The Second Machine Age:
Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies
by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
306 pp., $26.95
Conservatives have a love-hate relationship with technology. Although we often decry the effects of the usage of new technologies on societal traditions, it is conservative societies that provide the foundation for technological advancement, emphasizing the thrift, industriousness, and family cohesion necessary for capital formation, and the “moral imagination” necessary, as Russell Kirk emphasized, for innovation. Kirk himself embodied the dilemma. He preferred jet rides to long trips in cars, which he called “mechanical Jacobins”; and Kirk disliked computers but wrote rapidly on his trusty IBM Selectric typewriter, one of the greatest American machines ever made, a stenographic Jeep.
I had to write typewriter after Selectric to make sure younger readers know what I’m talking about. Such has been the rapidity of the invasion of computers into our lives. And it’s only beginning.
Today is “an inflection point” in which humans are “entering a second machine age,” Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson argue in a book whose jacket advertises it as a “New York Times bestseller,” using a scoring system for two technologies—books and newspapers—made obsolete by the Second Machine Age. Shouldn’t they be boasting of a high ranking on Amazon?
By the First Machine Age, the authors mean the Industrial Revolution, which began in the late 18th century in Great Britain (England and Scotland), then quickly spread to Holland and America, the rest of Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Japan, and eventually almost the entire globe. There’s no question this was a major turning point in history. Countries that adopted the new machines, and the mind-set to keep the innovations going, have enjoyed about two-percent annual economic growth ever since. Before that, even in prosperous eras, progress crept along at a fraction of a percent a year, if that. Conservatives long have had reservations about what Blake branded “dark Satanic mills.” The Southern Agrarians lamented the passage of a quieter, more reflective age tied to the land. But despite the brutal repetitive labor and the skies choked with pollution and numerous social problems, it was the Industrial Revolution that eventually doubled average life spans and produced the machines and surpluses that built big-city sewers and drained swamps.
Are we really entering a Second Machine Age? Just as it took a few decades to perceive that the Industrial Revolution really was something new, so it will take a few more decades to understand what’s happening now. We aren’t seeing a doubling of life spans, and are unlikely to do so. But important things are happening, nevertheless.
The authors review Moore’s Law, which posits that computing power doubles every year-to-18-months. It takes about nine years for the computing power of the fastest supercomputer to be shrunk into a laptop you can buy for $500. Which is why I think the Second Machine Age may have started earlier, in the late 1990’s.
In 1998, Matt Drudge violated the old journalistic code by publishing a story Newsweek had spiked about an affair between President Clinton and a White House intern. It led to the President’s impeachment.
In 1984, on a vacation in my native Michigan, I met with an old friend who had a heart ailment his cardiologist couldn’t fix. At the time I was working at Phillips Publishing, where I edited Cardiac Alert, a newsletter written by Jorge Rios, one of the world’s top cardiologists. When I returned to Washington, D.C., I shipped off every back issue to my friend. His wife scoured every article and found one describing his exact symptoms—and the remedy. They took the article to the Michigan cardiologist, who prescribed the potion. It worked, and kept my friend’s ticker going another decade.
Starting in the late 1990’s, the Michigan cardiologist could do an internet search and find the medicine himself. Or any patient or relative could do it. I do so for other ailments for myself and my friends. Also in the late 90’s, the Bible went online in many languages. That meant Muslims in Saudi Arabia and comrades in the People’s Republic of China could, for the first time, read the Good News. Internet filters now block such sites, but there are ways around them.
After September 11, 2001, the National Security Agency metastasized into a high-tech version of Bentham’s Panopticon, recording every number we have called and, at this point, many conversations.
A vast online library of books and journals is now available, free of charge. In addition, books not available online usually can be bought cheaply at Amazon.com or AbeBooks.com. On the negative side, reading and working online tends to reduce one’s ability to concentrate. I read as much as always, but find it harder to read long books such as War and Peace and Moby-Dick.
Just about any piece of music ever written, classical or popular, is available in performance at no cost on YouTube. The fidelity is low, but my old ears don’t notice it as much as before; and recordings can be bought cheaply. On the other hand memorable new classical, jazz, and even rock music seems to have petered out in the late 1970’s, well before the Second Machine Age, around the time of the deaths of Shostakovich in 1975, Britten in 1976, and Barber in 1981.
In 2013, the new social media played a major role in rallying Americans to call their congressmen to oppose a pending attack on the government of Syria.
Brynjolfsson and McAfee, besides using the annoying b.c.e. and c.e. instead of b.c. and a.d., begin with a brief history of the world that relies on Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules—for Now. According to a review of the book by Harold James in the Financial Times,
For Morris, the breakthroughs of the first millennium BC—Confucianism, Buddhism, the Hebrew Bible, Greek philosophy—were simply a response to greater prosperity, more long-distance trade and the stronger states that regulated it. Society, in Morris’s formulation, gets the culture it needs.
The authors of The Second Machine Age emphasize important “ideas” from a list made by Karl Jaspers, including Buddha, Confucius, and Socrates, who “all lived quite close to one another in time (but not in place).” But a couple of things are getting mixed together here. Jaspers’ book is Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus: From the Great Philosophers, Volume 1. Jaspers links the first three in what he calls the Axial Age, from 800 to 200 b.c., “an interregnum between two ages of great empire, a pause for liberty, a deep breath bringing the most lucid consciousness.”
Significantly, the authors don’t include the fourth Person on Jaspers’ list, noting only that “common sense demands that any list of major human developments include the establishment of other major faiths like Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.”
Historians of science such as Pierre Duhem and Stanley Jaki in numerous books, Rodney Stark in The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, and Charles Murray in Human Accomplishment tell a different story. According to these writers, it is the dogma of the Incarnation that was crucial to the development of Western thought, by its insistence that God made the world both good and intelligible, and that history is linear. Jaki pointed out that science, which had suffered “stillbirths” even in China and ancient Greece, became a self-sustaining concern only in the early Middle Ages as Christian philosophy matured, and later underpinned the Industrial Revolution. (The Savior of Science is the title of one of Jaki’s books.)
Brynjolfsson and McAfee waste more than half of their book recounting how the Second Machine Age is reducing economic growth and widening the “spread” between rich and poor. Yet their own data belie this contention. They provide a graph purportedly showing that economic growth in the United States slowed in the 1970’s and then sped up again in the 1990’s, boosted by soaring information technology in that decade. The graph actually shows growth slowing following the “Nixon Shock” in 1971, when the federal government raised taxes, imposed wage-and-price controls, and, most importantly, shelved the Gold Standard, thus bringing on the stagflation of the 1970’s. Growth recommenced after President Reagan’s tax cuts in 1981 and the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Paul Volcker, halted inflation. Growth slowed again after President George H.W. Bush in 1991 broke his election pledge not to raise taxes. The fabled economic boom of the late 1990’s occurred after President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich agreed to three capital-gains tax cuts, beginning in 1996. Then, after the short dot-com recession, the attack on September 11 scrambled everything. Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan panicked and began inflating the currency, while keeping interest rates at, or near, zero. His successor, Ben Bernanke, followed the same policy. The price of gold soared from an average of $350 per ounce between 1981 and 2001 to about $1,300 in 2014. President George W. Bush’s policies included record deficit spending, ill-considered tax cuts, and increased regulations on business, such as Sarbanes-Oxley, which coauthor Rep. Mike Oxley (R-OH) later repudiated. These policies were succeeded by even worse ones imposed by the Obama administration.
Apparently the authors never studied their own graph.
All this is significant because it explains something Brynjolfsson and McAfee spend several chapters decrying. “In short, median income has increased very little since 1979, and it has actually fallen since 1999.” And, “Overall, between 1973 and 2011, the median hourly wage barely changed, growing by just 0.1 percent per year.” As do so many economists nowadays, including Thomas Piketty in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, they mix in the Reagan and Clinton-Gingrich years (not Clinton 1993-94, which included a tax increase) with all the other years.
The Fed’s zero-interest policies hurt middle-income Americans especially; while inflation has stood officially at two percent since the early 2000’s, John Williams’ ShadowStats.com, using pre-Clinton methods, pegs it at as much as eight percent, as one may confirm in the checkout line and at the gas pump. But even at two-percent inflation, zero-percent interest rates mean the middle class, instead of steadily earning two percent in a passbook savings account, loses two percent each year. That makes it much harder for Joe the Mechanic to save a little money and open Joe’s Muffler Shop, employing other middle-class Americans. Zero-percent interest rates have also forced investors more than otherwise into stocks, goosing the market, which has especially helped rich stockholders. And the Fed’s inflationary policies, along with loose federal lending policies and the repeal in 1999 of the Glass-Steagall Act, caused the real-estate crash of 2007-08, which hurt middle-income mortgage holders.
Citing several studies, McAfee and Brynjolfsson also present immigration as a net boon to the economy. They do not mention, even to refute, the work of George Borjas, which details how current high levels of immigration reduce median incomes, nor that of Michael S. Teitelbaum, who has written in The Atlantic that
A compelling body of research is now available, from many leading academic researchers and from respected research organizations such as the National Bureau of Economic Research, the RAND Corporation, and the Urban Institute. No one has been able to find any evidence indicating current widespread labor market shortages or hiring difficulties in science and engineering occupations that require bachelor’s degrees or higher.
And given that 70 percent of immigrants vote Democratic, the country will soon have one-party rule and see the end of the American democracy the authors praise.
To reduce inequality and improve student performance, the authors seek longer K-12 school days and years, citing the successes of Singapore and South Korea, two countries with homogenous populations, in these areas. Yet Americans of South Korean and Taiwanese backgrounds actually do better academically than South Koreans and Taiwanese, while long summer vacations allow American children to play and invent.
The authors praise the excellent Khan Academy online videos and other free resources, including the complete curricula of Harvard and MIT. These actually are true Second Machine Age innovations. But why plug them into a 19th-century model for factory schools churning out factory workers?
Imagine if every American Christian church—Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox—started its own school, combining home and online materials with classroom instruction as needed. Instead of the uniformity imposed by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Education Association, a thousand teaching styles would bloom, fulfilling the promise of decentralized, Second Machine Age technology. Now that would be a revolution.