Books Technology

Recent Read: “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity In A Time of Brilliant Technologies.”

I was really looking forward to reading Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s The Second Machine Age. It’s a NYT best seller, and it was hyped in many reviews as a great survey and analysis of the emerging innovations in robotics, analytics and machine to machine collaboration. Unfortunately, while the book does a nice job of laying out, in a broad way, the forces that are driving a new wave of analytics-driven and machine-based innovations, the authors don’t explain the new phenomenon in any detail, don’t fully analyze their future impact beyond generic predictions, and don’t fully explore the negative side of these “brilliant technologies.”


The book itself starts with its strongest and most interesting section, which describes the impact that the Industrial Revolution (and in particular the Watt steam engine) had on the Western world. The inventions of this age, they argue, changed the world not just forever but on a scale that had never been seen before or again — until now, that is. As they write, “the Industrial Revolution ushered in humanity’s first machine age — the first time our progress was driven primarily by technical innovation — and it was the most profound time of transformation our world has ever seen.”

The authors claim that we are living in the second such transformative age, and they present three major conclusion from their analysis of everything from Google’s driverless cars to drone startups to Watson’s victory on Jeopardy!:

  • 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….We are entering a second machine age…
  • Our second conclusion is that the transformations brought about by digital technology will be profoundly beneficial ones. We’re headed into an era that just won’t be different; it will be better…Technology can bring us more choice and even freedom…
  • Our third conclusion is less optimistic: digitization is going to be bring with it some thorny challenges…Rapid and accelerating digitization is likely to bring economic rather than environmental disruption, stemming from the fact that as computers get more powerful, companies have less need for some kinds of workers.

At this point, I was hoping the rest of the book (which runs to about 300 pages) would be an in-depth analysis of each of these three conclusions but it’s not. Rather, we get page after page of examples that support their first conclusion but little in the way of in-depth analysis of their second and third claims. Most informed readers already know about the growth in analytics in most professions, and that lots of smart people are working on new machines and apps that make our life easier. What we don’t know is just how far these changes will go and if we should be worried about their implications. We also don’t understand what policy changes need to be made to deal with the disruptive economic impacts these new technologies will have. Unfortunately, rather than using their access and expertise to help us understand these issues at a deeper level than the occasional Wired or MIT Tech Review article, the authors use most of the book to tell how us how amazing these innovations are and how great life will be in the future.

The picture they paint, if true, may well be true for the digital elite, but that will not be the case for dispossessed white-collar workers or those without the skills to adapt to this second machine age.That is not to say they don’t address these “thorny” issue at all. In another of the book’s disappointing chapters, they describe what humans will have to do to “race with” these new machines. After telling a few stories about Zara (which should officially be banned as a case study from now on) and Bobby Fisher, their major finding is that “acquiring an excellent education is the best way not to be left behind as technology races ahead.” Well, that’s good to know….

That The Second Machine Age was a bestseller is a testament to the fascination we have with this new age (for here I am in complete agreement with Brynjolfsson and McAfee) rather than to the value of this particular book in understanding it. Then again, maybe this new age is so new that laying out its broad sweeps and potential changes is all any authors could have done at this point. At least in this latter, less ambitious goal, the book is worth the read. But for those who already follow this  topic, or are part of this revolution themselves, this is a book to be glanced over rather than read.

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