Some of you know Denis Pombriant as a top-notch CRM analyst. I also know him as a historian. I look forward to meals with him where I can hear him talk about N. American history over the centuries.
He recently wrote two economic history pieces at Diginomica focused on the Kondratiev wave, here and here. These are long term cycles which everyone in technology would benefit reading about given the heavy capex and long time scales that IT initiatives continue to demand.
I interviewed him for my book, Silicon Collar and he made a striking comment about why we are so panicked about job losses from automation:
"The people crying loudest that the sky is falling can be separated into two buckets. The first bucket contains all those who have never experienced a wave change, which is to say all of us. We’ve lived our productive lives in one paradigm and we need to figure out what to do when we no longer make metaphorical picture tubes.”
His comments made me look at “societal amnesia” when it comes to automation and job losses. We panic every 3-4 decades – because the current generation has not experienced something similar in our lifetimes. I also found the panic is often accompanied by other traumatic changes in our societies.
The current panic, I believe, was triggered by the scary, deep global recession of 2007-2008. No job seemed secure with the financial freefall we saw.
But if some of us had been in the workforce in the 60s, we would likely have remembered that President Lyndon Johnson set up a blue ribbon commission to explore growing panic about automation. The trauma back then could be explained by the turmoil around civil rights and Vietnam that the country experienced during his term.
Go back another few decades. Palo Alto, with its VCs and startups, is today the capital of the technology world. But would you believe the mayor of that city sent President Herbert Hoover a letter warning that industrial technology was a “Frankenstein monster” that was “devouring our civilization.”? The trauma back then came from the Great Depression of the 1930s.
You can go back every few decades all the way back to the Luddites and you find similar panic attacks. The Luddites, of course, had the ultimate panic attack. They were bands of English workers in the 1810s who destroyed newly introduced machinery, especially in cotton and woolen mills, fearing their jobs would be lost.
Denis and I are collaborating on research on these periodic panic attacks.
The important thing here to take away is none of us was working during the previous Johnson panic. If we had, we could calm ourselves. The sky did not fall last time. It will not this time, either.