Is technology our friend or our foe? 'Power and Progress' dives in

The book provides a timely look at how technology can either enrich a narrow elite or become the foundation for widespread prosperity

By Philippa Nuttall

Philippa Nuttall is a Brussels-based freelance editor and journalist focusing on the climate crisis and sustainability issues

22 Sep 2023

A weighty 560-page tome, Power and Progress: Our Thousand-Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity by American economists Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson is definitely a book for la rentrée rather than one to squeeze into your holiday hand luggage.  

Don’t let its size put you off, however, as the ideas it contains should be food for thought for all policymakers as they retake their seats in Europe’s institutions this September.  

Too often, technology and innovation are lazily equated with progress without any real analysis or thought about whether various technologies are actually bringing any substantial benefit to people or the planet.  

Acemoglu and Johnson, both professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggest we should all be much more critical about the technologies being foisted on us and, in particular, the ends to which they are being employed.  

The economists make it clear that technologies are not good or bad by design. Rather, it is the decisions made about them that determine whether their impacts are largely positive or negative for the majority of people.  

The techno-optimism of entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates and Elon Musk has dominated discourse, argue the authors. “Everyone everywhere should innovate as much as they can, figure out what works, and iron out the rough edges later,” goes the general understanding, they write.  

Yet, the last thousand years of history are filled with instances of new inventions that failed to bring shared prosperity or improve the lives of the masses, in Acemoglu and Johnson’s view. This trend continues, despite the optimism around modern technologies, they insist.  

“Spectacular advances in computers have enriched a small group of entrepreneurs and business tycoons over the last several decades, whereas most Americans without a college education have been left behind, and many have even seen their real incomes decline,” they write.  

While they acknowledge the story is slightly different in some European countries, which have higher levels of worker representation and stronger unionisation, they see similar trends in all developed countries.  

Acemoglu and Johnson are certainly not luddites. They are clear that technology can be hugely beneficial and that people alive today are far better off than their ancestors. This state of affairs is, however, largely because our predecessors organised themselves to ensure that technologies did not simply serve a narrow elite.  

We need to follow in their footsteps, urge the book’s authors, if we are to stop the trend of today’s digital technologies “enriching a small group of entrepreneurs and investors, [while] most people are disempowered and benefit little”. 

Who benefits from various technologies is an economic, social and political choice, the duo write. In today’s world, the wrong choices are being made; or, rather, too few people are involved in making decisions about what is, and what isn’t, progress. This has led the ideas of tech leaders to become the default narrative and the accepted norm, they conclude.  

But automation doesn’t have to mean fewer jobs for blue-collar workers. Massive data collection doesn’t have to mean anti-democratic surveillance. Artificial intelligence doesn’t have to mean we all live in fear of becoming unemployed.  

With the right choices, made by fully operating democracies endowed with strong civil society organisations, and where people with different visions have a voice; better, more just, outcomes will emerge, the economists argue.  

Creating a brighter, fairer, future requires vision and the ability to learn from history, suggest Acemoglu and Johnson. They illustrate the importance of past lessons through an analysis and reinterpretation of some of the milestones of the last millennium, positing that this is not the first time that humanity has found itself trapped by a singular vision of technology.  

French diplomat-turned-entrepreneur Ferdinand de Lesseps, for instance, succeeded in building the Suez Canal in Egypt, but failed in his bid to replicate the artificial waterway in Panama. The French were “trapped in a deluded vision that did not allow them to see the alternative paths for using the available know-how and technology”, write Acemoglu and Johnson. Lesseps’ vision was flawed through techno-optimism and a mistaken sense of confidence, they argue.  

If the Americans succeeded in building the Panama Canal a few years later, it wasn’t because they had better scientific knowledge about canals or better excavation technologies; but because they used the information they had in a different way, conclude the authors.  

The professors draw a similar lesson from the latter years of the Industrial Revolution, insisting that technologies such as the railways and improved factory machinery created new opportunities for skilled and unskilled workers, and that rather than taking away jobs, they boosted worker productivity throughout the industrialising world.  

At the same time, institutional changes bolstered worker power, and industrial growth brought a diversity of people together in cities, allowing the sharing of ideas, changes in politics and the rise of trade unions, they write. 

“Throughout Europe, the rise of factories meant that it was easier to organise workers,” Acemoglu and Johnson observe. “More democracy helped greatly with the sharing of productivity gains as it facilitated collective bargaining for better working conditions and higher wages. With new industries, products and tasks increasing worker productivity, and rents being shared between employers and workers, wages increased.  

“Political representation also meant demands for less-polluted cities, and public health issues began to be taken more seriously.” 

Likewise, “the Gilded Age of the late 19th century was a period of rapid technological change and alarming inequalities in America, like today”. Again, change came about as a broad progressive movement formed, led by a group of journalists known as ‘muckrakers’ who demanded institutional change, Acemoglu and Johnson write.  

Progressivism was a bottom-up movement populated by a diverse set of voices, and offers three learnings for the pickle we find ourselves in today, the authors suggest. First, the need for a new narrative; secondly, the need to cultivate countervailing powers to the accepted norm; and thirdly, policy solutions. Acemoglu and Johnson suggest that the modern environmental movement confronting the climate crisis demonstrates this three-pronged formula remains relevant today.  

They credit Rachel Carson’s 1962 work Silent Spring, which for the first time drew attention to the impact of pesticides on nature and human health, as the trigger for a change in narrative. Countervailing power appeared in the form of NGOs such as Greenpeace and other climate change organisations, including green parties. These movements put pressure on the corporate sector, and the results were technical and policy solutions.  

The professors believe the same combination – altering the narrative, building countervailing powers, and developing and implementing specific policies to deal with the most important issues – can also work in redirecting digital technology and, in particular, in ensuring that artificial intelligence becomes a force for good that works hand-in-hand with humans, rather than against them. “It is late, but perhaps not too late” for the world to wake up and make this vision reality, they conclude.  

It would be good to see these ideas permeate the political agenda in Brussels as European Union lawmakers try to align the bloc’s ambitious green and digital transition policies during the last year of the Commission’s term.  

Read the most recent articles written by Philippa Nuttall - Trees a crowd - the movement to green Europe’s city streets


Partner Content