This week I started to read “The Second Machine Age” by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. Eryk is the Director of the MIT initiative on the digital economy. You too should read the book which is well and freshly written.
No, it won’t change your minds; but it’ll focus you on the historical realty that nothing changed for thousands of years when humanity was on a “very gradual upward trajectory” until, wallop, the Industrial Revolution. James Watt’s brilliant tinkering enabled the steam revolution to initiate the biggest transformation in the history of the world.
They talk, by the way, extensively throughout the book about the brilliance of “tinkering” as opposed to first generation breakthroughs. Tinkering or recombinant thinking - recombining, fiddling about with what you have to produce something extraordinary - is what creative people do best and always have.
But it’s the digital world where tinkering has really come into its own. The authors trace the exponential growth of the sector citing Moore’s Law whereby he stated that the growth in computing power would double every year (which for the past four decades it has). The implications of that are astounding. On a trivial level the ASCI Red and the world’s fastest supercomputer reached 1.8 teraflops in 1997 and cost $55 million to develop. Just nine years later the Sony PlayStation 3 reached 1.8 teraflops and cost $500 to buy.
These guys are incredibly optimistic in answering the “so what?” question.
“The second machine age will be characterised by countless examples of machine intelligence and billions of interconnected brains working together to better understand and improve our world. It will make mockery out of all that came before.”
They make a mockery of Gross Domestic Product as a measure of economic growth when so much of the new economy is free-to-use. More music is being heard, more news read, more use of Google, Skype and so on is transforming our lives (at the fringes but nonetheless usefully.) Go back half a century and one of the brightest but unfulfilled minds got it right.
“The Gross National Product does not include the beauty of our poetry or the intelligence of our public debate. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion. It measures everything, in short, except
that which makes life worthwhile.”
That was Robert Kennedy.
The unbridled enthusiasm of this book is wonderful. We live in an increasingly interconnected world where hitherto untapped sources of creativity are becoming available to everyone.
Thanks Eryk and Andrew. What makes our lives really worthwhile may be closer to hand than we’d thought if we just have to courage to reach for it.
I was a bit of a sceptic because I found the subject hard. Now I’m a believer.