Technological Progress: Cui Bono?

On a recent episode of PBS Newshour, economist Richard Freeman and futurist Ray Kurzweil argued the significance of technological progress. Freeman warned “We don’t want it to be that there’ll 20 or 30 billionaires controlling everything, and the rest of us struggling for the one or two jobs that are out there.” Kurzweil disagreed, arguing that the normal pattern has been rapid cheapening of technology and diffusion of its benefits to ordinary people.

To put this in perspective, let’s consider the example of a subsistence farm family who own their land and the tools they work with, and freely appropriate and use the entire product of their labor. Under these circumstances, if a farmer figures out a way of producing the same amount of food with half the amount of labor, it would be silly to worry “there won’t be enough work” as a result. That’s because the same person controls the labor process and internalizes all the costs and benefits from technological change. Hence, any improvement in the ratio of output to labor is an unambiguous benefit for labor.

Contrast this with the classic model of technological unemployment — the dire scenario Freeman outlines above. What makes the difference between the two scenarios? Clearly it’s that in the latter case, someone else besides the laborer appropriates the benefits of technological change.

Which model the distribution of benefits from technological change follows depends, therefore, on who owns the machinery and the technology. And in the present environment, if the distribution of benefits follows the second, unequal model, it’s not the result of any purely technological imperative. Far from it.

The more affordable the means of production are to the individual laborer or to small groups of laborers, and the greater the ease of adoption of new technology, the greater the share of total benefits will be appropriated by labor. And the general tendency of the past thirty years has been a cost implosion in production technology.

Thanks to the desktop revolution in the information industries, an individual computer costing $1000 or less can produce the quality of work in software, music and desktop publishing that once required million-dollar facilities. The revolution in cheap digitally controlled machine tools is having a similar effect on physical production. A garage shop with $10 or $20 thousand in open-source hardware can produce the kinds of goods that previously required a million-dollar factory.

In purely technological terms, the conventional technological unemployment scenario depends on extremely expensive machinery owned by an employer who controls workers’ access to opportunities for employment. And the overwhelming technological trend is away from that state of affairs.

When production technology is dirt cheap and self-employment and cooperative employment is feasible for most forms of production, the only way 20 or 30 billionaires can control all the production and reap the benefits for themselves is if they can make the technology artificially scarce and expensive and restrict access to it for their own profit. And that has, in fact, been the state’s bipartisan response to technologies of abundance in recent decades: to enable a few hundred transnational corporations, a few hundred billionaires, to enclose technological progress and productivity gains as a source of rents for themselves.

That’s what states have done, since the beginng of history: They erect tollgates between labor and consmption, and control the means by which we work to provide for ourselves, so that we must work harder to feed idle rentiers in addition to ourselves. Historically, this was achieved mainly by concentrating land in the hands of rentier classes with the help of the state, so that the plutocracy could live off rents from those cultivating the land. In our era, it takes the particular form of so-called “intellectual property” like copyrights, patents and trademarks.

If our goal is to avoid enslavement to twenty or thirty billionaires who appropriate all the good things in life for themselves, we must deprive them of the means by which they do this:  We must smash the state.

You can help support C4SS by purchasing a zine copy this Kevin Carson article in “Distributed Technology & Worker Ownership: Five Conversations on the Economics of Anarchy“.

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