People have been scared of technological innovation since machines first came around during the Industrial Revolution. But why this fear of tech? And are any of these fears reasonable?
Here’s a transcript of our conversation:
Emma Phillips: Hey, Brittany.
Brittany: Hi, Emma.
Emma Phillips: We’ve had episodes where we’ve mentioned Henry Hazlitt. Yes. Who wasn’t an economist, but a journalist who wrote books about economics and his the?
Brittany: And like new, I think columns too. I can’t remember where. Don’t quote me on that, but yeah.
Emma Phillips: He wrote all kinds of really amazing stuff that broke down the ideas of economics into a way that anyone could read and understand. And I think that’s why his book Economics in One lesson is one of the most important books in history, especially when you talk about the economy. And one of the most important chapters seems to become more and more relevant as time has gone on. And that’s what I wanna talk about today, the Curse of the machine. It’s a mouthful, guys. It is the curse of the machinery as it’s named talking about the public’s general distrust in innovation and during the Industrial revolution in machinery.
Brittany: Yes. And, I think this is such an important topic because we are encountering it today, and, you know, we’ll get to all this, but it’s funny to me that here we are a million years later and, we’re still facing this. So before we start and we go into the details of it, I wanna go over some key terms or one key term, and that is a word called Luddite, or the Luddites. Now Luddites, this is during the Industrial Revolution, which we haven’t done a full episode on yet, but we’re gonna have to, cause it’s very interesting. Luddites were a group of people who were really opposed, not just opposed, but like frightened of technology. And these Luddites come in two different forms, or I’m saying two different, there’s probably several different, but when the camera was invented, for example, there were Leadites who believed that this technology would steal your soul. Like there were people literally going around saying, don’t use the camera, it’s Satanic. If they take your picture, you’re gonna lose your soul. The same thing happened when the bicycle was invented. People thought it was gonna give women too much power. they’re like, this is gonna liberate females, we’ve gotta stop the bicycle. Like, this is crazy. So there’s all these people who fear innovation, so it’s so funny to me. Then you have the other Luddites, and it’s the ones that we’re gonna talk about today, and they fear technology for a different reason. And this is the fear that new tech, new innovation is going to, you know, steal jobs and make human workers unnecessary. Something the history has proven, you know, time and time again that it’s not true. But what do you think about that, Emma?
Emma Phillips: Yeah, I mean, I think we see it happening right now with self-checkouts. And when you go to McDonald’s, there’s the screen where you can type in your order and it just shoots it out and it’s just ready to go.
Brittany: Which is great. I love it.
Emma Phillips: Oh, it’s the best. It’s awesome. But now that everything can be done with technology, people can go to the store, they can check out on their own. and instead of having to worry that someone behind the counter will get your order wrong, or maybe you change your mind and you feel bad and you don’t wanna tell ’em what you really want you can use a touchscreen instead and order all of the items, make whatever modifications you want, and be pretty positive that your order will come out correctly. And people like you and I see this as huge progress because it’s amazing that we’ve advanced this far. Others see it as a threat against workers, though, with these machines who will bag groceries or take orders at fast food. And the funny thing is, these are usually the same people saying that we need a $15 minimum wage which is something that companies cannot afford most of the time unless they’re huge. And in that case, they actually like, $15 minimum wage. Like, Walmart has actually pushed for a higher minimum wage because they own.
Brittany: But in their own right. Without government. Yeah.
Emma Phillips: Yeah. But also they have lobbied the government to make that the law because they know they can afford it. and smaller companies can’t. And they’ll go out of business and they’ll lose competitors. So if you can’t afford to pay human workers, the easy solution is to bring in these kiosks and self-checkouts, do the work for them. But just because the jobs are gone, this doesn’t mean that massive unemployment is gonna happen just for everyone who has ever had these jobs that are being sorted of replaced.
Brittany: No, you’re, exactly right. And that’s what Hazlitt was attempting to explain in this chapter, the curse of the machinery. So during the Industrial Revolution, many workers hated mechanical innovation for this reason. You know, they believed that this was going to be a job thief across all sorts of industries, which had traditionally relied on manual labor before, you know, machines were invented. So, and remember this is the era of like farming. People were doing things with their hands then, and that was taking up so much time. I mean, I can’t even imagine a world without machines. So in the stocking industry, and let me explain what that means because we don’t really call them stockings anymore by stockings. It’s like what you wear under your shoes, like socks or like Yes. Things like that. So not like stocking things on the shelf. So the stocking industry that used to be mainly done by hand and the fear of machines was so intense because that was taking over, them it was like making the stockings for the people. So these huge riots erupted as soon as the workers were introduced to these new machines, knitting machines, I think as they were called, or stocking frames. So people were so worked up, that they were destroying these new machines. Not only that, they were burning houses down, inventors were threatened, and, peace wasn’t restored until eventually, the military had to be called in today intervene because people were just like losing their minds over this
Emma Phillips: Over socks.
Brittany: But it wasn’t right over socks. But it wasn’t just the stalking industry. it was, you know, similar outrage was experienced across the globe during trying the, even speak during the entire industrial revolution. You know, in the United States, the Great Depression caused another wave of mechanical skepticism. because the Leadites who we talked about, they were blaming the mechanical advancement, especially with farming. cause there was a lot of like, I don’t know what they’re called. They were called like cat, what is it called? I can’t remember. But just new farming equipment that was, you know, they were scared. We’re gonna take jobs and be responsible for high employment rates.
Emma Phillips: That’s crazy. And Hazlitt debunked this myth that machines cause unemployment. He wrote that the belief that machines cause unemployment when held with any logical consistency leads to preposterous conclusions. Not only must we be causing unemployment with every technological improvement we make today, but primitive man must have started causing it with the first efforts he made to save himself from needless toil and sweat.
Brittany: Can we go, let’s break that down a little bit, if you can. Yeah. If you wanna take a shot at it. Like what does absolutely does the quote mean?
Emma Phillips: Yeah. So this was written sort of a while ago, so it might be kind of tricky to understand in our modern times here. But basically what Hazlitt is saying here is that you know, saying that any sort of technological advancement is this big cause for unemployment and cause for alarm is sort of like saying that, you know, the cavemen should have stayed you know, digging for berries Yeah. And working super hard and much harder than they needed to. And it’s ridiculous to say that we should fear, you know, these technological advancements because it’s saving us labor, it’s saving us from being as hard on our bodies, and it’s ultimately going to help us lead healthier lives.
Brittany: No, you’re absolutely right. And I know that. So how’s it like to call these people, you know, I call them Luddites, that’s the technical term, hasn’t called them techno foes, but they’re fears of unemployment. We’re actually not entirely incorrect, but we’re gonna break this down. So in the case of the British stocking knitters, as they were called, it is true that 50,000 people were left jobless immediately after these new machines came into play. However, as Hazlitt points out, so he says, but insofar as the rioters believed, as most of them undoubtedly did, that the machine was permanently displacing men, they were mistaken for before the end of the 19th century, the stocking industry was employing at least a hundred men for every man employed at the beginning of this century. Wow. So basically what this means is, yes, in the beginning, there was a little bit of this adjustment, we like to call it like market correction, right? there was this adjusting of, okay, we have these machines now how many workers do we need? What is the demand for stockings? So it didn’t take very long before employment was actually up from before the machine. Wow. Somebody had to operate the machines. Right. So the same thing happened, you know, 27 years after the innovation of the year invention of the cotton spinning machine which was met with similar hostility. There were riots, things like that. the number of workers employed in this industry had grown from 7,900 to 320,000. Wow. So if we’re talking Yeah. Right. And if we’re talking about what a percentage it is, that’s 4,000, 400% higher than it was before the machines. So the jobs came back and this doomsday prediction didn’t even occur long-term, but it did occur for a second. So it is important to mention that there was a little bit Yeah. But it wasn’t one of those things that lasted forever.
Emma Phillips: Yes. It’s not all doom and gloom. It doesn’t all just go away forever. Yeah. Another example of this is in the ride-sharing industry. So if you’ve ever taken an Uber or a Lyft or something like that, Uber is actually planning to eventually move to self-driving cars.
Brittany: I can’t wait for that.
Emma Phillips: That’s gonna be awesome. Yeah. While they may be significantly decreasing the need for human Uber drivers, it doesn’t mean that these drivers will be left destitute or jobless. Instead, Uber has actually been expanding its delivery services. So everything from flu shots, meals, even puppies, all kinds of stuff. Uber offers a variety of services that at this point in time still require human employees. And if in the future drones are capable of replacing human delivery services, it’ll only be a matter of time before new opportunities become available on the market. There’s always things changing and rearranging. And that’s the beautiful thing about the free market. And if you’ve read Miraculous Pencil, you can kind of picture that map of all these people who are connected and shifting around and doing different jobs. that’s sort of what Henry Hazlitt was talking about here.
Brittany: You’re exactly right. And I’m super excited for drones to start delivering things, by the way. Yes. I know they have like little robots in California. I don’t wanna live in California, so I’m not gonna go try them out. But in the case of fast food workers, and this is a big deal right now because I know Connor and I have talked about, you know, fight for 15 and there’s all this internal battle of we need to pay fast food workers more. And then in response, people like McDonald’s are saying, all right, well, we’re just gonna get kiosks then and we’re gonna save ourselves some money. But, let’s talk about the real core issue here. Just kind of like how there were some workers displaced in the beginning, these entry-level employees. And that means like, that’s your starter job. that’s like your first job. Well, now they’ll have the opportunity to learn new skills because without, you know, working the cash register or whatever at a McDonald’s. Yeah. There’s gonna be different jobs to learn. These kiosks still have to be programmed. There’s people that have to write the code and that’s when you get them to work properly. So there’s still all these new opportunities. It’s, like creative destruction, which we’ve talked about before on the show as well, where you destroy one thing and then an entirely new thing pops up. So, and this is my favorite part, and I’d love to hear your comments on this after so many people might be surprised to realize that like advanced weaponry, what I mean by that is like blacksmiths, you know, blacksmiths who used to make swords and like in the medieval.
Emma Phillips: Times course shoes and stuff, four shoes.
Brittany: There are more blacksmiths today than at any other point in history. Wow. And yeah, that kind of as a reminder for like progress doesn’t come, we’re through not like initial shakeup of industry, right? there’s traditional norms that are gonna take over old, old things and new things will come in, but the change should be embraced because it’s not that scary. I mean if there are more blacksmiths today than there were when people actually needed blacksmiths, I mean, I think that’s a really great lesson in innovation and that we should never discourage it because with more progress comes more opportunities.
Emma Phillips: Absolutely. And opportunities create, the chance for people to earn money and to earn an income and they can that on the things that they want. Whether that’s, you know, getting a puppy delivered on Uber or if it’s maybe a sword, something Yeah. A sword or something. You really specially modified for McDonald’s. These innovations in this technological advancement is a good thing for us as humans. And it’s a good thing for the economy and ultimately it’s nothing to be afraid of. Yeah. So thank you so much, Brittany, for helping us break that. Of course. Down. Of course. We will, be posting more about this in the show notes if you go to Tuttletwins.com/podcast. And until next time, we will talk to you guys later.
Brittany: Talk to you later. Bye-Bye.