This free Information Age Education Newsletter
is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken
Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age
All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online
In addition, four free books
based on the newsletters are
available: Understanding and
Mastering Complexity; Consciousness
and Morality: Recent
Research Developments; Creating
an Appropriate 21st Century Education;
and Common Core State
Standards for Education in
This is the sixth in a series of IAE
focusing on possible
futures of education. The unifying theme is the exploration of changes
to our current system that have a good chance of
substantially improving the education that our students are obtaining.
Education for Students’ Futures
Part 6: The Second Machine Age
University of Oregon
“Work saves a man from three great evils: boredom,
vice, and need.” (François-Marie Arouet, nom de plum Voltaire; French
Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher; 1694–1778).
This is the second of two IAE Newsletters
based on The Second Machine Age
by Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (2014). See the videos McAfee
(June, 2013) and McAfee (September, 2012) for a summary of the key
ideas covered in the book. The first newsletter focused on the First
Machine Age (the Industrial Age) and changes it produced throughout the
The Industrial Age provided us with many tools that supplemented our
muscle and other physical abilities. Our current educational system is
a direct product of changes brought about by the early years of the
Changes in the Job Market
This IAE Newsletter
focuses on the Second Machine Age (often called the Information Age).
We are now nearly 60 years into the Information Age. Humans continue to
develop better aids to their physical capabilities, and are making very
rapid progress in developing brain tools as aids to their metal
capabilities. We now live in a world with global transportation and
communication systems that facilitate distribution of the results of
physical and brain work around the world. This is producing a worldwide
competition for jobs.
Moreover, computers continue to gain in their artificial intelligence
and physical capabilities. Jobs that used to require considerable
manual dexterity, strength and stamina, intelligence, and education are
being taken over by computers.
In many other jobs, a computer and a person working together can far
outperform a person working alone. For example, I remember many years
ago when the cost of a computer work-station designed for doing
computer graphics first decreased to about $200,000. Many thousands of
these machines were sold—because it was economically beneficial to
companies to provide certain quite skilled workers with such a machine
in order to increase their productivity.
A company’s profits were increased by providing certain of its workers
with a $200,000 computer! Now much more powerful computers are a
hundred times cheaper. In the economically developed countries such as
the United States, nearly every worker who can benefit by having access
to a personal computer now has such access. Worldwide, hundreds of
millions of workers have become more productive because they can
routinely make use of a computer, and many of these are connected to
A Thought Experiment
Albert Einstein used the concept of thought experiments
to help people understand some of his ideas about relativity. The next
two paragraphs provide a somewhat modified version of the thought
experiment that Brynjolfsson and McAfee use to illustrate what is
happening in the job market.
Think about a robot that has the
physical and mental abilities to do the same work as a human. Suppose
that a human who is doing this job receives wages and benefits that
total $16 per hour, and that the robot can do the same job for a cost
of $15 per hour. This $15 per hour covers the full costs, including
maintenance, repair, periodic updates, and replacement after it wears
out. Then in this particular job situation, some human workers will be
displaced by robots. Others may take a decrease in wages so that they
remain competitive with such robots.
Now, suppose that a new type of robot
comes on the market that costs only $5 per hour, and is still more
versatile and productive than the first type of robot. Few workers will
be willing to work for $5 per hour—an amount far below the U.S. Federal
minimum wage. Such a robot will displace many millions of workers.
This direct displacement of workers is just now beginning to happen in
the economically developed countries throughout the world. Brynjolfsson
and McAfee present information about a robot named Baxter that costs
only $4 per hour. It is quite versatile and can easily be taught new
tasks. Click here
to see a video showing Baxter in action.
Current Impacts of the Information Age
The previous Newsletter reported Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s
observation that the Industrial Age took many years to have a worldwide
impact. Similarly, it has taken a great many years for the
Information Age to reach a level that is significantly changing the
world. These years have now passed, and the pace of change is
accelerating even more rapidly. “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet” is a good
summary of the changes that are occurring.
As economists, Brynjolfsson and McAfee are particularly interested in the adage, “follow the dollar.” Quoting from their book:
"Between 1983 and 2009, Americans became vastly wealthier overall as the
total value of their assets increased. However, as noted by economists
Ed Wolff and Sylvia Allegretto, the bottom 80 percent of the income
distribution actually saw a net decrease in their wealth. Taken as a
group, the top 20 percent got not just 100 percent of the increase, but
more than 100 percent…. [Indeed,] between 2002 and 2007, the top 1
percent got two-thirds of all of the profits from growth in the U.S,
People like to summarize this situation by saying that the rich got
richer and the poor got poorer. This is a quite misleading statement.
The quality of life of the average poor person in the U.S. has improved
substantially. Think about the advances in medicine, as polio,
smallpox, and measles have been nearly wiped out in the U.S. Think
about the free availability of access to the Internet and Web in
schools, libraries, and “hot spots” throughout the country. Think about
free electronic games that run on quite inexpensive handheld devices.
In another analysis of this situation, Brynjolfsson and McAfee note
that during the Industrial Age, and continuing until about 1995 in the
United States, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew very
substantially. The percentage of the GDP paid to wage earners remained
constant. That is, as the GDP increased more rapidly than the
workforce, workers grew wealthier. With the exception of times of
depression, employment levels were relatively stable over a period of
200 years. Many economists came to believe that all we needed to do to
create new jobs and help the poor move out of poverty was to continue
to “grow” the GDP.
Beginning in about 1995, this long-held assumption has proven
incorrect. For well-educated and highly skilled workers (for example,
those with a college degree) employment and wages have continued to
follow the long-held trend. But, on average, other workers have lost
ground. Their “share” of the GDP has fallen significantly, the number
of well-paying jobs available to them has decreased, and many of the
fulltime jobs they previously held have become part-time jobs. This is
a huge change in employment, and it is happening throughout the
economically developed nations of the world.
Brynjolfsson and McAfee note that we are making good progress in having
driverless cars and trucks, and that this will eventually lead to major
changes in the trucking industry. They also discuss the current state
of the art of natural language translation
systems. These systems are now becoming accurate enough to provide
useful translations of both text and voice input. Google currently
provides free translation of text
in about 70 languages. Computerized voice to voice translation has
reached a useful level. The authors talk about the computer system Watson that
excelled in the TV game show Jeopardy, and that eventually will become
a routine aid to medical doctors. These, and many other changes, are on
According to Brynjolfsson and McAfee, this trend will continue
indefinitely into the future. As robots become more and more physically
and mentally capable, they will displace more and more workers. This
leaves the U.S. and many other countries with a major and growing
problem. As noted in the quotation at the beginning of this newsletter,
“Work saves a man from three great evils: boredom, vice, and need.”
What happens as more and more young people—even those with college
degrees—are unable to find employment that pays a “family wage?”
Brynjolfsson and McAfee discuss three aspects of problems being created
by the Second Machine Age. In brief summary they believe:
- The problems are growing slowly, and we understand the problems.
Governments can take actions to ensure that all people in their
countries have a decent standard of living. With steadily growing
productivity in a country like the U.S., there is absolutely no reason
why so many children are growing up in poverty
and so many older people are living in poverty. Current and future
technologies can produce enough so that no one need live in poverty.
Our methods of distributing goods and services need to change so that
all people have a decent standard of living. Brynjolfsson and McAfee
explore various ways this can be accomplished.
- We can educate people so they can live happy, creative,
meaningful lives independently of their level and type of employment.
This reminds me of the many actors, artists, dancers, musicians, and
other creative and performing artists whose real passion and joy in
life does not come from their “day jobs.” I am also reminded of the
many retired people (including myself) who are not diminished by no
longer having paid employment. Our days are filled by: communicating
with and interacting with relatives and colleagues; volunteerism;
travel; making use of telephones, television, the Internet and the Web;
electronic and non-electronic games; reading; hobbies; and other
- We can improve our educational system to better prepare workers
to work with computers rather than to compete with them. The statement,
“Computers are here to stay,” now seems rather trite. A more modern
statement is, “Intelligent, versatile robots are here to stay.”
Brynjolfsson and McAfee provide examples in which humans and computers
working together can easily surpass computers or humans working alone.
Notice that two of the above statements focus on education. Currently
in the U.S., many politicians and other leaders say that the goals of
precollege education are to prepare students for jobs and to prepare
them for college. To me, this seems far too restrictive. I like to
think in terms of preparing these students for responsible, productive,
and self-fulfilling adulthood—and lifelong learning for dealing with
Brynjolfsson and McAfee point out that there also are many current jobs
that will not be much changed in the near future by computer
technology. Their list includes carpenters, cooks, dentists, gardeners,
home health aides, janitors, and repair people. Human teachers will
continue to play an invaluable role in our informal and formal
educational systems. Robots are still quite far from being able to
provide many of the personal services that people provide for each
Education and Technology
Brynjolfsson and McAfee repeatedly emphasize the need for
students to learn to work with computer technology rather than trying
to learn to compete with it. Some of this learning is occurring via our
informal educational system. Watch youngsters as they use their smart
phones to access information, store information (including music and
videos), communicate, broadly share their ideas, take and share digital
still and video pictures, and so on. While many adults have kept pace
with these youngsters in mastering this very rapid technological
progress, many others have not.
Our precollege schools and systems of higher education are gradually
adjusting to students of all ages having routine access to smart
phones, computer tablets, laptops, electronic games, the Internet, and
the Web. So far, however, they are having trouble appreciating Marshall McLuhan’s statement
“The medium is the message” and his ideas about “global village.” We
have a long way to go before the average adult understands the concept
of being a citizen of the world, that we live in a global village, and
that computer technology is now ubiquitous and still rapidly improving.
Computer-based instruction provides an excellent example of a very
significant coming change in our educational systems. By 1985, there
had been enough research on computer-based instruction
(computer-assisted learning, CAL) that meta-studies (studies of the
published studies) were beginning to be done. Evidence was mounting
on the effectiveness of this new aid to teaching and learning.
Researchers and developers in the area of Highly Interactive
Intelligent Computer-Assisted Learning (HIICAL
envision a future in which all students have routine access to modern
CAL that provides individualized instruction and high quality formative
assessment feedback to students in whatever areas they want to study.
Brynjolfsson and McAfee discuss Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs
as an example of technology now being able to provide free or quite
inexpensive coursework to the world. Imagine a future in which every
student has a computer tablet and routine access to HIICAL-based MOOCs
that cover the entire curriculum. Looking a little further into the
future, what should education look like when many homes have a walking,
talking, artificially intelligent robot that can serve as a child’s
companion, playmate, and tutor? What roles will parents and teachers
play in raising and educating children? What informal and formal
education is needed to appropriately educate parents and teachers for
their changing roles?
We are just at the beginning of the changes that will be
brought about by the continued research, development, and broad use of
computer technology. Brynjolfsson and McAfee discuss the bounties that
this will bring to the people of the world. But, they also point out
the likely continued growth in the inequalities between the very rich
and the very poor. They point out the problems people and governments
face as jobs become scarcer and unemployment and under-employment
The education that people need in order to cope with such changes is
quite different from what most are receiving via our current formal
educational systems. All of us need to have an understanding of these
changes. And, all of us need to become engaged in educating ourselves
and others to effectively deal with such changes.
Brynjolfsson, E., & McAfee, A. (2014). The second machine age: Work, progress, and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies. New York: W.W. Norton.
Brynjolfsson, E., & McAfee, A. (January, 2012).
“Race against the machine: How the digital revolution is accelerating
innovation, driving productivity, and irreversibly transforming
employment and the economy.” MIT Sloan School of Management. Retrieved
4/11/2014 from http://ebookbrowsee.net/brynjolfsson-mcafee-race-against-the-machine-pdf-d344680524.
McAfee, A. (June, 2013). “What will future jobs look like?” TED Talks. Retrieved 4/11/2014 from http://www.ted.com/talks/andrew_mcafee_what_will_future_jobs_look_like.
McAfee, A. (September, 2012). “Are droids taking our jobs?” TED Talks. Retrieved 4/11/2014 from http://www.ted.com/talks/andrew_mcafee_are_droids_taking_our_jobs.
Moursund, D. (5/1/2014). Hungry Children—America's Shame. IAE Blog. Retrieved 5/13/2014 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/hungry-children-america-s-shame.html.
David Moursund is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University
of Oregon. His professional career includes founding the International
Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in 1979, serving as ISTE’s
executive officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship
publication, Learning and Leading
He was the major professor or co-major professor for 82 doctoral
students. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and
workshops. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books
and hundreds of articles. Many of these books are available free
online. See http://iae-pedia.org/David_Moursund_Books
In 2007, Moursund founded Information Age Education (IAE). IAE provides
free online educational materials via its IAE-pedia, IAE Newsletter,
IAE Blog, and books. See http://iae-pedia.org/Main_Page#IAE_in_a_Nutshell
We are using the Disqus commenting system to facilitate comments and
discussions pertaining to this newsletter. To use Disqus, please
click the Login
link below and sign in.
If you have
questions about how to use Disqus, please refer to this help
Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated
to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world.
Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at