Why has median income stopped rising in the US? Why is the share of population that is working falling so rapidly? Why are our economy and society are becoming more unequal? A popular explanation right now is that the root cause underlying these symptoms is technological stagnation– a slowdown in the kinds of ideas and inventions that bring progress and prosperity.
In Race Against the Machine, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee present a very different explanation. Drawing on research by their team at the Center for Digital Business, they show that there’s been no stagnation in technology — in fact, the digital revolution is accelerating. Recent advances are the stuff of science fiction: computers now drive cars in traffic, translate between human languages effectively, and beat the best human Jeopardy! players. As these examples show, digital technologies are rapidly encroaching on skills that used to belong to humans alone.
This phenomenon is both broad and deep, and has profound economic implications. Many of these implications are positive; digital innovation increases productivity, reduces prices (sometimes to zero), and grows the overall economic pie. But digital innovation has also changed how the economic pie is distributed, and here the news is not good for the median worker. As technology races ahead, it can leave many people behind. Workers whose skills have been mastered by computers have less to offer the job market, and see their wages and prospects shrink. Entrepreneurial business models, new organizational structures and different institutions are needed to ensure that the average worker is not left behind by cutting-edge machines.
In the tradition of agenda-setting classics like Clay Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma, McAfee and Brynjolfsson deliver both a penetrating analysis of a new world and a toolkit for thriving in it. For startups and established businesses, or for anyone interested in what the future holds, Machine, Platform, Crowd is essential listening.