Technology is widely considered the main source of economic progress, but it has also generated cultural anxiety throughout history. From generation to generation, literature has often portrayed technology as alien, incomprehensible, increasingly powerful and threatening, and possibly uncontrollable (Ellul 1967; Winner 1977). The myth of Prometheus is nothing if not a cautionary tale of these uncontrollable effects of technology. In Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud (1930 , pp. 38–39) assessed what technology has done to homo sapiens, making him into a kind of God with artificial limbs, “a prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown onto him and they still give him much trouble at times.”
So it is surely not without precedent that the developed world is now suffering from another bout of such angst. In fact, these worries about technological change have often appeared at times of flagging economic growth. For example, the Great Depression brought the first models of secular stagnation in Alvin Hansen’s 1938 book Full Recovery or Stagnation? Hansen drew on the macro economic ideas of John Maynard Keynes in fearing that economic growth was over, with population growth and technological innovation exhausted. Keynes was also drawn into the debate and offered a meditation on the future of technology and unemployment in his well-known essay, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren".
This was originally written as a set of lectures in 1928 after a decade of dismal economic performance in the United Kingdom and then revised in 1930 to incorporate remarks about the Great Depression (Pecchi and Piga 2008, p. 2). Keynes (1930) remained optimistic about the future in the face of staggering unemployment, writing: “We are suffering, not from the rheumatics of old age, but from the growing-pains of over-rapid changes, from the painfulness of readjustment between one economic period and another. The increase of technical efficiency has been taking place faster than we can deal with the problem of labour absorption; the improvement in the standard of life has been a little too quick.” More recently, Winner’s (1977) Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought was published during the economic doldrums of the mid and late 1970s. Today, distinguished economists such as Lawrence Summers (2014), in a speech to the National Association of Business Economists, can be heard publicly musing about the possibility of secular stagnation. In his Martin Feldstein lecture, Summers (2013b) discussed a downright “neo-Luddite” (that famous protest movement against technological innovation in nineteenth century England) position on the effects of technology for long-term trends in employment.
Anxieties over technology can take on several forms, and we focus on what we view as three of the most prominent concerns. The first two worries are based on an “optimistic” view that technology will continue to grow and perhaps accelerate. First, one of the most common concerns is 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. In the case of the Industrial Revolution, the worry was about the dehumanizing effects of work, particularly the routinized nature of factory labor. In modern times, perhaps the greater fear is a world like that in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1952 novel Player Piano, where the elimination of work itself is the source of dehumanization (for example, Rifkin 1995). As Summers said (as quoted “not perfectly verbatim” in Kaminska 2014), while “[t]he premise of essentially all economics . . . is that leisure is good and work is bad. . . . economics is going to have to find a way to recognize the fundamental human satisfactions that come from making a contribution . . .” A third concern cuts in the opposite direction, suggesting that the epoch of major technological progress is behind us. In recent years, even in the face of seemingly dizzying changes in information technology, pessimists such as Gordon (2012), Vijg (2011), and Cowen (2010) have argued that our greatest worry should be economic and productivity growth that will be too slow because of, for example, insufficient technological progress in the face of “headwinds” facing western economies. Some of these so-called “headwinds,” including slow productivity and population growth, formed the basis of Hansen’s (1939) secular stagnation hypothesis. The argument of this paper is that these worries are not new to the modern era and that understanding the history provides perspective on whether this time is truly different. The next section of the paper considers the role of these three anxieties among economists, primarily focusing on the historical period from the late 18th to the early 20th century, while the final section offers some comparisons between the historical and current manifestations of these three concerns.