Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

The Second Machine Age

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies
by Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee

This is a solid attempt to understand how digitalisation and automation is changing our economy and lifestyles. Having enjoyed Race Against The Machines by these authors, and the praise they get from authors I respect such as Tyler Cowen, I had hoped for more honestly.

It’s not that this book is bad in any sense, but it’s neither deep and insightful enough if you’ve already read a bit about this topic, nor coherently organised and introduced if you want to begin learning about the issues.

The authors tend to wander between boosterism of technology and a macro economics focus that sometimes has little to do with the rise of machines. I learned more about the emergence of robots and their strengths and weaknesses from Peter W. Singer’s Wired for War, and more about the economic impact of robots from Tyler Cowen’s Average is over. Though maybe that’s not Brynjolfsson & Mcaffee’s fault, as Cowen acknowledges and praises their work early and often, and the two approach it in similar ways.

It does at least make one key argument, that you can get from the title. This is not the first time machines have fundamentally challenged the organisation of society. We’ve faced these problems before and, with wise policy choices we ended up far richer, healthier and happier. But it will take time to see all the advantages, and we will need to build understanding to ensure society can embrace and benefit from the changes, instead of feeling besieged by it.

A solid book, but not a vital one for understanding the digitalisation of our times.

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