Confucius famously said, “Life is simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” When it comes to technology and its implications for business, work and life, most books don’t follow the wise philosopher’s advice. Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, two academics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, try to make sense of technology’s complexity and its unintended consequences by scanning the technological horizon and focusing on important landmarks.
In their newest book “Machine, Platform, Crowd,” they ask the right questions: How can we build a future that doesn’t leave humans behind? How can we integrate technology into the workplace to enhance human work and not just displace it? How can we find ways to ensure that the Big Four (Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google) doesn’t run our lives instead of improving our lives? And how can we tap into the wisdom of the crowd without getting lost in the masses?
We may be living in an era of accelerating technical change, but as reassuring chapter titles like “Where Technology and Industry Still Need Humanity” emphasize, 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. The authors identify these three key areas, where in each case the balance is tipping in favor 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 organization.”
The message of the book is that corporate leaders should recognize the limitations of their own judgment and expertise, delegate more decision-making authority and judgment to algorithms and machines, and find creative inspiration outside of their limited organizations. Structures are the hardest to break and change, and the race will only be won by companies that are agile and collaborative. That’s the opportunity for creative insurgents such as credit unions, unencumbered by vast financial incentives that harm the business and nimble enough to take advantage of new technologies.