A quick review of 'The Second Machine Age'

Last year, I recommended Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think as my book pick of the year and wrote an abundantly long review of it. There are thousands of good business ideas in that book for entrepreneurs that are destined to change the world (I also wrote about Elon Musk being my current pick as entrepreneur-of-the-decade as he defines the ethos of this mindset better than anyone I can think of in today's age).

This year, I'm recommending you read The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies as a compliment to Abundance. To choose a word from the title, this is a brilliant book. It is written by two MIT professors that I am fortunate enough to call friends, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.

Like Abundance, the book walks you through our current age and is quite optimistic about what technologies the future will bring. It defines the second machine age (with the first being the Industrial Revolution) as an age defined by exponential, digital, and combinatorial technologies. With exponential, think Moore's Law. With digital, think about prices becoming lower and lower with no degrading of quality. And with combinatorial, think of Facebook and how it brilliantly combined several technologies that were products of the first two traits - digital and exponential - into something new and very valuable, very quickly (because we are all networked together like never before, thanks to the Internet, and therefore new digital technologies can take off very, very quickly).

Unlike AbundanceThe Second Machine Age is a more balanced and incredibly well researched read. There are some very challenging sides to this progress: a shrinking middle class and an increasing spread of wealth between the financially wealthy and those that are not. This has played out in demonstrations in San Francisco recently invery inappropriate ways (more on that in a future post that will celebrate the heart of entrepreneurs, without whom the world would not change for the better). But this is not a Luddite book and it isn't recommending we turn back the clock to a tribal age. It accepts the reality that there is no turning back the clock on global capitalism and the invention of future technologies, such as robots that will automate more and more of our work, making more and more of our jobs in today's age obsolete. They will be invented, like it or not. On this note, the brilliant Kevin Kelly, one of the founders ofWired magazine, wrote an amazing article on how the Luddites have always screamed against progress - like the original farmers did in the industrial revolution when many of their jobs were automated and became obsolete - and how we, as human beings, have an amazing capacity to constantly retool our work. Like Andrew and Erik detail in their book, Kevin suggests that we race with - not against - the machines and invent the dream jobs of our future alongside them.

The Second Machine Age is bold in that it recommends policies for our global government leaders in a pretty detailed manner. I haven't seen any other book blend such a thorough telling of the future with detailed policy recommendations to go along with it. Most authors wouldn't be that bold and stick their neck out like that - I really applaud Andrew and Erik for doing so. It also has some brilliant recommendations on determining the true health of our economy beyond the current GDP measures, which don't account for overall life satisfaction in today's age and are more focused on financial measurements of industries that are increasingly being disrupted by digital, exponential, and combinatorial technologies. It also has a fascinating chapter on advice for preparing children for this age - one that got me and Debra talking about how we are raising and educating our children.

But what I may appreciate most about The Second Machine Age is how well researched it is. Throughout the book there are footnotes to academic papers, books, and online resources to allow you to go deeper on any of the topics and studies cited. It also explained some economic lessons better than any other book I've personally read (although I may not be remembering all of the books I read during my MBA to be giving them enough credit but they certainly weren't as focused on the thematics that I care about like this book is). It is clear that The Second Machine Age is not only a culmination of Andrew and Erik's life's work but of many others.

I highly recommend you read this book if you have find yourself wondering, like I have:

  1. Will the jobs ever come back? Will the middle class?
  2. Will the combination of artificial intelligence and robots make many of our jobs today obsolete and what should we do to prepare ourselves and our children?
  3. Is all of this technological progress a huge net positive for us or a net negative?
  4. What policies should we implement to race alongside the machines instead of opposing their inevitable progress?

I won't tell you that it will answer these questions for you with a bow tied around them - no book can accurately predict the future, nor do the authors think they are smart or lucky enough to do that. But The Second Machine Age will forever change the way you think about these questions. And it will back you up with a lot of research to chart our collective progress against answering them as the future unfolds - and coming up with policies to deal with it so that humanity remains on top.