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Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy by [Brynjolfsson, Erik, McAfee, Andrew]
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Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy Kindle Edition

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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 growing chorus is arguing that the root cause underlying these symptoms is stagnation in technology -- a slowdown in the kinds of ideas and inventions that bring progress and prosperity.

In Race Against the Machine, MIT’s 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 particular, 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.

In Race Against the Machine Brynjolfsson and McAfee bring together a range of statistics, examples, and arguments to show that the average worker is not keeping up with cutting-edge technologies, and so is losing the race against the machine. The book makes the case that employment prospects are grim for many today not because there’s been technology has stagnated, but instead because we humans and our organizations aren’t keeping up.

About the Author

Erik Brynjolfsson is a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Director of the MIT Center for Digital Business, Chairman of the Sloan Management Review, a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and co-author of Wired for Innovation: How IT Is Reshaping the Economy. He graduated from Harvard University and MIT. Andrew McAfee is a principal research scientist and associate director at the MIT Center for Digital Business at the Sloan School of Management. He is the author of Enterprise 2.0: New Collaborative Tools for Your Organization’s Toughest Challenges. He graduated from MIT and Harvard University.

Product Details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 580 KB
  • Print Length: 98 pages
  • Publisher: Digital Frontier Press (Oct. 17 2011)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B005WTR4ZI
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  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #128,525 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Race against the Machine brings to mind protest marches in the fifties and sixties about the evils of automation. In my own personal experience in the petrochemical and refining industries I have witnessed a dramatic change from the days many years ago when I first saw an operating refinery and its quite limited instrumentation. Over the years the evolution of process control has been simply dramatic. Most large sophisticated units are essentially now operated under computer control. Some 25 years ago this was often a main frame computer however as instrumentation became much more sophisticated the control system became distributed throughout the unit.
Now when profit margins are often razor thin sophisticated optimization routines often manipulate the control system directly in order to either maximize profit or minimize loss.
None of this is going away and it has had dramatic effect on the employment in the industry. Except for the fact that computers aren't much use to fight the odd fire in these units, staff levels have been reduced and operating and maintenance personnel require much higher level of skills than was the case some thirty years ago.
Process control is only one area where employees need much higher understanding of the physics and chemistry behind these complex systems.
Social, Health and Safety and Environmental issues require continuous improvement in unit operations, however the major social issue is that these rapid and ongoing changes are hollowing out a large portion of the middle class.
This require attention, the one obvious problem is the need for greater levels of education.

Race Against the Machine
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If your job can be replaced by a robot or a computer you've been replaced or will be. An interesting look at how things have changed since the last recession and how they'll continue to change.
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Looking forward to reading this. The contents looks quite interesting.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0x9fd3fe58) out of 5 stars 242 reviews
136 of 144 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9d6d19f0) out of 5 stars An important book. Everyone should read it. Oct. 23 2011
By Bill Jarvis - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition
In "Race Against the Machine", economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee ask the question: Could technology be destroying jobs? They then expand on that to explore whether advancing information technology might be an important contributor to the current unemployment disaster. The authors argue very convincingly that the answer to both questions is YES.

The book is very readable and includes lots of links to supporting evidence (both statistical and anecdotal). The authors do a good job of focusing on how computer technology is accelerating exponentially and how computers are a "general purpose technology", in other words, a special technology that can affect just about anything else and have much bigger impact than more narrowly focused innovations.

I thought a really good example involved automated driving. In 2005, two other economists suggested that it would be "hard to imagine" computers ever being able to handle driving in traffic. Yet, just 6 years later, Google introduced automated cars that did exactly that. The point is that progress in information technology is very likely to exceed our expectations and surprise us in the coming years.

While the problems are laid out clearly, I think the solutions offered are pretty conventional. The authors' call for reforming and upgrading schools, for example, is something that just about everyone can agree on. However, even if we managed to do that (and we are not making much progress), those kids would not enter the workforce for many years, and who knows what technology will be capable of by then?

Our children will face an entirely new job market and economy. Everyone should really read both "Race Against the Machine and also another important book, "The Lights in the Tunnel".
268 of 303 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9d6d1a44) out of 5 stars Now What? Oct. 26 2011
By DB - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Is the book clear? Yes.
Is the book concise? Yes.
Is the book engaging? Yes.
Is the book onto something? Yes.
Is the book well researched? Yes.
Is the book worth reading? Absolutely!

Why on earth did I rate it three stars then? Stick with me here. Because the book tantalizes with its subtitle that accelerating change is "Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy" but just when the book gets going, Chapter Four falls flat and feels like an economic recipe for a by-gone era rather than a roadmap to the economy of "the digital frontier". As humanity moved from an agrarian society to the pre-industrial and then industrial era, modern economic models took hold that allowed diverse suppliers to rationalize their efforts in a common way and leverage that effort through a common currency. In short, barter gave way to the abstract concept of a general currency that could be exchanged for goods.

In that process, the machinery of "GDP" (consumption) and the corporation became all encompassing. With comparatively archaic tools (in comparison to the machines of 2011), human beings were the primary way of creating products for those same humans to then consume. As we began to enter the "information age" in the 80s, 90s and aughts, we created the early incarnations of "the digital frontier" in the model of the industrial era (i.e. we remade the factory). Two examples: Software titans copyrighted their work and big think tanks erected barriers to their information to maintain artificial scarcity that aids in keeping prices up and revenue flowing. This is regardless of the fact that information, once created, can be shared and distributed in an essentially frictionless way. Bits and bytes are not bound by the same physical rules as traditional raw material like wood or rare earth elements. As we decode the machinery of life (DNA, molecular bonds, nanotechnology, etc), the same will be true for physical things...we'll be able to simply reorder material into a form we want. Early generation 3D printers and tissue regeneration are examples of this trend. Yet we continue to bind these information-era processes to economic models of scarcity.

What we need, and what I was hoping this book would help describe, is a different economic model. An economic model in which the concept of abundance, rather than scarcity, is the central driving force. We have an abundance of people willing to work. We have an abundance of information. We have an abundance of things that need to be done. We have an abudance of ability to connect it all together. We have an increasingly abundant ability to create stuff for virtually free. We have 7 Billion people on the planet for whom our moral and social compact drive us to provide them with shelter, food, and health care yet we have an economic model that rewards hoarding and selfishness and creating products that produce huge profit margins when equally good, or better, and cheaper solutions exist. The successful economic model of "the digital frontier" will decouple supply and demand. Profit on the supply side will be driven by those who can create the most social value at the lowest cost (housing for free for example). "Pay" on the demand side will be driven by rewarding human beings to remain active, productive, engaged, and learning rather than trying to "race [the] machine". And, no, I don't mean Communism, I mean a capitalistic system with different measures and rewards.

There are numerous alternatives to a GDP-based economic model that have been put forth. Examples include "Gross national happiness", "Continuum Development Index", and the "Sharing economy" to name just three. Search for alternatives to GDP for others. Yet "Race Against the Machine" did not explore any of these as possible roadmaps to a world where humans' "requirement" to "work" becomes obsolete. With that said, the book serves as an excellent reference for why these trends are happening and why they are irreversible. Everyone should read this book and then help create an economy of abundance!
54 of 58 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9d6d1d20) out of 5 stars The future we all face on the second half of then chess board Oct. 26 2011
By Mark P. McDonald - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee have created a powerful, concise and informative discussion of the impact of technology on employment, income distribution and macro economics. Do not be fooled by the title, Race Against the Machine is not a neo luddite treatise on the evils of automation and technology. The title is more about generating buzz and attention than an accurate label for what is in this book -- nothing short of the best explanation of the economy we face in the future and the role of technology.

This book is highly recommended to anyone who wants to understand why we can have a recession, a jobless recovery and growing income distribution inequities all at the same time. This book does a tremendous job steering its explanation based on facts, insights from other economists and thought leaders.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee's basic argument is that we are just beginning to see the long term impact of technology on the economy. The authors highlight this using the analogy of Chinese story where the emperor agrees to pay a servant a grain of rice and then doubling that amount for each square on the chess board. That doubling is the foundation of technology's driving forces embodied in the laws of Moore, Metcalfe and others.

The authors believe that we are just getting to the back half of the chess board where a doubling of technology creates gigantic leaps in capability at an unprecedented pace. These leaps are beginning to displace human work as technologies like IBM's Watson and others demonstrate the ability to handle complex work.

The book is divided into five chapters;

Chapter 1. Technology's influence on the employment and the economy. The first chapter provides an overview of the book and its chapters. Here the authors do a good job supporting their argument based on the observation and ideas of others. The chapter could have been a dry recitation of prior research, but Brynjolfsson and McAfee have described the issue in ways that are broadly accessible.

Chapter 2. Humanity and technology on the second half of the chess board -- discusses the impact of technology on the economy, productivity and employment. This chapter focuses on things that are emerging as the capability of technology has crossed a threshold. The most interesting part of this discussion concentrated on General Purpose Technology (GPT) and how these technologies drive further investment in technology.

Chapter 3. Creative destruction: the economic of accelerating technology and disappearing jobs. This chapter is the most informative as it explains the impact of technology on employment and income Here the discussion of highly-skilled vs skilled workers, Superstars vs. Everyone else, and Capital vs. Labor all explain different aspects of the economy we all live in.

Chapter 4: What is to be done? Prescriptions and Recommendations -- contains a list of 13 recommendations for fostering organizational innovation and investing in human capital, These are two areas where investments can lead to creating new employment opportunities and growth, I will not go over the recommendations, many are ones that you may have heard of in the past, but the authors put these recommendations into a new context.

5. Conclusion: the Digital Frontier -- provides a discussion of the new economy emerging and the impact of digitalization in terms of creating new sources of value and disruption. It is an apt conclusion to the book.

Each chapter focuses on a different aspect technology, the economy, employment etc. in a concise and informative way. The authors take full advantage of the book's electronic form by providing active links to referenced research and opinion. While not accessible when you are disconnected, the ability to quickly jump into some original source material adds to the value of the book.

The book can be easily read in under 4 hours and would be the best use of your time on a long plane ride where you can read and think through the authors ideas and their implications.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee have created a readily accessible, influential and provocative book that should be reaUd by business executives, policy makers and technologist to give them a better understanding of the deep forces at work in the global economy, Some will disagree with the author's recommendations, particularly given that it would be easy to associate some of their recommendations as moderately to the right. That would be a mistake as I believe Brynjolfsson and McAfee have been able to take a relatively neutral view of an economist to these issues.

At $2.99 on Amazon, this book is more than well worth the cost and most importantly your time and attention.
31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9d6d1c18) out of 5 stars An Important Subject Inadequately Handled April 15 2012
By D. D. - Published on
Format: Paperback
Automation is a complicated problem that has been subtly advancing toward a kind of critical mass for a very long time. The authors here are correct in noting its acceleration over the last few decades, but perhaps I should say I believe the people the authors quote to be correct, since this book does very little of it's own heavy lifting, and little heavy lifting at that. Don't get me wrong, I'd welcome a synthesis of current thought on this predicament even if it didn't have an original bone in it's body. In fact, that might even be better than one more true believer economist with another prediction of the future. However, at 70 pages this "book" is not prepared to deal with anything comprehensively. 75% of it is reference to other people's work, borrowing from better books, quoting statistics or just stating the obvious. I can't think of anything to recommend it over other books on the subject. Like some other reviewers, I read Martin Ford's "Lights In The Tunnel"(which this book references) and thought it dealt with this subject matter far more realistically and with enough depth to add something to the discussion.

The initial chapters of the book attempt to lay out the problem, but only in the most general way. You won't be coming away with a wide knowledge of the specific fields under the direst threat from automation. There are some specific examples but few are likely to be news. Watson the computer plays Jeopardy and wins, Google cars drive around without people, Moore's Law of accelerating growth is explained, etc. Then on come the statistics to show us how job growth has diminished, how GDP has detached itself from household income and how all but the most extensive, specialized education is declining in value. All of this information is quite disturbing, so what is to be done?

I was amused to see that most of the prescriptions at the end of this forward thinking little book had such a familiar ring to them. How fortunate that this is merely one more modern problem that can be solved by market deregulation, lowering taxes, worshiping entrepreneurs and an all systems grow approach. Perhaps this is where a deeper and more expansive survey of the situation might have been useful. This book seems to carry on within a topical vacuum, but in reality the subject matter certainly does not. Some of their suggestions are so nonsensical that I might've stopped reading if I weren't so close to the end. The idea that a significant portion of the population could become software entrepreneurs in order to procure a stable income is ridiculous. Were this to happen as prescribed, then supposedly even more people would begin to participate in the fabulous "superstar" style wealth available with a global market at the touch of a button. That this is possible for a very few is obvious, just as it's obvious that it's not possible for most. Ok, Ok, wait, hear them out - It wouldn't be ridiculous if we fixed the broken educational system, enabling all students to get the equal and intensive high tech training they need to compete with their parents inventing their own things to sell...for their kids to compete with. Of course, this suggestion is unhampered by the fact that we've been trying to fix the USA's lousy educational system for, what? Decades? Centuries? And never mind the archaic, enfeebled plea that their may be some possible goal for education beyond success in the market. Then again, maybe there isn't when a poor fellow's got to be out there 24/7 selling Apps just to survive.

A few suggestions seemed reasonable, such as offering green cards to foreign students when they complete advanced degrees. I'd also have to agree that heavily reforming the patent system and copyright law will be crucial if there is to be any hope of our economy coping with the digital world. These prescriptions were only allowable in that they fit with the authors' general answer of utilizing technology to compete with technology, which is fighting growth with growth.

The elephant in the room here that, like all good "digital optimists", the authors refuse to even acknowledge, is that the race against the machine is really the race against ourselves. Like so many these days, they have long since acquiesced to treat technology as essentially a force of nature, autonomous and beyond control. Maybe that IS the most realistic perspective now; maybe I'm the one being overly optimistic to imagine that we could still exert some decelerating or critical influence over it. However, it seems to me that as long as there is an economic imperative to undercut the cost of human labor, automation will only continue it's advance, ever broader and faster. I'm not making an argument here for keeping humanity's nose to the grindstone for all time, but let us be honest about who's benefiting from these "advances". Unless you are the owner/shareholder, you're looking at layoffs or hyperemployment here, not more vacation days.

The authors admit that there are limits to entrepreneurial innovation, and even if there weren't, the exponential growth of technological power will eventually exceed a speed at which humans could stay a step ahead by innovation alone. Indeed, short of a complete reorganization of our global economic system (hardly conceivable without some enormous catastrophe setting a new precedent) any great strides made by our remaining uniquely human faculties are only likely to spur more concentrated attempts to automate in that particular area. Given that machines have already conquered so many realms once thought categorically human, it seems very naive to assume that any of those remaining with be off limits indefinitely. This should all make for excellent political fodder in the coming years; I'm sure we can all look forward to myriad impotent, partisan psuedo-debates as income and opportunities continue to mysteriously vanish.

Despite this book, this is an extremely important subject, especially for anyone entering college or the job market. Legal aids, radiologists, journalists, truck drivers, research assistants, retail workers and many more are all going to have diminishing prospects in the coming years, some sooner than others. For your own security, it's best to start becoming familiar with this problem now.
20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9c50f270) out of 5 stars Rage Against the Machine Oct. 23 2011
By roundtrip - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Brynjolfsson and McAfee crisply present a hypothesis on America's jobless recovery, declining median income, and growing income disparity - and point their finger at structural changes induced by the Moore's Law growth and application of computer technology to core economic activities including finance, manufacturing, and sales. This is an important book that should be read by interested citizens as well as economists, business executives and politicians who aim to keep their jobs.

Their hypothesis isn't based on a cheerleading hurrah for technology, but thoughtful observation on how computer based capabilities - doubling at Moore's law rates for decades - have enabled changes to the operational models of business, and the economic effect of these changes.

Examples (some of are mine) include: efficient and systematically optimized offshore production combined with low cost and high volume sales (think Walmart, Home Depot); disintermediation or destruction of local business (add bookstores and specialty merchants versus Amazon); Securities trading and hedge funds dominated by millisecond response trading programs; Creation, packaging and sale of financial instruments that are intentionally too complex and systematically risky to understand, but far too easy to sell in a deregulated environment (from Enron to Credit Default Swaps, to Occupy Wall Street).

Computer technology investments improve productivity - but the workers who are fired or downsized go beyond the good paying and secure manufacturing jobs which built a strong middle class in developed nations through the end of the last century. Displaced workers include local merchants, sales people, bank tellers, clerks and more. They cite John Markoff's March 2011 NYT story where "according to one estimate, moving from human to digital labor during the discovery process could let one lawyer do the work of 500."

The cost savings of increased productivity are real, as are the innovations in core processes - but they can increase rather than decrease middle class employment, increase income disparity, and in the financial sector increase the dominance of institutions too big to fail.

For banking and finance, you only have to listen to Occupy Wall Street - or elements of the Tea Party - to recognize the pain caused by a combination of sorcerer's apprentice financial mechanics and trading in an era when many of the most important regulatory controls have been lifted. The transfer of wealth from mortgage holders, governments, and citizens to financial institutions too big to fail and those who benefited from that bubble beggars the imagination and the economy.

This is a hypothesis, not (yet) presentable as economist's model - but it identifies structural elements that put computer technology squarely in the class of what economists call General Purpose Technologies (GPT) "... a small group of technological innovations so powerful that they interrupt and accelerate the normal march of economic progress. Steam power, electricity, and the internal combustion engine are examples of previous GPTs." Like frogs in the pot of water on the stove, we have been caught unaware by the effects of enabling technology that doubles at a Moore's law rate - and it's uncomfortably hot now.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee end with cautiously optimistic notes on how GPT capabilities eventually lead to increased competition and broadly based economic growth. That's what has happened in the past.

Unfortunately, I believe the economic situation and the US's venal politics are also consistent with a "Snowcrash" future for the United States. In 1992, Neal Stephenson's novel was set in a Los Angeles no longer part of what is left of the United States with "... only four things we do better than anyone else: music, movies, microcode (software), and high-speed pizza delivery."

In my opinion, if Brynjolfsson and McAfee are right, we need to go back to Adam Smith and walk it forward again, looking back to the Standard Oil and railroad trustbusting era of Teddy Roosevelt to get out of our current finance and banking mess which holds us all at its mercy. Read this book.