Jun 6, 2018

Scholar: 19th century tech boom didn't lead to WWI

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

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 10 p.m. ET: 1,014,673 — Total deaths: 52,973 — Total recoveries: 210,335Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 10 p.m. ET: 244,678 — Total deaths: 5,911 — Total recoveries: 9,058Map.
  3. 2020 updates: The Democratic National Committee said its July convention will be postponed until August because of the coronavirus. A federal judge declined to delay Wisconsin's April 7 primary election.
  4. Jobs latest: Coronavirus unemployment numbers are like a natural disaster hitting every state.
  5. Public health latest: Anthony Fauci called for all states across the U.S. to issue stay-at-home orders. The FDA will allow blood donations from gay men after 3-month waiting period, citing "urgent need."
  6. Business latest: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said oil companies are eligible for aid from new lending programs the Federal Reserve is setting up, but not direct loans from his department.
  7. U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt: Navy removes captain of aircraft carrier who sounded alarm about coronavirus.
  8. 1 future thing: In developing countries, consequences of COVID-19 could be deeper and far more difficult to recover from.
  9. What should I do? Answers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingQ&A: Minimizing your coronavirus risk.
  10. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it.

Subscribe to Mike Allen's Axios AM to follow our coronavirus coverage each morning from your inbox.

Mark Meadows considers new White House press secretary

Photos: Alyssa Farah, Defense Department; Stephanie Grisham, Alex Wong/Getty Images; Kayleigh McEnany, Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows has privately discussed bringing on Pentagon spokeswoman Alyssa Farah or Trump campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany as a new White House press secretary, two sources familiar with the talks tell Axios.

Why it matters: Meadows' start on Tuesday as Trump's new chief — and televised coronavirus briefings that feature President Trump himself — present a chance to overhaul a press shop that's kept a low profile since President Trump ended the tradition of daily press secretary briefings.

CNN: Fauci advises all states issue stay-at-home orders

Dr. Anthony Fauci listens to President Trump speak during a briefing on April 1. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci recommended on Thursday that all states across the U.S. implement stay-at-home orders, at a CNN town hall.

Why it matters: The recommendation stands in contrast to President Trump's calls for "flexibility." Nearly 4o states have issued stay-at-home orders to promote social distancing as a way to combat the novel coronavirus — but the orders vary in strictness and duration.