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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

When thinkers predict misery and danger as the new wave of automation unfolds, their evidence is often the jobs chaos, flat wages, and hellbent industrialization of the 19th century. Last year, Alibaba CEO Jack Ma said that technological revolution, after all, "caused World War I."

Quick take: Joel Mokyr, a foremost 19th century scholar at Northwestern University, suggests that the Industrial Revolution and World War I are less of a window into what’s coming from our tech revolution than people presume.

The background: One of the greatest uncertainties of our age is how automation will impact society and politics over the coming decades, and many historians say the greatest clues seem to be in the 19th century.

  • Speaking to Axios, Mokyr says an indisputable lesson of the Second Industrial Revolution, just preceding World War I, is that technology can be much more powerful than expected in a combat setting, and seriously amplify and extend a conflict.
  • The tech breakout in steel, mass-production, chemicals, engines and barbed wire, "changed the nature of war between 1871 and 1914," said Mokyr, author of "A Culture of Growth."
  • The pace of change happened "faster than ever before, and people had not internalized that fact."

The big picture: But where historians and other analysts go too far, Mokyr says, is linking the century's dizzying tech boom and war.

  • "WWI was a epochal event, but linking it mindlessly to technology is playing post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this,)" he said.
  • "The idea that the technological advances of the age led to 'upheaval' and 'disruption,' and that those somehow led to war, strikes me as basically wrong.
  • "The 'flat' wages were not flat, and certainly the beginning of the 'welfare state' can be discerned in many countries. Moreover, unlike now Europeans left behind had a safety valve: free emigration.
Yes, economic change of any kind can lead to disruption and the need to adjust, and creative destruction can cause all kind of suffering. But not war.
— Mokyr

Go deeper

"Atmospheric river" to whiplash Northern California from drought to flood

A map depicting 24-hour preciptation forecast (inches) ending Monday at 5a.m. local time. Photo: NOAA

A series of powerful "atmospheric river" storms are set dump historic amounts of rainfall across parts of drought-stricken California and the Pacific Northwest from this weekend, forecasters warn.

Why it matters: A strong atmospheric river, packing large amounts of moisture, is predicted to whiplash Northern California from drought to flood.

10,000 trees near giant sequoia groves to be removed after fires

A firefighter looks up at a giant sequoia tree after fire burned through the Sequoia National Forest near California Hot Springs, California, on Sept. 23. Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

"Upwards of" 10,000 trees near giant sequoia groves have been "weakened by drought, disease, age, and/or fire" and must be removed in the wake of California's wildfires, the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks announced.

Why it matters: The damage to these trees, considered "national treasures," and work to remove them means a nearby key highway must remain closed to visitors as they have "the potential to strike people, cars, other structures, or create barriers to emergency response services," per a statement from the national parks.

Obama stumps for McAuliffe, urges Virginians not "to go back to the chaos"

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Former President Barack Obama framed a Nov. 2 gubernatorial race as a bellwether for the Democratic Party and the country, telling a crowd at a campaign event for Terry McAuliffe on Saturday that "I believe you, right here in Virginia, are going to show the rest of the country and the world that we're not going to indulge in our worst instincts."

Why it matters: With just over a week to go before Election Day in the Commonwealth, McAuliffe is bringing out the big guns. The 44th president appeared on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University to urge supporters to get to the polls.