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A Brief Summary and Review
le 14 février 2014
*A full executive summary of this book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com.
The main argument: In the first machine age--otherwise known as the Industrial Revolution--we humans managed to build technologies that allowed us to overcome the limitations of muscle power like never before. The result, which has reverberated these past 200 years, has been an increase in economic productivity unprecedented in human history. And the corollary of this increase in productive power has been an increase in material standard of living and social development equally as unprecedented.
In the past 30 years, with the rise of computers and other digital technologies, we have moved from overcoming our physical limitations, to overcoming our mental ones. This is the second machine age. Though we are still at the dawn of the second machine age, it already shows at least as much promise in boosting productivity (and quality of life) as the first. Indeed, by various measures--including the standard ones of GDP and corporate profits--we can see that the past 30 years has witnessed an impressive steepening in productivity.
And this is just the beginning. For digital technology continues to advance at an exponential pace; more digital information is being produced (and kept) all the time (all of which has enormous economic potential); and new ways of combining existing (and new) ideas into newer and better ones are ever being found.
Still, what is equally apparent is that the benefits of this steepening in productivity have gone to the few, rather than the many. Indeed, while the top 20% of earners have seen their pay increase since the early 1980s (and the closer you are to the top the more dramatically your pay has increased), the bottom 80% has actually seen their wealth decrease. And the spread is widening ever more as we go.
This is no random, or merely temporary outcome. Indeed, as Brynjolfsson and McAfee demonstrate, the unequal distribution of wealth in the second machine age is a natural corollary of how digital technology works and is used. Specifically, computer technology produces an economy that favors capital over labor; skilled labor over unskilled labor; and superstars (who are able to reach and corner entire global markets) over local players.
And not only does computer technology tend to play favorites, thereby increasing inequality. It also steadily erodes human employment outright. For as computer technology advances, more and more jobs that could once be carried out only by humans, becomes possible (and cheaper) for computers to accomplish. Nor is there any guarantee that new innovations and advancements will necessarily produce new jobs as fast as old ones are being lost (as was once thought inevitable). Indeed, we have already seen signs that this simply cannot be counted on.
The problem with all this is not just that extreme inequality is a political problem on its own. It's that as more and more people are driven out of the economy, the prospects for greater growth are themselves undermined.
Nevertheless, just as wise policies have helped us overcome many of the problems with the Industrial Revolution, Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue that the same can be done with the problems of the Digital Revolution. Specifically, more can be done to ensure that our education systems are geared to the realities and demands of the second machine age; more can be done to ignite and encourage entrepreneurship, which is needed to replace many of the jobs that will be lost; and more can be done to mitigate the inequality caused by the new technology, such as introducing a negative income tax--which preserves a minimal standard of living for all (and keeps people in the economy as consumers), while encouraging all who can to stay in the workforce.
The book is very well-researched, well-written and wisely argued. The authors have taken the facts and the data as they stand, without preconception or political coloring, and have delivered an honest and insightful analysis. Both the bounty and the spread of the second machine age are made apparent, and the proposed approach moving forward is well-measured and judicious. An important book for policy-makers, and the generally curious alike. A full executive summary of this book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com.