Tragic Rerun of the Industrial Revolution
Ravi Venkatesan
THE TECHNOLOGY TRAP: CAPITAL, LABOR AND POWER IN THE AGE OF AUTOMATION by Carl Benedikt Frey Princeton University Press, 2019, 480 pp., $29.95
December 2019, volume 43, No 12

Ravi Venkatesan
By Carl Benedikt Frey
Princeton University Press, 2019, pp. 480, $29.95

We are now well into the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ which is bringing astonishing advances in many fields—information technology, life-sciences, materials, intelligent machines and a fusion of machines, information and biological systems. With gene editing, we now even have the ability to modify or even engineer new life forms. Whether all these possibilities will lead to empowerment and emancipation of many more people or to more exploitation and inequality is one of the central questions that face humanity. To answer this, Carl Frey, who directs the Future of Work Programme at the Oxford Martin School, turns to history, specifically to the preceding industrial revolutions.

The book serves as an important reminder that while technological change may benefit many over the long run, ‘short run’ adjustment costs can represent a lifetime for the majority of workers. The first Industrial Revolution transformed the world by the mechanization of manufacturing and agriculture. This resulted in an extraordinary surge of wealth and living standards in Britain, Western Europe and America. However, very few of those who lived through this massive economic upheaval were beneficiaries. The machine-owning industrialists grew, ‘rich on the misery of the mass of wage earners’. The introduction of water frames, carding machines and spinning Jennies eradicated many jobs, sucked child-labour into the workforce and suppressed wages. Handloom weavers, once known as labour’s aristocrats, became the tragic losers. ‘Three generations of working Englishmen were made worse off as technological creativity was allowed to thrive. The full benefits of the Industrial Revolution took more than a century to be realised.’ (Frey fails to account for the millions of weavers and artisans thrown out of work in countries like India as Britain brutally colonized them. If these are factored in, the arithmetic is even more skewed.)

Early factories were horrible, dangerous, places to work in. Life expectancy in Manchester in 1850 was 32 years, well below the national average of 41 years. Men were on average shorter in 1850 than they were in 1760. This resulted in a backlash, ‘the Luddite movement’, as workers mutinied and smashed machines between 1811 and1816. One reason that Britain pulled ahead of the rest of Europe is that it was more brutal in suppressing dissent. In 1769 legislation was passed making the destruction of machinery punishable by death. In 1812 and 1813 more than 30 Luddites were hung. Many other countries were slower in embracing labour-replacing machines because of their disruptive force. In these countries including France and Germany, medieval guilds successfully resisted technologies that they perceived as threatening their skills and wages. This is why Britain became so economically dominant.

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