The authors are professors of economics at MIT and Stanford respectively. They are highly respected by their peer group.
In this book they have turned their attention to an old question: does technological progress mean prosperity for all? Not necessarily, they say. It’s a double-edged sword. Therefore, it’s wrong to think that technology should be left alone. It should not. It should be channelled into social usefulness.
This concern had led to this massive exposition on technology and its discontents. The narrative is essentially Marxist in orientation even though neither author is even remotely an adherent of Karl Marx.
But it’s worth remembering that it was Marx who first said, back in 1871, constant improvements in technology would create a vast reserve army of the unemployed.
Enrichment of the rich
The authors give a very large number of examples where progress in technology has meant the huge enrichment of the rich at the expense of the rest. That, according to them, is pretty much the history of the relationship between technological progress and people.
They show how superior technology has two sides to it. The most propagated side is that it benefits everyone even if those benefits accrue after a very long time, sometimes even a couple of centuries.
They give the example of how better ships in the 17th century helped the shippers but also made it possible for lakhs of black peoples to be shipped to the white world.
Economics calls these negative side effects externalities. Even though they are economists, the authors have not used that term for reasons best known to themselves.
Be that as it may, they conclude their book with a large number of suggestions on what must be done to control and regulate new privately-owned technologies that have disproportionately high negative externalities for society.
In that sense, apart from being a fascinating narration of technology and its effects through history, it is also a manifesto for action, a kind of “workers of the world unite, you have everything to gain” document. It’s very much a ‘Us Vs Them’ exhortation.
To quote: “Society and its powerful gatekeepers need to stop being mesmerised by tech billionaires and their agenda.” This looks like a throwaway line but it’s the very core of the authors’ arguments.
Call for collective action
So we have the authors calling for collective action of the sort the West saw in the 100 years from the 1880s. But for that sort of resistance from the people, things would have been far worse, they say. So, it’s necessary once again in order to unite against the brute power of the technology corporations.
And how is this to be done? Acemogulu and Johnson offer several parallelly running suggestions, all aimed at bringing the technology behemoths under control.
A neutral observer, however, cannot help reflecting on how closely these resemble the Chinese approach to controlling large organisations. The basic premise is that the state is supreme, no one can be larger.
Here’s a quick but inadequate summary of the proposed solutions. They are contained in the penultimate chapter of 39 pages. It’s called ‘Redirecting Technology’.
They say, “Choices over the direction of technology should be part of the criteria that investors use for evaluating companies.” It’s what the Indian bureaucrats call the end-use criterion.
So what’s the key criterion? “An approach that complements workers rather than sidelining and attempting to eliminate them…”. That’s the CPM line, too.
From here we get to worker organisation and civil society action. The whole endeavour must be aimed at transparency, dialogue and participation by the Rest.
The authors also want subsidies for companies that increase labour, a ‘modest increase in taxes’, wealth taxes, investment in workers, and tax reform to encourage all this. They also discuss controlling intrusion and privacy issues.
By now you must have got the drift. It’s the left wing of social democracy whose leitmotif is kindness and compassion. Who can argue with that?
In conclusion, personally, I think the best part of the book is right at the very end. In an ingeniously innovative device they call a ‘Bibliographic Essay’, the authors take the reader through all that they read while writing the book. The result is absolutely brilliant. This is what an annotated bibliography should be.
Along with the 39 pages of the chapter that contained the solutions, these last 50 pages deserve to be made available in separately downloadable pdf format.
Check it out on Amazon