For a nation that leads the world in almost every area of technological endeavor, Americans turn out to be surprisingly wary about the effect of technological progress on their own lives. And maybe with good reason.
In a telephone survey, the Pew Research Center and Smithsonian magazine asked 1,001 people whether they thought technological changes in general would make life better or worse. Fifty-nine percent said better -- about what you'd expect for the country that gave the world the airplane, the Internet and the Roomba.
But when researchers asked people about specific advances, not just technology in the abstract, they got very different answers. Pew presented respondents with four technological changes that "might happen in the next 50 years." They then asked whether each change would make life better or worse. For each change, a majority of respondents said it would make things worse.
The researchers then used a second trick to dig deeper into people's views. They offered three things that technology might soon make possible, and asked if respondents would want to try those things themselves. For each option, more people said no than yes (though people were closely matched on driverless cars).
What's driving that wariness? Aaron Smith, the researcher who led the survey, said he was surprised to find it was spread equally across both age groups and party lines. The most useful indicator for predicting people's views on technology turned out to be socioeconomic class.
"People who have done well for themselves in the economy of today tend to be more positive about the benefits of technology in the future," Smith said. "There's sort of a winners-and-losers thing at play here."
In fact, respondents with a high school education or less were 50 percent more likely than college graduates to say technological changes will make life worse. And people making less than $30,000 a year were almost twice as likely to hold that view as those earning $75,000 or more. That may be a rational outlook: The least educated and worst paid are often the most likely to lose their jobs because of technology.
But low-skilled workers aren't the only ones who expressed anxiety about what technology will bring. Even a quarter of college graduates said technology will make life worse. That might reflect the fact that, as Eduardo Porter wrote last week in the New York Times, it's not just low-skilled workers who are in trouble.
Conventional wisdom in economics has long held that technological change affects income inequality by increasing the rewards to skill -- through a dynamic called “skill-biased technical change.” Losers are workers whose job can be replaced by machines (textile workers, for example). Those whose skills are enhanced by machines (think Wall Street traders using ultrafast computers) win.
It is becoming increasingly apparent, however, that this is not the whole story and that the skills-heavy narrative of inequality is not as straightforward as economists once believed. The persistent decline in the labor share of income suggests another dynamic. Call it “capital-biased technical change” -- which encourages replacing decently paid workers with a machine, regardless of their skill.
So Americans' anxiety about technological change may reflect more than just a concern about "waking up one morning and being surrounded by drones and robot caregivers," as Smith put it. It may also represent a yearning for an earlier era, when both textile workers and traders could count on their jobs sticking around.
Sure enough, when Pew researchers asked if there was one futuristic invention respondents would like to own, two responses tied for first place: something to make them live longer -- and a time machine.
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