Stories to Work By

Essay by William E. Spriggs: “In Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times, humans in a factory are reduced to adjuncts to a massive series of cogs and belts. Overlords bark commands from afar to a servant class, and Chaplin’s hapless hero is literally consumed by the machine … and then spit out by it. In the film, the bosses have all the power, and machines keep workers in check.

Modern Times’s dystopian narrative remains with us today. In particular, it is still held by many policymakers who assume that increasing technological progress, whether mechanical or informational, inevitably means that ordinary workers will lose. This view perpetuates itself when policies that could give workers more power in times of technological change are overlooked, while those that disempower workers are adopted. If we are to truly consider science policy for the future, we need to understand how this narrative about workers and technology functions, where it is misleading, and how deliberate policies can build a better world for all….

Today’s tales of pending technological dystopia—echoed in economics papers as well as in movies and news reports—blind us to the lessons we could glean from the massive disruptions of earlier periods of even greater change. Today the threat of AI is portrayed as revolutionary, and previous technological change as slow and inconsequential—but this was never the case. These narratives of technological inevitability limit the tools we have at our disposal to promote equality and opportunity.

The challenges we face today are far from insurmountable: technology is not destiny. Workers are not doomed to be Chaplin’s victim of technology with one toe caught in the gears of progress. We have choices, and the central challenge of science and technology policy for the next century will be confronting those choices head on. Policymakers should focus on the fundamental tasks of shaping how technology is deployed and enacting the economic rules we need to ensure that technology works for us all, rather than only the few….(More)”.