Book Review: The Second Machine Age

Second Machine AgeI recently finished reading The Second Machine Age, which was written by the director of the MIT Center for Digital Business, Erik Brynjolfsson, as well as the center’s principal research scientist, Andrew McAfee. This book immediately stuck out to me as a “must read,” because it sounded like a combination of other great books I’ve read before that have influenced my thinking, and I wanted a recap of the latest things happening in the technological space that are affecting our economy and the way we all work, think, and live. What I loved most about this book was that it was well-researched, insightful, and thought-provoking. It was a book I couldn’t put down. In short, here were my three key takeaways:

  1. We are at an inflection point for technological progress. Just as the industrial revolution transformed the world economy, so too will the digital revolution and we are at a point now where we are really going to begin seeing this all play out. For example, what took $35 million to produce in 1985 (the Cray-2 supercomputer) has nothing on the $99 iPhone that’s in my pocket today. “By comparison, the Cray-2 was deaf, dumb, blind and immobile” (page 58).
  2. As the economy has changed, so too must our metrics (GDP). This is a popular topic and it’s been given a lot of thought. Andrew Sherman, a legal advisor to large corporations, gave a nice TEDxUniversityofNevada talk about this concept earlier this year when he talked about how much he hates the concept of waste, and specifically the waste of not accounting for intangible assets in the economy. “There’s a huge layer of the economy unseen in official data, and for that matter, unaccounted for on the income statements and balance sheets of most companies” (page 108).
  3. How can we best learn today? Did you know that when Stanford opened up its online Artificial Intelligence course to the public for free, that 160,000 students signed up for it? And, that the top performer at Stanford ended up being ranked only 411th in the class  (page 200)? Needless to say, there is a huge opportunity today for learning, re-thinking the way we learn, learning in unconventional ways, and learning about non-traditional subjects to help stay ahead of the curve. A traditional classroom education doesn’t quite cut it anymore. Perhaps that’s why this TEDxUniversityofNevada talk from Logan Laplante about non-traditional education has already seen close to 6 million views?

Thinking About the Future

I really became fascinated with the topic of economics after reading Thomas Freidman’s books The World is Flat and Hot, Flat and Crowded, and later Joseph Stiglitz’ Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy.  Reading these books made me think long and hard about the many changes taking place in the constantly shifting world around us, and I was simply drawn to the complexity of it all. In the final chapters of the book, the authors talk a lot about what the future of digital and technological progress might look like. While the outcomes are still widely unknown at this point in time, the authors do point out that values will matter more than ever as we move into the future for “technology is not our destiny,” but rather we the people have the power to shape it. To encourage the “bounty” of the second  machine age while working to reduce the spread (or inequality in distribution of wealth and resources), the authors recommend that we focus on the following:

  1. Teach the children well
  2. Restart startups
  3. Make more matches (use technology to reduce inefficiencies)
  4. Support the scientists
  5. Upgrade infrastructure
  6. Tax wisely

In short, I highly recommend this book for anyone wanting to learn more about the amazing technological changes and advancements taking place, how they’re affecting the world around us, and what implications that might have for our future.

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