Second Economy

Where is technology taking the economy?

By W. Brian Arthur
Article in McKinsey Quarterly October 2017

We are creating an intelligence that is external to humans and housed in the virtual economy. This is bringing us into a new economic era—a distributive one—where different rules apply.

A year ago in Oslo Airport I checked in to an SAS flight. One airline kiosk issued a boarding pass, another punched out a luggage tag, then a computer screen showed me how to attach it and another where I should set the luggage on a conveyor. I encountered no single human being. The incident wasn’t important but it left me feeling oddly that I was out of human care, that something in our world had shifted.

That shift of course has been going on for a long time. It’s been driven by a succession of technologies—the Internet, the cloud, big data, robotics, machine learning, and now artificial intelligence—together powerful enough that economists agree we are in the midst of a digital economic revolution. But there is less agreement on how exactly the new technologies are changing the economy and whether the changes are deep. Robert Gordon of Northwestern University tells us the computer revolution “reached its climax in the dot-com era of the 1990s.” Future progress in technology, he says, will be slower.

So in what way exactly are the new technologies changing the economy? Is the revolution they are causing indeed slowing—or is it persistent and deep? And if so how will it change the character of the economy?

I argued a few years back that the digital technologies have created a second economy, a virtual and autonomous one, and this is certainly true. But I now believe the main feature of this autonomous economy is not merely that it deepens the physical one. It’s that it is steadily providing an external intelligence in business—one not housed internally in human workers but externally in the virtual economy’s algorithms and machines. Business and engineering and financial processes can now draw on huge “libraries” of intelligent functions and these greatly boost their activities—and bit by bit render human activities obsolete.

I will argue this is causing the economy to enter a new and different era. The economy has arrived at a point where it produces enough in principle for everyone, but where the means of access to these services and products, jobs, is steadily tightening. So this new period we are entering is not so much about production anymore—how much is produced; it is about distribution—how people get a share in what is produced. Everything from trade policies to government projects to commercial regulations will in the future be evaluated by distribution. Politics will change, free-market beliefs will change, social structures will change.

We are still at the start of this shift, but it will be deep and will unfold indefinitely in the future.

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