Image via Midjourney (fitting and frightening, no?)

History Research Paper Sample: How Automation Threatened America in the 1960s

Through our history curriculum, Commonwealth students learn how to be historians rather than passive absorbers of facts. They read and analyze primary sources from a variety of voices in their historical contexts. And they graduate knowing that a single textbook could never tell the whole story. Core to this discovery process is an annual research paper that hones students’ analytical and writing skills and challenges them to dig deep into a variety of sources on any topic of interest—whether it be debunking the “primitivist” myth around jazz, the impact of the breakup of the AT&T monopoly, or, as you will see in this recent example from Penny '23, how the existential threat of artificial intelligence far predates ChatGPT and its ilk.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, when technological innovations skyrocketed, people tended to equate technological breakthroughs with happiness. The National Association of Manufacturers, for example, declared, “For the expanding, dynamic economy of America, the sky is indeed the limit. Now more than ever we must have confidence in America’s ability to grow. Guided by electronics, powered by atomic energy, geared to the smooth, effortless workings of automation, the magic carpet of our free economy heads for distant and dreamed horizons.” In the late 1950s, studies began to appear that were dedicated to what had recently been coined “artificial intelligence.” With the support of optimistic government companies, researchers from all fields attempted to mechanize human intelligence. Nevertheless, artificial intelligence proved to be divisive, and many people feared an impending automation crisis. Though contemporaries like the computer scientist Arthur Samuel believed these people were a “lunatic fringe” who invented fears of the “domination of man by the Machine,” I argue that most of them were not actually afraid that machines would dominate men. They were afraid that machines would dominate what it meant to be American.

For one, cybernation, or computer automation, threatened to make life impersonal, which would psychologically stunt American individuality. As automation progressed, depersonalization, people feared, would reach the service industry, middle-class culture, and even products themselves (social psychologist Donald Michael imagined large marketing budgets reserved to differentiate products from the “essentially same one produced last year or from the practically identical one produced on some other firm’s automated production line”). The Harvard Business Review foresaw “major psychological problems arising from the depersonalization,” including, as Michael dreaded, the “idea of the individual” being “completely swallowed up in statistics.” Indeed, many solutions to automation—as expressed by the Ad Hoc Committee on the “Triple Revolution”—stressed relating “people to people rather than people to things.”

People were also disturbed that machines had the potential to intellectually outpace Americans—not because machines could then theoretically take control, but because they could then render Americans’ unique qualifications useless. Their fears were not unfounded, as researchers proclaimed, “Every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.” Marvin Minsky—the head of MITs Artificial Intelligence Laboratory—even claimed that “in thirty years we should have machines whose intelligence is comparable to man’s.” Even Arthur Samuel contended that, because “there would be a degree of uncertainty” in machines, they “might develop an intellect superior to that of man.” More immediately, Secretary of Labor Wirtz estimated that machines already had intelligence equivalent to that of a high school diploma, while “as many as thirty percent of all students” were expected to be “high school dropouts.” Especially because machines threatened middle-level workers—who were supposed to “use their minds”—Americans were made “insecure and useless” and felt increasingly inadequate.

Though contemporaries like the computer scientist Arthur Samuel believed these people were a 'lunatic fringe' who invented fears of the 'domination of man by the Machine,' I argue that most of them were not actually afraid that machines would dominate men. They were afraid that machines would dominate what it meant to be American.

Automation threatened to further stratify the population, which, some believed, would dehumanize society. Automation was expected to push most middle-management down the ranks while raising the top level even higher. Indeed, “those with little education and skill,” according to the Commission of Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress, were more likely to face unemployment than those with the most education and skill, for whom employment was rapidly rising. This society of “have’s” and “have nots,” as Wirtz called it, was intolerable. America, he elaborated, should not allow “the development of a separate nation of the poor, the unskilled, the jobless, living within another nation of the well-off, the trained and the employed.” The number of Americans below the poverty line was especially infuriating when there was, in theory, enough productive potential for everyone. But unless something changed, that gap would only increase, producing a “dehumanized community,” in which the majority would “sink” into a “highly programed state,” while only the select few could rise. 

For those sinking to the bottom into long-term unemployment, their inability to get a job, despite wanting one, contradicted their supposed American liberty. “These people,” the Ad Hoc Committee argued, who made up a “large part of the ‘poverty’ sector,” stopped looking for jobs because they had “accepted” that they would “never hold jobs again.” Teenagers without adequate education came to realize that there was “no place for them in the labor force” but “no realistic alternative.” To open up more jobs for the younger generations, there was a proposal to encourage early retirement, but that just meant older “retired” workers couldn’t accept work so as not to affect their Social Security. What’s more, automation hurt Black people—whose rates of unemployment were “more than twice those for Whites”—the most. In the midst of the Civil Rights movement, the Ad Hoc Committee saw this inequity as one more reason to recognize automation, as it had been implemented, as a threat to American liberty. According to the committee, because job-holding was “the general mechanism through which economic resources [were] distributed,” the unemployed population would continue to have a “minimal income, hardly sufficient to prove the necessities of life”—a blatant violation of America’s thesis, “set out in the Employment Act of 1964, that every person will be able to obtain a job if he wishes.” People also feared that, if unemployment levels continued to rise, many Americans would have to rely on government hand-outs—which resembled communism a little too closely. With more and more workers relying on unemployment insurance, social security, and welfare payments, the government would be faced “for the indefinite future with the need to support part of the population through public works.” Michael asked, somewhat leadingly, what leadership would look like “when a significant part” of society was “overtly supported by governmental public works programs.” He concluded that it “certainly would not be conducive to maintaining the spirit of a capitalistic economy,” and even suggested that there might be high “incentives to use force” in a nation “bedeviled by anarchic unemployed youth movements.”

If workers stagnated or had to face demotion, they, like the unemployed, would be robbed of their American dream. It was predicted that moving up the labor hierarchy would “become increasingly unlikely” in an automated society, so those who “aspired to the role of middle manager ‘on their way up’” might not see their American dream realized. Michael wondered how these people—who, according to the Harvard Business Review, would be “programed out of their autonomy, perhaps out of their current status in the company, and possibly even out of their jobs”—could retain their “self-respect.” He elaborated that Americans with high status depended “for their sense of self on that status and the high income that [went] with it.” People envisioned automation paving the way for less work and more leisure, but some worried that without work, the American people would lack purpose and loaf. Michael believed that losing status and having excessive leisure could wreak havoc on the family—and, by extension, generations to come. “The free time,” he argued, of unemployed men would be “used to care for their children while their wives, in an effort to replace lost income,” would get jobs. But this arrangement was “incompatible” with America’s image of “man’s role and man’s work.” He concluded that it would disrupt “the family circle.” He worried about how socially degraded men would influence their children, for “when Daddy is no longer the backyard barbequer, the high status cynosure, the source of consumer funds, what happens to the aspiration and standards and goals of his children and to their plans for schooling and career?” Unemployment among teenagers was indeed high, “rising steadily” and standing “at around 15%.” Teenagers would “in normal course join the untrained or poorly trained work force,” but that workforce was quickly shrinking due to cybernation.

For low-salaried workers, more “leisure” time could hardly be considered leisure, because working, not loafing, was the proper American thing to do. While workers were expected to have shorter hours (as machines could automate much of their jobs), they were, according to Michael, unlikely to spend their free time productively. These Americans were used to “equating work with security” and self-worth, so being “forced to work short hours” at one job would probably mean taking another job. “It is reasonable to believe,” Michael concluded, that “the over-all threat of automation would encourage ‘moonlight’ rather than the use of free time for recreation.” And if not taking on more work, the poorly educated could be expected to spend the long hours “watching television, gossiping, and puttering around the house” between unemployment checks.

Related to the idea of having “too much leisure” was the concern of there being “too much production”—or at least too much production relative to human labor. Time Magazine’s “The Automation Jobless” noted that trends pointed towards “bigger production with a smaller work force.” Going further, the Ad Hoc Committee summarized, “The fundamental problem posed by the cybernation revolution in the U.S. is that it invalidates the general mechanism so far employed to undergird people’s rights as consumers. Up to this time economic resources have been distributed on the basis of contribution to production, with machines and men competing for employment on somewhat equal terms. In the developing cybernated systems, potentially unlimited output can be achieved by systems of machines which will require little cooperation from human beings.” In other words, they anxiously foresaw “a system of almost unlimited productive capacity which require[d] progressively less human labor.” 

Because automation seemed to stratify America into those who could be automated and the select few who could not, an intellectual elite was expected to gain excessive power and prestige. The elite would “have to be of a very high calibre indeed.” Only a small percentage of the population would have the “natural endowments” required for admission, and would be the primary practitioners of innovation and creativity. Michael predicted them to be “a small, almost separate, society of people in rapport with the advanced computers.” “These cyberneticians,” he hypothesized, would have “established a relationship with their machines that [could not] be shared with the average man.” Life Magazine described a “solemn priesthood of the computer” that spoke “an esoteric language” some suspected was “just their way of mystifying outsiders.” What was worse was that the average man, because he knew very little about how machines worked, would actually accept a governing elite of intellectuals. “The psychological influence of computers,” Michael explained, was “overwhelming”: they symbolized “the potency of America’s belief in the utility of science and technology.” Hence intellectuals were respected because of the glamor and prestige of computers and the “comfort of their ‘hard facts.’” Michael was not far off, especially considering intellectuals like Arthur Samuel, who lamented the “divergence of opinion and of feelings with respect to a subject that should be capable of scientific evaluation.” To Samuel, people’s concerns sadly bespoke “of a general lack of knowledge.”

An intellectual elite—especially one with governing authority—would disrupt American democracy. The emphasis on logic and science, Michael feared, might “encourage a trend toward the recruitment of authoritarian personalities.” Politics—which would increasingly involve the use of computers—would have to be simplified for the common people, and the result would be “fantastic confusion.” Because of this widespread confusion, people might be unable “to contribute to the formulation of policy,” which would alienate people from their “responsibility for the conduct of government.” Indeed, “the alienation of the individual from his government and individual from individual within the government [could] grow ever greater.” The Harvard Business Review even equated the government of the future to “the family-dominated organizations of Italy.”

The Ad Hoc Committee emphasized that “the way Americans cope[d] with cybernation” would be “the stage on which the machines-and-man drama [would] first be played for the world to witness.” Michael wondered what the consequences would be for America’s “relations with under-developed nations” when its government saw “the world through computers.” While Americans praised their society with “much leisure time devoted to the sweet life,” it was important to remember that “two-thirds of the world” may well have been looking at America “from the perspective of a revolution of rising resentments.” America had to use its productive power for good—not for hoarding—in order to maintain their image as a symbol of freedom.

Lyndon B. Johnson took the concerns about automation seriously. He hoped that automation would enrich American prosperity, and so instituted the National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress. The commission would ensure that automation would not be “a job destroyer or a family displaced”; instead, it would “remove dullness from the work of man and provide him with more” than ever before. To better integrate policy on automation, the Ad Hoc Committee suggested a framework that would “operate at every level of government—local, regional and federal” and would be organized “to elicit democratic participation in all their proceedings.” In his remarks at the University of Michigan, Johnson declared that he did plan to implement “cooperation, a creative federalism, between the National Capital and the leaders of local communities” to help fight poverty. This “Great Society,” Johnson announced, would be “a place where every child [could] find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It [would be] a place where leisure [was] a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness… a place where men [were] more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.”

Of course, not everyone believed automation would bring about such profound changes. Political scientist Herbert Simon was not alone in thinking “the bogeyman of automation consume[d] worrying capacity” that should have been “saved for real problems—like population, poverty, the bomb, and our own neuroses.” Sociologist Daniel Bell considered predictions of “a dismal world of unattended factories turning out mountains of goods which a jobless population [would] be unable to buy,” to be “silly.” In terms of the capabilities of machines themselves, Samuel insisted that “our chance of constructing a device resembling the brain of man is something like one in 1012,” and “our feeble attempts at [neuron] simulation resemble the nervous system of the flatworm more nearly than they duplicate the brain of man.” And anyways, Samuel argued, “the limitations are not in the machine but in man.” He concluded that “we have nothing to fear from the machine, at least in so far as there is any danger of the machine becoming more intelligent than man.” Samuel even argued that “it is fair to conclude that artificial intelligence promises to reduce rather than to augment technological unemployment,” and it would be “quite apt to be that added factor in our economy which [could] enable man to solve the entire problem of technological unemployment, including that portion, if any, caused by its own introduction.” However, those that saw the potential for catastrophe in the future of automation were of the mind that “if you [were] not part of the solution, you [were] part of the problem.” They believed that change had to be enacted right then for it to be ready when needed, and dissenters only hindered the process. In response to Daniel Bell, Michael maintained that “society would have to transform its values” about what it was willing “to give up in terms of efficiency in the name of humanitarianism.”


  • Agger, Donald G., Donald B. Armstrong, James Boggs, W. H. Ferry, Todd Gitlin, Roger Hagan, Michael Harrington et al. “The Triple Revolution,” March 22, 1964. 
  • Akst, Daniel. “Automation Anxiety.” The Wilson Quarterly (1976-) 37, no. 3 (2013). 
  • Johnson, Lyndon B. 1964. “Remarks at the University of Michigan.” Transcript of speech delivered at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, May 22, 1964. 
  • Johnson, Lyndon B. 1964. “Remarks Upon Signing Bill Creating the National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress.” Transcript of speech delivered at the White House, August 19, 1964. 
  • Leavitt, Harold J. and Thomas L. Whistler. “Management in the 1980’s,” Harvard Business Review, November, 1958. 
  • Michael, Donald N. Cybernation: the Silent Conquest. Santa Barbara: Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, 1962.
  • Michael, Donald N. “Cybernation and Social Change.” Transcript of speech delivered at Washington, D.C., April 23, 1964. 
  • Michael, Donald N. “Automation.” In response to “The Bogey of Automation,” by Daniel Bell. The New York Review of Books, November 25, 1965. 
  • Nilsson, Nils. The Quest for Artificial Intelligence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  • Patterson, James. Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Samuel, Arthur L. “Artificial Intelligence: A Frontier of Automation.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 340 (1962): 10–20. 

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