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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 8 August 2014
The authors of this book had a runaway success with its predecessor, the 76 page "Race Against the Machine." What they've done here is "put some flesh on the bones," really.

The summary is simple. The digital revolution is every bit as important as the previous industrial revolution, the one that was all to do with the steam engine and electricity. Those who deny this must consider the evidence. Technology is at the moment truly racing ahead and has started to do things that a short ten years ago genuine friends of the digital revolution considered impossible. The three buzzwords are "exponential," "digital" and "combinatorial."

I did not totally buy this line of argumentation when I read the "Race Against the Machine," but here it's argued a lot better and I must say I was convinced.

"Exponential" is all about how computer power doubles every 18 months. For the last 30 years it has seemed like Moore's Law only has ten years left in it based on what we know about physics, materials etc. and yet human ingenuity has found a way to carry on. Presented with evidence of the above, I've had to concede that the authors have a point and it's silly to bet against exponential growth of computer power. Just when it looks like we've hit some hard limit in the laws of Physics or the science of materials we've always found a way to carry on calculating faster. Which of course means it's a matter of time before computers will be able to do absolutely everything to do with seeing, recognizing etc. that they can't already do. I'm sold.

"Digital" is a big deal too. The idea here is the digitally encoded information (i) ain't going anywhere and (ii) does not get used up. If I use a gallon of oil, that's a gallon of oil that's not available to you. Not so with a song that's saved in 0s and 1s or a book or a beautiful picture. We can share, and we can share it forever.

"Combinatorial" comes to the rescue of those who fear their limited physical existence cannot keep up with the exponential growth of computer power. It's alright if a computer can perform tasks better than you and keeps getting even better because there's one thing that can be faster than exponential growth and that's combinatorial growth. So people who can combine things and can command computer power can combine it all to keep up with the machine. So for example a bunch of OK chess players who have very strong computers at their disposal will beat the world's best computer or the world's best chessmaster. More to the point, there are tons of technologies out there, the value these days is in using more than one at once. The example of a traffic app is given that not only uses good maps and the GPS infrastructure, but leverages the power of the network established by its users' mobile phones (another technology), "network" being the key word here.

So it's fascinating and convincing stuff.

From there the book moves on to the bit that I found to be the true contribution of "Race Against the Machine." New fancy words have been unleashed upon us here: "Bounty" and "Spread"

"Bounty" is the massive benefit of machines allowing us to do more with less, like for example sharing billions of pictures almost for free, or keeping in touch with all of our friends for absolutely free, or taking an MIT class from the comfort of your bedroom in Cameroon without paying MIT tuition, or keeping track of where your daughter's hanging out at three in the morning for a fiver a month--not sure at all about this one! "Spread" refers to the fact that if you were employed in a routine job you're either unemployed or you won't be employed for long, because your job will be taken over by a machine.

And the usual roster of winners and losers is rolled out. So if you play for Manchester United it's fantastic if people can follow you (and pay to watch you) in East Asia, but it's less fun if you are a good but not ManU-level player out in East Asia because nobody's going to come watch. Bounty and Spread in one example here, what with everybody being able to enjoy watching ManU all while Rooney is eating all other football players' lunch. He deserves it, many will argue, but what about them?

So I got myself a comfy chair to read the chapter where the authors explain that, rather than the laundry list of explanations (like for example the overleveraging of the lower middle class or the greed of Goldman Sachs or the "global glut of savings" and so on) the current recession / depression / whatever you want to call it is caused by the machines that have replaced everybody who used to do repetitive mental work. That was surely going to be the most fascinating bit of the book.

But, in the words of Quentin Tarantino, I could not find it because it wasn't there. They took that bit out.

Pity, because it was my favourite bit of the first book. They just mention that it wasn't globalization whodunit because (i) China is losing manufacturing employment as fast as we are and (ii) the most precarious jobs on earth are probably the ones we exported (for example) to India, as the back office / documentation / call center work we sent over there is sooner rather than later going to be done by machines.

But beyond crossing out globalization as a culprit, the authors have neglected the Great Depression MKII part that I was most looking forward to. I really wanted to hear something along the lines of "well, you might be a damn fool, Athan, but your kids, if they are like other kids on the planet, are totally on top of this exponential, digital and combinatorial revolution. Here's a bunch of stuff other kids are doing with their time, you just hang in there bud, do what you can to pass on the baton and watch them little ones and everybody else thrive and kiss this depression goodbye."

But no, I looked hard and that's nowhere to be found in the book.

Instead, there's a very tired list of "long term recommendations" that you could have torn out of Blinder's book. Heck, you could have torn them out of Jeff Sachs's book. Like, for example "Teach our Children Well" and "Restart Startups" and the good-old "Rebuild Infrastructure." Tax proposals galore too, some of them genuinely outlandish. WHAT ON EARTH? Infrastructure! Everybody and his mom knows the stat about how many of our bridges are in bad shape. And please somebody tell me what the connection is between tax and technology. None of those tech companies have ever paid any tax, their IP lives in an Irish / Bermudan / Martian tax enclave, last I checked.

I think they handed over the book to a grad student halfway through. Perhaps they left it to a computer. Now, there's a thought.

But the first 100 pages were damn good, so I'll be very generous and give "The Second Machine Age" four stars...
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on 13 May 2017
This is an economists view of the effect of the latest digital technologies on the economy. They characterise the current revolution as a second machine age with the first being the application of steam power to industrial processes started by James Watt with a long consequent tail of dependent innovations that ran right through to the twentieth century changing society, work and economy. The analysis is a bit cumbersome. As engineers we are used to putting concepts from disparate areas and building something that was just not possible before. They look at the effect of the current technology revolution on work, income inequality and try to explain these changes. The most interesting sections for me were when they began to look at how human society might respond and how to educate the workers of the future so that they can work with machines rather than compete against them. This seems to encouraging Montessori style self-directed learning to encourage ideation, large frame pattern recognition and complex communication. They highlighted the failure of graduate education in this respect and this has made me look at my own teaching and assessment methods for future classes I give.
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on 11 May 2014
The first machine age was the Industrial Revolution which ran from about 1760 to the middle of the 19th century. It changed everything, disrupting the agrarian-based life of most people and hurling everyone into the world we see around us. This book, by two MiT professors, suggests that we're now in a second machine age, a second industrial revolution, driven by technological development that will change the world even more fundamentally, and much, much faster. They present an excellent argument, drawing on the knowledge of people at the cutting edge of all the disruptive changes now affecting every aspect of life - from Silicon Valley pioneers to economists and academics.

It's certainly an important book for the times, bringing together all the many strands that cause those queasy fears that many experience as comforting familiarities fall away. But why should you read it? Because as with the first industrial revolution, there will be winners and losers (in the 18th century, the losers were all those poor field workers who had to uproot to work in the dark satanic mills. The winners were those who seized control of the emerging technologies). If you're planning your future, your career, or thinking ahead for your children's sake, there is vital information contained within. Tip: don't become an accountant, a driving instructor, or do any task that involves repeating a process. And really, truly, do not give up on education - go as far as you can.

The winners will be people who have ideas, who can create, whether in business or art. They'll set up their own businesses, get hired as freelancers, and be handsomely rewarded. The losers will be anyone who offers their labour, who performs a task for the benefit of others. Read the book to find out why this is true, and what is means for society.

The authors make their case with an easy-reading style backed up with lots of solid evidence, but it loses a point, possibly unfairly, for an issue that is probably beyond their control. Two chapters are devoted to recommendations, short term and long term, that can help us get the best out of the massive change that is coming to the world in the next ten years. But they are generally far too broad brush. That's because, as the authors point out, it's so hard to predict how fast these changes are going to come: the rate of disruption is accelerating and the churn is getting wilder because one small innovation influences a great many more.

The book is not wholly comforting - the pressures on society are going to be huge - although it could be. The message is plain. We can't resist these changes. They're coming whether we like them or not, and if we try to fight them, all our energy will be wasted in a futile endeavour. But if we try to manage that change we can minimise the destructive elements and maximise the vast potential benefits for society as a whole. All we need to do is to pay attention now.
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on 19 October 2015
Fascinating book. Both uplifting and worrying. Takes the reader on a roller coaster ride - upbeat in terms of explaining how advances in computing are leading to machines doing tasks which only a few years ago we thought were impossible for machines and portrays a future where the rate of change increases exponentially. The book then examines the societal impacts of these changes on employment and the distribution of wealth in society - that is the worrying part. The book then comes to the optimistic conclusion that it is mankind working with the machines which will allow us to maximise the benefits of the second machine age....though we will need to address the societal and educational challenges that come with this. A highly thought provoking book that for me was entirely convincing - an eye opener.
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on 29 July 2014
For a book written by Economists, this is surprisingly readable. It is a good overview of the current state of the onrush of IT in today's society together with thought provoking predictions and suggestions for the future. The book, naturally, frequently alludes to American trends and society and freely uses quotations from a shed-load of 'wise' and/or learned people which begin to grate a little after some time. I also wonder if a happy society is always an increasingly prosperous, consumer society. The book is very optimistic and sometimes seems to me to assume an extremely altruistic view of mankind.The last chapter is very thought provoking and provides a suitable conclusion, (apart from the 49 pages of acknowledgements and references), to a worthwhile read. Recommended.
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on 14 September 2017
This book and its successor cover changes in the world which are all too imperfectly understood by those not directly involved in their development and application. It will probably be a generation or more before their impact is generally understood.
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on 31 March 2016
I bought this along with 'The Future of the Professions' in order to help understand how technological disruption would affect white collar employment and from there the demand for commercial real estate. This book is lighter than the 'professions' book and a little more optimistic that we're not looking at a terminator type future just yet. Personally I think these books make a mistake by trying to project the employment consequences from the digital revolution based on those that followed the industrial revolution especially in a global economy. Worth buying though as background reading.
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on 30 April 2016
The author's views and thinking are well described with useful references. The book promotes one clear view of the subject but identifies alternative views.

There are some nice comparisons with previous books on the subject and a discussion of why their current views have evolved in that context.

Fantastic.
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on 31 May 2014
The most relevant economist writing today. Given the accelerating impact of technological innovation on the economy, we are almost certainly mismeasuring inflation, output, productivity, real wages, corporate investment ... in other words, virtually everything.

Brynjolfsson has been at the forefront of research in this area for around 20years, he writes clearly and thinks originally. Most economic "opinions" which prevail are actually undermined by Brynjolfsson's analysis.

One caveat: his conclusions and speculations are hugely uncertain. One thing we know about technological innovation is that its effects are significantly unpredictable. I am least convinced by the idea that there will be fewer jobs left for humans to do. History repeatedly undermines this hypothesis. Technology and rising national incomes create jobs and "needs" that we never could have imagined. Just one example: 20yrs ago did anyone predict the job-category "you tuber"?
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on 22 May 2017
Chose this to learn more about the current world and the world we will start to see. It was very insightful and well structured. Concepts previously foreign to me were explained very succinctly and to the point. Had me engaged the whole way through.
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