The First Machine Age, “Muscle Power” – The Second Machine Age, “Mental Power”

Second Machine AgeI had just selected The Second Machine Age:  Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliance Technologies as my book for the March First Friday Book Synopsis when I saw Fareed Zakaria’s interview of the authors last Sunday:  Technology? We haven’t seen anything yet:  Fareed speaks with Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor of management at MIT’s Sloan School, and Andrew McAfee, a scientist at the MIT Center for Digital Business, about their book ‘The Second Machine Age.’

Here’s the short version (with brief quotes from the book):

The First Machine Age:

“allowed us to overcome the limitations of muscle power, human and animal, and generate massive amounts of useful energy at will.”

So, the first machine age was all about the invention of and the use of machines which could do the physical work that human beings and animals had done (for the entire history of the planet).

The Second Machine Age:

“Computers and other digital advances are doing for mental power – the ability to use our brains to understand and shape our environments – what the steam engine and its descendants did for muscle power.”

A few thoughts –

First, this is simple, understandable…  “gettable.”  I do get this.  The first machine age meant that we no longer needed to have so many people each doing their part in ramping up the physical power to move things, stack things, accomplish things.  Machines were/are stronger, faster, and could/can do the work of many, many people and animals.

Now, we are in the midst of the arrival of a second “replacement” era.  If the first machine age “replaced” the physical labor of the many, so now the second machine age “is replacing” the mental power of the many for the few.

I am just getting into the book.  But already, the authors are sort of gobsmacked by how fast this is happening.  One of the authors described how just a few years ago, he was certain that the driverless car was a long, long way into the future.  He states, simply (from the Zakaria interview):

Frankly, 10 years ago, I was telling my students that was an example of something that machines would not be able to do any time soon. I was wrong. I was caught off guard.

Second, though this is wonderful, hopeful, awe-inspiring…  it is also just a more-than-a-little-bit-scary shift.  As I have many times written about, it raises the issue:  “Where will people work?  What will people do?”  If machines replace our physical work, and now are about to replace our mental work, what else is there?  We can’t all act and sing for a living…  (and, by the way, there is now the increasing use of computer generated actors, and plenty of “computer replacement musical instruments”).

This is one of those “I need to fully grasp this book” books.  I will present my synopsis at the March First Friday book Synopsis.  I’m just getting into it.  I am deeply engrossed, to put it mildly.


For further reading, read the excellent Farhad Manjoo series, from way back in 2011:  Will Robots Steal Your Job? — You’re highly educated. You make a lot of money. You should still be afraid.

(Mr. Manjoo is about to begin his new job as the “State of the Art” writer for the New York Times.  Read about his new position here: 

The New York Times has found a replacement for one of the high-profile names it lost over the past year: The Wall Street Journal tech columnist Farhad Manjoo is taking over the “State of the Art” column from the Times’ former writer David Pogue, who left for Yahoo last fall.


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