Let me recite what history teaches,” wrote the 20th century American novelist Gertrude Stein. “History teaches.

Does history teach? In particular, does history teach about job destruction and creation? Can the study of history, both in case studies and in the broad strokes of trends, help us understand how structural changes in the U.S. economy have affected growth and inequality in the past? Can they give clues about what we can expect in the future?

The Washington Center for Equitable Growth set out to answer those questions by establishing a Working Group on the History of Technology. In a Washington, D.C. policy environment dominated by economists and political scientists, we wanted to see if the tools and concepts of the history of technology can be deployed in ways that complement those other disciplines. After all, historical precedents are routinely cited in policy discussions, but rarely are they subjected to the close analysis that professional historians can bring to the conversation.

Our working group of technology historians seeks to answer the question of whether there are elements of previous mass technological shifts that may aid in the management of workforce disruptions brought about by the post-high-tech revolution. The group considered this question in light of the overarching mission of Equitable Growth to investigate whether and how economic inequality affects economic growth and stability. By casting an informed look back to previous technology-driven job upheavals, we may find shifts in inequality and growth—shifts that indicate whether these phenomena are linked. If so, then perhaps answers to today’s growing income and wealth gaps will lie in some combination of spontaneous forces and active interventions by government or through public-private alliances.


The “History of Technology” series of essays

Equitable growth and Southern California’s aerospace industry
By Matthew H. Hersch, Assistant Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University
and a Research Associate of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum

Not all inequality is the same: Slavery versus economic creativity in Civil War America
By John Majewski, Interim Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts and Professor in the Department
of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara

Engineering, industrialism, and socioeconomic orders in the Second Industrial Revolution: What U.S. policymakers today could learn from emerging technology professions and innovation at the turn of the 20th century
By Adelheid Voskuhl, Associate Professor of the History and Sociology of Science at the
University of Pennsylvania

Responsible innovation: The 1970s, today, and the implications for equitable growth
By Cyrus C.M. Mody, Professor and Chair in the History of Science, Technology, and Innovation
in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Maastricht University in the Netherlands

Energy transitions in the United States and
worker opportunities past, present, and future

By Christopher F. Jones, Assistant Professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical,
and Religious Studies at Arizona State University

Environmental regulation and technological development
in the U.S. auto industry

By Ann Johnson, Associate Professor, Department of Science and
Technology Studies, Cornell University

Emerging technologies, education, and the income gap
By Michael E. Gorman, Professor, Department of Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

 


We did not look for technological speculation or “futurism” in our work. But any technology that is or has been in operation for the last couple of hundred years has been fair game for our group, from the steam engine and railroad to nanoengineering, synthetic biology and microchip production, as well as the workforces related to those endeavors. Otherwise, in charging our group of historians, we brought no preconceptions in this regard. Nor do we think that there will necessarily be a clear line from previous experience to the future. Some past events and concepts might be a dead end, but some might provide a foothold, however modest, on understanding what lies ahead.

Whatever the case, historical lessons are too important to be ignored in considering the future of job creation in a post-high-tech world. In the words of the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume—a decidedly less musical but no less nuanced writer than Gertrude Stein—the future tends to resemble the past. The challenge, we might add, is ascertaining which tendencies will turn out to matter in the years ahead.

Jonathan D. Moreno is the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches and researches medical ethics and health policy, the history and sociology of science, and philosophy. Moreno has served as an advisor to many U.S. governmental and nongovernmental organizations, including the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Moreno is an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine (formerly the Institute of Medicine) of the National Academies and is the U.S. member of the UNESCO International Bioethics Committee. 

 

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