The Second Machine Age: A book review by Bob Morris

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies
Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee
W.W. Norton & Company (2014)

“Technology is not destiny. We shape our destiny.”

Opinions vary as to the timeframe of the Industrial Revolution and there is also disagreement as to whether or not it was in fact a “revolution.” Whatever, from the last half of the 18th century through the first half of the 19th century, the nature and extent of disruptive inventions and innovations were unprecedented. The socioeconomic impact was also unprecedented.

Why did Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee write this book?

As they explain, “Digital technologies had been laughably bad at a lot of things for a long time — then they suddenly got very good. How did this happen? And what were the implications of this progress, which as astonishing and yet came to be considered a matter of course? We decided to team up and see if we could answer these questions…So this is a book about the second machine age unfolding right now — an inflection point in the history of our economies and societies because of digitization. It’s an inflection point in the right direction — bounty instead of scarcity, freedom instead of constraint — but one that will bring with it some difficult challenges and choices.”

Brynjolfsson and McAfee carefully organize and present their material within three sections: In the first (Chapters 1-6), they examine the primary forces and defining characteristics of the second machine age. Then in the second (Chapters 7-11), they discuss two key components, bounty and spread, as well as their implications and their consequences — for better or worse. In the third (chapters 12-15), they discuss what initiatives (especially interventions) will be most appropriate and effective during the second machine age.

These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s coverage.

o The History of Humanity in One Graph (Pages 4-12)
o The Paradox of Robotic “Progress” (27-31)
o Second-Half Technologies (47-50)
o What Happens When the Content Comes Freely? (64-66)
o Digital Technologies: The Most General Purpose of All (79-81)o Thanking Machines, Available Now (91-93)
o Productivity Growth (99-106)
o Consumer Surplus: How Much Would You Pay?, and, New Goods and Services (114-118)
o New Metrics Are Needed for the Second Machine Age (122-124)

o How Technology Is Changing Economics (130-131)
o How Superstars Thrive in the Winner-Take-All Economy (150-152)
o The Social Acceptability of Superstars (157-159)
o Technological Unemployment (173-180
o Tools to Help You Stand Out (199-202)
o A Few Things Even Economists Can Agree On, and, Econ 101 Playbook (206-225)
o Avoiding the Three Great Evils (234-237)
o The Risks We’ll Run (251-257)

When concluding their brilliant book, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee suggest, “In the second machine age, we need to think much more deeply about what it is we really want and what we value, both as individuals and as a society. Our generation has inherited more opportunities to transform the world than any other. That’s a cause for optimism, but only if we’re mindful of our choices. Technology is not destiny. We shape our destiny.”

Obviously, no brief commentary such as mine can do full justice to the wealth of information, insights, and counsel provided in this volume. However, I hope I have indicated why I think so highly of it.

At best, speculation about what will happen during the next few years can only suggest what is possible or probable rather than certain. And even then, we are well-advised to keep in mind the Hebrew aphorism, “Man plans and then God laughs.”

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