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Technology: A Complex History

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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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