The Robots Are Coming

John Lanchester:

So what’s going to happen now? Your preferred answer depends on your view of history, though it also depends on whether you think the lessons of history are useful in economics. The authors of these books are interested in history, but plenty of economists aren’t; a hostility to history is, to an outsider, a peculiarly strong bias in the field. It’s connected, I suspect, to an ambition to be considered a science. If economics is a science, the lessons of history are ‘in the equations’ – they are already incorporated in the mathematical models. I don’t think it’s glib to say that a reluctance to learn from history is one of the reasons economics is so bad at predicting the future.

One historically informed view of the present moment says that the new industrial revolution has already happened. Computers are not a new invention, yet their impact on economic growth has been slow to manifest itself. Bob Solow, another Nobel laureate quoted by Brynjolfsson and McAfee, observed as long ago as 1987 that ‘we see the computer age everywhere, except in the productivity statistics.’ The most thorough and considered version of this argument is in the work of Robert Gordon, an American economist who in 2012 published a provocative and compelling paper called ‘Is US Economic Growth Over?’ in which he contrasted the impact of computing and information technology with the effect of the second industrial revolution, between 1875 and 1900, which brought electric lightbulbs and the electric power station, the internal combustion engine, the telephone, radio, recorded music and cinema.​3 As he points out in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, it also introduced ‘running water and indoor plumbing, the greatest event in the history of female liberation, as women were freed from carrying literally tons of water each year’. (A non-economist might be tempted to ask why it was the women were carrying the water in the first place.) Gordon’s view is that we coasted on the aftermaths and sequelae of these inventions until about 1970, when