This piece was originally published in Providence.
From at least the mid-twentieth century, all the way to the early 2000s, popular visions of technology’s role in the future were marked by sunny optimism. Technology, it was said, would raise the standard of living, topple once and for all the old information-hoarding hierarchies and monopolies, and unite people around the world in one harmonious democratic celebration. Today, no one even pretends to believe such a future is imminent. What happened?
Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson suggest an answer in Power and Progress: Our Thousand-Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity. Acemoglu and Johnson, both professors at MIT, argue that the “secret sauce of shared prosperity in the decades following World War II” was “a direction of technology that created new tasks and jobs for workers of all skill levels and an institutional framework enabling workers to share productivity increases with employers and managers”—in other words, a set of policies promoting the development and growth of technologies that supported and enriched, rather than displaced, workers. But in recent decades, we’ve followed a different recipe, so to speak, one that has empowered employers, managers, and other elites while condemning everyone else to stagnating wages, precarious employment, and a Panopticon-like corporate invasion of our privacy.
As far as sauces go, Acemoglu and Johnson’s is rather bland, but it comes with an intriguing garnish: an emphasis on the sheer contingency of our technologies’ trajectory, and its broader political and social impact. “Technology’s bias against working people,” they argue, “is always a choice, not an inevitable side effect of ‘progress.’” For Acemoglu and Johnson, deterministic thinking about technology has crippled our ability to address today’s problems, and blinded us to how our history could have been different.