A Look at How Technology is Changing our Lives

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Book: The Second Machine Age: Work, progress and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies
Author: Erik Brynjolfsson &
Andrew McAfee

The Book is a fascinating tour of the world of technology and innovation and the dramatic impact these could have on our lives. It is a voyage into the future; but more than mere sightseeing, it shows us the potential of digital technologies and how these will shape the future of the world we live in. While reading this excellent piece of work, one realises that there is urgent need on the part of policy makers, business leaders, academicians and indeed each one of us to rethink, remodel and reinvent our own capabilities as human beings if we as humans are to remain relevant in the Second Machine Age, the age in which technologies and automation are beginning to take over in an exponential rather than a linear fashion.

The opening chapter starts with a dramatic quote by Freeman Dyson. “Technology is a gift of God. After the gift of Life it is perhaps the greatest of God’s gifts. It is the mother of civilizations, of art and of sciences.” This sets the tone for the entire book and attempts to prepare the reader for what lies ahead. The authors first take us back in history to track Total Global Human Population and Human Social Development over the ages right from 8000 BCE. They point out that while both these indices run almost identical on the graph, their movement remained very slow, gradual, predictable and even boring. Then in the late 18th century something dramatic happened which bent the curve of humanity dramatically and there was a steep upward climb in the two lines of the graph. They point out that this corresponds to the advent of the Industrial Age during which physical mechanical power of machines took over and supplemented the muscle power of human beings. They argue that now we are in the cusp of what may be called the Second Machine Age during which the power of computers and digital technologies are supplementing the human brain and thus chart new territories. In other words what the first industrial age did for muscle power, the second one will do for brain power. And the results would be even more dramatic and incredible.

In later chapters, the authors track the economic growth and productivity gains during the last many decades and link them to technological advances. In an interesting section, they show how ‘economic growth’ is not the same as ‘GDP growth’ and that well-being of people is now increasingly delinked rom GDP growth. To illustrate, they say today we are able to enjoy more and better music although the music industry revenues have shrunk. All because of digital advances. They also quote examples of Wikipedia, Facebook, Craigslist, Pandora, Hulu and Google all of which deliver information and services digitally replacing the physical devices; all at zero or near-zero cost.

In Chapter 9, they discuss the very fascinating or even troubling subjects of ‘Bounty’ and ‘Spread’, concepts found repeatedly in the book. They take the example of current digital photography to illustrate, saying that millions of photographs are clicked and transmitted digitally all over the world everyday as compared to the earlier paper photography days. This is the ‘bounty’. At the same time these digital companies (with market value several times of the physical photograph company) employ a small fraction of the people that worked in the physical imaging business. So the huge value of the digital companies is concentrated in the hands of a few employees. This is the ‘Spread’, the income inequality is huge and growing. They provide a piece of incredible, even startling statistic which says that the top one per cent earns about 19 per cent of all income in the US. However the top one per cent of the one per cent i.e., 0.01 per cent earned six per cent of all US income in 2007, doubling from just three per cent 1995. This they call the ‘Superstars group’ and the concept ‘Winner-takes-all’. In an interesting comparison, they quote the case of author J.K.Rowling and Shakespeare. Digitization and globalization have enabled the author of the Harry Potter series to reach millions of readers across the globe in different formats at very small cost and thus rake in huge earnings; another Superstar spawned by digitization. While many of the figures quoted are related to the US economy possibly because of the authors’ familiarity to the economy or due to easy access of information, the trend is manifested in other markets too, even developing economies. In India for example, the share of national wealth of the top one per cent in 2000 was about 37 per cent. In 2015 this share jumped to about 58.4 per cent. The top one per cent share in some other countries was Russia (75), China (44), Indonesia (49) and Brazil (48).

An interesting point made in the book is since the bounty is large at all levels, why should one worry if he is better off even though someone else is much better off. That is food for thought though the authors don’t seem convinced that is actually the case.

As noted earlier the book gives dramatic, insightful, concise and indeed incredible look into the world of the future – a digitized world. It also raises plenty of questions and anxieties about our own jobs and incomes in a highly automated world. In the final few chapters the book provides some recommendations at the individual and policy levels and some long term recommendations.

‘Economic growth’ is not the same as ‘GDP growth’ and that well-being of people is now increasingly delinked rom GDP growth. To illustrate, they say today we are able to enjoy more and better music although the music industry revenues have shrunk. All because of digital advances. They also quote examples of Wikipedia, Facebook, Craigslist, Pandora, Hulu and Google all of which deliver information and services digitally replacing the physical devices; all at zero or near-zero cost