Automation Anxiety

In his review of a prescient work called The Shape of Automation (1966), by Herbert Simon, a manifold genius who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, Heilbroner scoffed at Simon’s notion that the average family income would reach $28,000 (in 1966 dollars) after the turn of the century: “He has no doubt that these families will have plenty of use for their entire income… . But why stop there? On his assumptions of a three percent annual growth rate, average family incomes will be $56,000 by the year 2025; $112,000 by 2045; and $224,000 a century from today. Is it beyond human nature to think that at this point (or a great deal sooner), a ceiling will have been imposed on demand—if not by edict, then tacitly? To my mind, it is hard not to picture such a ceiling unless the economy is to become a collective vomitorium.”

Simon responded drily that he had “great respect for the ability of human beings—given a little advance warning—to think up reasonable ways” of spending that kind of money, and to do so “without vomiting.” He was right about that, of course, even though he was wrong about the particular numbers.

– “Automation Anxiety“, Daniel Akst