The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (2014), by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee


The Second Machine Age, an ironically important book, heralds the Digital Age as a revolution perhaps as important in human “social development” as the Industrial Revolution, that massive change in human history at the center of which stands James Watt’s improved and innovative steam engine. Human “social development”? Stanford anthropologist and Santa Cruz Mountain resident, Ian Morris, author of Why the West Rules–For Now and a guiding thinker for the authors, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of the MIT Center for Digital Business, says that four attributes define human social development: “energy capture,” “organization” (e.g., the size of cities), “war-making capacity,” and “information technology” (the power available in sharing and processing information). Offering a scheme for quantifying the progress in human “social development,” Morris claims that the enormous increase in machine power obtained in the Industrial Revolution has been so important in bending upwards the curve of human social development that it has “made a mockery of all the drama of the world’s earlier history.” And now, say the authors of The Second Machine Age, just look at what is arriving of late: autonomous vehicles; versatile robots; replicators; increasingly intelligent information processing such as “complex communication”; automatic language translation; and Watson, the “artificial intelligence” Jeopardy! champion over the best human competitors and–can there be any doubt?–one of the signals of an imminent appearance of ever-more-sophisticated machines that will transform human life as never before. The dynamics? 1) Exponential technology innovations; 2) “the digitization of just about everything”; and 3) “recombinant innovation” (synthesizing individual innovations to create new complex [or, perhaps, hybrid] ones and sustain the general momentum of Moore’s Law).

Yet it is an uneasy book. The telling clue here about The Second Machine Age is its disunity of tone. At times, the authors display the usual technology rapture–the wonder and awe–of a tour through new technology–the giddy tone sounded when succumbing to the excitement of a Brave New World of unprecedented inventions while neglecting dutiful identification of stubborn obstacles to grand breakthroughs, the problem of showbiz razzle-dazzle you find in such books as Michio Kaku’s The Physics of Tomorrow. As we stroll from a demonstration of a replicator to a scene in which the latest robots perform flawlessly to a demonstration of a magical automatic language translator to raze finally the Tower of Babel, that giddy confidence that technology might well stanch bloody history and bring a time of peace and play–something like the notorious dream of  “the end of history”–starts to build. But given the economic problem du jour–the growing inequality in wealth in society which seems especially manifest in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008–the authors worry about the unfulfilled promise of technology in our day to make us all more prosperous. The rewards to capital are gaining while those to labor are declining. Today’s technology in its ubiquitous provision is increasing the market share for “superstars” (e.g., the top-selling popular singers) and pushing out competitors. More generally, are economists who are skeptical of a broad bounty from digital technology possibly right?

And yes, the authors manage to worry about even more worrisome things.

“As we’ve seen…not all the news is good.The middle chapters of this book have shown that while the bounty brought by technology is increasing, so is the spread (separating the prosperous from those left behind without the skills for economic survival in an era when machines do the routine work and human work demands humans ‘work with machines’ in new modes of work or seek traditional careers in services such as hairdressers in which even the most wild-eyed technology enthusiasts doubt robotic incursions for a long time). …As we move deeper into the second machine age…we will be increasingly concerned with questions about catastrophic events, genuine existential risks, freedom versus tyranny, and other ways that technology can have unintended or unexpected side effects.”

The imperative here for Brynjolfsson and McAfee?

Our success will depend not just on our technological choices…. As we have fewer constraints on what we can do, it is then inevitable that our values will matter more than ever. Will we choose to have information widely disseminated or tightly controlled? Will our prosperity be broadly shared? What will be the nature and magnitude of the rewards we give to our innovators? Will we build vibrant relationships and communities? Will everyone have the opportunities to discover, create, and enjoy the best of life?

…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.

Values. Political choices. The common good. The fragility of liberal democracy. These are ideas which seem remote in the narrative of The Second Machine Age: in that narrative they do not even form something like Yeats’s “Centre” which may not hold, a tragedy that would bring darkness. Such fundamental ideas are brought up late in the speculative tunnel vision of the new technologists, almost as if the old truths are just now being established in history.

Obviously, “the Second Machine Age” will be sustained only on enlightened decisions about such dynamics. But the treatment of this venerable and painfully learned insight is rushed and naive in The Second Machine Age. The tone reminds of a pep rally.

So: You are tempted to exclaim, Oh, please. What next, cheerleaders? A Global Town Hall Meeting?

Of course, one is by now used to this stuff. It’s the line spooled out by people who have discovered the importance of values–ours “will matter more than ever” (oh, wow)–but who think the Enlightenment is an old episode in some black hole found in libraries and therefore seriously think the Industrial Revolution has “made a mockery of all the drama of the world’s earlier history.” It’s the refrain of people who believe there was an Arab Spring, such as the editorial staff of Wired Magazine who, I noticed in skimming a recent issue in a waiting room, now say that, well, maybe that should be qualified, maybe Spring hasn’t Sprung.

If you want to expunge a speeding ticket, you can go to traffic school. If you write books like The Second Machine Age–they are coming forth and multiplying–perhaps you should be able to redeem yourself by reading E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World in some local government office. Just 284 pages. It’s immediately to the point. Gombrich has no illusions. Those going to Gombrich School will discover that they had no idea how dicey things are, based on how dicey things have always been (“the world’s earlier history”).