“Technology is not destiny. We shape our destiny”

Book Review: 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” has been labelled as a clever and fundamentally optimistic view on how digitization will change our future. It turned out to be the darkest and scariest book I have read in many years, writes Paul Frigyes.

Ah, yes, amidst all the gloomy prospects on the economy in our digital future, a shamelessly optimistic description on what is to come in our digital universe.

It is, of course, most welcome.

And it is in the well-known tone of energetic tech-optimism this book starts out: The digital revolution has barely started, it will from now change in constant leaps, as a result of its three driving characteristics: it’s exponential, digital, combinatorial. Self-driving cars, clever robots and constant, smart life guidance through our mobile phones.

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, two MIT professors, lays out a future where computers will immerse most things in our lives, and where not only data, but also knowledge and adaptation – well – growing intelligence, will characterize most of our daily tools. Enter the Second machine age, where each innovation becomes a building block for the next, and no science fiction-appearing gadget is merely fiction anymore, but plain reality. Whereas in the first machine age, machines have empowered human muscle, in the second, machines themselves gather knowledge, learn and resolve complex tasks. We now face increasing growth of knowledge-based utilities and a spread of the high-tech gadgets to yet more people of different classes in the world. The consumers are the apparent winners in this game.

One problem however, note the authors, is that the old GDP-measurements of the economy seem to ignore the value added by constant growth and distribution of digital goods. The music industry is provided as an apt example, claiming that music is hiding itself from our traditional statistics.

”If you are like most people, you are listening to more and better music than ever before. So how did music disappear? The value of music has not changed, only the price. […] Even if we include all digital sales, throwing in ringtones for digital phones for good measure, the total revenues to recording companies are still down 30 percent.”

With this in mind, and glancing at the dismal state of traditional media industry, the authors have identified a major, painfully well-known, problem in this world of rapid digital growth.

Consumers are better off and enormous wealth is created, but a relatively small group of people often earns most of the income from the new products and services.

And this is where the brisk optimism I had come to count on in this book, starts to turn into the opposite. For Brynjolfsson and McAfee note that between 1983 and 2009, Americans have become vastly wealthier over all, but at the same time 80 per cent of the Americans have actually become seen a net decrease of their wealth. We have instead seen huge increases of spread of the income levels. With these findings, the frothy party atmosphere quickly disappear from the book. At least that´s how I read it, interpreting these findings from a broader societal perspective rather than as a high-tech enthusiast.

The digital transformations taking place are according to the authors characterised by technological changes biased towards skill and capital, and proliferation of superstars in winners-take-all-markets. Furthermore, the more machine substitute for human workers, the more likely it is that they´ll drive down the wages of humans with similar skills.

So what in the beginning of this book seemed to be a rosy techno-optimistic vision, turns out to portray a society with increasing inequality, widening income-gaps, and a steady decline of low-skill jobs. To me this is utterly scary, sounding as a roadmap to a societies of turmoil and social unrest. If Brynjolfson and McAfee are correct, we hence face a strange future of abundance and increasing inequality. The strains this will put on society, and how that will threaten and change it are yet to be seen. Of course, one must keep in mind that the future rarely turns out the way we think it will, and that goes for the predictions of Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee as well.

And for people who want to participate in, adapt to and prosper in the new world, the future is not all gloom. One reason for this is an example that the authors call the towel paradox. At Berkeley University, a humanoid robot, was programmed to fold towels. It worked, but each towel took more than 24 minutes to fold, since the robot spend most of the time trying to analyze where the towel was, and how to grab it. Computers are superior in pattern recognition within their frames, but lousy outside of them, concludes Brynjolfsson and McAfee.

Good job prospects for human careers could therefore turn out to be those that not only deals with information work, but also interact with the physical world. And many rather simple tasks will not be easily automated at all. There will be lots of jobs left for those who for instance clean rooms and deal with people. A number of tasks that require compassion, human communication, interpretation of feelings and needs, will not be threatened by intelligent robots.

Ideation, creativity and innovation are other areas that humans are superior to machines. So, for those who don’t want to engage in jobs based on social skills, there are huge prospects in innovation-based work.

Brynjolfsson’s and McAfee’s book has an impressive quality, in not only analyzing the risks that our societies face, but also makes a serious attempt to address their daunting side effects.

The policy recommendations – pragmatic and technocratic in character – are hard to evaluate. Not least because they are at heart pure politics. The recommendations stress the importance of education, and more specifically, education to ease entrepreneurship. There is a good reason for this, since entrepreneurship in America, the authors write seems to be the only thing that’s creating jobs”, citing a report from the non-profit Tim Kauffmann Foundation.

“[…] He found that for all but seven years between 1977 and 2005, existing firms as a group were net job destroyers, losing an average of approximately one million jobs annually. Start-ups, in sharp contrast, created on average a net three million jobs per year.”

The authors also call for taxation of the very rich, taxation of pollution, negative income tax to support the poor, and, even more interestingly and less mainstream idea, a public funded basic income.

Are these suggestions politically viable in a globalized world with economic tensions between the rich and poor? Well, without providing a snappy answer to such a difficult question, one must give credit to Brynjolfsson and McAfee for stressing the increasing importance of maintaining decent human values in a rapidly changing digital society. And yes, amidst the scary discoveries of perilous side effects to come, they do sign out from the book in a positive note, since technology will provide us with more opportunities to transform the world that ever before:

”Technology is not destiny. We shape our destiny.”

Paul Frigyes