Automation Anxiety

26. January 2015

Date: 26-01-2015
Source: by Daniel Akst

The automation crisis of the 1960s created a surge of alarm over technology’s job-killing effects. There is a lot we can learn from it.

In Ulysses (1922), it’s been said, James Joyce packed all of life into a single Dublin day. So it shouldn’t be surprising that he found room in the novel for Leopold Bloom to tackle the problem of technological disruption:

A pointsman’s back straightened itself upright suddenly against a tramway standard by Mr Bloom’s window. Couldn’t they invent something automatic so that the wheel itself much handier? Well but that fellow would lose his job then? Well but then another fellow would get a job making the new invention?

Notice Bloom’s insights: first, that technology could obviate arduous manual labor; second, that this would cost somebody a job; and third, that it would also create a job, but for a different person altogether.

Surprisingly few people have grasped this process as well as Joyce did. Aristotle pointed out that if the looms wove and the lyres played themselves, we’d need fewer people to do these things. The Luddites, active in 19th-century England, didn’t take the mechanization of textile making lying down. And in 1930, no less an economic sage than John Maynard Keynes fretted about temporary “technological unemployment,” which he feared would grow faster than the number of jobs created by new technologies. Read the rest of this entry »