About the Book
How the history of technological revolutions can help us better understand economic and political polarization in the age of automation
From the Industrial Revolution to the age of artificial intelligence, The Technology Trap takes a sweeping look at the history of technological progress and how it has radically shifted the distribution of economic and political power among society’s members. As Carl Benedikt Frey shows, the Industrial Revolution created unprecedented wealth and prosperity over the long run, but the immediate consequences of mechanization were devastating for large swaths of the population. Middle-income jobs withered, wages stagnated, the labor share of income fell, profits surged, and economic inequality skyrocketed. These trends, Frey documents, broadly mirror those in our current age of automation, which began with the Computer Revolution.
Just as the Industrial Revolution eventually brought about extraordinary benefits for society, artificial intelligence systems have the potential to do the same. But Frey argues that this depends on how the short term is managed. In the nineteenth century, workers violently expressed their concerns over machines taking their jobs. The Luddite uprisings joined a long wave of machinery riots that swept across Europe and China. Today’s despairing middle class has not resorted to physical force, but their frustration has led to rising populism and the increasing fragmentation of society. As middle-class jobs continue to come under pressure, there’s no assurance that positive attitudes to technology will persist.
The Industrial Revolution was a defining moment in history, but few grasped its enormous consequences at the time. The Technology Trap demonstrates that in the midst of another technological revolution, the lessons of the past can help us to more effectively face the present.
Carl Benedikt Frey is the Oxford Martin Citi Fellow and codirector of the Oxford Martin Programme on Technology and Employment at the Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford. He is also a senior fellow at the Institute for New Economic Thinking at Oxford and in the Department of Economic History at Lund University. Twitter @carlbfrey
"Will machines equipped with artificial intelligence render the human race redundant? Is work as we know it about to end? The Technology Trap draws on the experiences of the first and second Industrial Revolutions, and the first Computer Revolution, to answer some of the burning questions of our time. Frey’s key point—that technological disruption of the labor market is usually painful in the short run, whatever innovation’s long-run benefits—is of vital importance to voters and policymakers alike." —Niall Ferguson, author of The Square and the Tower
"The Technology Trap is a subtle, wide-reaching exploration of the relationship between technology and labor over centuries of history. Frey shows how the impacts of automation upon the British and American workforce have been shaped by changing power structures. In its attention to the detailed determinants of change, his book is a hugely welcome antidote to today’s surfeit of sweeping predictions about the future of work."—Robert Skidelsky, University of Warwick
"In this book, Carl Frey brings a new perspective, that of historical experience, to tackle some of the most important issues of our time. Offering the clearest account that I have read in quite a while regarding current problems around employment, technology, economic performance, and globalization, Frey provides the technological background to Thomas Piketty’s analysis of inequality, Capital in the Twenty-First Century."—Jane Humphries, University of Oxford
"Carl Frey’s highly original, admirably engaging, and deeply researched book should be read by anyone interested in how technological change will disrupt not only our jobs, but also our politics and society. By comparing the current age of disruptive technological change with the Industrial Revolution, The Technology Trap provides unique and timely insights which we ignore at our peril."—Ian Goldin, coauthor of Age of Discovery
“How will artificial intelligence affect the future of work? In The Technology Trap, Frey answers this question through a comprehensive, insightful analysis of the relationship between technological advances and work, from preindustrial society through the Computer Revolution. He predicts that intelligent machines will reduce the demand for human labor while yielding significant productivity gains. Societies will differ in how they choose to distribute these gains."—Laura Tyson, University of California, Berkeley