The Average Need Not Apply in the Second Machine Age

In the interest of full disclosure I have to confess: my view of the world has been heavily influenced by science fiction. As a child I spent hundreds of hours watching Star Trek. In addition, I spent hundreds of hours at the movie theater watching the films of men like George Lucas, Ridley Scott, and even David Lynch–who knew he could do sci-fi?

Today I enjoy these stories on a whole different level. I now understand them all, in one form or another, as variations on a theme: the theme of a hero battling against all the odds to rescue something or someone he might love, and, in the process, learning something important about himself. Sorry ladies, until recently the hero was almost always a man.

I add this prelude to my review of Erik Brynjolfson and Andrew McAfee’s book, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, so you will understand that my bias against their book is not necessarily an animus to technology itself. For, you see, when I used to watch Star Trek or Star Wars it was not the story of the hero that impressed me; it was the technology! I spent dozens of hours drawing my own versions of R2-D2 and designing hover cars. Of course, my hover cars relied on a huge fan, not anti-gravity. Hey, I was only eleven!

The point I am trying to make is that these early influences have left a permanent mark on me. They have left me at heart a geek. That said, though, I have a few reservations about the road down which Brynjolfson and McAfee suggest we all travel together. My main reservation is their suggestion that because technologists provide us with many great and helpful tools that all of society should be largely centered around the building of those new things.

Of course, the authors recognize the dangers of what they call “the spread,” or what the politicians today call economic inequality. They even suggest ways that we might be able to ameliorate this inequality; however, there is something unsettling about their unquestioning faith in technological progress. This is not to say they ignore the potential danger of increased technological know-how in the hands of the many. They do devote a few paragraphs to the danger of someone developing the next worldwide pandemic in their garage, using a standard PC and some off-the-shelf genetic testing equipment. (pp. 252-254)

What is more troubling, though, is that they see any attempt to bring technological progress to heel as antithetical to the “good society.” They believe that the three processes by which we are advancing: exponential computing power, the digitization of large volumes of information, and innovative combinatorial technologies, should be unquestioningly encouraged and damn the consequences. They never suggest we slow down and reflect on all this change. In fact, they insist it is imperative that we not stop or slow down at all. They do not lay out in detail the risks of not moving continuously forward but we are generally told that it means a loss of prosperity.

Their answer to the individual who has to compete in the second machine age also seems somewhat callow, and ultimately unrealistic. They basically tells us that in the race with the machine we are just going to have to learn to run faster. However, by this they mean we will all have to learn to be more “creative,” as if this is something that all the masses can learn over four years in college or through the latest MOOC (Massive Online Open Course).

I wish to be fair. Brynjolfson and McAfee do suggest that there might be a political solution to some of the problems that arise from the economic “spread” that technological progress creates. A basic guaranteed income is one. However, they don’t give us much hope that this idea will ever be implemented.

In the end Brynjolfson and McAfee argue that this is the way it is, that we should not try to change it–unless the change is to create more of it, and that there is very little we as individuals, or as a society, can do to offset the social and economic disadvantages of technological progress. Well, that is nothing but running faster.

In a nutshell, this book is a gospel for the Type-A personality who believes in the all-benevolent power of technological progress. It is a gospel that ignores a fundamental reality: most people are average and will never be able to survive in a society that is solely geared toward the top twenty percent of performers.

The late media critic and educator Neil Postman wrote a book about people who view the world this way. It was called Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992). Postman argued that in a technopolistic society technology becomes the raison d’etre for everything that is done. Technology becomes the reason for living, it becomes that which satisfies our every want, and it begins to dictate how we will live.

Brynjolfson and McAfee cannot be accused of being conscious technopolists, but their view of technology ultimately leads to the same intellectual destination. It is a digitalized version of Social Darwinism against which we are cautioned not to act, lest we upset the delicate balance of the “techno-sphere.” This, they would say, is tantamount to questioning the nearly divine invisible hand of the market. Yet, they end their book with the following bromide: “Technology is not our destiny. We shape our destiny.” Really?

After spending 256 pages telling us how wonderful, and unstoppable, technological progress is we are treated to a useless and facile sentiment like that! One can only assume the authors mean to convince us that we can control the beast we are creating only by running faster, not through political and social action. Yes, just get smarter and more “creative.” No worries, mate!

Herein lies the insidious aspect of Brynjolfson and McAfee’s view: it essentially makes the machine our reference point. The machine no longer exists to do our bidding. It is now, as the authors endlessly repeat, our collaborators. However, we complement the machines rather than they us. Of course, there may come a time–if you believe Ray Kurzweil and others–when the machines will not need us to complement them at all. Brynjolfson and McAfee do not go quite that far, but they do not rule it out in the long-term.

In the end, we should reject the general worldview of Brynjolfson and McAfee because it leaves the average individual a mere appendage to the second machine age, not even a complement to our machines. This does not mean, though, that we should reject technology. It just means we need to make sure that technology serves our ends, regardless of who creates or controls the technology. We should demand that our science-based liberal capitalist system be organized to serve all men, not the other way around. Brynjolfson and McAfee get us only halfway to this idea in their book, which is why it will appeal wonderfully to technophiles but less so to those who might see life as more interesting without self-navigating cars or the latest smart phone.

A society should be organized based on principles that make possible full participation, regardless of how technologically advanced we become. The minute we allow technology, religion, capitalism, national security, or any other single thing to become the prime mover of our society we are in danger of becoming a society that cannot function for very long. Yes, we can learn to integrate the benefits of technology into our society, but that does not mean we have to give ourselves heart and soul over to it.

Below are a few books you might find interesting and related to the general topic of technology and society. The list is alphabetical, not in order of importance.

Gray, John. False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism. (1998)

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. (1932)

Lasch, Christopher. The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. (1979)

Mumford, Lewis. The Myth of the Machine. (1970)

Orwell, George. 1984. (1948)

Rifkin, Jeremy. The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era. (1995)

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. (1818)



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