The Second Machine Age

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Once, when I was a boy, I was in an editing suite with my father as he and others pulled together a TVC or two from some video they’d shot. And I recall the client, who, inexplicably was there that day (though perhaps not so inexplicably; the client was from somewhere in the Midwest and the shoot and edit were an excuse for him to boondoggle in the city that never sleeps), making the observation, as the session went into the evening and his theatre tickets (or whatever) were in jeopardy: “Remember how all this technology was going to make our lives easier? Faster? More efficient? Robots and computers were going to give us all sorts of free time, more than we’d know what to do with. We were all gonna be sittin’ back drinkin’ beers all day. Remember that?”

My father looked up briefly from a conversation he was having with an editor and said “machines didn’t promise us more free time; they promised us more options. If you want more free time, we can choose that option right now.”

This is, in its way, the central – and frankly the brilliant – observation that lies at the heart of Brynjolfsson & McAfee’s really tremendous “The Second Machine Age”. And why we recommend that you stop what you’re doing right now and read it. Really.

Now, we know that there are many who find this book almost unrelentingly depressing. And with good reason. The picture it paints of our inevitable and frankly irreversible future, a future ruled – or at least run – by computers, is bleak. A future in which so many of the tasks that we humans perform in order to earn our daily bread have been replaced by machines that can do them better, faster and cheaper. A future that, therefore, predicts if not actual widespread unemployment, then massive workforce dislocation on a scale unimaginable.

And as bleak a thought as that is, it’s exceptionally dark for anyone who has spent the past few years struggling to keep bread on the table through the worst economic disaster in nearly a century. “Congratulations!” Brynjolfsson and McAfee seem to say. “You survived the Great Recession – now prepare to meet your new tin overlord, and please don’t let the door hit you on the ass on the way out.”

But that’s really only half of the story. And the other half is that the rise of the machines provides us humans with a tremendous opportunity, an opportunity perhaps unprecedented in our history. The opportunity to truly understand and develop that which is uniquely human. That which machines and computers cannot do. That which only we can.

Again and again, Brynjolfsson and McAfee come back to this idea, as here, for example:

Picasso’s quote [that “Computers are useless. All they give is answers”] is just about half right. Computers are not useless, but they’re still machines for generating answers, not posing interesting new questions. That ability still seems to be uniquely human and still highly valuable.”

Or this:

“As the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker puts it, ‘The main lesson of thirty-five years of AI research is that the hard problems are easy and the easy problems are hard… As the new generation of intelligent devices appears, it will be the stock analysts and petrochemical engineers and parole board members who are in danger of being replaced by machines. The gardeners, receptionists and cooks are secure in the jobs for decades to come.’”

In other words, that the history of mankind could be said to be our effort to use our bodies to inefficiently do one thing at the cost of not learning the thing we’re really good at. That we’ve been so busy toting barges and lifting bales, we ignored our real strength, figuring out why that needs doing in the first place.

Of course, a more cynical (and absurd) person might say “In other words, it’s not that we’ll be unemployed by robots in the future; it’s that we’ll be their gardeners, receptionists and cooks instead.”

But I take a different path, as do Brynjolfsson and McAfee. They end “The Second Machine Age” on this note, which I consider not just hopeful, but actually inspiring:

“In the second machine age, we need to think much more deeply about what it is we really want and what we value, both as individuals and as a society. Our generation has inherited more opportunities to transform the world than any other. That’s a cause for optimism, but only if we’re mindful of our choices.”

“Technology” they remind us, “is not destiny. We shape our destiny.” Or as my old man would have said “We have choices. We just have to make them.”

We may not, in fact, have any other choice.

The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee was published by W.W. Norton on 01/20/2014– order it from Amazon here, or Barnes & Noble here, – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).