Book Review

History Predicts the Consequences of Today’s Digital Revolution

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Economist Carl Benedikt Frey offers a refreshingly human-centered analysis of technological progress inThe Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation.

Review By Oscar Schwartz Fall 2019

The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation

Carl Benedikt Frey

480 pages, Princeton University Press, 2019

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In The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation, Carl Benedikt Frey offers a sweeping history of automation from the Industrial Revolution to the current digital age. The Oxford University economist argues that while labor-replacing technologies generate progress in the long run, these advances often have devastating consequences for much of the working population during their lifetimes.

Economists, he proposes, tend to analyze technological history by the fruits it bears us now, rather than the pain it caused in the past. This penchant blinds us not only to the human cost of automation but also to the ways that technological disruption can foment political polarization and social discord.

While Frey’s analysis offers a useful historical lesson for the age of AI, where technology substitutes for human skill, it puts too much emphasis on the extent to which technology on its own determines the development of our political and social realities.

The Technology Trap originated in research Frey published in 2013 along with his Oxford colleague in computer science Michael Osborne, in which they predicted that 47 percent of the US workforce faced a significant risk of being replaced by machines in the coming decades due to advances in AI and machine learning. Their paper “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?” roiled academic circles and the popular press, prompting sensationalist headlines such as “The Robots Are Coming for Your Job” and “Is AI a Threat to Humanity?” 

In the midst of this publicity, a well-known economist told Frey that the current wave of automation was “just like” the Industrial Revolution in England. The remark seemed to make a somewhat backhanded point about the hype that Frey’s paper had received: While technology has become more sophisticated, the process of labor replacement is nothing new. It has happened before, and civilization not only survived but flourished. In other words, the eminent economist was saying that there is no real cause for alarm.

Frey agreed that the current computer age is similar to the Industrial Revolution, but he also knew that the years between 1780 and 1840 in England were exceptionally complicated, polarized, and filled with unimaginable human suffering. “If this is ‘just’ another Industrial Revolution,” he thought, “alarm bells should be ringing.”

Frey’s history starts 10,000 years ago with the invention of agriculture, but his central argument develops only in the second section of the book, which focuses on the Industrial Revolution. Frey proposes that the greatest innovations of the era—Richard Arkwright’s water frame, James Watt’s steam engine, James Hargreaves’ spinning jenny—were all labor-replacing technologies, substituting highly-skilled workers with machines that were operated by lesser-skilled workers, often children. Although these innovations catapulted profits for manufacturers, workers saw no benefit. “The lives of many commoners got nastier, more brutish, and shorter,” Frey writes, adding that their lives would have undoubtedly been “better off had the industrial world never arrived.”

This is not to say that Frey believes that all technological progress has hurt all workers. Sometimes technological advances can be so transformational at scale that society must, he argues, “willingly accept progress for the many at the expense of the few.” As a case in point, Frey refers to the Second Industrial Revolution in the United States—the widespread uptake of electricity, the mechanization of the household, and the rise of the automobile—as “the Great Leveling,” a moment in time when the fruits of industry were more evenly distributed to workers, which, created a vibrant middle class. While the worker-technology relationship was not frictionless during this era, the growing middle class saw technology as improving their standard of living.

But evenly distributed material benefits from technological progress are, according to Frey, the historical exception rather than the rule. The current era of computers, beginning in the 1980s, has once again witnessed the disruption of the workforce by new and powerful labor-replacing technologies. This upheaval, in turn, has re-created the unstable economic and social conditions of the Industrial Revolution: a boost to productivity, coupled with an ever-shrinking labor market, lower wages, and greater wealth inequality. Frey believes these trends will only get worse as big data becomes more readily available and algorithms more powerful, imbuing machines with an ever-increasing number of talents previously restricted to humans. There will be great technological innovation over the coming decades, to be sure, but also de-skilling, displacement, inequality, and suffering for many working people. 

According to Frey, this rising discontent is something we should be worried about right now, regardless of the future benefits of AI. A central premise of his argument is that when technology causes suffering in the short term, it fosters resentment toward technology itself, which can lead to profound social and political upheaval. The most well-known instance of this was the Luddite movement, led by textile workers who, in response to mechanized looming, rioted throughout the English Midlands between 1811 and 1816. Frey proposes that far from being a ragtag group, the Luddites were organized, were popular with workers across the country, and managed to cause significant social unrest.

Frey observes that faint stirrings of the same anti-technology animus are emerging today. At this stage, the new Luddism is fairly contained, mostly expressing itself as worker strikes and shifting public attitudes toward technology. But with the unrest of the Industrial Revolution at the forefront of his mind, Frey issues a warning: “We have seen nothing yet.” If the broader cultural backlash against technology companies is anything to go by, he may be right.

Underpinning Frey’s narrative is a strong technological determinism: the view that new technology directs how society, politics, and culture develop. This framework on occasion leads to oversimplifications. For instance, Frey frames the Luddites as an anti-technology movement that saw machines as enemies. But as English professor Kevin Binfield, editor of Writings of the Luddites, has convincingly argued, it was not technology that the Luddites were targeting, but the capitalist manufacturers who used the new machines in “fraudulent and deceitful” ways to undercut standard labor practices. 

Frey also discusses the progress of AI with a degree of inevitability that many researchers in the industry do not. For instance, while he sees the mass-scale substitution of humans with AI in a large percentage of jobs as inevitable, robotics pioneer Rodney Brooks has referred to such predictions as “hysterical,” due to the fact that there are always unforeseen complications in technological progress. Far from leading to a one-to-one replacement of computational systems for humans, the rise of AI has led in many cases to what filmmaker Astra Taylor has called “fauxtomation,” whereby human labor, like social media content moderation, is concealed behind the myth of AI to justify degraded working conditions.

While Frey’s belief in the advancement of AI is at times exaggerated, he recognizes that technological progress is made possible only by those who have power—an important point to make, especially given the increasing political power of large tech companies. The Luddites, despite their persistent resistance, lacked the political clout to stymie the march of the machines. The British government sided with innovators and manufacturers and funded new machinery in order to gain greater global economic dominance. Such an alliance between political power and technological progress, Frey argues, is an exception to a historical rule. For most of human history, he says, those in power “vigorously resisted [technology] for fear of its destabilizing force.” The Industrial Revolution, which saw the British government side with the captains of industry, was a reversal of historical precedent. This alliance led to such rapid economic growth that, thereafter, the idea of political power being anti- technology became, in the West, unfeasible.

That is, Frey says, until now. World leaders, sensing discontent and an opportunity for populist support, are beginning to frame technology as an enemy of the working class. British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has promised to tax robots, as has South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

And then there is Donald Trump. “The slogan ‘Make America Great Again,’” Frey writes, “clearly targeted people in the smokestack cities and towns of the Second Industrial Revolution that once flourished but are now in despair.” In a chilling historical analogy, Frey mentions that Adolf Hitler was a staunch opponent of automation—one of the Nazi Party’s populist slogans was “Never again must the worker be replaced by a machine.”  

Although we are still in the early days of this anti-tech populism, Frey believes that now is the time to address grievances about technological progress within the structures of liberal democracy. He recommends education and retraining for displaced workers and innovation in wealth distribution methods. Set out briefly at the end of the book, these propositions feel like underdeveloped afterthoughts. Similar recommendations have been made by a number of other economists, but at this stage, the politics of implementing such measures have proved difficult.

While there is nothing revolutionary in his recommendations, Frey offers a moral lesson: When it comes to technological development, the future doesn’t matter as much as the past or present. It is refreshing for an economist to take this human-centered perspective. If people are suffering now, we should care about them, listen to their grievances, and make policy decisions accordingly. After all, even if technological progress creates future abundance, Frey quips, “the short run can be a lifetime, and of course in the long run we are all dead.”

This article appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of the magazine with the headline: “History’s Tech Lessons”

Oscar Schwartz (@scarschwartz) writes and reports on the intersection of technology, science, and identity. He is the author of The Honeymoon Stage and has contributed to publications such as The Guardian and the The Atlantic.