The Second Machine Age or Machine Age, Part II

Over a year ago authors Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson wrote the bestsellerThe Second Machine Age, that demonstrated how new developments in the computer industry are making the automation of cognitive tasks possible. With these developments many office workers will be out of a job. What happened to the unskilled blue collar workers in the 19th century will now happen to the skilled white collar workers of the 21st century. A gloomy prospect? Perhaps. The new machine age will create new jobs that we haven’t thought of yet, as happened in the first machine age. The future might be bright, after all.

Today I read predictions by Richard van Hooijdonk on the role of technology in the near future. Van Hooijdonk predicted that low-skilled workers will be the new pensioners of the coming age. In his reasoning there will be no jobs available to them and therefore society has to pay them for this lack of available opportunities. Another prediction is that organizations will become small again in order to remain agile and competitive. This thinking is in line with new organizations like Uber and AirBNB, who are small in size but have a global presence and a service delivery at a large scale.

I wonder if we can speak of a new age, like a second machine age or the information age. We might still be in the same machine age as before. In my observations there is still a mindset present that can be traced back to the dominant ideas that set the machine age going. A set of ideas that started, to some degree, with Descartes “I think therefore I am” and the thinkers of the Enlightenment. They gave rise to ideas on individual freedom and rights to pursuit your own destiny. They combined a renewed interest in science with ideas that you can actually change your conditions. No longer was your future determined when you were born, you had possibilities to make a difference. And these ideas led to two important notions: continual improvement of processes and the collaboration of equals (in organizations).

The first notion of continual improvement of production processes led to the invention of machines that could take over the work of a skilled and highly-experienced craftsman and do it faster and more effective. Before the beginning of the machine age you needed years of training and practice under supervision of an authorized master (member of the guild) to become good enough to make and sell products.. With the new machines the skilled production could be done by unskilled workers and they could produce a greater amount of products against lower costs (in the end). And the drive to keep improving, fixing problems in production and building newer and better machines fueled the machine age to move onward.

The second notion of collaboration of equals was just as valuable. When investors work together they can spread the investments and the risks, making it possible to finance new machines and factories. Also, to keep improving you’ll need new ideas and solutions. You can not afford to stay exclusive and ignore talents because of their background or upbringing. Over time more and more people got education and could participate in the organization of the machine age. And that was good as well, since you need an higher level of organization to keep the machines running and the factories producing. It is no use to have a mechanized factory when there is no fuel for the machines or raw materials to feed production. In order to make it work you need reliable suppliers and a stable market to sell your goods. You need standardized units and an (government) organization to maintain these standards.

The machine age changed the production processes and created corporations. It also created the jobs that manages these processes or maintains the conditions that help the new companies to thrive. Jobs that are based in information and services and that gave rise to a new class of office workers. At first the machine age created a lot of unhappiness and social unrest, letting the continual improvement notion lead the way in maximizing profits by minimizing costs. Then the collaboration notion kicked in and gave rise to the idea that workers are consumers as well. That if the conditions of the workers is really bad than they can not buy the products or services and companies will go out of business. Using the notion of continual improvement they took on social projects in education, health care, utilities and housing. This balance between continual improvement of process and collaboration of equals in organizations is still here today.

There is a good chance that this balance will be disturbed. The machine age created a lot of new jobs to manage the production processes and to make sure that factories can run 24/7. The information age is making these new jobs obsolete. With the help of robotics, business process automation and cognitive computing, a factory owner will need little human assistance after the initial implementation. If factories itself are not replaced by 3D printing services. This is not only a threat for the low-skilled factory worker, but also for medium or even high-skilled office workers. What started in the machine age with the replacement of high-skilled craftsmen by low-skilled factory workers and medium-skilled office workers will now finish with the replacement of all workers by machines. That is why I speak of the Machine Age, part II instead of the second machine age.

From my perspective a collaboration of equals or of organizations is needed to deal with this threat of maximizing profits by minimizing costs. Which means for me that we need to define the role of humans and that of machines based on collaboration of equals. And seek continual improvement of the human condition on a global scale. The thinking behind the machine age that can cause so much trouble, can also help to find a solution. 

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