The History of Technological Anxiety and the Future of Economic Growth: Is This Time Different?

JOEL MOKYR, CHRIS VICKERS, NICOLAS L. ZIEBARTH
THE JOURNAL OF ECONOMIC PERSPECTIVES 29.3 (2015): 31-50

Abstract: Technology is widely considered the main source of economic progress, but it has also generated cultural anxiety throughout history. The developed world is now suffering from another bout of such angst. Anxieties over technology can take on several forms, and we focus on three of the most prominent concerns. First, there is the concern that technological progress will cause widespread substitution of machines for labor, which in turn could lead to technological unemployment and a further increase in inequality in the short run, even if the long-run effects are beneficial. Second, there has been anxiety over the moral implications of technological process for human welfare, broadly defined. While, during the Industrial Revolution, the worry was about the dehumanizing effects of work, in modern times, perhaps the greater fear is a world where the elimination of work itself is the source of dehumanization. A third concern cuts in the opposite direction, suggesting that the epoch of major technological progress is behind us. Understanding the history of technological anxiety provides perspective on whether this time is truly different. We consider the role of these three anxieties among economists, primarily focusing on the historical period from the late 18th to the early 20th century, and then compare the historical and current manifestations of these three concerns.