Concluding the Second Machine Age

Second Machine Age1389195493With this post I come to the end of a public reading of Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s The Second Machine Age (previous posts).

Reflecting on this final chapter, I was more interested in SMA-themed stories from the past week than on the very short text itself.

Item: can museums use Watson to analyze art? The Center for the Future of Museums considers.

Item: Toyota workers are trying new ways to make themselves valuable in robot-rich environments.

Item: Brad Delong, a high-profile economist, presents two stark choices for a Second Machine Age world in the New York Times.

The optimistic view is that our collective ingenuity will create so many things for people to do that are so attractive to the rich that they will pay through the nose for them and so recreate a middle-class society.

The pessimistic view…: our future is one of human beings chained to desks and screens acting as numbed-mind cogs for Amazon Mechanical Turk, forever.

Item: economist Dean Baker doesn’t think education plus technology skills yields high income.

The patterns in the data show that inequality is not a question of the more-educated gaining at the expense of the less-educated due to inevitable technological trends. Rather, it has been a story in which a small group of especially well-situated workers — for example, those in finance, doctors, and top-level corporate executives — have been able to gain at the expense of almost everyone else.

On to the final chapter, 15, entitled “Technology and the Future (which is very different from Technology Is the Future)”.
Here Brynjolfsson and McAfee expand their reach to the biggest picture so far.  At this macro level they hit several major themes.

Automation presents us with the old dream of a work-free utopia.  “[S]omeday, no one will have to toil at an unpleasant task because food, clothing, shelter, and all the other basics for living will be provided by automated servants that do our bidding… To at least make real the dream of human freedom via machine labor, we’re using silicon, metal, and plastic.” (250)  The authors hedge this vision with caveats, but want to make sure it’s in play as we wrap up the book.  (I’m reminded of David Graeber’s dissenting discussion here)

Beyond caveats, the conclusion wants us to bear in mind huge threats.  “We will be increasingly concerned with questions about catastrophic events, genuine existential risks, freedom versus tyranny, and other ways that technology can have unintended or unexpected side effects… Until recently, our species did not have the capacity to destroy itself.  Today it does.” (252)  Bill Joy’s grim 2000 vision makes an appearance here.

Finally, the book concludes by wondering about the singularity.  Brynjolfsson and McAfee are skeptical that this will occur in any real sense within the medium-term horizon (255-6).  Ultimately the authors claim an optimistic perspective, and see this book as a goad to better thinking and planning.

I’ll write up an overall reflection and links to each post in this series later on.

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