Book Review: ‘The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies’

CorrespondentApril 5, 2014 

  • Nonfiction

    The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies

    Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

    W.W. Norton, 320 pages

Although younger people might not believe it, America’s love affair with technology began long before the digital age. And for good reason. Technological innovations of various kinds have been responsible for many of the improvements over time in our living standards, health and overall quality of life.

The fact that in America new technology historically has led to the creation of more and better jobs only added to its allure. For example, although candlemakers and blacksmiths may have lost out with the coming of electricity and automobiles, these new technologies, like others introduced in America, generated many more jobs than they destroyed.

The happy relationship between technology and jobs may be about to end, however, according to Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. In their important new book, “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies,” and a 2011 book, “Race Against the Machine,” they lay out the reasons why.

Unlike some distinguished economists who maintain that technological innovation in America has stagnated in recent decades, Brynjolfsson and McAfee, who teach at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argue precisely the opposite. In their view, technological innovation, particularly in information and communication technology, or ICT, is flourishing, leading to impressive gains in economic productivity. And, they say, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

So powerful are the forces associated with recent developments in ICT, broadly conceived, that innovation is increasing at exponential rates, doubling in very short periods of time.

Exponential improvement is the result primarily of digitalization and a process the authors call “recombinant innovation,” whereby larger and larger numbers of individuals and groups employ networked digital devices and “an astonishing variety of software” to “combine and recombine ideas” in “radically new ways.” In so doing, a nonstop process of new, hyper-efficient, and in some cases, formerly unthinkable “products” (both tangible and intangible) are being developed and made available throughout the economy at increasingly cheap prices and sometimes free.

We’ve all heard about the rising use of drones and applications for them, and about Google’s progress with driverless cars. Similarly revolutionary developments are occurring in medicine (inexpensive systems combining computers with digital sensors and complex algorithms to provide sight to the visually impaired), telecommunications (increasingly powerful smartphones), education (Khan Academy and so-called MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses), and back-office business operations (PeopleSoft and even TurboTax).

As digital technology becomes general-purpose technology with major impacts resonating throughout the economy – similar to steam power, electricity and the internal combustion engine in the past – virtually all human endeavors will be affected, the authors write.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee are technophiles who are optimistic about the overall impact of the digital revolution. But they are not Pollyannas. They make a strong case that the direction technology is taking is likely to increase economic and social inequality. The digital revolution, as suggested earlier, will also reduce the relative demand for labor, and thus job possibilities for many, particularly for those who are not creative and who lack skills in transforming raw information into complex communication.

According to the authors, many of those dislocated by machines will have to find other means of satisfaction, meaning and fulfillment because they may not work again. The “second machine age” is here for good, and we need to learn how to work with, rather than against, the new “brilliant technologies” or face the consequences.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s book facilitates the learning process.

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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