Automation angst

“Automation angst” in the latest edition of The Economist discusses three new papers published together in the open access Journal of Economic Perspectives, including “The History of Technological Anxiety and the Future of Economic Growth: Is This Time Different?”. From this particular JoEP journal article…

“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.”

The three major doom-isms that were promulgated are identified as:

1. Substitution – widespread substitution of machines for labor. (Happened, but a great many completely new types of jobs were created, often as a direct result of the new machine age)

2. Dehumanisation – new technological processes will morally degrade workers. (Happened somewhat, but alongside huge workplace improvements that made humdrum jobs much more acceptable)

3. “No more progress” – the epoch of major technological progress is behind us. (Obviously wrong)

Such angst historically viewed the world as if a “fixed pie” to be sliced up, and thus failed to understand the inherent flexibility and growth of the work economy that makes a dynamic society into an “infinitely expandable pie”. The Economist concludes from the papers that…

“many jobs still require a mixture of skills, flexibility and judgment; they draw upon “tacit” knowledge that is a very long way from being codified or performed by robots. Moreover, automation is likely to be circumscribed … as politicians fret about wider social consequences. Most important of all, even if they do destroy as many jobs as pessimists imagine, many other as yet unimagined ones that cannot be done by robots are likely to be created.”

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