The Undertow of Technology
The wave of technological progress may move us forward, but the stronger its force, the stronger its undertow.
A few weeks ago, a Nobel Prize-winning economist predicted that the productivity advances from AI will allow us to “move to a four-day week easily.” I wish it were that simple. If the 4-day workweek was possible through gains in productivity alone, then we would have moved to a 4-day workweek long ago (Nixon predicted that a 4-day workweek was imminent in 1956).
We tend to over-attribute progress to advances in productivity and technology and under-attribute that progress to human judgment, disciplined focus, and good leadership. The commentary in vogue today about how AI will eliminate jobs and usher in previously unimaginable futures neglects how humans will mishandle and redirect the very technology that’s been hyped to liberate us.
In a recent podcast, Ezra Klein asked his listeners to rewind and imagine it’s 1990 and someone from 2020 tells everyone that in 30 years, we will have devices in our pocket that have the computing power to access the entire corpus of human knowledge, instantly collaborate with people anywhere in the world, and get done in seconds what it takes all the 1990 humans many hours to accomplish. If that future was articulated 30 years ago, many might predict that the pace of human progress would speed up. But instead, productivity gains, scientific discoveries, and other markers haven’t seen the major uptick that the most pollyannaish futurists would have predicted. Instead, those devices have also led us to be more distracted, more disconnected, more annoyed, more tired, more angry.
Since 1990, the gains in such powerful technological progress were attenuated by the millions of conflicting ways those technologies were leveraged. The wave of technological progress may move us forward, but the stronger its force, the stronger its undertow.