The debate over whether technological progress is ultimately good or bad for humanity just doesn’t seem to go away. From the Luddites of the 19th century industrial revolution to the techno-pessimists of today, the fight rages on. And as of last month, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman—the face of contemporary establishment economics—has thrown his hat squarely into the anti-technology ring.
The Nobel Prize winning economist and distinguished professor at the City University of New York recently wrote a Times article titled “Technology and the Triumph of Pessimism” in which he lays out a case that technological advancement has done humanity more harm than good.
The problem is, his argument rests entirely on ignoring data in favor of anecdote.
Krugman’s basic point is that technological advancements provide great benefits, but also come with great costs. “Well, over the past few days I’ve watched several shows on my smart TV — I haven’t made up my mind yet about the new season of ‘Westworld’ — and also watched several live musical performances,” he writes. “And let me say, I find access to streamed entertainment a major source of enjoyment.” But he points out that, “I’ve also read recently about how both sides in the Russia-Ukraine war are using precision long-range missiles — guided by more or less the same technology that makes streaming possible — to strike targets deep behind each other’s lines.” And so, he concludes, “the larger point is that while technology can bring a lot of satisfaction, it can also enable new forms of destruction.”
The idea that technology can be used for evil and destructive purposes as well as noble and constructive ones is hardly novel. While the Industrial Revolution vastly improved the material conditions of rich and poor alike, it also allowed gun manufacturers to produce hundreds of thousands more firearms per year.
It also empowered authoritarian regimes to take more control over their people than ever before. As the Hebrew University of Jerusalem historian Yuval Noah Harari points out in his New York Times bestselling book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, “There can be no communism without electricity, without railroads, without radio. You couldn’t establish a communist regime in sixteenth century Russia, because communism necessitates the concentration of information and resources in one hub. ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’ only works when produce can easily be collected and distributed across vast distances, and when activities can be monitored and coordinated over entire countries.”
Scarier still, technological advancement later ushered in weaponry so powerful that entire cities could be destroyed with the press of a button. Upon learning of the news that humans had developed and used an atomic bomb, writer J.R.R. Tolkien expressed the fear that physicists were essentially “plotting the destruction of the world, ” and quipped that, “Such explosives in men’s hands, while their moral and intellectual status is declining, is about as useful as giving out firearms to all inmates of a gaol and then saying that you hope ‘this will ensure peace.’”
It is hardly revelatory that technology has given humans frightening capabilities for destruction—especially when combined with the power of the state.
Krugman, however, makes no attempt in his article to weigh the totality of technology’s pros and cons against each other, so even on his own terms, it is unclear that he has made a case for “pessimism” rather than mere neutrality. But a glance at the large body of data left out of Krugman’s piece suggests that the benefits of technology far outweigh the costs.
In almost every region and period of human history prior to the scientific and industrial revolutions, technological progress was almost non-existent. Occasionally someone would happen to invent the wheel or the crossbow or the saddle, but no reliable method of innovation (such as the scientific method) had been widely popularized, so advancements came sporadically or not at all. And thus, the great problems of human welfare such as famine and plague remained largely unsolved and human life expectancy on every continent was consistently around 35 years or less. But since then, due largely to technological progress such as advancements in medicine, agriculture, and other fields, life expectancy has risen consistently and roughly doubled on every continent.
So it is profoundly misleading to emphasize the dangers of destructive technologies such as precision missiles, which are used relatively narrowly and infrequently, while ignoring protective technologies such as modern medicine, which are used relatively widely and constantly.
Worse still for Krugman’s case, it is more likely than not that technological advancement has done more good than harm even just by the narrow metric that he chose to focus on: violence. Along with global life expectancy increasing, homicide rates in all countries for which good data are available have been declining rapidly since 1500, even as weapons have been improving.
Deaths in state-based conflicts including civilian and military casualties have decreased steadily from 12.3 per 100,000 globally in 1946 to 0.63 per 100,000 in 2020. We have less access to good data about the lethality of state-based conflict prior to the end of World War 2, but even including the horrors of the world wars more than 80 years ago, the archaeological evidence indicates that the average level of violence per capita in modern times probably pales in comparison to the levels of violence throughout most of human history, during which tribesmen from opposing tribes were constantly killing each other for honor, resources, and reproductive opportunities.
To what degree can technological progress be credited with humanity’s gradual reduction in violence? It is not the only factor, but it is a major one, and quite possibly even the largest one. As a primary driver of economic growth, technological innovation makes society vastly wealthier. Thus, it reduces the incentives of most people to incur the enormous risks associated with violent action when they can be getting their needs met by increasingly abundant and profitable peaceable means instead.
As the Harvard University cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker explains in his New York Times bestselling book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, “Commerce is a positive-sum game in which everybody can win; as technological progress allows the exchange of goods and ideas over longer distances and among larger groups of trading partners, other people become more valuable alive than dead, and they are less likely to become targets of demonization and dehumanization.”
Given humanity’s vast gains in life expectancy and safety from violence throughout modern history, it is a good bet that technological progress has done much more to promote human health and safety than it has to damage it. And the other world-changing benefits of technological progress, such as the ability to communicate instantly with loved ones across the Earth, store almost all of human knowledge in your pocket, stream the new season of Westworld, and countless others, are just incalculably valuable cherries on top.
Like anything that changes the world, technology comes with serious downsides that humans would be irresponsible to ignore. But fundamentally, as the billionaire technologist Peter Theil explains in his book Zero to One, “Technology is miraculous because it allows us to do more with less, ratcheting up our fundamental capabilities to a higher level.”
Pessimism about this phenomenon is really pessimism about the use of human capability itself, and thus fundamentally human life. Paul Krugman’s Luddite ignorance of data and focus on trite anecdotes constitute not a “triumph of pessimism,” but rather a grotesque lack of gratitude for the wonders of technological progress and the human mind.