The Second Machine Age

Being the type of person who hates missing an opportunity to repurpose something, here is an article I wrote for the Blue Prism Blog reviewing The Second Machine Age by Andrew McAfee and Eric Brynjolfsson. In short: I highly recommend that you read this book.

Most people would rather stick needles in their eyes than read a book on economics—an academic subject based largely on opinion rather than science, and which relies on history as its most unpredictable guiding light. In short, a boring area.

And yet, in The Second Machine Age, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, two economists from MIT, tackle some of the most fundamental issues of our times and at least sometimes succeed in making it interesting, even exciting.

Yes, parts of the book had me glazing over. The macroeconomic middle section belabors points about GDP, income spread and considering whether Keynes’ theory of Technological Unemployment carries any merit, to a depth not justified by the conclusions. I would also allege that the book is too US centric, given the authors’ arguments that globalization itself is one of the challenges.

But, if you’ve read McAfee and Brynjolfsson’s previous book, Race Against the Machine, you will be pleased to learn that they expand upon some of the technological themes from that treatise—from the Google Car to Robotics, and Moravec’s insightful paradox that the things that humans find easiest to do are the ones that computers find most difficult.

McAfee and Brynjolfsson also discuss the outside chance that almost everybody’s job will be automatable at some point in the future. It is conceivable that science fiction writers haven’t yet tapped the outer reaches of real technological possibility into their ageing typewriters.

With automation in this second machine age, driven by digitization computerization and the Internet raging ahead at unprecedented levels of progress, what is the human response to this brave new world? Part macroeconomic study, part personal indulgence, part political thesis (with no loyalty to any particular party), The Second Machine Age combines anecdotal evidence and academic research to bring to life the challenges and some possible solutions—along with key questions about the future that we must think critically about. How do we govern our countries, tax regimes and political incentives? And if the new wave of automation delivers new wealth, how can it be distributed fairly?

I encourage you to wade through the difficult sections. This is really fundamental stuff worth discussing with peers and your kids. And it might just turn you into an economics enthusiast… or a politician.

Leave a Reply