The arc of the social universe is long, however it bends

Technology can be used for good or ill, but over the course of human history it’s clearly been a source of major progress. (If you’re not convinced, Robert Gordon’s book is one of my favorites to make the case.) But even if technology ultimately contributes to progress, it can cause a lot of harm along the way. I’ve just happened across a couple of reminders of that lately, and so wanted to put them (along with some others) together.

John Lanchester writing about the transition to agriculture in The New Yorker:

So why did our ancestors switch from this complex web of food supplies to the concentrated production of single crops? We don’t know, although  Scott speculates that climatic stress may have been involved. Two things, however, are clear. The first is that, for thousands of years, the agricultural revolution was, for most of the people living through it, a disaster. The fossil record shows that life for agriculturalists was harder than it had been for hunter-gatherers…Jared Diamond called the Neolithic Revolution ‘the worst mistake in human history.’ The startling thing about this claim is that, among historians of the era, it isn’t very controversial.

And here is Leandro Prados de la Escosura, writing in the Cambridge History of Captialism Volume II. The chapter is on capitalism and human welfare:

Trends in human development do not match closely those observed in real GDP per head. More specifically, phases of economic globalization have a dramatic impact on per capita income growth but not on the progress of human development. A counterintuitive lack of association is observed between human development and per capita income prior to World War I. Although the initial large-scale progress in health can be traced back to the late nineteenth century, with the diffusion of the germ theory of disease, and primary education experienced a significant advance in the era of liberal capitalism, the progress in human development dimensions fell short on the economic advancement resulting from globalization and industrialization. The negative impact of urbanization on life expectancy and the lack of public policies on education and health may account for human development’s slower progress in the late nineteenth century. More significantly, while real GDP per head stagnated or declined during the globalization backlash of the interwar years, human development progressed steadily. Health and education practices became increasingly globalized during the economic backlash of the period 1914 to 1950. Could a delayed impact of economic globalization on human development be, perhaps, hypothesized? Since 1950, advancement in human development has been hand in hand with growth in the world economy, although at a lower pace during the Golden Age (1950-1973) and, again, since 2000.

The bit on urbanization echoes Robert Gordon’s account, in The Rise and Fall of American Growth, that America’s shift toward cities in the 19th century “brought with it a host of public health problems.” From our vantage today, urbanization looks like a good and necessary thing. But for many if not most people, things got worse before they got better.

The last thing I’ll add here is James Bessen’s book Learning by Doing, which looks at the wages of weavers during and after the Industrial Revolution. His thesis:

Workers can benefit by acquiring the knowledge and skills necessary to implement rapidly evolving technologies; unfortunately, this can take years, even decades.

These examples are worth bearing in mind when we think about human progress in relation to things like globalization and technology today. Arguably, many ‘elites’ are waking up to the fact that they ignored the possibility that the benefits from economic changes that seemed likely to be net positive (trade with China, the adoption of IT) would cause dislocations measured not in months but in decades. But the historical record suggests that these painful lags are the rule rather than the exception. The discovery of agriculture was net positive, as were urbanization, the industrial revolution, and global trade. But every one of them came with massive suffering, experienced over long periods of time. The answer isn’t to be complacent and wait it out. It’s to undertake the necessary actions to lessen this suffering. To make the investments in public health that improved urban life; to erase the lag between the financial benefits of globalization and the benefits to overall well-being.

Nowhere is this more important today than with technology. Overall, technology has been a force for good. I think it can continue to be. But if we are not vigilant — if we do not pay attention to the harms that it causes, and do not prioritize investments to deal with them — then it will cause a lot of suffering along the way.

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