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The Washing Machine Has Changed The World More Than The Internet Has

In perceiving changes, we tend to regard the most recent ones as the most revolutionary.

What they tell you The recent revolution in communications technologies, represented by the internet, has fundamentally changed the way in which the world works. It has led to the ‘death of distance’. In the ‘borderless world’ thus created, old conventions about national economic interests and the role of national governments are invalid. This technological revolution defines the age we live in. Unless countries (or companies or, for that matter, individuals) change at corresponding speeds, they will be wiped out. We – as individuals, firms or nations – will have to become ever more flexible, which requires greater liberalization of markets.

What they don’t tell you In perceiving changes, we tend to regard the most recent ones as the most revolutionary. This is often at odds with the facts. Recent progress in telecommunications technologies is not as revolutionary as what happened in the late nineteenth century – wired telegraphy – in relative terms. Moreover, in terms of the consequent economic and social changes, the internet revolution has (at least as yet) not been as important as the washing machine and other household appliances, which, by vastly reducing the amount of work needed for household chores, allowed women to enter the labour market and virtually abolished professions like domestic service. We should not ‘put the telescope backward’ when we look into the past and underestimate the old and overestimate the new. This leads us to make all sorts of wrong decisions about national economic policy, corporate policies and our own careers.

Everyone has a maid in Latin America According to an American friend, the Spanish textbook that she used in her school in the 1970s had a sentence saying (in Spanish, of course) that ‘everyone in Latin America has a maid’.

When you think about it, this is a logical impossibility. Do maids also have maids in Latin America? Perhaps there is some kind of maid exchange scheme that I have not heard of, where maids take turns in being each other’s maids, so that all of them can have a maid, but I don’t think so.

Of course, one can see why an American author could come up with such a statement. A far higher proportion of people in poor countries have maids than in rich countries. A schoolteacher or a young manager in a small firm in a rich country would not dream of having a live-in maid, but their counterparts in a poor country are likely to have one – or even two. The figures are difficult to come by, but, according to ILO (International Labour Organisation) data, 7–8 per cent of the labour force in Brazil and 9 per cent of that in Egypt are estimated to be employed as domestic servants. The corresponding figures are 0.7 per cent in Germany, 0.6 per cent in the US, 0.3 per cent in England and Wales, 0.05 per cent in Norway and as low as 0.005 per cent in Sweden (the figures are all for the 1990s, except for those of Germany and Norway, which are for the 2000s).1 So, in proportional terms, Brazil has 12–13 times more domestic servants than the US does and Egypt has 1,800 times more than Sweden. No wonder that many Americans think ‘everyone’ has a maid in Latin America and a Swede in Egypt feels that the country is practically overrun with domestic servants.

The interesting thing is that the share of the labour force working as domestic servants in today’s rich countries used to be similar to what you find in the developing countries today. In the US, around 8 per cent of those who were ‘gainfully employed’ in 1870 were domestic servants. The ratio was also around 8 per cent in Germany until the 1890s, although it started falling quite fast after that. In England and Wales, where the ‘servant’ culture survived longer than in other countries due to the strength of the landlord class, the ratio was even higher – 10–14 per cent of the workforce was employed as domestic servants between 1850 and 1920 (with some ups and downs). Indeed, if you read Agatha Christie novels up to the 1930s, you would notice that it is not just the press baron who gets murdered in his locked library who has servants but also the hard-up old middle-class spinster, even though she may have just one maid (who gets mixed up with a good-for-nothing garage mechanic, who turns out to be the illegitimate son of the press baron, and also gets murdered on p. 111 for being foolish enough to mention something that she was not supposed to have seen).

The main reason why there are so much fewer (of course, in proportional terms) domestic servants in the rich countries – although obviously not the only reason, given the cultural differences among countries at similar levels of income, today and in the past – is the higher relative price of labour. With economic development, people (or rather the labour services they offer) become more expensive in relative terms than ‘things’ (see also Thing 9). As a result, in rich countries, domestic service has become a luxury good that only the rich can afford, whereas it is still cheap enough to be consumed even by lower-middle-class people in developing countries.

Enter the washing machine Now, whatever the movements in the relative prices of ‘people’ and ‘things’, the fall in the share of people working as domestic servants would not have been as dramatic as it has been in the rich countries over the last century, had there not been the supply of a host of household technologies, which I have represented by the washing machine. However expensive (in relative terms) it may be to hire people who can wash clothes, clean the house, heat the house, cook and do the dishes, they would still have to be hired, if these things could not be done by machines. Or you would have to spend hours doing these things yourselves.

Washing machines have saved mountains of time. The data are not easy to come by, but a mid 1940s study by the US Rural Electrification Authority reports that, with the introduction of the electric washing machine and electric iron, the time required for washing a 38 lb load of laundry was reduced by a factor of nearly 6 (from 4 hours to 41 minutes) and the time taken to iron it by a factor of more than 2.5 (from 4.5 hours to 1.75 hours).2 Piped water has meant that women do not have to spend hours fetching water (for which, according to the United Nations Development Program, up to two hours per day are spent in some developing countries). Vacuum cleaners have enabled us to clean our houses more thoroughly in a fraction of the time that was needed in the old days, when we had to do it with broom and rags. Gas/electric kitchen stoves and central heating have vastly reduced the time needed for collecting firewood, making fires, keeping the fires alive, and cleaning after them for heating and cooking purposes. Today many people in rich countries even have the dishwasher, whose (future) inventor a certain Mr I. M. Rubinow, an employee of the US Department of Agriculture, said would be ‘a true benefactor of mankind’ in his article in the Journal of Political Economy in 1906.

The emergence of household appliances, as well as electricity, piped water and piped gas, has totally transformed the way women, and consequently men, live. They have made it possible for far more women to join the labour market. For example, in the US, the proportion of married white women in men, live. They have made it possible for far more women to join the labour market. For example, in the US, the proportion of married white women in prime working ages (35–44 years) who work outside the home rose from a few per cent in the late 1890s to nearly 80 per cent today.3 It has also changed the female occupational structure dramatically by allowing society to get by with far fewer people working as domestic servants, as we have seen above – for example, in the 1870s, nearly 50 per cent of women employed in the US were employed as ‘servants and waitresses’ (most of whom we can take to have been servants rather than waitresses, given that eating out was not yet big business).4 Increased labour market participation has definitely raised the status of women at home and in society, thus also reducing preference for male children and increasing investment in female education, which then further increases female labour market participation. Even those educated women who in the end choose to stay at home with their children have higher status at home, as they can make credible threats that they can support themselves should they decide to leave their partners. With outside employment opportunities, the opportunity costs of children have risen, making families have fewer children. All of these have changed the traditional family dynamics. Taken together, they constitute really powerful changes.

Of course, I am not saying that these changes have happened only – or even predominantly – because of changes in household technologies. The ‘pill’ and other contraceptives have had a powerful impact on female education and labour market participation by allowing women to control the timing and the frequency of their childbirths. And there are non-technological causes. Even with the same household technologies, countries can have quite different female labour market participation ratios and different occupation structures, depending on things like social conventions regarding the acceptability of middle-class women working (poor women have always worked), tax incentives for paid work and child rearing, and the affordability of childcare. Having said all this, however, it is still true that, without the washing machine (and other labour-saving household technologies), the scale of change in the role of women in society and in family dynamics would not have been nearly as dramatic.

The washing machine beats the internet Compared to the changes brought about by the washing machine (and company), the impact of the internet, which many think has totally changed the world, has not been as fundamental – at least so far. The internet has, of course, transformed the way people spend their out-of-work hours – surfing the net, chatting with friends on Facebook, talking to them on Skype, playing electronic games with someone who’s sitting 5,000 miles away, and what not. It has also vastly improved the efficiency with which we can find information about our insurance policies, holidays, restaurants, and increasingly even the price of broccoli and shampoo.

However, when it comes to production processes, it is not clear whether the impacts have been so revolutionary. To be sure, for some, the internet has profoundly changed the way in which they work. I know that by experience. Thanks to the internet, I have been able to write a whole book with my friend and sometime co-author, Professor Ilene Grabel, who teaches in Denver, Colorado, with only one face-to-face meeting and one or two phone calls.5 However, for many other people, the internet has not had much impact on productivity. Studies have struggled to find the positive impact of the internet on overall productivity – as Robert Solow, the Nobel laureate economist, put it, ‘the evidence is everywhere but in numbers’.

You may think that my comparison is unfair. The household appliances that I mention have had at least a few decades, sometimes a century, to work their magic, whereas the internet is barely two decades old. This is partly true. As the distinguished historian of science, David Edgerton, said in his fascinating book The Shock of the Old – Technology and Global History Since 1900, the maximum use of a technology, and thus the maximum impact, is often achieved decades after the invention of the technology. But even in terms of its immediate impact, I doubt whether the internet is the revolutionary technology that many of us think it is.

The internet is beaten by the telegraph Just before the start of the trans-Atlantic wired telegraph service in 1866, it took about three weeks to send a message to the other side of the ‘pond’ – the time it took to cross the Atlantic by sail ships. Even going ‘express’ on a steamship (which did not become prevalent until the 1890s), you had to allow two weeks (the record crossings of the time were eight to nine days).

With the telegraph, the transmission time for, say, a 300-word message was reduced to 7 or 8 minutes. It could even be quicker still. The New York Times reported on 4 December 1861 that Abraham Lincoln’s State of the Union address of 7,578 words was transmitted from Washington, DC to the rest of the country in 92 minutes, giving an average of 82 words per minute, which would have allowed you to send the 300-word message in less than 4 minutes. But that was a record, and the average was more like 40 words per minute, giving us 7.5 minutes for a 300-word message. A reduction from 2 weeks to 7.5 minutes is by a factor of over 2,500 times.

The internet reduced the transmission time of a 300-word message from 10 seconds on the fax machine to, say, 2 seconds, but this is only a reduction by a factor of 5. The speed reduction by the internet is greater when it comes to longer messages – it can send in 10 seconds (considering that it has to be loaded), say, a 30,000-word document, which would have taken more than 16 minutes (or 1,000 seconds) on the fax machine, giving us an acceleration in transmission speed of 100 times. But compare that to the 2,500-time reduction achieved by the telegraph.

The internet obviously has other revolutionary features. It allows us to send pictures at high speed (something that even telegraph or fax could not do and thus relied on physical transportation). It can be accessed in many places, not just in post offices. Most importantly, using it, we can search for particular information we want from a vast number of sources. However, in terms of sheer acceleration in speed, it is nowhere near as revolutionary as the humble wired (not even wireless) telegraphy.

We vastly overestimate the impacts of the internet only because it is affecting us now. It is not just us. Human beings tend to be fascinated by the newest and the most visible technologies. Already in 1944, George Orwell criticized people who got over-excited by the ‘abolition of distance’ and the ‘disappearance of frontiers’ thanks to the aeroplane and the radio.

Putting changes into perspective Who cares if people think wrongly that the internet has had more important impacts than telegraphy or the washing machine? Why does it matter that people are more impressed by the most recent changes? It would not matter if this distortion of perspectives was just a matter of people’s opinions. However, these distorted perspectives have real impacts, as they result in misguided use of scarce resources.

The fascination with the ICT (Information and Communication Technology) revolution, represented by the internet, has made some rich countries – especially the US and Britain – wrongly conclude that making things is so ‘yesterday’ that they should try to live on ideas. And as I explain in Thing 9, this belief in ‘post-industrial society’ has led those countries to unduly neglect their manufacturing sector, with adverse consequences for their economies.

Even more worryingly, the fascination with the internet by people in rich countries has moved the international community to worry about the ‘digital divide’ between the rich countries and the poor countries. This has led companies, charitable foundations and individuals to donate money to developing countries to buy computer equipment and internet facilities. The question, however, is whether this is what the developing countries need the most.

Perhaps giving money for those less fashionable things such as digging wells, extending electricity grids and making more affordable washing machines would have improved people’s lives more than giving every child a laptop computer or setting up internet centres in rural villages. I am not saying that those things are necessarily more important, but many donors have rushed into fancy programmes without carefully assessing the relative long-term costs and benefits of alternative uses of their money.

In yet another example, a fascination with the new has led people to believe that the recent changes in the technologies of communications and transportation are so revolutionary that now we live in a ‘borderless world’, as the title of the famous book by Kenichi Ohmae, the Japanese business guru, goes.6 As a result, in the last twenty years or so, many people have come to believe that whatever change is happening today is the result of monumental technological progress, going against which will be like trying to turn the clock back. Believing in such a world, many governments have dismantled some of the very necessary regulations on cross-border flows of capital, labour and goods, with poor results (for example, see Things 7 and 8). However, as I have shown, the recent changes in those technologies are not nearly as revolutionary as the corresponding changes of a century ago. In fact, the world was a lot more globalized a century ago than it was between the 1960s and the 1980s despite having much inferior technologies of communication and transportation, because in the latter period governments, especially the powerful governments, believed in tougher regulations of these cross-border flows. What has determined the degree of globalization (in other words, national openness) is politics, rather than technology.

However, if we let our perspective be distorted by our fascination with the most recent technological revolution, we cannot see this point and end up implementing the wrong policies.

Understanding technological trends is very important for correctly designing economic policies, both at the national and the international levels (and for making the right career choices at the individual level). However, our fascination with the latest, and our under-valuation of what has already become common, can, and has, led us in all sorts of wrong directions. I have made this point deliberately provocatively by pitting the humble washing machine against the internet, but my examples should have shown you that the ways in which technological forces have shaped economic and social developments under capitalism are much more complex than is usually believed.

Reference book: Things they don't tell you about capitalism

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