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.