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The Technology Trap: More Than Automation Is Driving Inequality

John B. Judis

Carl Benedikt Frey, The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019), 480 pp., $29.95.

DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL candidate Andrew Yang has declared, “The automation of our jobs is the central challenge facing us today.” Yang’s message, echoed by another candidate, South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, won’t win him the nomination, but it is backed up by several social scientists including Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee and Oxford researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne. In 2013, Frey and Osborne predicted that in “perhaps a decade or two … 47 percent of total U.S. employment” would be at “high risk” of being automated. That could portend what futurist Martin Ford has called a “jobless future” and would call for drastic measures to prevent a social and political cataclysm.

Now Frey has written a long book, The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation, putting his findings in historical context. Frey argues that automation, or what he calls the third industrial revolution, is not only putting jobs at risk, but is the principal source of growing inequality within the American economy. The failure to meet this challenge, Frey warns, is fueling populist and white identity politics, most evident in the 2016 election of Donald Trump.

FREY’S BOOK is about a third longer than it needs to be. He and his publisher were, perhaps, beguiled by the commercial success of Thomas Piketty’s weighty Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Frey’s book is highly repetitious. And before getting to the heart of the argument, which is the difference between the first, second and third industrial revolutions, you have to wade through chapters about Neolithic and preindustrial technology. But the heart of the argument is interesting and worth pondering.

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