A hundred years or so ago, our foremothers seemed on the verge of a great emancipation. Homes were beginning to be connected to the new electrical grid, which would in short order deliver unimaginably cheap and plentiful power into kitchens and living rooms and bedrooms. The availability of cheap electricity would in turn, and in equally short order, bring into homes an amazing array of newfangled labor-saving appliances, from electric irons to toasters to vacuum cleaners to washing machines to clothes dryers to dishwashers, and on and on and on. It seemed obvious that this technological revolution would lift the yoke of housework from women’s shoulders. They would be freed from the unpaid manual labor that blighted their days. Their leisure hours would multiply. Instead of being “producers,” they would become “consumers,” a far more enjoyable occupation.

But as obvious as that future seemed, it did not materialize. The time that women were forced to spend on unpaid housework did not go down. According to some estimates, in fact, it went up. What happened? The new technologies had consequences that were completely unexpected. They not only changed the form of labor but also altered social norms and behavior and reconfigured economic tradeoffs in exceedingly complicated ways. It became expected that houses would be cleaner, that clothes would be sweeter smelling and more meticulously pressed, that children would be more thoroughly scrubbed behind the ears. Instead of a family working together to give a home a thorough cleaning a couple of times a year, women were suddenly expected to clean their homes daily, to keep a dust rag permanently in their pocket. Instead of husbands or older sons carrying rugs outside and beating them every few months, women were expected to vacuum them once or twice a week. The labor-saving devices ended up creating as much labor as they saved, and the higher expectations for cleanliness added a new anxiety to women’s lives. Everything changed, and nothing changed. Utopia arrived, on schedule, but it didn’t turn out to be utopia.

I bring this up for purposes of self-justification. Tim Bray, in trying to “figure me out” yesterday, offered this succinct assessment: “I think I see a theme: Carr seems to be arguing that there’s nothing new in the world.” That seems fair to me, particularly given my recent postings here, yet it also seems reductionist, as all attempts to “figure out” other people (or even ourselves) are doomed to be. Bray also says: “The steady migration of knowledge onto the Net is a new thing, qualitatively. And, in the last few years, the phenomenon of millions of people becoming contributors, not just consumers, is a big deal and I don’t think anyone really understands it.” While I might quibble with some of his phrasing – I wish, in particular, that people wouldn’t rush to use the word “knowledge” when “information” would do or to claim that in the past people were just consumers – I agree with him here, too. I don’t think anyone really understands it, either. I do think, though, that the best way to try to understand it is to look not at the current technological trends but at the history of technology and the way it has influenced economics and society. There are many new things in the world, but there’s nothing new in the world.

Before taking on my current role as an itinerant cogitatrix, I spent a few years editing articles at the Harvard Business Review. It was a strange sort of job, but what came as the biggest surprise was the realization of how completely cut off from history business thinking and writing have become. Except for a few endlessly recycled anecdotes from the recent past – Digital’s failure to respond to personal computers is a good example – there is an almost complete lack of any historical perspective in mainstream business theory and analysis. The same seems to be true in business schools, where the discipline of business history, if it exists at all, is shunted off into a backwater. How strange and how sad. There’s little doubt in my mind that a student would learn a good deal more about business and the practice of management from reading a few good volumes by great business historians like Alfred Chandler and Richard Tedlow than by reading every management book published over the last twenty years. But that’s just pissing in the wind.

It’s even worse, if more understandable, in the technology sphere, where newness is all. If you spend a lot of time following contemporary discussions of computer technology and its consequences – in the blogosphere, say – you may find yourself convinced that the universe came into being in 1990, fashioned by the almighty hand of Tim Berners-Lee. There’s no past at all, just the illusion that what we’re experiencing has never happened before and, in some odd way, counters everything that’s happened before. Even the search engines we use to organize all the so-called knowledge that has migrated onto the Net are designed to discount the past, to assign a positive value to newness and a negative value to oldness. The hegemony of the recent is inscribed in the very algorithms through which we, increasingly and perhaps tragically, make sense of the world. Given how overbalanced our discourse is toward the new, I feel it’s the least I can do to place my thumb on the other side of the scale.

The claims of technological transformation we hear today are the same as the claims of technological transformation we heard a hundred years ago, though some of the more meaningless terms have been reversed. Then, technology was going to free us from the nightmare of “production” and release us into the more perfect world of “consumption.” Now, technology is going to free us from the nightmare of “consumption” and release us into the more perfect world of “production.” It didn’t pan out yesterday, and it’s not going to pan out tomorrow. The future will escape whatever big abstractions we try to confine it to. It will surprise us, and disappoint us, and in retrospect we’ll see in its unfolding the repetition of patterns from the past.

So, no, Tim Bray, there’s nothing new in the world. The most you can say is that it’s ongoing.

12 thoughts on “Ongoing

  1. Seth Finkelstein

    Quick note:

    “Even the search engines we use to organize all the so-called knowledge that has migrated onto the Net are designed to discount the past, to assign a positive value to newness and a negative value to oldness. The hegemony of the recent is inscribed in the very algorithms through which we, increasingly and perhaps tragically, make sense of the world.”

    This is not quite true – the algorithms, more specifically, Google, are better phrased as assigning a positive value to new statements by *established* *presences*. Very new statements by very new sites are in fact discounted (the infamous “sandbox effect”). Both of these factors are GOOD THINGS. The positive value for new statements was partially to offset the self-reinforcing nature of old high-ranking pages getting more links and thus becoming more high-ranking. The probation period is an anti-spam measure.

    There’s a newness bias, but I think it’s overkill to call it a “hegemony of the recent”, especially considering that the alternative would be a hegemony of the dead past.

  2. Seth Finkelstein

    But I did the classic comment behavior of quibbling with a minor point, and not indicating my enthusiastic agreement with the overall thesis.

    “It’s A New Era” is a dangerous phrase, and those proclaiming it are usually either selling something, or have bought into something.

  3. John Koetsier

    I think it was written about 4 or 5 thousand years ago: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

    Ecclesiastes 1

  4. Brad

    We’ve harnessed electrons to allow more people to interact faster than ever before, but this has not raised the quality of what is said or read — so, yeah, we’re in no immediate danger of a network-enabled utopia.

  5. Nick Carr


    That Wikipedia article was pretty typical. It was never quite able to elevate itself above the mediocre and finally collapsed into a mish-mash. B-

  6. Majied

    By placing himself in historical terms, man makes himself feel an awful lot smaller and the pressures and concerns that dominate his day to day life are equally reduced. He finds this uncomfortable, which is why most people choose to ignore history (like Mr. Bray) allowing others to get away with invoking half-understood monoliths of the past to serve their own needs – like Newt Gingrich talking about WWIII.

    P.S. Cogitatrix? Wonderful! If you had called yourself an itinerant thinker I would have thought you were pretentious. Now I think you are a pretentious comic. Incidentally, there is no entry for ‘cogitatrix’ in Wikipedia, or a definition on the web. I was hence forced to pick up the dictionary of the office shelf – it didn’t have the word of course, but I stumbled upon ‘cogitate’ and worked out the rest from there. Perhaps you should make it an entry in Wiktionary. Now that really would make me laugh.

  7. Ben King

    I subscribe to the Ecclesiates view of history, too – but I can’t help thinking Wikipedia is a brilliant and genuinely new thing.

    Most of the criticisms tend to depend on setting up a straw man, along the lines of ‘Wikipedia will revolutionise the way humans process knowledge’ and knocking that down.

    It’s not perfect, but it is cool. Just relax and enjoy. It covers Goatse subculture with a thoroughness no other source could match.

    PS – If I remember my GSCE latin, cogitatrix would be female cogitator, no? Like a dominatrix is a female dominator? Is there something you’re not telling us, Nick?

  8. len

    I had an ongoing discussion with Rob Bray, Tim’s brother, on the subject of the predictability and the directability of evolution. These discussions illuminate for me two contrasting points of view similar to what Mr. Carr and Tim are debating.

    On the one hand there are those who assert that the scale and speed of integration are such that the complexity of it defies prediction. On the other hand, there is the point of view that prediction along any single dimension may be unpredictable, but that the technology is not a single line of evolution, but influenced by multiple domains of force, and that this combination keeps the developments within reasonably predictable domains.

    In this case, technology is a short cycle changing fast, but there hasn’t been a new version of humans for about 6000 years. Because technology is conjugate with human needs and desires, once the fundamentals of a technology are understood, what it will be used for is entirely predictable.

    Berners-Lee didn’t get this. Many of the web pundits don’t because they are enthralled by their own press. A historian steps back from the press and looks for the ever repeating patterns of human development, maps these to the technology, and then the future isn’t that mysterious. As with all maps, it may not be so detailed that it will stand up to point-for-point tests, but in a migration over time, it will enable one to plot a course.

    Some of the theorists would do well to study the low-energy transport models uses to plot orbital mechanics (an application of non-linear dynamics) and replace the attractors of mass with clustered semantic domains such as economic clusters. The model is the same. Directed evolution is a mapping problem where the trade off is time vs energy.

  9. Sebastian Muschter

    Sorry, need to add another boring historical quote: “a change in quantity leads eventually to a change in quality” (kind of by Hegel/Engels/Marx).

    The ingredients might not be new, but speed of use, speed of spread, degree of cross-fertilization, new modes of interaction etc. might enable something “new” – even though you’ll still discover the “old” as patterns inside.

    Let’s use a dramatic and far-fetched example: there’s always been radioactivity in nature, but atomic bombs added a new quality to this basic process, didn’t they?

    2nd point: the casual observer from above sees only the same & the old. The poor being caught in the middle might actually think her experience is quite “new” – what does somebody working for Encyclopædia Britannica think of Wikipedia?

  10. Gil Freund

    In my first week in university (I took History), my professor told us: “always check both editions”. He was referring to both editions of the Britannica in the library (1911 and 1974, I think). It is interesting how the same topic can be different.

  11. Philip Nelson

    Nobody seems to be remembering Gutenberg in this discussion! What is changing now is that publishing itself is coming to the masses like reading did in Gutenberg’s time. Like then, where previously a “lettered” elite dispensed knowledge to the masses and were threatened by mass availability of books, the publishers of today with their control of “approved” information is threatened by easy publishing and social trust networks that in the end people will learn to evaluate reliably. Quite likely, some of the same criteria used to determine the reputation of a publisher today will drive the social reputation networks of tomorrow. This really is new, even if a change in the way information is published is not new. Historical? Check back in 20 years.

    On a second note, I always remember my grandma talking about the “good old days”. She would say, “you know, they were not that great”. Perhaps the floor needed to be cleaned twice a week, but the twelve hour days split between the house and the barn were over.

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