Back in the early 19th century, as the Industrial Revolution began to take hold, a group of British laborers rebelled against the technological advances of the day. Taking their inspiration from an obscure British weaver named Ned Ludd, who had attacked and bludgeoned to death two knitting frames after being chastised for laziness, these laborers began wrecking all the new-fangled machinery they could get their hands on. By stopping the march of technology, they mistakenly believed that they could preserve their own low-level jobs.
The Luddites, as they came to be known, were defeated swiftly by the British government -- and by technology, which outpaced them and caused the greatest flourishing of population growth, health and wealth the world has ever known -- but their legacy lives on in the Democratic Party. This week, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) announced that the Apple iPad was responsible for unemployment.
"Now Borders is closing stores because why do you need to go to Borders anymore?" Jackson complained. "Why do you need to go to Barnes & Noble? Buy an iPad and download your newspaper, download your book, download your magazine. What becomes of publishing companies and publishing company jobs? What becomes of bookstores and libraries and all of the jobs associated with paper?"
Unfortunately, economic ignorance allows this idiotic argument to survive, generation after generation. It survives because it ignores the communal effects of technological change while focusing on the individual effects of technological change. Communally speaking, technological change is wonderful -- it enables vast numbers of people to live their lives in comfort and ease. They no longer have to drive to the bookstore to get a paper copy of that new book, which may or may not be in stock. Now, they can sit at home and get it immediately on their iPad. This saves them time, money (in both book cost and the cost of gas), and physical strain (they no longer need to carry around several books).
Individually speaking, however, technological change can be problematic. The shopkeeper who has relied for years on crowds rushing out to buy the latest Tom Clancy novel is now retrograde; the printer who relies on book orders to make his payroll is archaic. Where will these people work? What will they do?