Book Summary | Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future

Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson

Short Summary

Written by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future serves as a book that really challenges what is going on in society through technological advancements in three specific areas. The first part involves minds and machines. The authors explore how machines are more than ever combining and taking over ways that different businesses perform some of their most important tasks. The second area of focus revolves around products and platforms. In this part, the authors discuss how products and platforms are being brought together by companies to revitalize what they offer to its customers. The third and final part of the book discusses the core and the crowd, more specifically around how these two things are altering how companies look like and perform.

Part 1 (Mind and Machine) : This part begins with the discussion of different types of decisions that humans and machines can make, specifically pointing at when it is better off to let machines make decisions and why. More often than not, relying more on algorithms and data serves as a better decision process than even that of a human expert in a particular field. But, that isn’t to say that human decisions should be totally eradicated, because there are still many things like judgement and common sense that only humans can possess. This section of the book also talks about how despite the continued virtualization of business, some people still prefer human-to-human interactions. Adding to this, it is important to note how much more computers are able to do, especially within the realm of creativity, which most appoint to only a trait of humans. But how far can this creativity go?

Part 2 (Product and Platform) :  In this section, the authors discuss how the emergence of platforms have disrupted numerous industries. They define a platform as digital environment that is most usually associated with close to no marginal cost of access, reproduction, and distribution. The rise of platforms have been heavily influenced due to network effects, where platforms become more useful as more and more people use them. One of the key characteristics mentioned by the authors that successful platforms share include that successful platforms are open to a large range of contributors and contributions. This section goes on to talk about Apple’s decision on whether or not to let outside developers create applications for its products. Boston College alumnus Phil Schiller was mentioned to be one of the main supporters of opening up Apple’s platform, despite Steve Jobs’ early disapproval. The authors note how important it is for platform owners to bring in contributions and select them effectively. Many new platforms are emerging, including what are called online-to-offline platforms, which connect digital platforms that deal physical goods. Examples of these platforms include Airbnb, Grubhub, and Uber. Overall, most platforms revolve around the power of two-sided networks, where decisions by sets of customers and products can greatly affect different products.

Part 3 (Core and Crowd) : The final part of the book emphasizes how much information is available in today’s world. One quote in particular that stood out was that “The Internet is the world’s largest library. It’s just that all the books are on the floor” (233). This basically refers to the crowd, which can be described quite large and diverse, but also uncontrollable and messy. Often times, though, the crowd can be more valuable than an expert. This is due to the crowd containing large amounts people who are smart and motivated, and also quite distant from an organization’s core. The authors also discuss though the benefits sometimes of staying away from the crowd, for example if something needs to be done as quickly and efficiently as possible. Despite this, it is quite evident that the crowd is growing and thriving, often because the core is mismatched in its various problems. The section then goes on to talk about cryptocurrencies and blockchain, more specifically on how despite the up and down success of bitcoin, the blockchain it runs on is quite valuable. Blockchain is something that can dictate the future of many industries, but the crowd has to be on board. Simply put, a crowd can make or break an innovation.

In depth topic (AI, Machines, and Society)

One topic that really interested me was the discussion about how machines will transform society in the future. Obviously, people are worried about whether or not machines will start replacing everything that they currently do today. The authors note the importance, though, that technology is a tool. People are scared with what technology will do to us in the future, but that shouldn’t be the case. Tools do not dictate what happens to people, whether it be a screwdriver or a complex network. Instead, us as humans decide what to do with the tools. It is important to note that computers are going to continue to be able to do more and more things as time goes on. Despite this, computers do not understand the human condition the way that a human being can. One example brought up is the idea that a machine could never coach a girls soccer team, for reasons that I am sure you could imagine. But going off this, examples like this show that high level social skills still hold great value. Combining these skills with the quantitative skills are machines are continuing to possess will lead to an exciting future. Instead of being afraid of the future, it is imperative to be optimistic about it. One humorous quote revolves around how a medical office in the future might employ a person, a dog, and an artificial intelligence. It reads that “AI’s job will be to diagnose the patient, the person’s job will be to understand and communicate the diagnosis, and to coach the patient through treatment, and the dog’s job will be to bite the person if the person tries to second-guess the artificial intelligence” (124).

Book Assessment

Overall, I would highly recommend this book. Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson do a wonderful job of explaining how technology is shaping our future and how we can do our best jobs at harnessing this. This book also sheds light on some very important topics in today’s tech world. These are terms that we hear everyday, but most people still don’t know what they mean. Some of these terms include artificial intelligence, machine learning, and blockchain. Despite being on the longer end, this book was definitely worth the investment. I plan to take what I have learned to really see how the companies we visit in San Fransisco are harnessing a digital future.

5 thoughts on “Book Summary | Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future

  1. Carter, I read this book for Tech Trek East last semester and I am so glad you enjoyed it as much as I did. You did a great job with the summary–I had forgotten exactly how much the book covers and you did it justice. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Carter! I read your comment on my post and I was very curious of what you did for your in-depth analysis. The chapter you did was one of my favorite chapters! AI and machine learning are such hot topics nowadays that I think we all need to have some knowledge about in order to keep up with current and future changes that AI will bring to the not only the business field, but all industries. Can’t wait to hear more about what you think of the book in class on Wednesday!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Carter, I read The AI Advantage for my book and in it Thomas Davenport echoes your point about AI and technology being a tool for humans to use. I thought it was very interesting that two authors drew the same conclusion that seems to be contrary to popular fear/belief! See you in class tomorrow!


  4. Hi Carter! After seeing your comment on my book summary, I figure I would check out what you read. I am now definitely taking this read into consideration especially to learn more about blockchain, a concept I am not fully educated on. I thought your summary was well written and insightful and one of the topics that stuck out to me was the portion of the summary on product and platform. I found it interesting how the book discussed the emergence of platforms and how it has disrupted multiple industries. The book I read also covered the increasing emergence of apps and networks so on this matter I found myself comparing the texts. Overall, great summary!


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