Des Hague Book Reviews In The Second Machine Age MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee―two thinkers at the forefront of their field―reveal the forces driving the reinvention of our lives and our economy.  The book’s idea is that the computer/network/digital has now reached a maturity so we will see big changes in the future. 

In the future we can expect more of everything, including both tangible goods and digital products and services, at lower and lower prices. They call this “Bounty.” There is a dark side as well, however. Machines and computers are increasingly substituting for routine human labor, and technology is a major driver of increased inequality. The authors call this “Spread”.

Drawing on years of research and up-to-the-minute trends, Brynjolfsson and McAfee identify the best strategies for survival and offer a new path to prosperity. These include revamping education so that it prepares people for the next economy instead of the last one, designing new collaborations that pair brute processing power with human ingenuity, and embracing policies that make sense in a radically transformed landscape.

The book opens by asking one very difficult question: What have been the most important developments in human history? The authors offer three broad conclusions:  The first is that we’re living in a time of astonishing progress with digital technologies– those that have computer hardware, software, and networks at their core. These technologies are not brand-new; businesses have been buying computers for more than half a century, and Time magazine declared the personal computer its “Machine of the Year” in 1982.  The second is that the transformations brought about by digital technology will be profoundly beneficial ones.  The third conclusion is less optimistic: digitization is going to bring with it some thorny challenges.

It is divided into three sections.  The first, composed of chapters 1 through 6, describes the fundamental characteristics of the second machine age.  These chapters give many examples of recent technological progress that seem like the stuff of science fiction, explain why they’re happening now, and reveal why we should be confident that the scale and pace of innovation in computers, robots, and other digital gear is only going to accelerate in the future.

The second part, consisting of chapters 7 through 11, explores bounty and spread, the two economic consequences of this progress.  As mentioned before, bounty is the increase in volume, variety, and quality and the decrease in cost of the many offerings brought on by modern technological progress. It’s the best economic news in the world today.  Spread, however, is not so great; it’s ever-bigger differences among people in economic success– in wealth, income, mobility, and other important measures.  Spread has been increasing in recent years. This is a troubling development in many reasons, and one that will accelerate in the second machine age unless we intervene.

The final section — chapters 12 through 15 — discusses what interventions will be appropriate and effective for this age.  Our economic goals should be to maximize the bounty while mitigating the negative effects of the spread. This part of the book offers the authors’ ideas about how to best accomplish these aims, both in the short term and in the more distant future, when progress really has brought us into a world so technologically advanced that it seems to be the stuff of science fiction.  In the concluding chapter, the authors stress that the choices we make from now on will determine what kind of world that is.

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