Washing Machines Take Us To The Cleaners
Technology changes social norms. New tech usually means less effort for people (think motorized vs. horse-drawn plows), but in the end, technology oftentimes brings higher standards of production, translating into more work for the individual. A famous example of this phenomenon is the clothes-washing machine. Before washing machines, people:
- owned fewer pieces of clothing
- washed clothing infrequently and by hand
- wore clothes that weren’t “fresh”
- wore pieces until they wore out
- wore obviously repaired and damaged clothes
- wore clothing that didn’t fit well
Society didn’t fault them for any of this. After washing machines, people:
- bought more pieces of clothing
- washed clothing frequently
- only wore freshly (or relatively freshly) laundered clothes
- threw out old or damaged clothes
- wore only clothes that were in good repair
- bought clothes that fit as soon as the need arose
The old standards of dress were eliminated. Freshly-smelling and crisp clothes became the norm. Notice the work behind the points in the “After” category: More shopping, more laundering, more upkeep to maintain higher levels of appearance. Some sociologists and feminist philosophers argue that the washing machine was actually a bane on women’s existence because of the work unit change it brought about.
After people adapt to the new amounts of work, the tech becomes an integral part of everyday life. Nowadays we may hear our neighbor complain about laundry day, but if we saw her tossing of all but a dozen of her garments in the Goodwill bag we’d worry she’d joined some sort of cult.
The Internet Drives Us Wild
Today people are concerned about what kind of work Internet apps like Facebook may permanently introduce to our lives. Society’s standards of communication have seemingly changed overnight. Before ubiquitous Internet, people:
- had fewer acquaintances
- wrote letters by hand and wrote them infrequently (infrequent letters were deemed OK)
- shared news that wasn’t “fresh”
- used phones until they wore out
- made contacts by going to social events
- kept social contacts that didn’t agree with their world views
After ubiquitous Internet, people:
- have connections online to hundreds of people
- write emails and posts much more frequently than hand-written letters (infrequent communication is not deemed OK)
- have a feeling that news more than a few months old (unless very life-changing) isn’t worth sharing
- get new mobile phones every few years
- make contacts through online social networks and go to fewer real life events
- arrange themselves in silos of agreeably-minded groups online
Some people call for simpler days, but we’re not at the point yet in this tech evolution where those sentiments are deemed cultish. But know, oh ye of the no email/no Facebook/no texts: what you are saying about media technology now people have said about every new modern “convenience” after it was introduced. From the Gutenberg printing press to the automobile, you’ll find the same vein of fears and complaints.
Cars Crush Facebook
During the heyday of the first automobiles, people were experiencing similar reservations, protests and conversions to the machines. Here’s a short paragraph by late-adopter Mrs. Henry Wallace of Des Moines, Iowa. In her Hearts and Homes column on page 18 of Wallace’s Farmer periodical published on October 23, 1908, Mrs. Wallace writes about her initial resistance then change of heart toward automobiles:
“At one time I was foolish enough to say I would never ride in an automobile. It is an illustration of the fact that we sometimes say things do things and later find we were mistaken. The time came when an automobile came into the family and I was invited to share a seat. It was not long until my ideas of automobiles and automobile riding were entirely reconstructed. … It is another illustration of the fact that we live and learn.”
What’s funny here is that if we replace “automobile” with “Facebook” (and change some corresponding words), we can easily imagine any social networking holdout saying pretty much the same thing:
“At one time I was foolish enough to say I would never JOIN FACEBOOK. It is an illustration of the fact that we sometimes say things do things and later find we were mistaken. The time came when a FACEBOOK USER came into the family and I was invited to FRIEND THEM. It was not long until my ideas of FACEBOOK AND FACEBOOK USE were entirely reconstructed. … It is another illustration of the fact that we live and learn.”
Even some automotive industry types would mention the challenges the machines brought to society. T.E.A. Barthel, VP and Gen Mgr King Motor Car Company, wrote a small mostly-laudatory piece called “Automobile News” on page 2 of Chicago Livestock World in January, 1910. In it, he wrote:
”No one now regards the motor car as a mere fad. The world knows it has fulfilled its mission. That it is a real necessity for comfort, health and business progress… The motor car… has given to municipalities the biggest problem they ever tackled – the solution of street traffic regulations. There is not a city in the country where this problem is not serious and the subject of great thought.”
We give “great thought” to battles today over who controls the Internet. Just as AAA and the government’s DMV were formed to help society cope with automotive technology, The Electronic Frontier Foundation and other such entities grow out of the need to regulate controls on Internet traffic, namely, to disallow corporate control of the Internet’s virtual street corners:
”From the beginning, EFF has championed the public interest in every critical battle affecting digital rights.”
More than 100 years after their invention, cars of all sorts are used worldwide. Most people ride in a car before they can walk. Imagine what the Internet will be 100 years from now. Will people be complaining that the Internet like the automobile ruined family dinners, or will Internet use and social networks be an accepted part of everyday life? “Car Addiction” is hardly listed in the Diagnostic Manual; I’m guessing all discussion of “Internet Addiction” will fall from the general consciousness as well.
How do you see the Internet and the Web progressing in the next 100 years?
Photo credits: Washing Machine: DominusVobiscum Model T: MJH Bower
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