Insights Serra Balls

Power and Progress: Our 1000 Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity – Eterna’s Book Club  

Two prominent economists ask if technological progress is always good for humanity, and what civil society needs to do to harness and direct Artificial Intelligence.    

In 1869, French count Ferdinand de Lesseps persuaded a group of international investors to fund an astonishing technological feat – the Suez Canal. Joining Europe and Asia through a manmade waterway resulted in incalculable progress for the world by the economic integration made possible of opening new markets for global trade. 

According to Daron Acemoğlu and Simon Johnson, professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, de Lesseps’ attempt to replicate his Suez achievement in Panama in 1881 was a disaster. Building a canal to link the Pacific and Atlantic oceans proved much more complicated than building in Suez, chiefly because in central America it was necessary to build canal locks. Using the same technology cost much more, both for investors, who paid with money, and workers – who paid with their lives. Technology, they conclude, can sometimes cause evil. 

1000 years of history 

Power and Progress attacks the current culture of ‘techno optimism’, which claims that technology, by its nature, is always good for humanity and has a pre-ordained trajectory towards positive economic and social progress. The authors disagree, and describe many instances based on economics and history where technology does not generate broad-based benefits, particularly for workers. More than 1000 years of history and around 350 pages are devoted to demonstrating what feels like a fairly obvious point.  

When progress was successful, broader benefits to people were always accompanied by a bottom-up, progressive struggle which was needed to temper and change the worst excesses of the top-down imposition of change, they say. Their examples feel contrived. Where they talk about the advancement of the Gilded Age industrialisation of early 20th century USA, the only reason the huge technological advances were successful were because of the actions of a group of journalists, called muckrakers, who demanded institutional change from the owners of capital. There’s no mention of the positive imposition of anti-trust laws, for example. 

Climate and Hollywood 

The climate movement since the 1960s is their favourite example of where a new technological movement has been successful. Civil society, academics and political movements worked together to build a new consensus about the threats to the environment. The technologies which came on the back of these new ideas, in renewables, infrastructure, clean tech and electric vehicles, generated positive economic progress. They went hand in hand with distinct countervailing powers, specific climate policies to deal with an emerging technological opportunity.  

In the same way, the writers’ strike in Hollywood, which is partly about the threat of AI being used by studios to cut costs by employing the technology to write scripts instead of humans, is an example of the sort of struggle the authors propose. They believe we need the kind of progress where all participants can benefit from the new technology, and everyone helps to shape the future. 

Here we get to the most topical point of the book. The economists say society has started to move in a negative direction – one in which AI replaces jobs and rachets up societal surveillance. And in the process reinforces economic inequality while concentrating political power further in the hands of the ultra-wealthy.  Here they echo their fellow economist Erik Brynjolfsson, who wrote in his paper ‘The Turing Trap’ that our focus on replicating human intelligence has led to AI as a simple automation which replaces workers, rather than one which allows people to do new tasks. This drives down wages for many, while increasing the power and wealth of the owners of technology. 

Eterna’s conclusions 

In our discussion, it was not clear to the Eterna team that this book demonstrated that AI would intensify inequality. While it will undoubtedly eliminate certain jobs such as some fast-food workers or accountants, it will also give rise to new ones. Our view was that historically, technological advancements have generally led to increased wealth and consistent employment over extended periods.  

But as the world faces the prospect of AI changing the way we work and live, we thought that Power and Progress is a timely addition to the debate. There’s no doubt that we need to channel AI to be a force for good that works hand-in-hand with humans, not against us.  

Regulation and intra-governmental discussions on a path forward for AI have started in the EU, and the UK’s first global AI summit meets in Bletchley Park this week. We thought it helpful to bring together Google and Microsoft and other tech firms to ensure urgent issues such as disinformation and generative AI’s anti-democratic potential, especially in elections, are discussed at the highest levels. We felt that an important omission in the book was a discussion of the geopolitical consequences of AI’s progress in relation to China, although we should talk about these topics without assuming they will always be negative. 

In the end, the book felt to us like a warning from history that a technological juggernaut is coming our way. But we should not be caught in the headlights: the fear of technology nor a dystopian vision of the future should not stifle innovation which has the potential for exciting, if unknowable, progress.