Skip to Content

EmTech: Does IT Cost More Jobs than It Creates?

An academic says the past decade has brought mixed blessings.
October 20, 2011

Were the loom-destroying Luddites simply ahead of their time?

The traditional view holds that, overall, new technology generates at least as many jobs (and whole industries) as it displaces. But yesterday, Andrew McAfee, principal researcher at MIT’s Center for Digital Business, invoked the ongoing national protests while suggesting this may no longer be the case. At least, McAfee reported, the phenomena has not been in evidence over the past decade.

McAfee is co-author, with his colleague Erik Brynjolfsson, of the forthcoming e-book Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. (The employment arguments will be spelled out in greater detail in that text, which comes out next Monday.) “Technology grows the overall economic pie,” McAfee said yesterday at Technology Review’s EmTech conference, but “that’s different than saying it will leave everyone unambiguously better off.”

While the 2000s ushered in a rapid expansion of e-commerce, social media, and vast improvements in computing hardware and software applications of all kinds, “the 2000s were the first decade we are aware of where net job growth was negative. The economy as a whole was a lot bigger at the end of the decade, and the population was a lot bigger, but people with jobs was not.”

McAfee added: “When I see the protests and the 99 percent, I see people saying they feel like they are being left behind. Technology is not the story, but technology progress is part of the story there.”

McAfee said recent studies suggest that the level of entrepreneurship in the United States has not diminished. “What’s changed is you can have a startup that employs fewer people than it did a decade ago. And guess what I think the culprit is?” He did not answer the question but has argued in Technology Review and elsewhere that many jobs–such as automated telephone operators and trouble-shooters, and document analysts—can now be done competently by computers. In addition, the growth of the global Internet has allowed more office jobs to be done offshore. And future technological advances promise to continue this trend.

McAfee stopped short of specifying whose looms we should smash—or that we should smash anything at all. Instead he ended on an “hugely optimistic note,” contending that “by most measures, the average American today lives better than Rockefeller did in the gilded era. The stuff we have access to would blow away those plutocrats. Our best days are ahead of us. Overall, things are going to get a lot better.”

Keep Reading

Most Popular

A Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?

Robot vacuum companies say your images are safe, but a sprawling global supply chain for data from our devices creates risk.

A startup says it’s begun releasing particles into the atmosphere, in an effort to tweak the climate

Make Sunsets is already attempting to earn revenue for geoengineering, a move likely to provoke widespread criticism.

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

Every year, we pick the 10 technologies that matter the most right now. We look for advances that will have a big impact on our lives and break down why they matter.

These exclusive satellite images show that Saudi Arabia’s sci-fi megacity is well underway

Weirdly, any recent work on The Line doesn’t show up on Google Maps. But we got the images anyway.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.