For most of us, the Industrial Age refers to the late 19th-century explosion of large companies with large factories that fundamentally changed the way we live and work. Yet, as authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee explain in the opening pages of The Second Machine Age, their brilliant study of digital technologies, the Industrial Age was actually launched in 1775 — an era that for most Americans evokes colonial leaders with white wigs and tri-corned hats, not dirty factories belching dark smoke into the skies and thousands of smudge-faced children working dawn to dusk. What happened in 1775, of course, was James Watt’s invention (or, more accurately, the refinement) of the steam engine. The full impact of Watt’s steam engine on our society would not be felt until much later.
For the authors, humanity has reached a similar “inflection point” for the computer age. Companies have been buying computers for more than 50 years. Time declared the personal computer the “Machine of the Year” in 1982. But it is now, in the second decade of the 21st century, that “The full force of these technologies has recently been achieved,” the authors explain. “By ‘full force,’ we mean simply that the key building blocks are already in place for digital technologies to be as important and transformational to society and the economy as the steam engine.”
What Computers Can Do and Can’t Do
In a wide-ranging discussion of the joys and challenges of this “second machine age” — when, in the words of the authors, “computers and other digital advances are doing for mental power… what the steam engine and its descendants did for muscle power” — the authors give numerous examples of the opportunities created by digitization.
A GPS-based app called Waze is one example. A standard GPS will give you the standard route to your office based on its downloaded maps. However, Waze sends back to the company’s servers information transmitted by sensors on the smart phones of its members already on the road; this information can then relay to the person about to leave for work that, for example, an accident has closed down the main road on his usual route. Waze is one illustration of how technological capabilities only now available can truly make life better.
At the same time, the authors dismiss the notion that computers will be ruling the world. In an eloquent chapter called “Learning to Race With Machines,” the authors argue that ideation is out of the reach of computers. “Scientists come up with new hypotheses,” the authors write. “Chefs add a new dish to the menu. Engineers on a factory floor figure out why a machine is no longer working properly. Steve Jobs and his colleagues at Apple figure out what kind of tablet computer we actually want. Many of these activities are supported and accelerated by computers, but none are driven by them.”
The Good and the Bad
The Second Machine Age is a celebration of the “bounty” that the exponential digitization capacity offers. However, Brynjolfsson and McAfee are also not afraid to point out the potential downsides to digitization, notably what the authors term “spread,” which is the “ever-bigger differences among people in economic success — in wealth, income, mobility and other important measures.”
But the Industrial Revolution also brought serious, unacceptable consequences — widespread pollution and the scourge of child labor, to name just two, that a combination of democratic government and technological progress were able to overcome. The authors are convinced that the same combination of technology and the right policies can effectuate a similar result: a better life for all of us.