26 July 2023

Power and Progress

Our Thousand Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity

Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson
2023, John Murray Press, 559 pages,
ISBN 9781399804455

Reviewer: Leath Al Obaidi, British Business Bank

“Power and Progress” by Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson is an eloquent and expansive examination of technology and its socio-economic impacts. The authors argue that technological progress is a mixed blessing, capable of conferring immense benefits but also exacerbating inequalities and disempowerment for many.

The book encapsulates a thousand-year narrative, tracing the history of automation and mechanisation. It illuminates how these advances have often served to replace labour and enhance productivity, but not necessarily for the broader benefit of society. The authors underscore how innovation, rather than being a tide that lifts all boats, has often empowered a tiny elite while leaving the majority of workers with little of the promised prosperity.

Illustrating this, Acemoglu and Johnson offer historical examples from the Middle Ages to the AI-empowered 21st century. They highlight how advances in agricultural techniques in the Middle Ages enabled grand cathedral constructions but left the peasantry impoverished. Similarly, the Industrial Revolution enriched a minority of capitalists while many workers toiled for subsistence wages in harsh conditions.

However, the authors also recognise periods of shared prosperity, such as the late 19th to three-quarters of the 20th century, when real wages rose and living standards increased for a significant proportion of the population. These eras of the “productivity bandwagon” are seen as achievements resulting from a long struggle for more equitable distribution of wealth.

“Power and Progress” identifies our current challenges as stemming from the immense economic and social power wielded by corporations, especially in the tech sector. The authors argue for a redirection of technology to create shared prosperity, invoking the successes of the Progressive Era of the early 20th century, when powerful gatekeepers of society were challenged and norms were structurally altered.

The concept of ‘redirection’ – changing people’s minds and providing alternative visions – is a core theme in the book. The authors argue for taking major decisions out of the hands of a technocracy existing primarily to enhance its own power, wealth, and prestige.

Finally, Acemoglu and Johnson stress that redirection need not be about overthrowing capitalists to create an alternative system. Instead, it’s about promoting transparency, treating consumers fairly, and re-evaluating who controls the means of information in our increasingly digital world – at the end of the book they come with a plethora of suggestions and policy ideas.

In summary, “Power and Progress” is a thought-provoking examination of the relationship between technology, power, and prosperity. Its core argument that progress is not automatic but dependent on the choices we make about technology has arrived in exceptionally timely fashion with the advent of ChatGPT and other AI powered programmes.

To listen to Leath’s interview with co-author Simon Johnson, click here.