A WORLD WITHOUT WORK
Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond
By Daniel Susskind
Fearing that a newfangled technology would put them out of work, neighbors broke into the house of James Hargreaves, the inventor of the spinning jenny, and destroyed the machine and also his furniture in 18th-century England. Queen Elizabeth I denied an English priest a patent for an invention that knitted wool, arguing that it would turn her subjects into unemployed beggars. A city council dictated that Anton Möller, who invented the ribbon loom in the 16th century, should be strangled for his efforts.
But centuries of predictions that machines would put humans out of work for good — a scenario that economists call “technological unemployment” — have always turned out to be wrong. Technology eliminated some jobs, but new work arose, and it was often less grueling or dangerous than the old. Machines may have replaced weavers, but yesterday’s would-be weavers are now working jobs their forefathers couldn’t have imagined, as marketing managers and computer programmers and fashion designers. Over the past few centuries, technology has helped human workers become more productive than ever, ushering in unprecedented economic prosperity and raising living standards. The American economy, for instance, grew 15,241-fold between 1700 and 2000.
But if humans’ fears that technology would replace them have been unfounded in the past, this time is different. So argues Daniel Susskind, a fellow in economics at Oxford, in his new book, “A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond.” Susskind declares that machines are getting so smart that they’ll soon replace humans at a growing list of jobs, potentially including doctors, bricklayers and insurance adjusters, thus ending what he calls the “Age of Labor.” Without some sort of intervention, he says, the inequality inherent in today’s economy will metastasize into an even greater divide between the haves and have-nots.
This argument flies against the face of much modern economic thought. As Susskind succinctly summarizes, economists largely agree that while machines have sometimes completely substituted for everything a worker does (think of elevator operators), more frequently, they complement workers’ jobs, taking over some routine and predictable tasks but in the end making workers more productive. Bank tellers feared the advent of automated teller machines, for example, but A.T.M.s actually motivated customers to use banks more, and so increased the number of bank branches and also the number of bank tellers, who were freed up to do tasks other than dispensing cash.