Sunday, 28 May 2017

History of Technological Anxiety

One of the yet-unfinished books on my bedside table (well now, in my office) is Joel Mokyr’s A Culture of Growth that I have mentioned before. Life, dissertations, exam prep and other Uni work has forced me to put his authoritative and admirable prose aside for now. As a neat guilt-driven compromise, I recently read his 2015 article co-authored with Chris Vickers and Nicolas Ziebarth, with perhaps the greatest title I have seen in a long time: “The History of Technological Anxiety”.

The story is exactly what one would expect from that kind of title, especially knowing a thing or two about Mokyr’s previous writings (See Gifts of Athena or Lever of Riches); the worries economists and political pundits alike express about automation or robots routinely taking over jobs previously done by humans is neither as hip nor as modern as they sometimes believe. And no, Mokyr goes way beyond the iconic examples of Luddites smashing machinery in 19th century England  which he incidentally shows was rarely about opposition towards the machines per se but about working conditions, wages and hours, i.e., destroyed factory equipment was collateral damage of standard labour disputes rather than a fierce opposition to technology itself (pp. 34-35).

Sharing the confusion most sane observers have towards accounts like 'The End of Work', every other The Guardian article, commentators at Slate or more professional voices such as Larry Summers  or Noah Smith, Mokyr neatly traces the history of such excessive anxiety:
it is surely not without precedent that the developed world is now suffering from another bout of such angst. In fact, these worries about technological change have often appeared at times of flagging economic growth. For example, the Great Depression brought the first models of secular stagnation in Alvin Hansen’s 1938 book Full Recovery or Stagnation? [...] The argument of this paper is that these worries are not new to the modern era and that understanding the history provides perspective on whether this time is truly different. (pp. 31-32, emphasis added)
He dug up a pretty impressive collection of economists of the past expressing the same worry about technology and jobs that people commonly discuss today. Ricardo in the third edition of his Principles famously changed opinion from believing that applying machinery was good to 'substitution of machinery for human labour is often very injurious to the interests of the class of labourers.' (quote found on p. 33). Many well-known economists of the past, ranging from John Stuart Mill, to Marx to pre-Adam Smith economists like John Steuart, as well as early 20th century economists like Knut Wicksell or John Bates Clark expressed similar concerns about technology, although they commonly emphasised benefitial outcomes in the long run with various levels of concerns for the workers during the transition period (see Mokyr's discussion pp. 33-38). 

A related, but somewhat different claim often found both in the contemporary discussion and in the writings of technologically anxious economists of the past is the extent to which we've reached the technological frontier: there are simply no more advances to be made, the scope for improvement is very small or that they're no longer needed. Modern examples here are Robert Gordon's book from last year or Summers' secular stagnation. Infamous examples of economists of old making similar points is Keynes' Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, John Stuart Mill's 1848 comment that 'it is only in the backward countries of the world that increased production is still an important object' or previously mentioned Alvin Hansen. 

When public personas such as Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg call for Universal Basic Incomes as fanciful solution to economic insecurity or technological loss of employment, this should be seen in light of the long tradition of scholars, economists and commentators worrying over what technological development will do to a certain group of people. The Great Disruption is coming throughout history there has hardly ever been much reason for concern. Mokyr's conclusion is on point: 
Technophobic predictions about the future of the labor market sometimes suggest that computers and robots will have an absolute and comparative advantage over humans in all activities, which is nonsensical. (p. 45)
Discussions of how technology may affect labor demand are often focused on existing jobs, which can offer insights about which occupations may suffer the greatest dislocation, but offer much less insight about the emergence of as-yet-nonexistent occupations of the future. If someone as brilliant as David Ricardo could be so terribly wrong in how machinery would reduce the overall demand for labor, modern economists should be cautious in making pronouncements about the end of work. (p. 45, emphasis added)
Worrying over what technology will do to current jobs and underestimating the ability of entrepreneurs and innovators and consumers to create entirely new categories of products (and jobs!) at ever cheaper prices, has been a common feature much longer than Noah Smith, Bill Gates or Larry Summers have expressed these opinions. Nothing about current automation changes that, and worrying about it today will in time appear as ridiculous as worrying about it in the past. Technophobia and technological anxiety is a real concern for many people, but an honest examination suggests that it shouldn't be.

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