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A Conversation on Technology and Society with Daron Acemoglu, Renowned Author and MIT Institute Professor

November 8, 2023

Conversations about technological advancements are often rooted in the assumption that they inherently lead to broad benefits across all sections of society. But during a discussion at Johns Hopkins SAIS on November 8, 2023, Daron Acemoglu, a renowned economist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argued that history tells a different story.

The outcome depends on what choices we make about technology, Acemoglu asserted. In other words, the vastly increased productivity from new technology could become the foundation for widespread prosperity, but it can also end up mostly serving the narrow interests of a small elite.

Acemoglu’s visit to SAIS was sponsored by the 555 Globalization Initiative as part of the Dean’s Speaker Series, which brings a broad range of prominent thought leaders and policy practitioners to the school every year for insightful perspectives and discussions of international issues, leadership, and other relevant topics. Joining him in the conversation was SAIS Vice Dean for Faculty Affairs Filipe Campante, and SNF Agora Institute Professor Henry Farrell.

The discussion centered around Acemoglu’s recently published book, Power and Progress: Our 1000-Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity, which he co-authored with MIT colleague Simon Johnson. In the book, Acemoglu and Johnson cited the example of how the wealth generated by technological improvements in agriculture during the European Middle Ages was captured by the nobility and used to build grand cathedrals while peasants remained on the edge of starvation.

The conversation about technology has... been often hijacked by a naïve techno-optimism—that technologies are going to deliver benefits for everybody or that technological innovations by themselves are going to be solutions to deep social problems.

Daron Acemoglu
“Simon Johnson and I wrote the book because we believe that we are at the cusp of some very transformative changes in terms of technology and society,” Acemoglu said. “But the book is written out of a concern at some level because we also believe that the conversation about technology has not focused on the right questions. It’s been often hijacked by a naïve techno-optimism—that technologies are going to deliver benefits for everybody or that technological innovations by themselves are going to be solutions to deep social problems.”

If a small elite controls technologies and labor markets, he noted, the ultimate result will not be anything resembling shared benefits. He cited the example of the cotton gin, a revolutionary technology in its era which, while transforming the economy of the U.S. south and enriching many people in the region, made life a lot more miserable for the enslaved people toiling in cotton plantations.

In response to a series of comments and questions shared by Farrell, Acemoglu stated that there’s an inherent conflict between very centralized control of information and democracy. “Democracy requires broad-based participation and different perspectives to flourish, and centralized control of information is not going to allow that,” he said. “And especially when you couple that centralized information with the business models of the digital platform, which is about trying to monetize data. I think [this creates] a really pernicious mix for democracy.”

Professor Acemoglu is an Institute Professor at MIT and an elected fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, American Philosophical Society, the British Academy of Sciences, the Turkish Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Econometric Society, the European Economic Association, and the Society of Labor Economists.

In addition to Power and Progress, his five other books include the New York Times bestseller Why Nations Fail: Power, Prosperity, and Poverty; and The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty (both co-authored with James A. Robinson). Among other high-profile accolades, Professor Acemoglu was awarded the John Bates Clark Medal in 2005, the Erwin Plein Nemmers Prize in 2012, and the 2016 BBVA Frontiers of Knowledge Award.