The Americans who first greeted The New York Review of Books in 1963 were a mostly prosperous lot. The US economy grew that year by nearly 4.5 percent, following 6 percent growth the year before, and with more than 6 percent growth to come on average over the next three years as well. By fall, when the new Review’s first regular pages appeared, the unemployment rate was just 5.5 percent, on its way to 4.5 percent by mid-1965 and almost to 3.5 percent by late 1966. Nor was there much inflation; consumer prices rose just 1.3 percent in 1963, the same rate that prevailed on average throughout the first half of the 1960s.
Best of all, most Americans’ incomes were outpacing inflation, as they had for a decade and a half before 1963 and would continue to do for another decade after. In 1948 the family just at the middle of the US income scale had earned $26,500 in today’s dollars. By 1963 the median family’s income was up to $41,000. By 1973 it would be $55,700.
Yet even then some worriers expressed concerns about the longer-term economic future and what it might mean for society. Writing at just that time James Meade, a British economist who later won the Nobel Prize, focused in particular on the threat presented by “automation.”1 Replacing human work by robots had been an aspiration—and also a source of fear—for centuries. But the idea had gained new currency with the work of the American mathematician Norbert Wiener, especially following publication of his Cybernetics in 1948. By the mid-1950s the prospect of substituting machines for human effort had captured the attention of popular culture too, with films like Fred Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet vividly imagining the wondrous possibilities but also potentially horrible consequences.
Meade’s vision was no less arresting than Wilcox’s. His concern was how the humans displaced by machines in the economy’s productive process would earn a living. “What of the future?” he asked.
There would be a limited number of exceedingly wealthy property owners; the proportion of the working population required to man the extremely profitable automated industries would be small; wage rates would thus be depressed; there would have to be a large expansion of the production of the labour-intensive goods and services which were in high demand by the few multi-multi-multi-millionaires; we would be back in a super-world of an immiserized proletariat of butlers, footmen, kitchen maids, and other hangers-on. Let…
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