Top positive review
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The 76 pager was better
on 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...