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Inventing Ourselves Out of Jobs?

, 392 pages

13 halftones, 1 line drawing

November 2001



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Inventing Ourselves Out of Jobs?

America's Debate over Technological Unemployment, 1929–1981

Selected by Choice Magazine as an Outstanding Academic Title

Americans today often associate scientific and technological change with progress and personal well-being. Yet underneath our confident assumptions lie serious questions. In Inventing Ourselves Out of Jobs? Amy Sue Bix locates the origins of this confusion in the Great Depression, when social and economic crisis forced many Americans to re-examine ideas about science, technology, and progress. Growing fear of "technological unemployment"—the idea that increasing mechanization displaced human workers—prompted widespread talk about the meaning of progress in the new Machine Age. In response, promoters of technology mounted a powerful public relations campaign: in advertising, writings, speeches, and World Fair exhibits, company leaders and prominent scientists and engineers insisted that mechanization ultimately would ensure American happiness and national success.

Emphasizing the cultural context of the debate, Bix concentrates on public perceptions of work and technological change: the debate over mechanization turned on ideology, on the way various observers in the 1930s interpreted the relationship between technology and American progress. Although similar concerns arose in other countries, Bix highlights what was unique about the American response: "Discussion about workplace change," she argues, "became entwined with particular musings about the meaning of American history, the western frontier, and a sense of national destiny." In her concluding chapters and epilogue, Bix shows how the issue changed during World War II and in postwar America and brings the debate forward to show its relevance to modern readers.

Amy Sue Bix is an associate professor of history at Iowa State University.

"No historian before [Bix] has examined systematically what she rightly calls the American debate over the role of machines in either reducing or increasing jobs... A first-rate historical study that simultaneously speaks to our high-tech present."

"Amy Bix's fine book, carefully researched and gracefully written, surveys the extent of everyday hardship during the Great Depression. She concentrates on the debates over technological unemployment in the United States, debates that were 'entwined with particular musings about the meaning of American history, the western frontier, and a sense of national destiny.'."

"This book succeeds splendidly as an intellectual history of automation as it has been generally understood for most of this century by business and labor leaders, intellectuals, engineers, politicians, and publicists."

"This superb account of the uproar, beginning in the 1930s, over 'technological unemployment' brings to life an unexplored area of popular economics and policy debate through much of the twentieth century."

"A very thorough and balanced analysis."

" Inventing Ourselves Out of Jobs? is an able and lucidly written account of the ongoing debate in the United States over the effects of technology on employment."

"It is to be hoped her book stimulates interest and provides the basis for further inquiry into the consequences of these aspects of the Information Revolution."

"This excellent study examines the multiple strands of concern about the threat to employment posed by mechanisation and automation, with the primary focus being on attitudes during the 1930s."

"Focusing on how the Depression impelled a national debate over technological unemployment, Bix examines the terms of that debate while exploring what it has to tell us about ourselves and our views about technology and progress. She makes plain early on that the debate was a proxy for something more profound: the uneasy American relation to the Machine Age and its progressive claims."

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