Why the Power of Technology Rarely Goes to the People

A new book reviewing 1,000 years of technological progress reveals how it benefits entrenched interests.

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Taylor Callery/theispot.com

In a new book, economists Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson provide a sweeping historical overview of just how unevenly the spoils and costs of technological change have been distributed. Power and Progress: Our 1,000-Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity reminds us that technology is not itself a force but rather a tool that is developed to support the agendas of the people and institutions who hold power in society. Claiming a fair share of technology’s benefits for the rest of society — that is, for most of humanity — requires that that power be challenged. Acemoglu and Johnson chatted with features editor Kaushik Viswanath about what lessons the past holds for how we should develop and implement technology today and in the future. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Kaushik Viswanath: What’s the central argument you’re making in Power and Progress, and what motivated you to write it?

Daron Acemoglu: This is a critical time to be thinking about the future of technology. A lot of decisions of great import are being hampered by the fact that there is “techno-optimism” in academia, the tech world, and the policy world. Techno-optimism is the notion that impressive technological change will automatically lead to better outcomes for society, especially for workers via the labor market, even if there are some transition costs.

Our understanding of the relevant economic theory and history has led us to believe this isn’t right. Throughout history, deliberate decisions have had a bearing on who gained and lost from a particular technology, whether it brought anything approaching shared prosperity, or even whether it helped or destroyed democracy. So our purpose in writing Power and Progress was to dispel the notion that in the history of technology, everything has always worked out OK. There are similar choices and struggles over technology today as we’ve had in the past.

Throughout history, deliberate decisions have had a bearing on who gained and lost from a particular technology.

One of the key concepts you discuss is the productivity bandwagon. What is this, and how does it create winners and losers whenever we have technological change?

Simon Johnson: The productivity bandwagon is the notion that when technology improves, you get higher wages, more opportunity, and better health, and everybody gains from it eventually. Our key problem with that notion is the “eventually.


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