Machine, Platform, Crowd

Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future
By Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson
W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 2017

Machine Platform Crowd coverMachine, Platform, Crowd is an update to Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson’s fabulous 2014 book, The Second Machine Age. (My review here).

In it, the authors, describe three powerful trends shaping the worlds of business and technology today.

First, the incredible advances in the power of computer technology, particularly machine learning, and more broadly artificial intelligence, that are enabling machines to perform more and more tasks and do more jobs that used to be the sole domain of the human mind.

The second trend is the emergence of platforms, such as Amazon, Facebook and Google, as the great economic engines and money makers of the 21st Century, in a marked shift away from product-based businesses of the past.

Finally, the third trend: the shift towards sourcing ideas and innovation from the crowd, that vast and diverse reservoir of internet-connected talent and enthusiasm that lies outside the traditional boundaries of the organization’s core.

These trends are forcing organizations to re-think and re-balance how they operate, invest and succeed.

The authors cover some interesting developments in this book, particularly the discussions about the economics of platforms, and about the future of the firm as an essential unit of business organization. However, if you haven’t read The Second Machine Age, I’d highly recommend starting there.

You can listen to a recording of the authors discussing Machine, Platform, Crowd with futurist and energy analyst Ramez Naam at Seattle Town Hall on June 22, 2017.

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McAfee and Brynjolfsson, to their credit, devote some attention in this book to the implications for employment, or the lack of it, from all this rapid innovation. They’re technology enthusiasts and they point to a number of areas that will be continuing sources of jobs well into the future, especially fields involving human-to-human contact, leadership and creativity. I didn’t find this completely reassuring, but it did allay some fears that mass unemployment is the inevitable outcome of technological progress.

The book is aimed at a mainly business audience, so there’s less attention to broader social, and political implications of these changes. In some ways that’s good – they’re sticking to what they know well. But they’re smart and engaging thinkers so I for one would welcome their thoughts on these topics.

At Seattle Town Hall, for example, they talked about “EIEIO economics” as the smart policy playbook for the country:

  • Entrepreneurship
  • Immigration
  • Education
  • Infrastructure
  • Original Research

Smart policies in these areas can help move the country forward. We’re not doing a great job at any of them these days, they said.

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