Economist and former UK government policymaker Daniel Susskind’s A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond, begins with ‘The Great Manure Crisis’ of the 1890s.
Cities like New York and London, the world’s biggest and most advanced, which were critically dependent on horses for transport, found public spaces piled high with manure that the animals produced in copious amounts, as well as “thousands of putrefying dead horses (that) littered the roads” — so numerous that “in 1880 alone, about 15,000 horse carcasses were removed from New York City”. Policymakers were at their wits’ end; they wanted to ban the horses, but were terrified of the consequences that would bring.
Then came along the internal combustion engine. Automobiles got them in the 1880s; Henry Ford set up the Ford Motor Company in 1903; by 1912, New York had more cars than horses; in 1917 the last horsedrawn tram was taken off the street. Without officials having to do anything at all, The Great Manure Crisis had blown itself out in the United States.
“The Parable of Horseshit” was seen by Wassily Leontief, the 1973 Economics Nobel Laureate, as the way in which “a new technology… had taken a creature that, for millennia, had played a central role in economic life… and in only a matter of decades, had banished it to the sidelines”, writes Susskind.
In the early 1980s, Leontief argued that technological progress would ultimately do to humans what it had done to horses, and “today”, says Susskind, “the world is gripped again by Leontief’s fear”. His book, says Susskind, explains “why we have to take these sorts of fears seriously” — if not always in substance, but certainly in spirit.
“Will there be enough work for everyone to do in the twenty-first century?… The answer is ‘no’ and… the threat of ‘technological unemployment’ is now real,” writes Susskind. The book, he says, seeks to “describe the different problems this will create for us — both now and in the future — and, most important, set out how we might respond”.
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