Carl Benedikt Frey, The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019), 480 pp., $29.95.
Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang has declared, "The automation of our jobs is the central challenge facing us today." Yang's message, echoed by another candidate, South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, won't win him the nomination, but it is backed up by several social scientists including Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee and Oxford researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne. In 2013, Frey and Osborne predicted that in "perhaps a decade or two... 47 percent of total U.S. employment" would be at "high risk" of being automated. That could portend what futurist Martin Ford has called a "jobless future" and would call for drastic measures to prevent a social and political cataclysm.
Now Frey has written a long book, The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation, putting his findings in historical context. Frey argues that automation, or what he calls the third industrial revolution, is not only putting jobs at risk, but is the principal source of growing inequality within the American economy. The failure to meet this challenge, Frey warns, is fueling populist and white identity politics, most evident in the 2016 election of Donald Trump.
Frey's book is about a third longer than it needs to be. He and his publisher were, perhaps, beguiled by the commercial success of Thomas Piketty's weighty Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Frey's book is highly repetitious. And before getting to the heart of the argument, which is the difference between the first, second and third industrial revolutions, you have to wade through chapters about Neolithic and preindustrial technology. But the heart of the argument is interesting and worth pondering.
According to Frey, the West has experienced three industrial revolutions that have been impelled by technology. The first, dating from the late eighteenth century, was driven by the steam engine, the railroad and the cotton gin; the second, which extends through the first six decades of the twentieth century, by electricity and the internal combustion engine; and the third, which begins sometime in the 1960s, and is still going on, by computer technology and, most recently, artificial intelligence. Each of these revolutions has had different effects on employment and equality, depending on the kind of technology that was introduced.
The effect has depended on whether the technology was "enabling" or "replacing"--a distinction that is common among social scientists who write about automation. An enabling technology increases the productivity of existing workers without eliminating their jobs. A good example would be how the typewriter increased the power of a clerk without eliminating the need for clerks, or how computer design increased the productivity of architects without imperiling their jobs. But the ATM replaced and eliminated many bank tellers. Robots, combined with industrial reorganization, have replaced assembly line workers. And so on.
According to Frey, the first industrial revolution was dominated by "replacing" technology. Weavers and other artisans were replaced by simple machines that could often be operated by children. Some of these former artisans became low-wage farm laborers, while others were unemployed. Overall, wages and labor's share of national income plummeted. Economic historians call this period the "Engels' Pause"--a reference to Friedrich Engels' classic The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, which documented the immiseration of the peasantry and working class under the new technology. Marx's socialist politics was rooted in this first...