Power and Progress: Our Thousand-Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity

Power and Progress
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A bold reinterpretation of economics and history revealing why technology does not inevitably lead to shared prosperity, and how we must redirect innovation in the age of AI to benefit all.

A thousand years of history and contemporary evidence make it clear that progress depends on the choices we make about technology. New ways of organizing production and communication can either serve the narrow interests of an elite or become the foundation for widespread prosperity. At no point has this been truer than the crossroads we face today. The transformation of work by digital technologies and AI could make life better for most people, or possibly much worse—depending on the economic, social, and political choices we make.

Through powerful, illuminating examples, Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson fundamentally change how we see the world. 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 first hundred years of industrialization in England delivered stagnant incomes for working people. The era of the 1950s through the 1970s, similar to today, was one of rapid technological advancement, yet also one of increasing prosperity for many.

Throughout the world today, digital technologies and artificial intelligence undermine jobs and democracy through excessive automation, massive data collection, and intrusive surveillance. It doesn’t have to be this way. Power and Progress demonstrates the path of technology was once—and may again—be brought under control. Cutting-edge technological advances can become empowering and democratizing tools, but not if all major decisions remain in the hands of a few hubristic tech leaders.

With their bold reinterpretation of economics and history, Acemoglu and Johnson provide the vision needed to redirect innovation so it again benefits most people.

Editorial reviews:

“Innovation is undeniably a cool thing. Because of it, we survive diseases that regularly used to kill us. We can access and process unimaginable amounts of information. Without new technologies we would never meet the challenge to decarbonize the economy and contain climate change. But as Acemoglu and his MIT colleague Simon Johnson point out in their forthcoming book, Power and Progress (due out in May), contemporary evidence and the long story of humanity’s technological development confirm ‘there is nothing automatic about new technologies bringing widespread prosperity. Whether they do or not is an economic, social, and political choice.’”―Eduardo Porter, Bloomberg

“One of the most important books of the year.” ―Will Hutton, The Guardian

“Getting the regulation of artificial intelligence right is one of the most urgent problems facing our species, and also one of the most delicate…. This is the subject at the heart of an important new book by two prominent economists.…The book proposes an interesting set of policies to produce a better version of the future…Acemoglu and Johnson highlight a substantial worry about the evolution of the tech industry.” ―Adrian Wooldridge, Bloomberg

“Anyone who claims that the rise of A.I. will be good for anyone but those who own (and profit from) large tech companies should read Power and Progress. A new economy undergirded by artificial intelligence could easily serve as an engine of further wealth concentration. Thinking about where we have been and where we are going in higher education, the clear lesson from Power and Progress is that we should not expect new technologies to result in a more equitable and resilient postsecondary ecosystem.”―Inside Higher Ed

“A necessary corrective… They may not be techno-optimists, but their closing message is a hopeful one: humanity has done this before, and we can do it again… Power and Progress is no neo-luddite screed. It recognises the contribution technological advances can make towards shared prosperity, but it is a strident techno-realist takedown of the dominant narrative of its inevitability and a call to arms to make it a reality.”―Irish Times

“Acemoglu and Johnson give an incisive analysis of the economics of labor and technology, along with a trenchant critique of the ‘techno-optimism’ of corporate visionaries…a stimulating call for social and political action to ensure the rising tide of innovation lifts all boats.”―Publishers Weekly

“[I]nsightful…A convincing attack on today’s dysfunctional economy plus admirable suggestions for correcting matters.”―Kirkus

“This singular book elevated my understanding of the present confluence of society, economics, and technology. Here we have a synthesis of history and analysis coupled with specific ideas about how the future can be improved. It pulls no punches but also inspires optimism.”―Jaron Lanier, author of Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

“One powerful thread runs through this breathtaking tour of the history and future of technology, from the Neolithic agricultural revolution to the ascent of artificial intelligence: Technology is not destiny, nothing is pre-ordained. Humans, despite their imperfect institutions and often-contradictory impulses, remain in the driver’s seat. It is still our job to determine whether the vehicles we build are heading toward justice or down the cliff. In this age of relentless automation and seemingly unstoppable consolidation of power and wealth, Power and Progress is an essential reminder that we can, and must, take back control.”―Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, 2019 Nobel laureates in economics and authors of Poor Economics and Good Economics for Hard Times

“Technology is upending our world—automating jobs, deepening inequality, and creating tools of surveillance and misinformation that threaten democracy. But Acemoglu and Johnson show it doesn’t have to be this way. The direction of technology is not, like the direction of the wind, a force of nature beyond human control. It’s up to us. This humane and hopeful book shows how we can steer technology to promote the public good. Required reading for everyone who cares about the fate of democracy in a digital age.”―Michael J. Sandel, author of The Tyranny of Merit: Can We Find the Common Good?

“Acemoglu and Johnson have written a sweeping history of more than a thousand years of technical change. They take aim at economists’ mindless enthusiasm for technical change and their crippling neglect of power. An important book that is long overdue.”―Sir Angus Deaton, 2015 Nobel laureate in economics and coauthor of Deaths of Despair

“A remarkable analysis of the current drama of technology evolution versus human dignity, where the potent forces boosting inequality continue to destroy our belief in the nobility of work and the inevitability of egalitarian progress. Acemoglu and Johnson offer a fresh vision of how this drama unfolds by highlighting human capabilities and social skills. They are deeply informed, masters at synthesis, and passionate about shaping a better future where innovation supports equality.”―Ben Shneiderman, Distinguished University Professor, University of Maryland, and author of Human-Centered AI

“Our future is inevitable and determined by the acceleration of technologies like AI and Web3. . . . Or so we are told. Here, from two of the greatest economists of our time, we have the definitive refutation of the techno-determinist story that has held us back from building a better future for the last four decades. With a bit of luck, we may look back at this as a turning point where we collectively once again took responsibility for defining the world we want technology to empower us to live in together.”―E. Glen Weyl, research lead and founder, Decentralized Social Technology Collaboratory, Microsoft Research Special Projects

“In this brilliant, sweeping review of technological change past and present, Acemoglu and Johnson mean to grab us by the shoulders and shake us awake before today’s winner-take-all technologies impose more violence on global society and the democratic prospect. This vital book is a necessary antidote to the poisonous rhetoric of tech inevitability. It reveals the realpolitik of technology as a persistent Trojan horse for economic powers that favor the profit-seeking aims of the few over the many. Power and Progress is the blueprint we need for the challenges ahead: technology only contributes to shared prosperity when it is tamed by democratic rights, values, principles, and the laws that sustain them in our daily lives.”―Shoshana Zuboff, professor emeritus, Harvard Business School, and author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

“If you are not already an addict of Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson’s previous books, Power and Progress is guaranteed to make you one. It offers their addictive hallmarks: sparkling writing and a big question that affects our lives. Are powerful new technologies guaranteed to benefit us? Did the industrial revolution bring happiness to our great-grandparents 150 years ago, and will artificial intelligence bring us more happiness now? Read, enjoy, and then choose your lifestyle!”―Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and other international bestsellers

“Acemoglu and Johnson would like a word with the mighty tech lords before they turn over the entire world economy to artificial intelligence. The lesson of economic history is technological advances such as AI won’t automatically lead to broad-based prosperity—they may end up benefiting only a wealthy elite. Just as the innovations of the Gilded Age of American industrialization had to be reined in by progressive politics, so too, in our Coded Age, we need not only trade unions, civil society, and trustbusters, but also legislative and regulatory reforms to prevent the advent of a new panopticon of AI-enabled surveillance. This book will not endear the authors to Microsoft executives, but it’s a bracing wake-up call for the rest of us.”―Niall Ferguson, Milbank Family Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and author of The Square and the Tower

“A book you must read: compelling, beautifully written, and tightly argued, it addresses a crucially important problem with powerful solutionsDrawing on both historical examples and a deep dive into the ways in which artificial intelligence and social media depress wages and undermine democracy, Acemoglu and Johnson argue for a revolution in the way we manage and control technology. Throughout history, it has only been when elites have been forced to share power that technology has served the common good. Acemoglu and Johnson show us what this would look like today.”―Rebecca Henderson, John and Natty McArthur University Professor, Harvard University, and author of Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire

“Important… formidable…This book arrives at an opportune moment, when digital technology, currently surfing on a wave of irrational exuberance about ubiquitous AI, is booming, while the idea of shared prosperity has seemingly become a wistful pipe dream.”―John Naughton, The Observer

“America (and the world) is at a crossroads. Big business and the rich rewrote the rules of the US political economy since the 1970s, making it more grotesquely unfair than ever just as automation and offshoring jobs changed the game as well. Now with AI, renowned MIT economists Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson explain in their important and lucid book how the transformation of work could make life even worse for most people, or, possibly, much better––depending on the political and social and technological choices we make starting now. We must ‘stop being mesmerized by tech billionaires,’ they warn, because ‘progress is never automatic.’ With revealing, relevant stories from throughout economic history and sensible ideas for systemic reform, this is an essential guide for this crucial battle in the ‘one-thousand-year struggle’ between the powerful and everyone else.”―Kurt Andersen, author of Evil Geniuses

“The technology of artificial intelligence is moving fast and likely to accelerate. This powerful book shows we now need to make some careful choices to really share the benefits and reduce unintended, adverse consequences. Technology is too important to leave to the billionaires. Everyone everywhere should read Acemoglu and Johnson—and try to get a seat at the decision-making table.”―Ro Khanna, Silicon Valley member of Congress

“Two of the best economists alive today are taking a closer look at the economics of technological progress in history. Their findings are as surprising as they are disturbing. This beautifully written and richly documented book marks a new beginning in our thinking about the political economy of innovation.”―Joel Mokyr, professor of economics and history, Northwestern University

“Will the AI revolution increase the average worker’s productivity while recusing their drudgery, or will it simply create more exploitative and heavily surveilled workplaces run by robotic overlords? That is the right question, and luckily Acemoglu and Johnson have set out to answer it, giving it profound historical context, combing through the economic incentives, and lighting a better path forward.”―Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction and The Shame Machine

About the authors:


Daron Acemoglu is Institute Professor of Economics at MIT, the university’s highest faculty honor. For the last twenty-five years, he has been researching the historical origins of prosperity, poverty, and the effects of new technologies on economic growth, employment, and inequality. Acemoglu is the recipient of several awards and honors, including the John Bates Clark Medal, awarded to economists under forty judged to have made the most significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge (2005); the BBVA Frontiers of Knowledge Award in economics, finance, and management for his lifetime contributions (2016), and the Kiel Institute’s Global Economy Prize in economics (2019). He is author (with James Robinson) of The Narrow Corridor and the New York Times bestseller Why Nations Fail.


Simon Johnson is the Ronald A. Kurtz Professor of Entrepreneurship in the Sloan School at MIT, where he is also head of the Global Economics and Management group. Previously chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, he has worked on global economic crises and recoveries for thirty years. Johnson has published more than 300 high-impact pieces in leading publications such as The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Wall Street JournalThe Atlantic, and Financial Times. He is author (with Jon Gruber) of Jump-Starting America, and (with James Kwak) of White House Burning and the national bestseller 13 Bankers. He works with entrepreneurs, elected officials, and civil society organizations around the world.