People who think that technology should never be regulated, that its owners should be allowed to disrupt as much as they like and do whatever damage they like to people and society in the meantime, love to argue that technological progress inevitably means that everyone will eventually benefit from the progress that technology brings. No matter how much pain you suffer in the short term, you will benefit in the medium to long term. At worst, your children will inevitably be better off than you. So quit your whining and wait for your betters to deliver the technological utopia that is sure to follow their disruption. It is an iron physical law, like gravity, evolution, and me hitting every traffic light between my house and my destination.
It is also utter bullshit.
Progress and Promise by Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson make the hollowness of that promise abundantly clear. The book is a very well written history of technological progress throughout human history with a focus on whether or not such technological progress actually represented progress for the majority of humans at the time. The answer is almost always no, unsurprisingly, if you understand anything about power relationships.
Significant technological changes tend to be very disruptive, obviously. That disruption usually manifests itself in a change in who holds economic and political power, with changes usually leading to a concentration of both. When new technology comes along, the people in position to take advantage of it tend to lock in their advantage and hoard the benefits. The authors demonstrate that this pattern has existed throughout time.
The agricultural revolution is generally held to have resulted in societies that were much mor hierarchical, unequal and, for the majority if their members, less healthy than hunter gatherer societies. The so-called Dark Ages in Europe actually saw an enormous increase in agricultural productivity. Almost all of it was captured by religious and political organizations in the form of military installations and cathedral building. The benefit of water powered mills, for example, was controlled for centuries by those with political power. For almost the entire length of the Industrial Revolution, the vast majority of people lived shorter, less healthy, poorer lives than before the Revolution. The advances in that time period also allowed for the expansion of colonialism and slavery — definitely making the lives of those intuitions’ victims worse. The benefits of technological advances were often a curse not a blessing.
So where did the idea that technological progress inevitably leads to human progress come from? Partly it is propaganda, but there have been periods and regions where technology’s benefits were more broadly shared. The book identifies two main conditions for this beneficial state of affairs to attain: technologies that create jobs more than automate them and the presence of significant countervailing powers.
The conditions for technology producing more jobs than they destroy tend to be rare. It generally requires a lower population so that there is more money in augmenting human skills than replacing them. The early United States was such a place: its relative sparce population tended to encourage the use of technologies that increased the value of human labor, and thus drove up the value of human beings. Unfortunately, this rarely happens by itself. Mostly, people need to fight for those conditions — they need to create countervailing forces.
Labor organization is obviously the most potent form of these countervailing powers, but that organization can manifest itself in many ways. The best results tended to marry labor militancy with some form of democracy. In England, for example, it was many decades (even centuries if you wish to trace the impulse to the Levelers) before unions were legalized, and that led, many decades later, to the social democracy that the Tories are trying to tear down today. A similar story can be told in multiple places in the world, but the basics are usually the same: impoverished workers band together over generations and eventually force some measure of political accountability that leads finally to the benefits of technology being more widely shared.
Obviously, we now live in a time of both great technological change and the use of that changes to create new fortunes and greater inequality. The authors realize that the conditions of today are not the same as even the recent past. Globalization, rapid communication, surveillance capitalism, social media misinformation — all are much worse or unique in this era. They do make a strong case, however, that countervailing powers are possible and provide several suggestions as to how to build those powers today.
While I don’t agree with all of those suggestions, they are a good reminder of the book’s main point: the benefits of technological change have almost always had to be ripped from the hands of the powerful. There is nothing in history that suggests that technology will make us all better off merely by existing. We must arrange society so that those benefits are shared widely, and the externalities are not just borne by society and not the people who produce them. That has historically required conflict with the powers that would hoard the benefit and resulting power for themselves.
Progress and Promise is an excellent reminder of these facts. It is a well written, tightly focused survey of the history of technology change and the damage it has done when the costs are socialized and the benefits are privatized. Anyone who cares about how to make sure this era turns out better than previous such eras should read this book.