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The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies MP3 CD – Audiobook, MP3 Audio, Unabridged
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About the Author
Erik Brynjolfsson is the director of the MIT Center for Digital Business and one of the most cited scholars in information systems and economics.
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In addition to this book, I'd also strongly suggest reading The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future. That book takes a somewhat longer view and asks where all this will lead in the coming decades. The answers and the proposed solutions are less conventional and more controversial.
The Second Machine Age gives many examples of specific technologies like robots, AI and autonomous cars, and also lots of data showing how the economy is being transformed. The authors also make a strong argument that the way economists measure things, especially in terms of GDP, no longer does a good job of capturing what prosperity really means in the information age.
The book includes suggestions for both individuals and policy makers. Brynjolfsson and McAfee suggest that workers should learn to "race with the machines" (rather than against them), although the advice here isn't very specific beyond getting the best education you can. The authors are hopeful that innovations like massive free online courses (MOOCs) will help more people to make this transition.
There are lots of policy suggestions including reforming education to pay teachers more but also make them accountable, jump starting entrepreneurship, better job matching technologies, investing more in basic scientific research, upgrading national infrastructure, expanding skilled immigration, implementing smarter taxes, expanding the earned income tax credit (EITC), etc. In the long run, the authors also offer lukewarm support for the possibility of a guaranteed income or negative income tax.
Overall, "The Second Machine Age" does a good job of identifying and explaining the forces that will be critical to the economy and job market of future. The book has a basically optimistic tone, but I think a lot of the trends it points out are going to be really bad news for a lot of people.
As someone in the technology field myself, I found little to disagree with in the book's treatment of recent and upcoming technological advances, which occupies the first several chapters; the authors have done their homework and have visited enough research labs and company R&D departments to have a very realistic picture of what's just over the horizon. There'll be nothing earth-shattering here for readers who follow technology trends or even who read WIRED magazine, but the book looks at all these things through a somewhat different lens (its impact on human work) than the tech press usually does, and I didn't find myself skimming even when they were covering developments with which I'm already very familiar.
For me, the best stretch of the book was chapters 7 through 11, when the focus moves to the effects of recent technological advances on the economy and on the study of economics itself. The authors build a compelling case that income inequality is much more a consequence of the move to a digital economy than of any particular government policy. I found their take on globalization especially interesting: they view it as a big contributor to the rise in income of the world's top earners, but not for the reasons people usually think. I already tended toward this view, but now I'm further convinced that some of the changes we've seen in wealth distribution are primarily due to deep structural changes in the way the world works and won't be undone by tax policy.
I found the book less convincing in its final chapters, where the authors suggest steps that can be taken to avert widespread unemployment and social disorder. Their short-term prescriptions are sensible enough (basically: take steps to encourage general economic growth) but, as the authors themselves point out, these won't address the underlying problem, identified by Keynes among others, of technological change outpacing the ability of large segments of the workforce to retrain for new jobs. They offer a few examples of systems that make it easier to find occasional part-time work and suggest that these could be expanded in the future, but as far as I can tell their vision would still leave people mostly idle. They are optimistic about the ability of people to continue finding work but I didn't feel it was justified by the picture their text painted.
Still, this is about the best treatment I've found of the question of how technology is likely to affect work over the next couple decades. Highly recommended.
Big ideas, like those Brynjolfsson talks about are hard to come by and that is what makes them valuable. I had hoped that this book developed these ideas further, rather than largely restating them. That said if you have never read "Race" this book is just as good as the other.