Join getAbstract to access the summary!

Power and Progress

Join getAbstract to access the summary!

Power and Progress

Our Thousand-Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity

Public Affairs,

15 min read
8 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Wealth inequality isn’t inevitable, say two noted economists.

Editorial Rating



  • Analytical
  • Eye Opening
  • Background


In this deep dive into the history of innovation, MIT economists Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson adeptly illustrate that humans have been responsible for some remarkable technological advancements, even during seemingly fallow periods like the Middle Ages. But, they argue, the benefits of technical progress tend to accrue almost entirely to those in power; today, Big Tech concentrates greater wealth into fewer hands. Acemoglu and Johnson call for interventions that can help guide progress, including in AI development, while ensuring that its gains go to more people.


“Techno-optimism” has paid dividends but also exacted tolls.

Throughout history, technological progress and economic growth have been powered by a potent mix of ingredients. One driver is optimism about technology: the belief that human ingenuity can overcome natural hurdles to progress. Another is faith in markets: the idea that the private sector will find a way to fund and profit from innovation. And a third is a willful ignorance of the costs of progress, whether they exact a human toll – such as the thousands of people who died in a failed first attempt at building the Panama Canal – or an environmental cost, as in the climate change created by the widespread use of fossil fuels. 

French diplomat and entrepreneur Ferdinand de Lesseps illustrated the extremes of this approach in the 19th century. He led the development of the Suez Canal, starting in 1861. De Lesseps commandeered an army of Egyptian workers who were all but slaves – they slept on the ground in the desert, and they were fed meager rations and paid subpar wages.After de Lesseps lost his access to cheap labor in 1863, his project seemed dead. But technology came to the rescue, in the...

About the Authors

Daron Acemoglu is a professor at MIT and the co-author of The Narrow Corridor and Why Nations Fail. Simon Johnson is a professor at the MIT Sloan School and was formerly chief economist at the International Monetary Fund. He is the co-author of Jump-Starting America and 13 Bankers.

Comment on this summary