholar at the Palo Alto Research Center, thinks it does. For the crucial thing to understand about these new digitised machines, he argues in a thought-provoking piece written in the latest McKinsey Quarterly, is that they are not automating human processes; since 1990 these machines have been communicating with each other and interacting with decreasing human oversight. The net result is the rise of a second, "digitised economy" that is operating alongside the "real" human world - and threatening to change our economy profoundly.

"If I were to look for adjectives to describe this second economy, I'd say it is vast, silent, connected, unseen and autonomous (meaning that human beings may design it but are not directly involved in running it)," Prof Arthur explains. "It is self-configuring, meaning it constantly reconfigures itself on the fly, and increasingly it is also self-organising, self-architecting and self-healing."

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