Book review: ‘Machine, Platform, Crowd’ by Andrew MacAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson

Making effective use of technology means recognising that it’s a tool and not a threat, a new book argues.

The theme of this follow-up to the same authors’ 2015 book ‘The Second Machine Age’, which focused on how the emergence of artificial intelligence will disrupt the world of work, could be summed up by paraphrasing one of John F Kennedy’s most famous quotes. Ask not what technology will do to you, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson say, ask what you can do with technology.

In ‘Machine, Platform, Crowd’ (WW Norton, £22.99, ISBN 9780393254297), their argument is that we’ve moved beyond the first phase of the digital revolution and into a stage in which the platforms and crowds of their title become just as influential as the machines. We may be living in an era of accelerating technical change, but as reassuring chapter titles like ‘Where technology and industry still need humanity’ emphasise, humankind is still at a point where it can control its own destiny. Rather than making humans redundant, technology gives us an unprecedented opportunity to shape our future.

To do so though, we have to ‘rebalance’ the relationship between minds and machines, products and platforms, and the core and the crowd. They identify these three key areas, where the balance is tipping in favour of the second element, with massive implications for how we run our companies and live our lives.

The spirited call to arms isn’t another warning of an ‘us versus them’ war between man and machines. When people ask what technology will do to them, they’re asking the wrong question; technology is a tool and doesn’t decide what happens to people. It creates options, but success depends on how users take advantage of them. As McAfee and Brynjolfsson put it: “The success of a venture almost never turns on how much technology it can access, but on how its people use that technology, and on what values they imbue in the organisation.”

That may be little solace to the people who have seen wages shrinking as a share of GDP in most advanced economies, with workers on the lowest pay the hardest hit. A January 2017 report from the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that around half of all the things people are currently paid to do across the world could be automated using existing technologies.

The lesson here though is that none of the trio of disruptors are going to immediately do away with their predecessors, nor is there any magic formula for replacing them. So there’s still a place for humans. While the target audience is the people running companies, the book will be equally useful to anyone expecting to work in them.

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