November 2017


James Boyce

Tablet or toilet?

Modern kitchen, circa 1950. © Herbert Matter / Conde Nast via Getty Images

How transformative has the computer age really been?

On 20 July, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull gave a speech to the Economic and Social Outlook Conference, in which his understanding of the history of technology provided the foundation for his vision for Australia: “We are living in a time where the pace and scale of change is utterly unprecedented throughout all of human history. Last week at the G20, I was proud to represent Australia as the largest economies of the world considered how to navigate the future under these conditions of rapid and, indeed, accelerating change … We must not forget how rapid this change has been … Most of these big internet companies – these giants which are dominating the global economic landscape and in so many ways are redefining the way we do business, the way we interact, the way we connect – would, if they were humans, still be at school, many of them, in fact, at primary school. This is very, very rapid change.”

Turnbull’s conclusion restated the core message of his prime ministership: the imperative to innovate, adapt and seize the exciting opportunities afforded by a change “unprecedented in its pace and scale”.

There is nothing unusual about the challenges of the present and the opportunities of the future being constructed on a perspective of the past. A view of history invariably frames analysis of contemporary problems and circumscribes “realistic” solutions. But is the view of the past told by Turnbull and the wealthy young men who head up the big internet companies (and, despite their celebration of change, they are almost entirely men) true?

Although technological innovation has shaped cultures and civilisations throughout history, there is no question that the pace of technological innovation has been particularly marked during the past 500 years.

Francis Bacon, the 17th-century philosopher and prophet of empirical science, recognised that three inventions – the nautical compass, printing and gunpowder – heralded a new age that enlarged humanity’s control over nature.

From the late 18th century, science, technology and capitalism increasingly intertwined, most noticeably through the application of steam power during the aptly named industrial revolution.

It is not a new idea that technological change subsequently proceeded at an ever-increasing pace. In 1910, American urban designer Daniel Burnham observed that the pace of development had “immensely accelerated”, and novelists and futurists began to imagine utopias and dystopias in which technology had progressed beyond the control of any person. However, a belief in ever-faster speed of change as the defining fact, on which policies for the future must be based, has only become taken for granted in recent decades – after the supposedly unprecedented technological innovation associated with the computer age.

The prime example of this “law of accelerating returns” is the exponential growth in the amount of data able to be stored on a computer chip. Turnbull’s flagship policy, the National Innovation and Science Agenda, begins with a speedy chronicle of the computer: “The pace of change, supercharged by new and emerging technologies, has never been so great, nor so disruptive. It is being driven by rapid advances in computer processing power and data storage capacity, with an average smartphone more powerful than the combined computing power of NASA in 1969.”

There is no dispute that the extraordinary development of computer capacity, as well as the internet and its associated platforms, have been responsible for enormous social and economic upheaval. But how does technological innovation’s impact on human life over the past 50 years compare with that of preceding periods? Were the technological changes since 1967 greater than those of the half-centuries after 1917 and 1867? Has the pace of change really “never been so great, nor so disruptive”?

In the fourth volume of The Oxford History of Australia, Stuart Macintyre tells the story of Western Australian Labor Party activist Agnes Somerville, whose husband, William, played a prominent role in union, legal, university and activist circles in the early decades of the 20th century. Macintyre observes that although Agnes was “more gregarious” than her partner, her public activities were limited “by arduous domestic responsibilities: cooking for six on a wood stove, washing clothes with copper and mangle; [and] cleaning with bucket and scrubbing brush”. Her bible might have been George Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism, but intellectual empowerment could provide no freedom from the daily hard labour involved in running a home.

The limitations faced by Somerville were shared by nearly all women other than a privileged elite with servants. Endless work defined women’s daily life.

Between 1917 and 1967, home work was transformed by technological appliances that were built on the supply of electricity. After World War One, in the new middle-class suburbs expanding in the major cities (themselves facilitated by the electric tram), washing machines, fridges, vacuum cleaners and electric stoves slowly spread.

In the 1950s, the new appliances proliferated in working-class neighbourhoods and country towns. The provision of electricity to all classes and most districts was mirrored by a host of other transformative technologies. Australian homes received an endless supply of clean water delivered direct to the kitchen and bathroom, not just in cities but also in country towns, as well as hot water and heating on demand. Their occupants started to eat packaged food, wear clothing made of easy-care fabrics, and access chemicals that reduced the long hours of labour involved in essential household chores.

One seemingly banal technological innovation highlights the degree of change that occurred. In 1917, most Australian households had no way of keeping food chilled. Some rich people in the cities had an ice chest (stocked by regular deliveries by horse and cart), but the common cooling technology was a product known (despite uncertainty as to its origins) as the Coolgardie safe. This simple device comprised an upright frame with sides of hessian, which stood on four legs. On top was a flattish tin of water, positioned so that water slowly percolated down the walls to a drip tray on the floor. If a breeze was blowing, the damp hessian produced a cooling effect on the items stored inside. The safe was usually placed on the verandah or under a shade tree, as houses were often too hot for them to otherwise have any effect.

In 1930, as many as three quarters of Australian homes had a Coolgardie safe, many of them homemade. Over the next 40 years, the refrigerator moved into nearly every home. Being able to keep food cold allowed a revolution in diet, shopping and labour.

An almost equally momentous change in daily life was the demise of wood-burning iron stoves, and the sweat involved in keeping them working. These devices (themselves a significant technological innovation from the second half of the 19th century, before which most homes relied on an open fire) were the source of hot water, cooking and heat (whether welcome or not). Even the clothes iron relied on their power.

Between 1917 and 1967, a way of life built round kerosene lamps, candles, washing tubs and wood was replaced by an electricity-driven existence not radically different from our own.

The technology-driven transformation of home life was equally true of paid work. Stuart Macintyre reminds us that early in the 20th century “the great majority of Australians worked by hand … Whether it be lumping bags of wheat, cutting coal or timber, laying bricks or railway sleepers, a labouring job called for the expenditure of immense physical effort over a long working day.”

Of the 3843 factories in Sydney in 1911, only around half used any form of power other than human muscle, and the total contribution of all power plants in Sydney factories was just 60,000 horsepower.

Farm life was also famously hard yakka. Very few farmers had access to a steam traction engine. Many did not even have a horse. It was not until the 1950s that tractors became widespread on Australian farms.

The application of labour-saving machinery even transformed the lives of children, who were also commonly required to work for hours before and after their sometimes long walk to school.

What of people’s connectivity during this period? Surely in this regard, the 50 years from 1917 saw only minor changes compared with what would come with the microchip? While the car had been developed by 1917, it was still unavailable to ordinary people. By 1967 the large majority of Australian families had at least one vehicle. The transformative impact of this ever-available personalised transport is too obvious to recount here. The development of the plane, which transformed from a nascent technology unsuited for passenger transport into the jetliners used by millions of people every day, was nearly as significant.

Then there was the ubiquitous spread of the phone. Although telephone exchanges had existed since the late 19th century, it was between 1917 and 1967 that the technology developed to the point that nearly every home across the country was connected. This transformed not just social life but work and business too.

Nor should the power of cinema, radio and TV be forgotten. Cinemas, dominated by American productions, had a transformative social impact from the 1920s. In 1927 it was estimated that one in three Australians saw a movie a week.

The influence of radio was even more dramatic. Information was channelled straight into lounge rooms for the first time in human history. By 1929, only six years after broadcasting started in this country, licensed listeners totalled 300,000. The glory days of radio were complemented from the late 1950s by the glory days of TV.

These decades also saw the introduction of antibiotics and new vaccines, and advances in anaesthetics, all of which transformed medicine. Perhaps, though, no technological change between 1917 and 1967 was as transformative as the demise of the water carrier and the night cart. The task that has probably taken more time than any other since humans abandoned a hunter-gather lifestyle is the lugging of water. As Geoffrey Blainey observed in Black Kettle and Full Moon, it was a momentous moment when water that had been “bucketed from a hole in a creek, or delivered by horse and cart to the house at a high price” gave way “to the turning of a tap”. Along with the provision of running water came effective sewerage systems.

Many people still retain some communal memory of the importance of sanitation. The night cart did not disappear from Australian cities until well into the years after World War Two, and outbreaks of typhoid hung around nearly as long. A big impetus to developing drains and sewers in the first decade of the 20th century was an extended outbreak of the bubonic plague across a number of states.

Local authorities in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne (a city well known in the late 19th century as Marvellous Smellbourne) had connected most houses to waterborne sewerage before 1917. However, Hobart, Perth, Brisbane and other urban centres remained dependent on the water tank, outhouse and night cart for far longer. Even in remote areas seemingly less at risk because of pristine creeks and rivers, waterborne diseases continued to kill people until well into the 20th century.

An elderly rural woman, recently interviewed for a social history project in southern Tasmania, said that the biggest change during her lifetime was the coming of the septic toilet. There is more evidence for her position than the rival narrative offered by celebrity pioneers of the IT industry. Access to clean water and decent sanitation undoubtedly transformed human existence more profoundly than Google and Facebook.

I now work part time as a counsellor in a nursing home. A privilege of my job is the opportunity to hear the stories of elderly Tasmanians, many of them country people. Some of the people I work with grew up without a car, electricity, running water, indoor toilet or phone. Their childhood was spent in neighbourhoods defined by walking. They did hours of physical work each day and were pulled out of school for extended periods to help with essential jobs, such as picking fruit. We don’t use the term in Australia, but their families were peasants. They usually had ample food (often supplemented by hunting) but little cash. They built their own homes, made their own clothes, gathered their own fuel and stored their own home-produced food. The largely pre-industrial way of life only disappeared in Tasmania, and in many other country districts of Australia, during the 1950s.

It is true that a large gap had by then opened between the city and country, but the way of life in inner-city working-class neighbourhoods of Sydney and Melbourne in the 1930s was just as technologically distant from the suburban norm that prevailed nearly everywhere by the late 1960s. Furthermore, country life was much more common than it is now. Although Australia has always had a highly urbanised population by international standards, most people did not live in capital cities in 1917.

The transformative impact of the technology introduced between 1917 and 1967 on the lives of everyday Australians compared with the changes of the computer age can be judged by the old technologies’ continued indispensability. If made to choose, would you keep your fridge or your tablet; your car or your computer; electricity or wireless connection; hot water or fast broadband; washing machine or Twitter feed; vaccination or Snapchat? Personal experience supports the historical evidence that what was most transformative in how we have lived over the past century is not unprecedented connectivity.

A similar argument can be made for the 50 years before 1917. In 1867, the theme of Australian life was the “tyranny of distance”. But the decades that followed saw the arrival of trains that slashed travel times from days to hours, cables laid across the desert and ocean that connected the continent to the world, steamships that dramatically cut international travel times, and an international postal service.

By the late 19th century, there was not a major town in Australia without its own newspaper, and these publications were linked with the news-gathering services of the world. Events in America and Europe were known in Australia within minutes, thanks to the telegraph.

The significance of the improved communications in the second half of the 19th century is now largely forgotten. But at the time, the language used to describe the links being forged was as idealistic as that employed by Mark Zuckerberg. When in May 1889 it became possible to go by rail from Adelaide to Brisbane, Sir Henry Parkes toasted the occasion: “In this great system of material arteries which we complete today we see the crimson fluid of kinship pulsing through all the iron veins.” A writer in the Review of Reviews on 20 July 1896, celebrating the impact of bicycles, sounded even more contemporary:

Silently and steadily it is effecting in the social world a revolution … It over-runs frontiers, obliterates race antipathies, induces a spirit of camaraderie amongst foreigners, breaks down social barriers … Moreover it ministers to our wants as well as our pleasures … how completely the wheel has entered into the life of the typical Australian.

And changes were not just in communications. The transformative impact of the new chemical industries that would lead to mineral dyes, artificial fertilisers, high explosives, artificial fibres and plastics deserves at least a passing mention.

Nor were the changes in the century before the computer age slow to be introduced. Edison only switched on his electric bulb in 1879. The first aeroplane flew in 1903 and just 66 years later Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon. It was but six years between the discovery of nuclear fission and the explosion of the first atomic bomb.

There can be no dispute that the past 150 years have been remarkable, but there is no evidence that the changes in technology in the past 50 years have been more rapid and transformative than those of the century that preceded it.

Despite the wonders of modern IT, most of the technology that Australians interact with daily was around in a broadly similar form in 1967. The fact that so much technology has not changed is a point indirectly made by those who highlight the dangers of inertia for Planet Earth. The resilience of the internal combustion engine and personalised motor vehicles has proved remarkable; houses for ordinary people haven’t changed nearly as much as futurists from the 1960s imagined, and planes and trains are not radically different from their predecessors. In 1967, humans had already travelled to space and were nearly on the Moon. Our species already had the capacity, through the nuclear bomb, to destroy the planet. Artists, writers, filmmakers and politicians knew they had lived through a period of transformative technology, and many were ready to imagine the revolution to come. But not only did the vision of the world in 2001: A Space Odyssey not eventuate, there has been remarkably little change in how we simply get from home to work. Despite all that can be done on a personal device, the transformative power of technology has largely failed to live up to 1960s expectations.

It is interesting that the degree of global political change – itself not uninfluenced by technological change – in the past 50 years was also dwarfed by the upheavals of the previous 50 years: world wars, the Great Depression, the rise of Marxism, fascism, the end of empires, the Cold War.

It might be that the next 50 years provides belated evidence for the law of accelerating returns, but the past half-century does not. Whatever is to come, the historical thesis that the transformative power of computers and the internet is evidence of an unparalleled speed of change seems to be informed more by the proselytiser’s perspective of the present than their knowledge of the past.

But does such historical misjudgement matter? Does a wrong story about the history of technology impact on the conclusions that are drawn about the present and the future?

Broadly similar historical narratives have been told by the powerful beneficiaries of every disruptive technological change. One doesn’t need to question the sincerity of the storyteller or to point out that their histories invariably justify the necessity to put away the old and embrace the new. The common theme is the omnipotence and ultimate beneficence of the technological revolution underway.

In the 19th century, there was an emphasis on the providential nature of progress. The hardship associated with liberal free enterprise was acknowledged, but people were told that a greater good was being served through their pain. Later in the same century, evolutionary principles were applied to the transformation of societies. This provided a “scientific” explanation of why the suffering of some people was necessary if societies were to evolve and flourish. Modern explanations of ever-faster technological change, including “Moore’s law” (which originally only related to the accelerating complexity evident in the evolution of semiconductor circuits but is now more broadly applied), still use principles derived from evolutionary biology.

What every historical narrative had in common (including the famously critical one developed by Karl Marx) was a depiction of change as inevitable. It was probably no coincidence that just as the Western world moved on from an omnipotent God (or at least confined the concept of one to a narrow religious box), grand deterministic accounts of the past emerged in which forces were at work that overwhelmed human agency.

By the 1990s, deterministic explanations of history had been discredited in large part by solid empirical research. The labour of historians revealed the past to be more random, inconsistent and unpredictable than ideologues on both the left and right had believed. Power, profit and self-interest shaped events, but the outcome of the clash of interests and ideas wasn’t as foreseeable as had been believed. History was not predetermined. It was people, not economic, political or technological laws, who made the past.

The history currently being told by Malcolm Turnbull and Mark Zuckerberg is of concern not because their thesis is an innovative alternative to this tradition of determinist storytelling, but because it is the latest example of its resilience. Latent in the PM’s message to the nation to catch up with unprecedented technological change and the Facebook founder’s mission “to build a social layer for everything” (and a commercial dimension for every social layer) is belief in the inevitability of technological transformation – and the urgent necessity to adapt behaviour in line with this. People who challenge the paradigm are not facing “reality”. Far from facilitating discussion about the potentials and pitfalls of technology, and encouraging critical thinking about whose interest innovation serves, the new history shuts debate down. It removes possibilities for the future because it subordinates human agency to the “law” of ever-faster technological change. People who resist are just grumpy old folk being left behind by time itself.

It is in Zuckerberg’s commercial interest for people to take it for granted that social media is immutable and providential (even if such religiously tinged language is now largely avoided). The more we believe that Facebook is indispensable to community engagement, the truer Zuckerberg’s aspirational observation that “it’s almost a disadvantage if you’re not on it now” becomes.

The Polish intellectual Leszek Kołakowski has pointed out that debating change in history is almost tautological, “for history consists exclusively of periods of transition”. But the answer to whether we are in a period of accelerating change cannot be known.

I am no futurist. It might be that technological innovation will fulfil frenzied expectations. However, if the past is a guide, it is also likely that technology will not live up to the hype. Facebook could go from two billion users to five billion, or become a plaything of the old – more widespread in nursing homes than in schools. The computer chip might continue to develop or soon reach its physical limits. Robots may take over millions of jobs or usher in categories of entirely new ones; international treaties could prohibit them from undertaking all but mundane tasks. The further refinement of internet platforms might help a more unified world embrace a shared democratic future, or a resurgence of nationalism and protectionism could see them become antiquated tools of authoritarian states.

It is at least possible that the future of now-celebrated technology might look more like the once vaunted NBN (to which the national response could now be summarised as “Is this it?”) and less like the transformative wonder of the coming of electricity.

The lesson of history is not that ever-faster technological change is inevitable. It is that the future cannot be predicted. All that we can be certain of is that society will continue to be created by the choices made by flesh-and-blood humans. To his credit, Zuckerberg once admitted that the real story of Facebook is “actually pretty boring, right? I mean, we just sat at our computers for six years and coded.” No doubt, the real story of Turnbull’s Innovation Agenda is just as mundane. A bunch of bureaucrats got to work writing the account of the past, present and future that their boss wanted them to, right?

Kołakowski concluded his reflection on history by asking the question “Where are we transitioning to?” and pointed out the simple truth that “This we cannot know.” That said, it is both a comfort and a challenge to know that the future will not only be made by the rich men of Silicon Valley.

Maintaining a historical perspective on technological innovation also reminds us that many of the biggest technological challenges have not changed in a hundred years. Nearly a billion people still defecate in the open, more than two billion don’t have access to improved sanitation, and about five million people a year die as a result. Fixing this outrage through cheap and accessible technologies will have a greater impact on the quality of human life than the innovations associated with the iPhone 8. It is only ignorance of history that makes it appear more transformative to give the poor a tablet than a toilet.

Ever since technology began to transform human existence with unparalleled speed about 200 years ago, critics have warned that belief in the omnipotence of ever-faster technological change could cause people to lose control of their lives and the ability to think for themselves. American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson worried that “Things are in the saddle / And ride mankind.” TS Eliot asked, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

Since the industrial revolution began, it has been recognised that the dangers of technology are amplified because innovation is always intertwined with commercial, political and national interests (no matter how pure the motive of the inventor). Recent revelations about the degree to which internet platforms exploit personal information for profit and power should not be a surprise.

Computers and their offspring are ultimately just the latest artefacts employed by human beings in the unfolding drama of life on earth. We should be suspicious of determinist stories that confine us to the audience while rich boys show their tricks. A just, sustainable and peaceful future relies on ordinary folk asserting their right to share the stage.

James Boyce

James Boyce is is a writer and historian. His latest book is Losing Streak: How Tasmania was Gamed by the Gambling Industry.

November 2017