For many thousands of years, humanity was a very gradual upward trajectory. Progress was achingly slow, almost invisible. Animals and farms, wars and empires, philosophies and religions all failed to exert much influence.
But just over two hundred years ago, something sudden and profound arrived and bent the curve of human history—of population and social development—almost ninety degrees.
The Industrial Revolution, which was the sum of several nearly simultaneous developments in mechanical engineering, chemistry, metallurgy, and other disciplines.
We can be even more precise about which technology was most important. It was the steam engine or, to be more precise, one developed and improved by James Watt and his colleagues in the second half of the eighteenth century.
Even though [the steam] revolution took several decades to unfold . . . it was nonetheless the biggest and fastest transformation in the entire history of the world.
It allowed us to overcome the limitations of muscle power, human and animal, and generate massive amounts of useful energy at will. This led to factories and mass production, to railways and mass transportation. It led, in other words, to modern life.
The ability to generate massive amounts of mechanical power was so important that it made a mockery of all the drama of the world’s earlier history.
Now comes 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.
Mental power is at least as important for progress and development—for mastering our physical and intellectual environment to get things done—as physical power. So a vast and unprecedented boost to mental power should be a great boost to humanity, just as the earlier boost to physical power so clearly was.
We’re at an inflection point—a point where the curve starts to bend a lot—because of computers. We are entering a second machine age.
The transformations brought about by digital technology will be profoundly beneficial ones.
As Martin Weitzman puts it, “the long-term growth of an advanced economy is dominated by the behavior of technical progress.” Technical progress is improving exponentially.
Digitization is going to bring with it some thorny challenges.
Rapid and accelerating digitization is likely to bring economic rather than environmental disruption, stemming from the fact that as computers get more powerful, companies have less need for some kinds of workers. Technological progress is going to leave behind some people, perhaps even a lot of people, as it races ahead.
There’s never been a better time to be a worker with special skills or the right education, because these people can use technology to create and capture value. However, there’s never been a worse time to be a worker with only ‘ordinary’ skills and abilities to offer, because computers, robots, and other digital technologies are acquiring these skills and abilities at an extraordinary rate.
from The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee