Say what you like about Lord Byron, he knew how to turn a phrase. Here he spoke in the House of Lords in 1812. His title is the folly of the factory stormtroopers, the machine-breaking Luddites: “The abandoned workers, blinded by ignorance, instead of enjoying these artistic improvements. They thought of themselves as sacrifices for the benefit of mankind, for the reformation of order.
The word “Luddite” is a slur today, a label you slap on a Boomer who doesn’t know how podcasts work. But it would have been clear to Byron’s contemporaries that his words dripped with irony. Byron supported the Luddites. They were indeed sacrificed on the altar of productivity improvement. There was nothing he knew about the opposition of their power.
Alongside the “Luddite” label is the “Luddite fallacy,” which refers to the belief that technological progress will lead to mass unemployment. We call it a fallacy because it is contradicted by two hundred years of experience; There were always new jobs, and over time and on average those new jobs were more productive and better paid than the old ones.
But Luddism seems to have made a comeback. An upcoming book, The blood in the machine, argues that the “roots of the rebellion against Big Tech” lie in the Luddite rebellion. And for at least a decade, researchers have been discouraging mass unemployment.
First, in 2013, there was a famous “Future of Employment” study from Oxford scholars Carl Frei and Michael Osborne, whose headline was that 47 percent of jobs are vulnerable to automation. Then there were all the taxi and truck drivers whose jobs were in self-driving vehicles. Now it is “generative” artificial intelligence that has struck fear into the hearts of creators everywhere; Dall-E and Midjourney destroy the work of publishers, while ChatGPT and Bard come in for journalists and technical writers.
Is it true that our work will be lost at this time? Or do we sit back and wait for another two hundred years of productivity-based prosperity? I think neither view is satisfactory.
Instead, what about the view that technology does not create mass unemployment, but can create unintended consequences by destroying livelihoods and concentrating power in the hands of a few? (I once suggested “neo-Luddite” as a label for this view, but alas, true technophobes appropriated that label long ago.)
Consider the ATM: It didn’t do much for bank tellers. Instead, it freed them up to sell subprime mortgages. Or the digital spreadsheet, which required humble accountants to do rows and columns of arithmetic, and allowed accounting to be a (ahem) more creative profession. Such technologies did not destroy jobs, but they were created again. Some are more satisfying and fun, while others are more brutal and grinding.
In his new book Power and growthEconomists Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson say that while technological progress can bring prosperity, there is no guarantee that this will happen quickly – and in some cases, there is no guarantee at all.
“While the textile mills of Britain’s first industrial revolution produced enormous wealth for a few, they did not raise workers’ incomes for nearly a century,” he wrote. It’s too late for textile workers who lost their good jobs. There are more examples, such as ocean-going ships, that enabled the transatlantic slave trade. There are also very subtle ones. The barcode gave us shorter checkout lines and lower prices, but it also changed the balance of power between retailers and suppliers, between corner stores and major retailers, and ultimately between brick-and-mortar retailers and their online competitors.
Neo-Luddites may take inspiration from John Booth, a 19-year-old apprentice who joined a Luddite attack on a textile mill in April 1812. . Booth’s last words were “Can you keep a secret?” It became a legend. He whispered to the local priest; And he proved that he could. “So can I,” replied the dying Booth. But it was Booth’s earlier words that deserve our attention. The new machinery, he argued, “may be man’s greatest blessing rather than his curse if society is structured differently.”
In other words, how a new technology helps ordinary citizens depends not only on the nature of the technology, but also on the nature of the society in which the technology is developed and deployed. Acemoglu and Johnson argue that broad-based prosperity is escaping us today, just as it eluded workers of the early industrial revolution.
What is needed? Better policies, of course: taxes and subsidies in favor of the right kind of technology; Smart rules to protect workers’ rights; Antitrust action to break up monopolies; All this, of course, done carefully and with a minimum of red tape and red tape. It is to see how difficult it can be to clearly define the task.
And as Acemoglu and Johnson explain, these policies run on rocky ground without sources of political power that can stand up to monopolists and billionaires.
In the absence of such conditions, Luddism resorted to what one historian has called “disruptive consensus,” to burn and even kill. The state fought back, and in the words of another historian, “Luddism ended on a whim”. It was a shameful business and a wasted opportunity to improve society and deliver “man’s chief blessing,” as Boot thought.
If the latest technologies are truly transformative, we will have such an opportunity again. Will we do better this time?
Tim Harford’s children’s book, “Truth Detective” (Wren and Rook) is available now.
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