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A History of Misplaced Anxiety
Economic growth is a very recent phenomenon. In fact, for most of the three hundred thousand years that human beings have been around, economic life has been relatively stagnant. Our more distant ancestors simply hunted and gathered what little they needed to survive, and that was about it.1 But over the last few hundred years, that economic inactivity came to an explosive end. The amount each person produced increased about thirteen-fold, and world output rocketed nearly three hundred–fold.2 Imagine that the sum of human existence was an hour long: most of this action happened in the last half-second or so, in the literal blink of an eye.
Economists tend to agree with one another that this growth was propelled by sustained technological progress, though not on the reasons why it started just where and when it did—in Western Europe, toward the end of the eighteenth century.3 One reason may be geographical: certain countries had bountiful resources, a hospitable climate, and easily traversable coastlines and rivers for trade. Another may be cultural: people in different communities, shaped by very different intellectual histories and religions, had different attitudes toward the scientific method, finance, hard work, and each other (the level of “trust” in a society is said to be important). The most common explanation of all, though, is institutional: certain states protected property rights and enforced the rule of law in a way that encouraged risk taking, hustle, and innovation, while others did not.
Figure 1.1: Global Output Since AD 14
Whatever the particular reasons, it was Britain that led the economic charge, thundering ahead of others in the 1760s.5 Over the following decades, new machines were invented and put to use that greatly improved the way that goods were produced. Some, like the steam engine, have become standard symbols of economic progress and technological ingenuity. And dramatic as the term “revolution” may seem, it is probably still an understatement: the Industrial Revolution is one of the most significant moments in the history of humankind. Before this period, any economic growth had been limited, stuttering, and quickly fizzled out. Afterward, it started to flow relatively bountifully and steadily. Today, we have become entirely dependent upon this economic fix. Think of the eruptions of anger and anxiety, the waves of frustration and despondency that crash through society each time economic growth stops or even slows. It is as if we can no longer live well without it.
The new technologies of the Industrial Revolution allowed manufacturers to operate more productively than ever before—in short, to make far more with far less.6 And it is here, at the beginning of modern economic growth, that we can also detect the origins of “automation anxiety.” People started to worry that using these machines to make more things would also mean less demand for their own work. From the outset, it seems, economic growth and automation anxiety were intertwined.
Of course, people must have been anxious about automation even before then. For any invention, it is possible to imagine or identify some group of unlucky people who might have felt threatened. The printing press, for instance—perhaps the most consequential of all technologies predating the Industrial Revolution—was initially met with resistance from human scribes who wanted to protect their traditional craft. Regarding printed Bibles, they said that only the devil himself could produce so many copies of a book so swiftly.7 But the particular character of the changes that took place during the Industrial Revolution was different from the past. Their intensity, breadth, and persistence gave a fresh severity to the familiar worries.
This anxiety that automation would destroy jobs spilled into protest and dissent. Consider the experience of James Hargreaves, the modest man who invented the spinning jenny. An illiterate cotton weaver, he retreated to a remote village in Lancashire, England, to build his device in peace. This was a machine that would allow thread to be spun from cotton far more swiftly than with human hands alone, a valuable innovation at a time when turning raw cotton into useable thread was a growing business. (In fact, by the middle of the nineteenth century, Britain would be producing half of all the world’s cloth.)8 But when word spread about what Hargreaves was up to, his neighbors broke in, demolished the machine, and, somewhat gratuitously, destroyed his furniture, too. When Hargreaves tried to set up a factory elsewhere, he and his business partner were set upon by a mob.9
John Kay, a contemporary of Hargreaves, appears to have suffered a similar fate when he invented the flying shuttle in the 1730s. His home, it is said, was likewise ransacked by furious weavers, who “would have killed him had he not been conveyed to a place of safety by two friends in a wool-sheet.”10 A nineteenth-century mural in the town hall in Manchester, England, depicts his surreptitious flight from danger.11
These were not isolated incidents. During the Industrial Revolution, such technological vandalism was widespread. As is now very well-known, these marauders were called “Luddites.” They took their name from Ned Ludd, an apocryphal East Midlands weaver who smashed a set of framing machines at the start of the Industrial Revolution. Ned was probably not a real person, but the disturbances his flag-bearers caused certainly were. In 1812, the British Parliament felt forced to pass the “Destruction of Stocking Frames, etc. Act.” Destroying machines became a crime punishable by death, and several people were soon charged and executed. The following year, the punishment was softened to deportation to Australia—but that, it turned out, was not sufficiently unpleasant, and death was reinstated as the penalty in 1817.12 Today, we still call our technologically disinclined contemporaries Luddites.
Before the Industrial Revolution, the state was not always on the side of the inventors. Indeed, there were moments when it was so troubled by the discontent of disgruntled workers that it stepped in and tried to stop the offending innovations from spreading. Consider two stories from the 1580s. First there was William Lee, an English priest, who invented a machine to free people from having to knit with their hands. In 1589, he made his way to London, hoping to show his invention to Queen Elizabeth I and get a patent to protect it. But when she saw the machine she flat-out refused, replying, “Thou aimest high, Master Lee. Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring to them ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars.”13 Then there is the tragedy of Anton Möller, who had the bad luck to invent the ribbon loom in 1586—bad luck because rather than simply refuse a patent, the city council in his hometown of Danzig is said to have responded to his triumph with an order that he be strangled, hardly the warm reception that we reserve for today’s entrepreneurs.14
But it was not only workers and the state who were anxious. As time passed, economists also started to take the threat of automation seriously. As noted before, it was Keynes who would popularize the term “technological unemployment” in 1930. But David Ricardo, one of the founding fathers of economics, struggled with this issue more than a century before him. In 1817, Ricardo published his great work, Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. Within four years of publication, though, he released a fresh edition with a new chapter, “On Machinery.” In it, he made a significant intellectual concession, declaring that he had changed his mind on the question of whether technological progress would benefit workers. His lifelong assumption that machines would be a “general good” for labor was, he said, a “mistake.” He had now decided—perhaps in response to the wrenching economic changes that the Industrial Revolution was causing at the time in Britain, Ricardo’s home country—that these machines were, in fact, “often very injurious.”15
This anxiety over the harmful impact of machines continued through the twentieth century. In the last few years, we have seen a frenzy of books and articles and reports on the threat of automation. Yet even as early as 1940, the debate about technological unemployment was so commonplace that the New York Times felt comfortable calling it an “old argument.”16 And it is true that these arguments do tend to repeat themselves. President Barack Obama, in his 2016 farewell address, described automation as “the next wave of economic dislocation.” But so did President John F. Kennedy, about sixty years earlier, when, using almost identical words, he said that automation carried with it “the dark menace of industrial dislocation.”17 Similarly, in 2016 Stephen Hawking described how automation has “decimated” blue-collar work and predicted that this would soon “extend … deep into the middle classes.”18 Yet Albert Einstein had made a similar threat in 1931, warning that “man-made machines,” which were meant to liberate human beings from drudgery and toil, were instead poised to “overwhelm” their creators.19 In fact, in almost every decade since 1920, it is possible to find a piece in the New York Times engaging in some way with the threat of technological unemployment.20
UPHEAVAL AND CHANGE
Most of these anxieties about the economic harm caused by new technology have turned out to be misplaced. Looking back over the last few hundred years, there is little evidence to support the primary fear: that technological progress would create large pools of permanently unemployed workers. It is true that workers have been displaced by new technologies, but eventually most have also tended to find new work to do. Time and again, people have worried that “this time is different,” that with the latest technologies mass displacement really is just around the corner—but, in fact, each time has been roughly the same, with mass displacement failing to emerge.
Understandably, this is a common cause for optimism among people who wonder what lies ahead. If those who worried in the past about the future of work were wrong to be concerned, then surely those who worry today are wrong to be anxious, too?
As we shall see, the issue is not so simple. Even if the “this time is different” worry was wrong before, it might still be right today. What’s more, even if history were to repeat itself, we should still beware an excessively optimistic interpretation of the past. Yes, people did tend to find new work after being displaced by technology—but the way in which this happened was far from being gentle or benign. Take the Industrial Revolution again, that textbook moment of technological progress. Despite the Luddites’ fears, the unemployment rate in Britain remained relatively low, as we can see in Figure 1.2. But, at the same time, whole industries were decimated, with lucrative crafts like hand weaving and candle making turned into profitless pastimes. Communities were hollowed out and entire cities thrust into decline. It is noteworthy that real wages in Britain barely rose—a measly 4 percent rise in total from 1760 to 1820. Meanwhile food became more expensive, diets were poorer, infant mortality worsened, and life expectancy fell.21 People were, quite literally, diminished: a historian reports that average physical heights fell to their “lowest ever levels” on account of this hardship.22
Copyright © 2020 by Daniel Susskind