We do have one quibble with Simon, however. He wrote that, “The main fuel to speed the world’s progress is our stock of knowledge, and the brake is our lack of imagination.” We agree about the fuel but disagree about the brake. The main impediment to progress has been that, until quite recently, a sizable portion of the world’s people had no effective way to access the world’s stock of knowledge or to add to it.
In the industrialized West we have long been accustomed to having libraries, telephones, and computers at our disposal, but these have been unimaginable luxuries to the people of the developing world. That situation is rapidly changing. In 2000, for example, there were approximately seven hundred million mobile phone subscriptions in the world, fewer than 30 percent of which were in developing countries.
By 2012 there were more than six billion subscriptions, over 75 percent of which were in the developing world. The World Bank estimates that three-quarters of the people on the planet now have access to a mobile phone, and that in some countries mobile telephony is more widespread than electricity or clean water.
The first mobile phones bought and sold in the developing world were capable of little more than voice calls and text messages, yet even these simple devices could make a significant difference. Between 1997 and 2001 the economist Robert Jensen studied a set of coastal villages in Kerala, India, where fishing was the main industry.10 Jensen gathered data both before and after mobile phone service was introduced, and the changes he documented are remarkable. Fish prices stabilized immediately after phones were introduced, and even though these prices dropped on average, fishermen’s profits actually increased because they were able to eliminate the waste that occurred when they took their fish to markets that already had enough supply for the day. The overall economic well-being of both buyers and sellers improved, and Jensen was able to tie these gains directly to the phones themselves.
Now, of course, even the most basic phones sold in the developing world are more powerful than the ones used by Kerala’s fisherman over a decade ago. And cheap mobile devices keep improving. Technology analysis firm IDC forecasts that smartphones will outsell feature phones in the near future, and will make up about two-thirds of all sales by 2017.
This shift is due to continued simultaneous performance improvements and cost declines in both mobile phone devices and networks, and it has an important consequence: it will bring billions of people into the community of potential knowledge creators, problem solvers, and innovators.
'Infinite Computing' and Beyond
Today, people with connected smartphones or tablets anywhere in the world have access to many (if not most) of the same communication resources and information that we do while sitting in our offices at MIT. They can search the Web and browse Wikipedia. They can follow online courses, some of them taught by the best in the academic world. They can share their insights on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and many other services, most of which are free. They can even conduct sophisticated data analyses using cloud resources such as Amazon Web Services and R, an open source application for statistics.13 In short, they can be full contributors in the work of innovation and knowledge creation, taking advantage of what Autodesk CEO Carl Bass calls “infinite computing.”
Until quite recently rapid communication, information acquisition, and knowledge sharing, especially over long distances, were essentially limited to the planet’s elite. Now they’re much more democratic and egalitarian, and getting more so all the time. The journalist A. J. Liebling famously remarked that, “Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.” It is no exaggeration to say that billions of people will soon have a printing press, reference library, school, and computer all at their fingertips.
We believe that this development will boost human progress. We can’t predict exactly what new insights, products, and solutions will arrive in the coming years, but we are fully confident that they’ll be impressive. The second machine age will be characterized by countless instances of machine intelligence and billions of interconnected brains working together to better understand and improve our world. It will make mockery out of all that came before.
This post is adapted from Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee's The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies.