Technological Progress Anxiety: Thinking About “Peak Horse” and the Possibility of “Peak Human”

Another well-written piece by an authorial team led by the very sharp Joel Mokyr–The History of Technological Anxiety and the Future of Economic Growth: Is This Time Different?–that in my mind fails to wrestle with the major question, and so leaves me unsatisfied.

Hitherto, at least since the domestication of the horse or even earlier with the invention of the potter’s wheel, every form of non-human power that substitutes and thus tends to reduce the value of human backs and thighs has been more than offset. In addition, every form of non-human manipulation that substitutes for and tends to reduce the value of human fingers and eyes has been more than offset. They have been more than offset by the fact the every single source of non-human power–from the horse to the watermill to the steam engine to the diesel to the jet engine–and every single source of manipulation–from the potter’s wheel to the loom to the spinning jenny to the assembly line to the mechanized factory–has required a cybernetic control mechanism. Without such a mechanism, machines are useless. They cannot keep themselves on course and on track. That was possible only in fantasy and myth–the stone servitors of of Daedalos, or the self-propelled catering carts of Hephaestus. And as cybernetic control mechanisms human brains had an overwhelming productivity edge.

The fear is that this time things really are different. The fear is that, this time, technological anxiety is not misguided–at least as far as the social status and possibly the living standards of the median human are concerned. This fear arises from the fact that the uniqueness of human brains as cybernetic control mechanisms is no longer as clear. For the first time, we find our machines substituting not for human backs, things, eyes, and hands, but for human brains.

That leaves only our smiles and those parts of brainwork that have not yet been computerized as places for humans to add value. And this factor is offset only by the hope that our machines will reduce the market value of commodities faster than they reduce the value of the median worker’s labor:

Joel Mokyr, Chris Vickers, and Nicolas L. Ziebarth: The History of Technological Anxiety and the Future of Economic Growth: Is This Time Different?: “Technology… has also generated cultural anxiety…

…the developed world is now suffering from another bout…. The more extreme of modern anxieties about long-term, ineradicable technological unemployment, or a widespread lack of meaning… seem highly unlikely to come to pass…. Fundamental economic principles will continue to operate. Scarcities will still be with us, most notably of time itself…. Most workers will still have useful tasks to perform even in an economy where the capacities of robots and automation have increased considerably. The path of transition to this economy of the future may be disruptively painful for some workers and industries, as transitions tend to be…. We believe that there is a distinct possibility that wages for some classes of workers may need to be supplemented through some income redistribution. In addition, it may be necessary to expand the set of publicly provided goods to include certain “primary goods” (Rawls 1971) such as food, housing, education, and health care that are necessary for a modern life to go well. For many others, cheaply produced goods and increasingly automated and freely available services should allow access to increasing levels of material well-being and health.

We suspect that in this new world, as material goods like food, clothing, and housing become relatively less expensive, the connection between standard measurements of output and human well-being–a long-standing source of contention–will become even more tenuous. This world would truly be the fulfillment of Simon Kuznets’s (1934, p. 7) dictum that “the welfare of a country can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income.”

In a world of cheap goods, while inequality in terms of wealth or income may rise, inequality in the form of access to “primary” resources (in the Rawlsian sense) would be greatly diminished. The long-term trend toward greater leisure will continue, and one can even imagine an economy that reaches the stage in which only those who want to work actually will do so…. As we reflect on the economics of this new economy, we let Keynes (1930) offer a word of advice:

Meanwhile there will be no harm in making mild preparations for our destiny, in encouraging, and experimenting in, the arts of life as well as the activities of purpose.

I must say that I really do wish that Mokyr et al. had included, in their paper, a discussion of “peak horse”.

A standard economists’ argument goes roughly like this: Technology is introduced only when it is profitable, and lowers the costs of production. Thus the prices of the goods and services produced must go down, leaving consumers with more money to spend on other products, and this creates demand for any workers who are displaced. Thus there will always be new industries growing up to employ any workers displaced by technological change in existing industries.

But that argument applies just as well to the oats, apples, and grooming needed for horses to subsist as for the wages of humans, no? One could conclude that there will always be things for horses to do that will have them create enough value to earn their keep.

Similarly, one could just as easily have said, a century ago, that: “Fundamental economic principles will continue to operate. Scarcities will still be with us…. Most horses will still have useful tasks to perform, even in an economy where the capacities of power sources and automation have increased considerably…”

Yet demand for the labor of horses today is vastly less than it was a century ago, even though horses are extremely strong, fast, capable and intelligent animals. “Peak horse” in the U.S. came in the 1910s, I believe. After that there was no economic incentive to keep the horse population of America from declining sharply, as at the margin the horse was not worth its feed and care. And in a marginal-cost pricing world, in which humans are no longer the only plausible source of Turing-level cybernetic control mechanisms, what will happen to those who do not own property should the same come to be true, at the margin, of the human? What would “peak human” look like? Or–a related but somewhat different possibility–even “peak male”?

September 24, 2015

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