On February 26, 1928, a headline in the New York Times announced, “MARCH OF THE MACHINE MAKES IDLE HANDS,”with the subhead:“Prevalence of Unemployment With Greatly Increased Industrial Output Points to the Influence of Labor-Saving Devices as an Underlying Cause.”
What these alarming words referred to was the abundance of goods being produced in the roaring plants, mills and farm fields of 1920s America. According to a variety of statistics cited and charted by the Times, what Americans could now makewas beginning to outstrip what they could consume, to the point of diminishing employment.
“More and more the finger of suspicion points to the machine,” the Times reporter, Evan Clark, claimed. “It begins to look as if machines had come into conflict with men—as if the onward march of machines into every corner of our industrial life had driven men out of the factory and into the ranks of the unemployed.”
Clark’s contention, it turned out, was overstated—unemployment, at the time, remained at only 4.2 percent nationwide. But the fear that “the machines”—automation—might possibly be detrimental to American life was something relatively new, and very real. Since America’s early days, there had been flashes of concern, but nothing like the disruptions caused by new technology that set off full-blown labor wars in England and France during the first convulsions of the Industrial Revolution. For one thing, most people in antebellum America worked for themselves, as farmers or housewives, artisans or professionals. New technology usually meant labor-saving devices, from the mechanical reaper to the dishwashing machine. Fears of white, working-class people centered more on being displaced by immigrants and African Americans, or the country’s rickety financial and banking systems. The imposing new factories that initially sprang up seemed to prove that the machines only made jobs.
By the end of the 1920s, however, that belief had begun to wear thin, and the machine seemed a menace. Today, we tend to think of our trepidation about automation as a relatively recent phenomenon, one that reflects The Matrix- and Watson on “Jeopardy!”—fears of artificial intelligence overtaking our own. But in fact, we began fearing much more primitive devices decades ago, and that fear reliably resurfaced when our economy faltered. Our present anxiety about robots taking human jobs might well prove to be warranted—but it is not novel.