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Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future Hardcover – June 27, 2017
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“For an astute romp through important digital trends, Machine | Platform | Crowd is hard to beat. ”
- The Economist
“A clear and crisply written account of machine intelligence, big data and the sharing economy. But McAfee and Brynjolfsson also wisely acknowledge the limitations of their futurology and avoid over-simplification.”
- John Thornhill, Financial Times
“This is a book for managers whose companies sit well back from the edge and who would like a digestible introduction to technology trends that may not have reached their doorstep--yet.”
- Randall Stross, Wall Street Journal
“On their own, AI, platforms, and crowds are all transformative forces. That they’re evolving in parallel means we’re beginning to experience a new era of networked disruption, where productive but disorienting change becomes the status quo. For citizens, entrepreneurs, companies, and governments that want to successfully navigate this new world, the first step lies in finding reliable and prescient guides. Andrew and Erik are two of the best.”
- Reid Hoffman, partner at Greylock Partners, cofounder of LinkedIn, and coauthor of The Start-Up of You
“The authors aptly illustrate how the extraordinary progress of technology is reshaping our lives, and they share powerful ideas relevant to world leaders. Nobody knows exactly how this future will unfold. What we do know is that the disruptive power of technology must be seized as an opportunity to design our future. The book compels us to ponder: will we apply technology to help accelerate development, improve living standards, and foster inclusive growth? Will we take advantage of its power to cut red tape, invest in education, unleash entrepreneurial energy, and create new kinds of jobs? The book is a must-read for policymakers who seek a road map for how to combine the strengths of humanity and technology to build a better future for their citizens.”
- Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund
“Such is the speed of development in these emergent technologies that it is refreshing to take a step back and a look at some of the ways in which our lives and careers are changing – and will continue to change – at a fundamental level. Happily this volume by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson offers exactly this opportunity, using their deep knowledge of the business and technology sectors to build a detailed, cogent and conversational guide to where we are and where we are going. The story is warmly and richly told, using footnotes approaching a third of a page in length when things get really exciting, and amply supported by notes, references and links. This book is in many senses a primer, a thorough grounding for the digital warrior in the driving forces of the 21st-century economy.”
- Times Higher Education
“Even Silicon Valley is surprised by the speed and scope of change today. The best way to stay on top of it is to understand the principles that will endure even as so much gets disrupted. This book is the best explanation of those principles out there.”
- Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, executive chairman of Alphabet, Inc.
“The digital revolution we’re entering can be unsettling, but McAfee and Brynjolfsson show how these incredibly powerful technologies will make our choices more important than ever. Machine | Platform | Crowd is a road map for leaders to make wise choices as they navigate this new world.”
- Arianna Huffington, former president and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post Media Group, author of Thrive and The Sleep Revolution
“The authors explain the whys and hows soberly, answering just about every question on AI you could ask: which channels it will colonise next, whether we'll still need physical products in a virtual world and how bitcoin will change commerce, among others. Throughout, they are eloquent and informed. They don't think humans will be obsolete, but they also don't pretend the solutions are simple.”
- People Management
About the Author
Andrew McAfee is the co-director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy and co-author of the best-selling The Second Machine Age and Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future. He and co-author Erik Brynjolfsson are the only people named to both the Thinkers 50 list of the world’s top management thinkers and the Politico 50 group of people transforming American politics.
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Although the authors don’t put it this way, there are essentially three economic drivers of the ‘triple revolution'. First, the “free, perfect and instant economics of digital information goods in a time of pervasive networks” which means that “the marginal cost of an additional digital copy is (almost) zero”. Second, the positive network effects from the growth in user interaction. As they put it, “Networked goods can become more valuable as more people use them. The result is ‘demand side economies of scale’, giving an advantage to bigger networks”.
The third driver is the distinctive ability of multi-sided platforms to subsidise one or more set of users in order to incentivise the participation of other sets of users. Digital technology allows many platforms to offer free or discounted services which draw in consumers. This encourages ecosystem growth by attracting more producers or advertisers who pay for the privilege, in turn making it more attractive for other consumers and users.
The book is clearly structured into three sections discussing the title themes, with handy summaries at the end of each chapter. Although the three themes are given equal billing, in the end what dominates is the potential for platforms to capitalise on machine learning and crowd mobilisation. Chapter 7 observes that platforms compete on drawing in users’ contributions and curating them effectively, “but it becomes much more difficult to build a vibrant platform if at least two are already in place”. Network effects and the reluctance of consumers to switch or use more than one platform (or “multi-home”) allows successful platforms to dominate their markets. McAfee and Brynjolfsson are curiously reluctant to use the word, but tendency of platforms towards monopoly is clear. The potentially negative effects of this on competition and innovation are left unexplored, although they would probably need another book to do them justice.
The book also glosses over another distinctive feature of the growth of platform companies: many of today's giants spent years losing money. Investors have tolerated this, placing faith in the platforms' ability to turn rapid growth in their user base into longer term profits. They perceive market dominance arising from investing in network effects has long term value. The problem for incumbent companies facing digital disruption is how to secure similar investor indulgence in seeking to transform themselves. The authors argue that there is room for incumbent companies to co-exist with platforms, but they leave little room to doubt that the momentum is with the latter.
The authors end on an optimistic note, saying that “the next few decades should be better than any other […] so far”, although they are careful to describe this as “possibility and a goal”. Indeed, they are suitably humble throughout about making predictions of the disruptive trend that they describe. Amusingly, while the publishers describe the book as a “toolkit” MacAfee and Brynjolfsson say at the outset that they are not offering a “playbook” and that “we suspect that people who offer such a playbook are kidding either themselves or their readers. There is simply too much change and [...] uncertainty”. Nevertheless, they have done us all a great service in explaining some of the powerful trends that will shape our future.
We are gifted, and challenged, to be alive in this Age, and we can make the most of our opportunities, with the help of his book.
I recommend it to everyone who wants to better understand the monumental and shattering changes taking place all around us, gathering speed, and having more and more impact, over time. It has opened my eyes, and served me well. I am still digesting it.