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The End of Good Work?

In 1879 farm laborers in Maryland destroyed harvesting machinery and left the farm owner a note:

“You will please stop your other machines or next will be your life. . . . We do not get work enough . . . we have to go into det.” In 1938 Congress examined how mechanization was displacing tens of thousands of farm workers and families. And in 1962 President Kennedy declared that machines replacing men posed the major domestic challenge of the decade.

Repeatedly, new technologies have displaced and “de-skilled” specific kinds of work. Overall, though, American workers have gone on to have better jobs in each case. A new book by economist Robert J. Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, nonetheless argues that this time the end of good work is really coming. …. See the rest of this column at the Boston Review here.

For coincidental reasons, a few recent posts have looked at the social implications of communications technologies (e.g., how 19th-century magazine publication and 21st-century internet aggregation facilitated the emergence of communities of interest). I was going to turn to other topics–maybe song lyrics–but a just-released study brings me back to the communications theme.

A research report in the Journal of Economic History suggests that early 20th-century rural road improvement led to more mail delivery which then led to more democratic, responsive politics. Ironically, this aspect of technological “modernity” seemed to boost “anti-modern” policies.

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In a number of posts over several years, I have expressed skepticism that the new e-technologies of the last couple of decades have had the deep effects on social life that much of the media–and a few academics–assert. The best evidence is that: no, the internet and smart phones did not make people lonelier, did not impoverish human conversation, did not bring a new epoch of political revolution, etc. Despite the media trope that the global web has turned everything inside out, the human fundamentals remain pretty constant.

Yet, my rebuttal does not mean that the new e-communications technologies have had no consequences. They probably have made important differences (although the data are thin), differences similar to those generated by a “technology” that is several thousand years old: the city. Cities enable all sorts of people out in the “long tails” to aggregate into “critical masses,” fostering subcultures for nearly everything from esoteric music to terrorism.

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The nomination of Hillary Clinton for president is a penultimate historic moment. Her election, like that of Barack Obama, would be historic–at least for this country. (India installed a woman head of government 50 years ago, Israel did 47 years ago, and the U.K. did 37 years ago.) You don’t need a sociologist to tell you that women’s situations have changed dramatically in the last few decades.

Just as the election of Barack Obama in 2008 highlighted the vast advances of blacks in America but did not usher in a “post-racial” or “post-racism” era, so the election of Hillary Clinton in 2016 would highlight the vast advances of women in America but will not end the tensions about women’s proper roles. Almost all Americans today say that they would vote for a woman for president, but many of them retain reservations about the gender equality such a vote implies.

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Historian Richard Brown recounts, in his important 1989 book, Knowledge is Power, how Americans of the early nineteenth century learned to take in the torrent of information that had been unleashed on them.

In the mid-eighteenth century, most Americans learned the news, be it about colonial wars, tragic shipwrecks, or new ideas about liberty, by word of mouth. Someone in the village received a personal letter or a newspaper that he would read to others in the town square. Or tavern habitués heard the “latest” from a traveler who had heard it in another tavern in another town. (See this earlier post: “18th-Century Twitterfeed.”)

Within a couple of generations, there were many more newspapers, a national postal system, lecture societies, mass public speech-making, traveling ministers sermonizing, lending libraries, novels, almanacs, and the like. This produced, Brown argued, the democratization of knowledge on the one hand, but also its privatization on the other. Individuals learned news on their own rather than in the company of others; it brought, wrote Brown, a certain loss of community.

A new, massive study by sociologist (and my Berkeley colleague) Heather Haveman provides a detailed account of one those new forms of media–the magazine. Her book, Magazines and the Making of America: Modernization, Community, and Print Culture, 1741-1860, tells how this innovative “social media” flourished and influenced American society two centuries ago. It also draws a different lesson about media and community.

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A phone conversation with a journalist a while back sparked a thought I tried out on her: What if Facebook had not followed Friendster and MySpace in calling the people it connected “friends”? What if, instead, Mark Zuckerberg had opted for saying connections and connecting, or associates and associating, or chums and chumming instead of friends and friending?

Calling those online links something other than friends may not have changed much of what people do with Facebook, but it could well have changed the conversations we have about Facebook and about the online world more generally. There’d be a lot fewer stories with titles like “How Many Facebook Friends are Real Friends?” or “Most of Your Facebook Friends Are Not Your Real Friends, Says Study” (duh!). Muddled efforts to distinguish one’s “friends” from “FB friends” and much obsessing about “real friends” could have been avoided. It’s bad enough that Americans have for generations been pretty vague about whom they considered friends and what they meant by friendship. Now, talking about friends has gotten even more fuzzy thanks to social media–even if the actual relationships haven’t changed much.

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For most of the twentieth century, Americans took a certain social geography for granted: the well-off lived in the suburbs, encircling poor city centers. When I wrote a book on “The Urban Experience” forty years ago, most Americans viewed that experience with trepidation. The image of city life as bleak, dilapidated, and dangerous became entrenched. Moving to the suburbs, which the American middle class had been doing for generations, turned into “flight.” But those scary years were unusual. Historically, cities have been wealthier, safer, and more welcoming than their surroundings.

Now the wheel has turned again. The city is glamorous again; filmmakers are having trouble finding stereotypically grimy alleys in Manhattan. Today’s political fights are not about stemming urban decay but about stemming urban upscaling. What happened?

See my column on this question at the Boston Review: here.