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Technology: A Complex History


Yglesias says I don’t understand the problem with techno-optimism. He argues that the real problem is that our technological revolution hasn’t gone far enough and, because of natural resource limitations and other issues, has its limits:

Once upon a time, middle class American households had to spend an incredible amount of time washing laundry and dishes by hand. Nowadays, the mass public can afford dishwashers and washer/dryers. When people in the 1960s imagined the future, they imagined robot maids becoming a mass market appliance and creating an even more utopian outcome for middle class families. You wouldn’t even need to load and unload the dishwasher or fold the laundry! Every workaday guy with a job on the sprocket line could live like a wealthy man with a live-in full-time housekeeper. It hasn’t happened. But the world would be a better place if it had.

As a U.S. historian who works a lot on the history of technology, I certainly don’t misunderstand its history. Yglesias is not wrong exactly, but that he has a classically American way of thinking about these issues that overlooks the deep complexity of how technology has changed how we live. The story is mostly good, but somewhat bad and certainly very complex. But discussions of technology in our society have little room for criticism or complexity. Americans believe in their hearts and souls that technology is an unabashed good. Yglesias reflects this.

This isn’t at all to understate how technology has changed our lives. We live lives that would be totally unrecognizable to the Revolutionary War generation. The steam engine, the canal, the railroad, the automobile, the assembly line, concrete, Bessemer steel, the cotton gin, modern dams, the automobile, interstate highways, radio, television, movies, the internet, I could go on and on and on. We are a nation that defines itself as a technological dynamo. We idolize inventors or innovators like Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Henry Ford, not to mention Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

Nor would I argue that on the balance, technology hasn’t improved our lives. Would I rather live in 2011 or 1911 or 1811? The answer is obviously 2011, what with its medicine and information and cars. People live longer lives, in more comfort, and with a higher standard of living than one or two centuries ago.

But has the history of technology been a unvarnished golden history, improving our lives of drudgery to life us up into a golden tomorrow?

Technology needs to be contextualized within history. The technology of the Gilded Age definitely moved the economy forward, but at tremendous cost to working people. Technology did not make their lives better. Maybe their children. And before you say that the big factories of the U.S. gave immigrants jobs, note that it was technological innovation and the centralization of power and money in elite hands in their home countries that forced most of these people out of their traditional lifestyles, making it impossible to live on the land. Whether or not that turned out better for them is both dubious and irrelevant, because they didn’t have much choice in the matter. You see a very similar story propelling migration out of Mexico and Central America today.

Did the canal age improve the lives of western New York farmers? The Erie Canal absolutely helped create the modern American economy, bringing the West into the nation, allowing farmers to get their goods to market. It began the antebellum transportation revolution which of course soon transformed to railroads. At the same time, for many farmers, the experience of the Erie Canal and Industrial Revolution was horrible, throwing their entire lives into turmoil, even if it might have improved their economic standing. It led to the famed “Burned-over District,” the area along the Erie Canal that became the center of the Second Great Awakening and the home of any number of new religious movements, including the Mormons. For those people, technological innovation was not necessarily positive.

Similarly, the cotton gin gave us inexpensive, comfortable cotton clothing. It also invigorated the dying slave system of the United States. It’s no coincidence that the emancipatory rhetoric coming out of Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers completely disappeared after slavery became profitable again. And I’ll tell you one thing for damn sure–the cotton gin made the lives of slaves a hell of a lot worse.

Even the household technologies that Yglesias points to as wonderfully saving all this labor are complicated. If you read the first volume of Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biography you see how horrible life was for women of the Texas Hill Country during the early 20th century–without electricity, women spent a huge amount of time hauling water up from creeks to their wash basins. Awful. Electrification changed their lives.

But the ultimate evaluation of how technology affected women’s lives is far more complex than we’d think. As Ruth Schwartz Cohen showed in her fantastic book, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technologies from the Hearth to the Microwave, technology did not simplify housework. It industrialized it and increased the expectations for what a proper home would look like. It did not lower the work load of the housewife. We think all these devices saved labor. And they were marketed that way. But the evidence suggests that it did not reduce the housework load.

Now, maybe with an increased, but still but still far from equal, division of labor in the household between genders household work for women has decreased in recent decades, but the catalyst of transformation is not technology, it’s changing social and gender norms. That’s not necessarily disconnected from technology, but again, it has to be historically contextualized.

In short then, our history with technology is incredibly complicated. It’s probably mostly good. But the idea that technology inevitably leads to positive change with us leading more interesting and fun lives is really not backed up by the historical record, despite what Americans like to think about technology transforming our lives in strictly wonderful ways.

And to go back to the original point of the conversation, it’s entirely unclear that the technologies of the online classroom or the grocery store self-checkout serves the public. Students who have difficulty attending normal classes because of work, that I can see. Administrators who can command huge salaries for cutting the workforce. That’s about it for higher education. The self-checkout does not save labor at all. It causes more labor for you and I. It lowers employment numbers. But there’s nothing about the self-checkout line that makes our lives better, easier, or more comfortable. It only allows grocery executives to buy that new ivory backscratcher.

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  • c u n d gulag

    While I love technology, I keep thinking about two things:
    -How robotics changed/eliminated the remaining manufacturing jobs in the US.
    -How the IVR has “enhanced” everyones telephone customer service experience.

    ‘Nuff said…

    • firefall

      To be fair, the difference IVR seems to have made is to remove the person you can yell at, so you get screwed around and shunted all over the place automatically rather than, as it used to be, manually. Which definitely improved the experience for the employees if not the customers, and probably on net left the customers no worse off.

      • c u n d gulag

        I was a Training Manager for Customer Service, and my experience is that by the time the poor irate caller finally, carefully, and meticulously, maneuvers his/her way through the electronic IVR maze, and talk to a human being, they are BALLISTIC!

        The CSR’s hated the goddamned thing almost as much as the customers.

    • Holden Pattern


      Just give me a numerical menu selection for my touch tone phone; don’t screw me around with iffy voice recognition and time-delayed prompts.

  • Mark

    It’s to be expected that technology and research would reflect the interests of the wealthy and the politically powerful. Robotics could be focused on expanding leisure time for everyone. Instead, it is focused on creating unemployment. As long as we believe that work for pay is the only true measure of a person’s worth, this sort of conflict is inevitable. And I have no idea what would have to happen for people to change their thinking about that.

  • Simple mind

    incredible amount of time.

    No, the time spent washing by hand was not “incredible”. Maybe 20 minutes for dishes and an hour for clothes washing (once a week). The task could be done in stages. Sheesh.

    • Law Spider

      “An hour for clothes washing (once a week)”? You don’t have young children, do you? As it is, we do 4-5 loads per week. And getting out (or at least minimizing them) stains all by hand, would be at least 1/2 hour per day.

      I do agree that on most days it takes no more than 10 minutes to do the dishes by hand. However, we have the “advantage” of prepackaged (and some precooked) foods, so the cooking itself doesn’t offer take much. But when I make a three-course meal from scratch (everything but grinding the flour), for 6 or 8 people, I use half my kitchen items and dishes do take 20-30 minutes.

      • Marek

        Household of four, we average a load of laundry/day. And I’m the furthest thing from a neat freak.

        • Marek

          Also, my wife refers to the dishwasher — which we went without for a few years, early on — as the “marriage saver.”

      • Walt

        But clearly people washed each individual piece of clothing less often then. I sometimes throw stuff into the wash because I’m not sure if I wore them before or not. If I didn’t have a washing machine, I would never, ever do that.

        • Law Spider

          True. But children are different. Now excuse while I go try to scrub out blueberry stains (which I need to do, as a pre-wash).

    • jdkbrown

      Surely not. Even *with* all the modern conveniences, my wife and I probably spend 20 minutes a day on dishes and an hour a week on laundry. And that’s just for two people–imagine doing it for a family of four or five.

    • Have you read accounts of the time spent by women hauling water, heating it, and doing laundry? I have. And it is not pretty.

      • joejoejoe

        My guess is Matt Y. is channeling Hans Rosling’s TED presentation on the magic washing machine. It’s a wonderful presentation that explains the value of technology to global public health but it doesn’t really say anything about economic displacement and disruption.

    • c u n d gulag

      Simple mind,
      I beg to differ.
      Pre WWII, my Grandmother on my Mothers side in Stalingrad had to haul water up from the Volga pretty much every day, 1 mile in each direction, and boil it, whether it was for eating, cleaning, or washing clothes.
      She also used strong lye soap, when available, to wash clothes, at least once a week for her family, then had to wring them out by hand, hang them up to dry, and then iron them with a stove-heated little iron.
      And though she couldn’t out-run him, she might probably have been able to out bench-press Ray Lewis.
      I know that experience wasn’t too different from my Dad’s Mother. And I don’t think American frontier women had a routine that varied too much.

      America was like Heaven when they got here after the war, and the first purchase was a bucket and wringer to wash clothes with. And the second was a vacuum cleaner. My Mom never understood that purchase since their Delancy Street flat had wooden floors. I think she bought it just because she could. :-)

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        Pre WWII, my Grandmother on my Mothers side in Stalingrad…

        And think how technology improved life in Stalingrad just a few short years later!

        • c u n d gulag

          Yeah, German technology!

    • larryb33c

      Hello. Since moving out of my parents home at the age of 18 I have never had a dishwasher. And let me tell you that is more than afew years with no dishwasher. It makes me something of an expert I’m sure.
      Doing dishes by hand does add time. Even making a meal as simple as some homemade bread and soup, I can be in the kitchen for a few hours. There usually arrives some point when I look up and am overwhelmed by the mess in the kitchen (okay, I’m kind of a clean freak so there’s that.)

  • sleepyirv

    For someone who majored in philosophy, it appears to me that Yglesias is a smart guy who never put more than 10 seconds of thought into posts.

    • larryb33c

      also this: he probably has never put more than ten seconds into housework.

  • UberMitch

    There are plenty of unalloyed goods out there from technology! Like how now we don’t have to send troops–drawn mostly from disadvantaged segments of society–into harm’s way because we can use flying killer robots instead.

    • Mark

      And that will make it easier to kill people from disadvantaged segments of society!

  • Njorl

    “technology did not simplify housework. It industrialized it and increased the expectations for what a proper home would look like. It did not lower the work load of the housewife. ”

    Technology unequiivocally did ease the burden of housewives. The ridiculous expectations which kept women working just as hard were a part of our culture. Technology was one of the weapons used to slay that sick aspect of our culture. This aspect of your argument has no value. It is an indictment of people, not technology.

    • You need to read More Work for Mother before making these statements that the argument “has no value.”

      • Njorl

        I was referring to the household technologies you refer to in the prior paragraph, not technology as a whole.

        The premise that men started working at wage earning jobs so they could buy labor saving devices is nonsense. Men started working for wages because other technological advances made small landholder farming unfeasible. Men didn’t go to work in the mills of London so they could buy a washing machine. They went there because they got kicked off their land due to the enclosure act.

        The argument could easily be true for technology as a whole, but applied to household labor-saving devices in isolation, it is nonsense.

    • djw

      It is an indictment of people, not technology.

      Of course not. There’s no moral indictment of technology implied here. Technology itself has no agency. That said, it intersects with, complicates, and amplifies social processes. Obviously people are still an important part of the story.

      • Right–that’s the entire point of the post, that people create and shape technology, that it exacerbates power inequalities, that it creates new expectations of cleanliness in the house.

        • Njorl

          You’re confusing cause and effect.

          The cause was the expectation that a woman’s labor would remain constant despite any labor saving devices. The increased expectations of cleanliness were an effect. The problem was not the increased expectaions due to technology, but the bizarre puritanical notion that leisure was immoral, particularly for women.

          Women were going to be doing the same amount of work regardless, because they were at legal and social disadvantages. While their labor was not decreased initially by technological advances, their rewards were improved. The washing machine and gas oven might not have reduced their labor, but they had cleaner clothes and a more interesting diet.

          Eventually, these advances did reduce the amount of housework women do. My mother worked less raising 7 kids (born 1948-1963) than her mother did raising 2 (born 1920, 1925). Of course, she compensated by feeling pointlessly guilty.

          • I’m not confusing cause and effect. Rather, that is exactly what I am saying in the post–it’s about the people, not the technology.

      • Linnaeus

        Yglesias himself tacitly understands this when he writes:

        It hasn’t happened.

        That sentence is doing a lot of heavy lifting, because it then causes us to pose the question, “why hasn’t it happened?” And that’s when you get into the complexities of the interaction between technology and culture.

    • ajay

      It may not have reduced the work load, but I think there might be an argument that technology has simplified housework; there were a lot of skills that a 1900 housewife would have that simply aren’t necessary today because technology has taken the strain.

  • Malaclypse

    Since we are actually using The Jetsons as our starting point, if memory serves, not only did George have a robot maid, but his full-time job was one hour a day. Even a stupid cartoon recognized, on some level, that the only way to accommodate skyrocketing productivity would be to cut hours worked. We’ve just decided to cut some people to zero, and expect others to work extra in their FLSA-exempt jobs.

    • ajay

      Ah, but presumably we (meaning we employers) haven’t done this out of sheer meanness, but because it’s cheaper to employ one person for 40 hours at $15 an hour than ten people for 4 hours at $15 an hour. So if we want a more Jetson life, the thing to do is to reduce the overhead associated with each employee – the obvious one being, of course, employer provision of healthcare.

      • Malaclypse

        Actually, this is backwards. In all likelihood, the 10 part-time people would not get any health benefits (even MA, which has an employer mandate, only mandates coverage for 35+ hours). However, employer SUTA taxes, which are high-percentage, low-cap, favor having all work done by one employee, and give a hefty cost to job-sharing. Ballparking, your proposal would cost an extra 2K/year in additional SUTA expense. Add to that the hassle of scheduling 10 people, instead of just expecting one to be there.

        • ajay

          Good point. I apologise for ignorance of the way employer healthcare works. I think the point holds though.

    • DK

      Excellent point.

      I think Yglesias is an example here of a long standing liberal belief (both historically liberal of the type criticized by Galbriath in the Affluent Society and the present day neoliberal variety) that increased abundance brought about by technology (or trade, or education – the list goes on) would create a fair and just society because it would end scarcity. It could do so with out us having discuss uncomfortable things like distribution and power.

      As should have been obvious back then but is even more obvious now, that won’t work. We have more wealth, and the people at the top are simply extracting more, because it never was about scarcity (or at least, it hasn’t been for a long, long time). As Galbraith argued, the very system that is supposed to satisfy our (private) wants also produces new wants.

      There is no way of solving these things without discussing power and distribution (which, it’s important to add, is not the same as redistribution). We either address them head on and try to solve it, or we stick our heads in the sand, to borrow a phrase.

      • larryb33c

        Well, that and a sort of minimizing of suffering in the past– yes there was a great upheaval and displaced workers, but it all worked out for the best! This is part and parcel of the liberal idea of progress. The problem with Yglesias is that he seems to be more than willing to talk about the present population with this sort of dismissal.

  • SamInMpls

    There is a facet to this I’m curious to get your take on:

    My local pharmacy uses self checkout lanes like the grocery store does except they have all but eliminated the cashier checkouts. If you want tobacco, then they will ring you up but otherwise the customers, who are mostly college students, are expected to use self-serve.

    I am wondering if shopping habits change based on the presence of self-serve checkouts. Will some people be more likely to purchase condoms if it feels anonymous? What about junk food?

    Also, isn’t the absence of a checkout person a plus for some people? I’m guessing some customers want something approaching the bare minimum of human interaction when they are making routine purchases as opposed to shopping for new appliance. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this is related to social change. That said, it seems easy and straight forward to see how vending machines eventually displaced soda jerks.

    • “I am wondering if shopping habits change based on the presence of self-serve checkouts. Will some people be more likely to purchase condoms if it feels anonymous? What about junk food?”

      I have no take on this except to say that these are good questions that someone should research.

  • el donaldo

    My department has attempted to produce hybrid courses – part online and part in-class – in an effort to remain current with the administration’s techno-fixation, but it’s been a mixed bag and of no clear benefit to anyone. It requires quite a bit more work to set-up and maintain the online portion of the course than it would to just throw up a website with assignments, links, and other supplemental activities, so not having to show up on campus for a classmeeting is nice, but sometimes its less effort.

    The worst part is the supremely high failure rate. Forcing students to come to class keeps them focused on the tasks at hand. Allowing them to participate asynchronously via online tools seems to allow weaker students too many opportunities to slack off. And listing hybrid courses in the course schedules seems to attract weaker students who have difficulty maintaining a regular schedule, and those students who assume that not having to meet as a class as often means less work. From what I’ve seen, putting part or all of the class online actually requires more work and effort from the students.

    The only people that seem to benefit are the administrators who get to talk up the hybrids to the press, parents, and alum.

  • matth

    “[Technology] did not lower the work load of the housewife.”

    Do you mean that technology didn’t lower the work load of women who are housewives, or that it didn’t lower the overall amount of housework women do? Because I would find the latter shocking.

    • ajay

      Haven’t read the book, but good point: there are certainly fewer women around (at least in Western countries) who are paid full-time professional houseworkers than there used to be. Maids and housekeepers and so on.

      • matth

        I was more thinking that technology made it feasible for a greater proportion of the adult population to work outside the home. Even if women who are housewives still spend as much time doing housework as ever, a smaller proportion of women are housewives today. Household technogology seems to have facilitated the shift to two-working-adult households.

        • Yes, in the sense that you can throw something in the microwave. But I wouldn’t underestimate the number of 2 working adult (and multiple working children) families in pre-World War II America, though I don’t have numbers at hand.

      • News Nag

        Ajay, you may know what you’re talking about here, but I doubt it. There seem to be legions of professional housekeepers, mostly employed by ‘too-big-to-pay-well’ franchising corporations. Nothing like those existed way way back in the day. Far fewer households had the income way way back in the day either to pay for housekeeping. Resident females (wives, mothers, daughters) did it, period, plus what chores they could make their large number of male children do (and large numbers of children creating that much more work for the resident females). And like Erik et al said, it’s clearly the sociological effect of advancing technology that matters, not the technology alone.

        • Well, it wasn’t uncommon for middle-class homes to hire housekeepers, largely because they could pay them very little and work them very hard.

          • Lee

            I believe that domestic servants were pretty common among anybody that could afford them until the mid-20th century. Anybody who could afford at least part-time domestic help hired at least part-time domestic help because housework was very burdensome with earlier technology. Modern appliances made domestic servants less needed.

            • ajay

              Hence the famous remark by Agatha Christie, that when she was a little girl she could not imagine being able to afford a motor car, or not being able to afford a servant.

            • glo

              Household help still seems fairly common in upper class/professional households. Instead of servants you have cleaning ladies/services and nannies.

              • ajay

                But a cleaning lady comes round a couple of times a week. She doesn’t equate to a full-time servant – which is what your UMC household would have had in 1920.

        • ajay

          There seem to be legions of professional housekeepers, mostly employed by ‘too-big-to-pay-well’ franchising corporations. Nothing like those existed way way back in the day

          I am not quite sure what you’re referring to here, but are these domestic workers? Or cleaners for offices and hotels and so on?

          Here’s a data point: in Britain in 1911, there were 45 million people, of whom 1.3 million were employed as domestic servants, i.e. in people’s houses.
          Here’s another: right through the 19th century, about one in eight working-age women in Britain was a full-time domestic servant.

  • The Bobs

    As someone who has probably washed more dishes than Mr. Yglesias ever will, I think that dishwashers don’t save much time. They might reduce what is perceived as “effort.” Washers however, do save a lot of time.

    Also, as a child of the 60’s (I was born in 1957), I can assure him that no one was expecting that robots were going to be folding clothes and unloading the dishwasher for them. Really, as far as housework goes, there has been almost no change since then. As others have pointed out, going back before WWII, that is very different.

    • ajay

      As someone who has probably washed more dishes than Mr. Yglesias ever will, I think that dishwashers don’t save much time.

      Surely that can’t be right. If you have a dishwasher, what additional work are you doing to replace the actual washing and drying that you aren’t doing?

      • News Nag

        Ajay, again, you may know what you’re talking about, but I doubt it. Dishwashers save a bit of time, but washing dishes isn’t a very time-consuming activity anyway most of the time. Most people who own dishwashers (& I haven’t had one since 1996) still have the kind where you have to practically wash the plates, etc., anyway if you want the dishwasher to clean them well enough. And drying doesn’t take very long anyway. All this especially if someone has assistance.

        And, as you don’t seem to understand at all, if you are a female and save a relative few minutes by using a dishwasher, you will likely find yourself spending your ‘leisure’ time doing one of a range of hundreds of other chores that technology has actually created just for you, like changing the vacuum cleaner bag/canister before and/or after using it, cleaning out the oven, toaster oven and toaster, sucking the air out of your food storage containers with vacuum-packing technology, changing batteries in any of the various machines that power your household like phones, changing light bulbs, shopping for everything your household needs that wouldn’t have been required in the old days, organizing, replenishing, and cleaning the super-arrayed utility closet of the future, dealing with telephone customer service for the many things your house needs to run on, including packing and returning wrongly filled online orders for household goods and products, fending off phone salespeople on your labor-saving phone technology, replacing cartridges in your plug-in wall deodorizers, changing swisher mop pieces, running to the store to buy new swiffer pieces that you thought you’d already bought, hey steamcleaning your rugs, hey ordering and changing your air cleaner filters and disposing of the old ones properly, hey cleaning the waffle iron, hey windexing the windows, hey I don’t have time right now to remember all the hundreds of ways technology has added labor for modern women and others, so hey HEY get a clue, Ajay. Don’t be as clueless as Yglesias.

        • Bill Murray

          I haven’t had a dishwasher since the mid-80s, but my lazy man’s dishwashing (well really more dish-soaking than dish-washing)method takes almost exactly the same amount of time as loading and unloading the dishwasher. You soak the dishes for a couple of hours, then easily remove the food followed by a rinse and then set the dishes out to dry.

        • ajay

          Most people who own dishwashers (& I haven’t had one since 1996) still have the kind where you have to practically wash the plates, etc., anyway if you want the dishwasher to clean them well enough.

          And yet, somehow, I am the one who is clueless.

      • M. Showperson

        Rinsing dishes. Getting the hardened crud off dishes. Putting them in the dishwasher. Drying. Putting them away. Rewashing dishes that aren’t sufficiently cleaned.

        Plus the hidden costs: repair work when the dishwasher breaks down, dealing with clogs, and the like.

        • ajay

          All that is stuff you would also have to do if you didn’t have a dishwasher.

      • The Bobs

        I was a bachelor for most of my life and rarely used a dishwasher. It’s ridiculous to use a dishwasher when it takes a week to fill it up.

        Also, I don’t put large items like pots and mixing bowls in the dishwasher.

  • The Bobs

    I might add that one big change since the 60’s is much bigger houses. That has increased the workload.

    • Yep, great point.

      • mpowell

        This is an interesting observation, but pretty much irrelevant to your claim. If technology has enabled people to have and care for larger homes on the same workload then that is a positive good. People have the choice to trade of leisure time for other stuff. This only makes sense as a critique if we think people are making the wrong choices.

        • The Bobs

          ” If technology has enabled people to have and care for larger homes on the same workload then that is a positive good. ”

          My point was that this is not true. For example, it vacuuming takes an amount of time that is almost exactly proportional to the square footage. Vacuums are better than they were in the 60’s, but not faster.

          • dave


  • News Nag

    Yglesias. People who live in Ylgesias houses shouldn’t be writing columns. Yglesias is a perfect candidate to have been raptured up into national prominence. He’s shallow. He’s male. He’s both proud of his ability to riff on a broad range of topics at the thin-ice level and acutely unaware of how much collateral damage his narrow range of knowledge causes socially and how much work it is for people like Erik et al to try to begin undoing the damage enhanced by his superficial misunderstanding of deeper more complex realities. And, of course, I’m totally envious of his lofty status and salary. Yglesias, a national treasure of the skewed gilded status quo. An oblivious centrist who exploits obliviously the tiny ideologic range-of-motion allowed by corporate media discussions. What would we do without him and his fellow Broders of whatever degree? Wouldn’t we like to find out?

  • AGM

    The answer is obviously 2011

    The level of obviousness is why this argument is so weak. If technology is problematic as you believe, the negatives should have accrued in the same way as the benefits to make the choice a lot less obvious than it is.

    As it stands, I would rather live in the second lowest income decile now, than in the top decile in 1811.

  • larryb33c

    I cannot imagine how much I would be seething if I looked at the screen and saw that Yglesias had written “…continues to misunderstand.”
    That’s it. My day would be over. Wasted ruminating on everything that is wrong with him.
    You are a far, far better person than me.

  • nosmo king

    Re: dishwashers. We got one finally a couple of years ago. It doesn’t save much labor. However, as a place to put the dirty dishes so as to free up your sink and counters, it is genius.

    I have first-hand experience with how technology changes a job. When I started in sound for movies, it was in the waning days of magnetic film (tape with sprockets). The technology hadn’t changed for 30 years or so. I worked on the first movie ever with a totally digital sound job. Since mag was a very specialized and finicky craft, if you could handle film you could get a job. Since the advent of digital, every post crew (editors, assistants and mixers) has shrunk by 33-50 percent at least. And the job expectations have gone through the roof– a temporary sound job that would have been good for any movie in the mag days will get you black-balled and laughed at now.

    The growth has been on the suits’ side. Have you noticed how many people are credited as “producers” these days? A credited producer is one of two things: a) somebody who is trying to get a picture made, or b) someone who could stop it from being made if he/she isn’t paid off. This is why movies cost so much, and why guys like me work so hard and yet find our downtime between movies getting longer and longer.

    • Bill Murray

      now is ze time on Sprockets ven ve dance

    • Hogan

      Since the advent of digital, every post crew (editors, assistants and mixers) has shrunk by 33-50 percent at least.

      And yet the credit roll seems to take forever these days.

  • JL

    I understand what you’re saying, Erik, but the thing that always confuses me about arguments like this is…okay, we have this understanding of complexity, but where do we go from there? Are you suggesting that we avoid technological advancement because it causes short/medium-term harm to some subset of ordinary people? I am pretty sure that you are not. But what’s the alternative? Mass efforts to retrain displaced workers? People here usually don’t seem enamored of that option. Decreased funding for STEM research? That’ll take a nice bite out of our ability to improve medicine, clean energy tech, etc. Encouraging technology-creators to think hard about the implications of what they’re doing? I can get behind that, but I don’t know how that translates into better outcomes for the average person. Move some of the DoD’s research budget into the NIH, the DoE, etc, so that the careers of thousands of scientists and engineers were less dependent on defense tech? I could get behind that as a policy measure, but I don’t think it does much to address the problem that you’re discussing.

    I’m a scientist, and most of my friends are scientists and engineers, so I live in a bubble of technical innovation, which might be why I’m having a hard time grasping where you’re trying to go with this. My sympathies tend to be more with Yglesias in this argument (and the people making ad hominem attacks on him don’t help with that). But you bring up really good points that I’m trying to engage with and that I think are important to consider, so I’d love to hear what you think people like me should be doing or advocating for in response to these complexities.

    • mpowell


    • jdkbrown

      I take Erik to be arguing, not against technological development, but against the utopianism that often accompanies it. There’s a common mindset, typified by Yglesias here, that more/better technology is the cure to one or another social ill–and that the only barrier to the cure is that the appropriate technology hasn’t been developed yet. Erik is contending that this isn’t right: whether or not some technological innovation hurts or helps–and *how* and *how much* it hurts or helps–depends a lot on social factors surrounding its adoption.

      • Linnaeus

        Right. Though we often compartmentalize “technology” and “society” for many (understandable) reasons, we really can’t get away from the fact that technology is situated in a social & cultural context, and this context is a factor in such things as what research gets done, who supports it, how the benefits & costs of the research are distributed and so on.

        I think these questions are interesting even as a strictly intellectual endeavor (full disclosure: I’m a historian of science), but I also think it’s a good idea to ask “what do we do with that?” And that’s a question that doesn’t have a simple answer, but once we’re more aware of the social & cultural context of science and technology, we can at least begin to have a discussion about the implications of research for the society at large and how to address those. Those are conversations that can be – and should be – extended beyond the circle of scientists and engineers; they can’t be expected to shoulder that burden alone.

    • Bill Murray

      IANEL, but I would say the problem isn’t technology per se, it’s what we do with it. So not funding new technology isn’t very smart, but at the same if we don’t recognize that there will be short and medium term dislocations of people and then have a plan for how we can ameliorate the problems for people caused by the new technology, there will be considerable tension between people and technology.

    • In short, there’s not a direct policy goal. I’m sure you and your friends are paid for their technological innovations in a system that actively (or passively anyway) discourages in-depth questioning of technology. What I will say is that we, and more specifically you because you are on the creative end of technologies, needs to try and think through the impact of individual technologies for the good and the bad, and outside of their financial potential. Who will be negatively affected by a given invention or innovation? How can we mitigate those negatives?

      Because again, I’m hardly rejecting technology. I’m only asking that we be aware that all technologies are good technologies and that technology is not this endlessly wondrous thing constantly improving our lives. It’s changing our lives and probably improving them more than making them worse, but it’s not as cut and dry as we like to think.

      I also think it would do scientists a lot of good to read about the history of science and technology to put what they do in more perspective.

      • JL

        Thanks for replying, I appreciate it a lot.

        There is definitely some questioning of technology in my circles, but it tends to be fixated on the specific issues of specific technologies (lots and lots of discussion about privacy, particularly as relates to social networking technology, but not so much about economic displacement, even among those of us who are solidly left-wing, which is more of us than many people assume). This is not solely focused on trivial things either – there has been lots of discussion about stalkers and abusers being able to track down their victims more easily, LBGT and genderqueer people being accidentally outed to the wrong people, dictatorships discovering the contacts of opposition activists. We saw that last one play out a bit, actually – when Google Buzz came out, a guy I know was in Zimbabwe training opposition activists in the use of secure messaging technology that his company was working on, and the fact that he had been emailing them ended up in government hands, and…he ended up okay and not arrested, but that could have gone very badly for him, and might have gone badly for the people that he was working with (I don’t know what ended up happening to them). So yes, lots of privacy concerns.

        People tend to associate too much questioning in some areas with social conservatives (e.g. stem cell research, climate change), certain kinds of left-wing crazies (e.g. militant animal rights activists), and cranks (e.g. “gray goo” FUD), since those people do make up an important part our experience. It is unfortunate when that spills over to suspicion of more reasonable questioning.

        There’s a lot of interest in using technology for social good, but also a strong cynical streak that could probably be channeled into the sort of critical thinking that you’re describing.

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  • dave

    This has been another episode in our ongoing series, Arguing About Shit We Know Nothing About. Tune in next week for further adventures in historically-ignorant generalization, question-begging and just plain ol’fashioned dumbness.

    • Linnaeus

      On whose part?

    • HMS Glowworm did 9/11

      Welcome to the internet.

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  • shah8

    I had to reread this blog post several times, MattY’s comment several times, and then the earlier Loomis post several times before I got my head wrapped around the conversation…

    MattY thinks that the low hanging technological fruits are gone. I don’t think that’s a controversial idea. The quoted section in this blog post really refers to the ideas people had when creating The Jetsons–which Yglesias idly supports but doesn’t really envision. Quoting that segment seems somewhat abusive, and made it harder for me to understand what’s going on.

    I also think that Yglesia’s point has an important implication in the sense that if we *did* have a wave of technological innovation, there would be substantially more freedom to innovate, for good and ill. Moreover, it’s in high tech change environments that enable discontented people to have a real voice. The 1920s and 30s, and the 1950s and 60s featured a great deal of social change, in which one could thoroughly blame newly widespread tech like cars or The Pill. In all fact, it’s in *low* technical change when the only people who’s got an edge, got it because they spent the gobs of money to get it. Or they bribed the political system, which has an easy time imposing desires on the public (which lacks troublemakers with an ace up the sleeve). Nothing like a bit of dy-no-mite (or easily hidden firearms)for the anarchist at the turn of the 20th century to provoke change, eh?

    I think it’s really hard to wrap your head around this whole concept of tech and society, because tech has to exist first, and then there is a dialect between how society uses it at first, wider society uses it second, initial society uses it third, so forth and on. It gets troublesome and perhaps it’s of dubious merit to teach from the premise that any technology has a downside, because that’s stating the dead obvious and is of limited thinking utility.

    • Bill Murray

      It gets troublesome and perhaps it’s of dubious merit to teach from the premise that any technology has a downside, because that’s stating the dead obvious and is of limited thinking utility.

      Well except that there is rarely any thought given to potential downsides of technology by the technology creators and enablers, so it is of great utility to those people ie engineers

      • shah8

        You know, when *I* read scientific history, engineers and the scientists themselves had strongest opinions on the potential (dis)utility of their work. Think Leo Szilard or Alfred Nobel or James Eads. When *I* talk to people in the sciences, they think of the promise or the worry of future tech. When *I* read science fiction, much of it is about a conversation about the nature of technological gains by the scientists themselves. John Brunner, Vernor Vinge, Peter Watts, what they wrote about are the digested conversations about the nature of technological progress.

        Do you know who don’t care? Rent seekers. Seriously, nobody can read something like Green Imperialism by Groves without understanding that scientists and corporatist enterprises cared the *most* about techology’s downsides. The first because scientists see the human costs, and the latter because they’d take the loss (until it could be shoved over to some unsuspecting natives).

        The enemies of progress has always been the people who can privatize profits and socialize losses. That always has been true, and always will be true, even when the anti-nuke freaks run rampant over at DKos.

        • shah8

          Actually, I reallly should have said the most obvious thing that can be said, in that we don’t actually always know the downside of new things until we use them.

          And usually, once Pandora’s Box is open, it’s open.

          There have been pleasant surprises, more pleasant than the cruel hook that keeps us going in life.

  • HMS Glowworm did 9/11

    Aren’t the Cotton Gin and domestic labor examples somewhat supporting Yglesias’ original point — namely that productivity-boosting technologies aren’t a main driver of unemployment? I’m not saying these things had positive impacts — the cotton gin clearly made shit worse, while household technologies are pretty mixed — just that they either increased labor demand or left it more or less constant.

  • CBrinton

    “And I’ll tell you one thing for damn sure–the cotton gin made the lives of slaves a hell of a lot worse.”

    Can you expand on this a little? I agree that the cotton gin, by helping make slaveownership more profitable, made emancipation less likely. Empowering and enriching the slavocrats was a bad thing. But what is the evidence that the lives of slaves in (say) 1830 were “a hell of a lot worse” than in (say) 1800?

    • To name just one reason, the cotton gin created the classic antebellum plantation system. Many of those big planters in Mississippi and Alabama and Louisiana came from Virginia and South Carolina. They didn’t just buy new slaves to take there, they took some of their old slaves along with them—but not all of them. That meant more families were split up.

      • CBrinton

        That’s a valid point. All technological changes that made slave labor more valuable and moving people and goods around easier would have that effect.

        In a slave society there’s no reason to think technological advance will be deployed to make the lives slaves better unless doing so increases owners’ profit margins.

        Is there a source describing changes in the overall living conditions of slaves?

        • Anonymous

          It was widely understood at the time that slaves in the coastal regions lived less awful lives than slaves on the cotton plantations. (While his name slips my mind at the moment, there was a prominent large slaveowner/politician in Kentucky who was very outspoken in his opposition to slaves being moved from the coasts to the plantations for humanitarian reasons).

          One central reason for this is that the socioeconomic organization of slavery in the coastal region led to a live that, while highly exploitative, involved relatively little contact with white people. This is pretty well covered in most historical texts on American slavery; I happen to have Kolchin’s American Slavery 1619-1877 in front of me but plenty of others tell this story.

    • Hogan

      See the origin of the phrase “sold down the river.”

  • Two words, Erik:

    Parkinson’s Law

    While tongue in cheek, it’s one of the most profound observations ever made of the human condition.

    • Hadn’t heard that before. Definitely seems to make sense.

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  • dave

    Dear lord, do we really have to go back to the first proto-human who figured out how to get a sharper edge on a stone? Must we note that the rotary quern was one of the greatest labour-saving devices of all time?

    Technological change, and in a strict technical sense improvement, is the hallmark of mainstream development in the human species since deep prehistory. It has always been and will always be what marks us out as a species – for good and ill.

    It is so deeply ingrained in what constitutes ‘history’ that to attempt to isolate a few short-term factors, label them alone ‘technology’, and argue about them as if they were an alien import into society and culture is, well, stupid. And that goes for people who think there’s something wrong with ‘technology’, and those who think it’s a magic cure.

    Most of the problems we have, we have because we tried to use technology to fix a problem we thought we had, and so on, infinite regress. It’s what we do.

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