On February 26, 1928, a headline in the New York Times announced, “MARCH OF THE MACHINE MAKES IDLE HANDS,” with the subhead:“Prevalence of Unemployment With Greatly Increased Industrial Output Points to the Influence of Labor-Saving Devices as an Underlying Cause.”
What these alarming words referred to was the abundance of goods being produced in the roaring plants, mills and farm fields of 1920s America. According to a variety of statistics cited and charted by the Times, what Americans could now make was beginning to outstrip what they could consume, to the point of diminishing employment.
“More and more the finger of suspicion points to the machine,” the Times reporter, Evan Clark, claimed. “It begins to look as if machines had come into conflict with men—as if the onward march of machines into every corner of our industrial life had driven men out of the factory and into the ranks of the unemployed.”
Clark’s contention, it turned out, was overstated—unemployment, at the time, remained at only 4.2 percent nationwide. But the fear that “the machines”—automation—might possibly be detrimental to American life was something relatively new, and very real. Since America’s early days, there had been flashes of concern, but nothing like the disruptions caused by new technology that set off full-blown labor wars in England and France during the first convulsions of the Industrial Revolution. For one thing, most people in antebellum America worked for themselves, as farmers or housewives, artisans or professionals. New technology usually meant labor-saving devices, from the mechanical reaper to the dishwashing machine. Fears of white, working-class people centered more on being displaced by immigrants and African Americans, or the country’s rickety financial and banking systems. The imposing new factories that initially sprang up seemed to prove that the machines only made jobs.
By the end of the 1920s, however, that belief had begun to wear thin, and the machine seemed a menace. Today, we tend to think of our trepidation about automation as a relatively recent phenomenon, one that reflects The Matrix– and Watson on “Jeopardy!”—fears of artificial intelligence overtaking our own. But in fact, we began fearing much more primitive devices decades ago, and that fear reliably resurfaced when our economy faltered. Our present anxiety about robots taking human jobs might well prove to be warranted—but it is not novel.
With the onset of the Great Depression, the widespread fear about technology was that it would lead to “overproduction,” which was seen by many at the time as the major cause of our worst economic meltdown. President Herbert Hoover received a hysterical letter from the mayor of Palo Alto—his adopted hometown and later, of course, the hub of Silicon Valley—warning that a “Frankenstein monster” of industrial technology was “devouring our civilization.” In 1932-1933, there was widespread excitement about an eccentric new, socio-political movement advocating the reorganization of society as a “Technocracy.” Technocrats, in the words of historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., believed that “the inexorable increase of productivity, far outstripping opportunities for employment or investment, must mean permanent and growing unemployment, and permanent and growing debt, until capitalism itself collapsed under the double load.” The only solution, said the technocrats, was to drop our outdated and supposedly irrational “pricing system” for goods in favor of a new financial system that would tie everything to the amount of energy needed to produce goods, and redistribute money based on “ergs” and “joules” and other measures of literal power.
Technocracy proved to be a passing fad. But one of its central contentions—that machines made overproduction inevitable—was widely believed to be the underlying cause of the Depression. Even Franklin Roosevelt, during his 1932 presidential campaign, voiced his belief that the overproduction of the machines was driving unemployment, insisting, “Our industrial plant is built; the problem just now is whether under existing conditions it is not overbuilt.”
Once in office, FDR discovered that, in fact, our industrial plant was far from “finished,” and set about providing the infrastructure—and the buying power—to make building many more factories possible. World War II provided an object lesson in just how many workers America’s modern, industrialized economy could absorb. The country’s amazing wartime production—and the even more amazing postwar boom that followed—dimmed economic anxieties, and increased our confidence that we could handle whatever inventions might come. “If men have the talent to invent machines that put men out of work, they have the talent to put those men back to work,” President Kennedy proclaimed in 1962.
Not everyone was so sure. When, the Ford Motor Company moved its engine block production to a largely automated factory in Brook Park, Ohio, in 1949—a plant where automatic machine tools cut manpower by 90 percent—MIT professor Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, warned that, “in the hands of the present industrial set-up, the unemployment produced by such plants can only be disastrous.” Some United Auto Workers activists wanted to respond by demanding a 30-hour week at 40-hour wages. But Walter Reuther, the visionary head of the UAW, remained sanguine, using his union’s power to keep his laid-off men employed elsewhere in the vast Ford empire, and their wage structure intact. “Nothing could be more wicked or foolish,” than to resist the mechanization of the auto line,” Reuther said in the mid-fifties. “You can’t stop technological progress, and it would be silly to try to do it if you could.”