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The Second Machine Age: The Inflection Point is Coming, the Inflection Point is Coming!

Run, don't walk to your nearest ebook store. Download The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee." And read at least the first chapter of this amazing book written by two MIT professors.

Since y'all probably won't listen to our advice, we will do a quick review of its core premises: (FYI: The quotes below that do not have specific attribution are quotes from the Second Machine Age book.)

What institution, event, activity, etc. has "substantially transformed civilization"?

  • Religion? No, not really.
  • Domesticating animals? No, not really.
  • The printing press? No, not really.


Right answer: "The steam engine" – more particularly, the "brilliantly tinkered" version developed by James Watt between 1765 and 1776

  • "Even though [the steam] revolution took several decades to unfold ... it was nonetheless the biggest and fastest transformation in the entire history of the world." (Our emphasis.)
  • "More than anything else, [Watt's steam engine] allowed us to overcome the limitations of muscle power, human and animal, and generate massive amounts of useful energy at will."
  • "The Industrial Revolution ushered in humanity's First Machine Age — the first time our progress was driven primarily by technological innovation — and it was the most profound time of transformation our world has ever seen. The ability to generate massive amounts of mechanical power was so important that… it 'made mockery of all the drama of the world's earlier history.'" (Our emphasis.)

You know what's coming next, right? The second Machine Age:

  • "Computers and other digital advances are doing for mental power — the ability to use our brains to understand and shape our environments — what the steam engine and its descendants did for muscle power. They're allowing us to blow past previous limitations and taking us into new territory."
  • "...[M]ental power is at least as important for progress and development — for mastering our physical and intellectual environment to get things done — as physical power. So a vast and unprecedented boost to mental power should be a great boost to humanity, just as the earlier boost to physical power so clearly was."

That's the "Cliff's Notes" version of the book. The authors spend 150 pages giving example after example of the changes engendered by the Second Machine Age ... changes "unfolding right now."

Yes, folks: "unfolding right now." To (repeat a) quote from another futurist, William Gibson:  "The future is already here. It's just not evenly distributed yet."  The world is changing dramatically … literally, as we read this blog post!

While K-12 is still locked into arguing about what kids should know in the first grade, the second grade, etc. the world in which those first and second graders are living is undergoing a profound transformation. K-12 is still debating the value of technology in the classroom – with cell phones not allowed in class ... because they are too "disruptive." Indeed, the mobile phone is disruptive, and that is a good thing! For example, as Alec Oxenford argues: "... [F]or many ... populations, mobile is the Internet."

Earlier we (C&E) argued that the arrival of the $100 computer – a mobile device, needless to say – will cause an inflection point in K-12. ("Inflection point, noun. A moment of dramatic change....")

Brynjolfsson and McAfee also use that term:

"[the world is] at an inflection point ... an inflection point in the history of our economies and societies because of digitization. It's an inflection point in the right direction — bounty instead of scarcity, freedom instead of constraint — but one that will bring with it some difficult challenges and choices."

Their inflection point subsumes our inflection point! No problem! The Second Machine Age is a big deal!

Dear readers, we won't repeat here the challenges that Brynjolfsson and McAfee acknowledge come along with the Second Machine Age. They are scary, as you might well imagine.

But the bottom line is this: the Second Machine Age is already upon us, building up ... steam (ohhhhh!).  Entertainment, journalism, shopping, traveling, manufacturing, etc. etc. are all undergoing an inflection point – a moment of dramatic change. K-12? Buckle up!

About the Authors

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Reinventing Curriculum blog at