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Posts Tagged ‘technology’

One of the fascinating stories about Americans’ encounters with modern technology has been about how the flurry of labor-saving devices from the early twentieth century–electric lighting, central heating, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, electric and gas stoves, washing machines, dryers, full water and sewer systems, etc.–did or perhaps did not reduce the domestic workload of American women.

The conventional answer among historians, developed most fully in Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s 1980 classic, More Work for Mother (see also here), is a paradox: The time women spent in housework did not go down between, say, the 1900s and the 1960s, but stayed about the same. The reason, it is argued, is that standards for good housework rose and ate up the time savings provided by technology. No longer did gruel and cold cuts of meat make a passable meal; women now had to prepare “cuisine” each evening. No longer were monthly washings of bedclothes enough; they had to be washed weekly (and personal clothing had to be washed often enough to be changed daily). No longer was a bit of dirt and grime acceptable until spring cleaning; now homes had to be spic-n-span always.

1946 (source)

1946 (source)

Housework may have become less physically draining–no more hauling water or firewood to the kitchen; no more hand-wringing of wet clothes–and the results become more satisfying–better meals, healthier families, cleaner homes–but the time demands did not change.

A key research study behind this paradoxical story appeared in 1974. Joann Vanek compared several hundred “time-budgets” filled out by American women in the 1920s and ‘30s to those gathered from American women in the 1960s. (“Time-budget” studies ask respondents to report what they were doing in precise time segments, say, every 15 minutes, throughout the waking day.) Vanek found that among women not employed outside the home there was little difference in the amount of time they spent on domestic duties between roughly 1920 and 1970, despite all those new time-saving appliances. Given that many more women were working, Vanek concluded 40 years ago: “It appears that modern life has not shortened the woman’s work day. Farm work has been greatly reduced, but it has been replaced by work in the labor force. Indeed, for married women in fulltime jobs the work day is probably longer than it was for their grandmothers.”

In a newly-published study, Jonathan Gershuny and Teresa Atttracta Harms go back to the original time-budget reports, add more data and some new techniques, and come up with a somewhat different conclusion about technology and domestic work.

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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.

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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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The Pace, the Pace

An end-of-the-year crystal-ball statement by New York Times technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo, stimulated me to muse some more about how Americans think about technological change. Manjoo wrote:

In 2016, let’s begin to appreciate the dominant role technology now plays in shaping the world, and let’s strive to get smarter about how we think about its effects. “The pace of technological change has never been faster, so it’s more important for people to understand things that are harder to keep on top of,” said Julius Genachowski, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. . . .

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As I discussed in an earlier post, such claims are perennial. More examples: About 60 years before Manjoo, on April 22, 1957, noted Times journalist C. L. Sulzberger warned:

The dizzy speed with which mechanical techniques are now developing leads many serious thinkers to wonder if they may not soon exceed human capacity to absorb them.

And about 25 years before that, a member of my own tribe, sociology founding father William F. Ogburn, told a panel–as reported in the Times on January 2, 1931–that:

An increasing number of inventions . . . will mean an increasing pace of change and less peace. It will become increasingly difficult for the growing person to adapt himself to an ever more complicated environment; and so in the future, . . . . the problem will be met, perhaps, by prolonging infancy to say, thirty or forty years of age or even longer.

(Parents of 20-somethings may want to comment on the prediction of prolonged infancy.)

The Genachowski-like claims that Americans today are buffeted by unprecedented social change driven by an unprecedented technological pace is, I have argued (here and here), wrong. We may yet face, but do not yet experience, the sort of machine-assisted disruptions that were common a century ago.

Still, all this is about the views of talking (or writing) heads. How have average Americans thought about the pace and dangers of technological change?

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The picture below (Hopper, 1932) suggests that the absence of conversation is not new.

You wouldn’t know that if you swallowed The New York Times publicity for Sherry Turkle’s latest book, Reclaiming Conversation, which apparently argues that smart phones are alienating everyone from everyone else. A front cover essay in the September 26 NYT Sunday Review by Professor Turkle combined with a forthcoming rave review of the new book by novelist Jonathan Franzen–huh, a novelist? when there are many expert researchers who could have reviewed?–and a 2012 preview by Turkle as well as a 2013 one–leave quite an impression that smart phones have silenced Americans.

Deja vu all over again (requiescat in pace, Yogi Berra).

In 2011, Times reviewer Michiko Kakatuni gave Turkle’s previous book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, a strong thumbs-up and science journalist Jonah Lerner  (later discredited) wrote the Sunday book review, albeit with some criticisms. One should also note that Professor Turkle has long been the go-to source on the social consequences of digital communications for the Times.

All this coverage despite researchers’ skepticism, based on systematic evidence, about the claim that digital technology is alienating Americans. (My earlier comments are here and here.) Indeed, the Times itself published a piece last year in the Magazine entitled, “Technology Is Not Driving Us Apart After All,”reviewing some of the science. I guess someone at the paper did not get the memo.

So, what am I complaining about now?

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All Tech Is Social

The flood of new devices, apps, and gadgets raises the recurrent worry about what these things, individually or in ensembles, are “doing” to us, how they are “impacting” us. Technology critic and MIT professor Sherry Turkle, for instance, argues that “technology doesn’t just do things for us. It does things to us, changing not just what we do but who we are.” In a similar vein, the legal scholar Tim Wu, who focuses on media and technology, warns that the Internet is psychologically overloading us.

This metaphor of impact obscures the evolution of each personal technology as it enters widespread use, misconstruing the implications for our personal lives and psyches. It implies that a technology hits, pushes, smashes us. Meteors impact the earth; missiles impact a target; bats impact a baseball. But in what meaningful sense does an electric light or a cell phone, literally or metaphorically, impact us?

We better understand the role of technologies if we think about how we use them and how that use changes over time….. [Read the rest of this post on the Boston Review’s BR Blog here.]

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This post is another grumpy complaint about a popular media trope that is historically and sociologically misguided, but, more important, that misdirects our attention: hand-wringing by young folks about being friendless and lonely in the 21st century. Complaints of young, privileged writers, echoed by older ones who have been peddling this theme for decades, distract us from the real, albeit old-school, problems of the 21st century: the material struggles of the the less-privileged.

The meme I refer to is a long string of magazine articles and newspaper stories that have gone viral about how isolated and friendless Americans have supposedly become. Sometimes the stories blame new technologies for isolating us (e.g., “Is Facebook Making us Lonely?”; “Driving Us to Isolation”; “Is Social Media Isolating...”) and sometimes they just blame the culture of the day.

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