What is modern technology? Vacuum cleaners! That’s what. I’ve been living on a farm for the past few years, and I must say it’s glorious to live without them.
Vacuum cleaners are the vacuum cleaners of today. They’re the only thing people know about, and they’re the reason why modern technology seems so appealing. But what if we could go back in time and experience the same things that we experience today? What would be different?
We’d have less stuff. More work. More clean air. More sunlight. More time to think about things other than money. And most importantly, we’d feel more at home in our own bodies.
And that’s what makes me wonder if it’s not possible to make a better world by embracing a simpler lifestyle. Maybe even one that embraces technology as an opportunity rather than something to be feared and rejected.
In 1900, the average American house had no electricity, no plumbing, no central heating, and no refrigerator. Today it has most of the labor-saving devices that are available. Yet one of the commonest complaints of Americans is how overworked they are.
It would be nice if modern technology were a money pump that freed up all our time while improving our standard of living. But in fact it’s often just the opposite: a labor pump that increases the work we have to do, even as it lowers our standard of living. The most obvious example is food preparation. In 1900, preparing meals took up more than 25% of family budgets; today it takes up less than 10%. And yet the total amount of time people spend on food has increased since then by 50%. Why? Because instead of buying ready-prepared food from someone else, we make ourselves cook more elaborate meals at home.
Technology is not always a net labor saver; often it just lets us work harder and produce more. Vacuum cleaners are the vacuum cleaners of today.
Imagine you had invented a vacuum cleaner – say, in 1910. And you had been given a crystal ball that showed you how much people would pay for vacuum cleaners in 2010.
How much money do you think you could have made?
Probably not much. In those days the most expensive vacuum cleaner sold for about $450, and it was huge and heavy and required a separate truck to carry it around. Today’s least expensive vacuum cleaner sells for $40, and can be carried under one arm by a child.
What went wrong? Why didn’t people pay more for vacuum cleaners? Over the past century vacuum cleaners have become vastly cheaper and better. So what happened to all that extra value?
The answer is that most of the value went into the pockets of consumers. This is always what happens with technology: consumers capture most of the surplus.
Vacuum cleaners are the vacuum cleaners of their day: they suck up dirt from your floors, which makes them worth $100 or so to most people. But there are also some new technologies that are as revolutionary as railroads or electricity in their long-term impact on our lives; I would put computers and the Internet at the top of this list. These technologies have caused such an increase in productivity that they
The modern vacuum cleaner, or hoover, was invented by a janitor, James Murray Spangler, in 1907. He came up with the design after a family member suffered an asthma attack triggered by the dust stirred up when cleaning a rug. The first Hoover vacuum cleaner was extremely lightweight (about 10 lbs) and featured a rotating brush, which was powered by an electric motor. The bag was made of pillowcase material attached to a tin container, and it could be quickly emptied and changed when full.
The Hoover Company was not the first vacuum cleaner manufacturer in the United States however; that distinction belongs to Ives McGaffey & Co., who patented the Whirlwind Rotary Vacuum Cleaner in 1869.
It would be nice if there were one, but there isn’t. As far as I can tell, there are no similar examples of any other consumer product for which “the modern [product]” is still known by its inventor’s name. Telephones are not Bells. Fax machines are not Facsimiles (though fortunately we’re mostly done with them anyway). Ballpoint pens aren’t Biroes (though they are sometimes ballpoints). Compasses aren’t Brunton; sewing machines aren’t Singers; cars aren’t Benz or
In the late 1800s, everyone knew how to clean a floor. They had brooms.
But in 1906, someone invented the modern vacuum cleaner. It was heavy and bulky, but it really worked. And people bought it, so that in a few years, every house had one.
Then in 1908 someone invented the electric vacuum cleaner. This was a vacuum cleaner on wheels with a long hose you could use to vacuum things other than floors. You could even hold the hose against your drapes and suck all the dust off them.
And people bought electric vacuum cleaners too, so that in a few years every house had one of those as well.
If you’d lived through this transformation, you might have thought to yourself: “Things sure have changed since I was young! The old way of cleaning floors–sweeping–was so primitive! Who would want to go back to that? And with this newfangled electric thing you can even suck the dust off your drapes!”
And if anyone had agreed with you, they would have been right–for a while. But then in 1925 someone invented the first portable vacuum cleaner, which you could carry around from room to room while using it, instead of having to drag it by its cord
A lot of the problems in modern technology are solved by following the vacuum cleaner model: you don’t figure out how to make it better, you just make it cheaper and more convenient. If a modern computer didn’t seem like magic to your great grandmother, if it was an obvious improvement over what she had, then you wouldn’t be able to sell it. Or consider cars. What was the last major innovation in cars? The automatic transmission? That’s from the 1930s. Power steering? 1950s. Air bags? 1970s. We’ve mostly been adding more boxes for electronics in the dashboard since then. Compared to planes and boats, cars have not improved much since about 1960.
This pattern is common in technology. Again and again we have imperfect solutions that work well enough to do a job that people want done, followed by incremental improvements until they are as cheap and convenient as possible (because now everyone has one). Then we stop improving them for a long time.
For a long time, the only way to make anything was to do it yourself. Even when people started trading with each other, they would barter for what they needed. It wasn’t until 3000 BC that we see the first evidence of currency in the form of clay tokens. These traded for goods, or in some cases represented them outright.
This system prevailed for almost five thousand years, until around 800 BC when coins were used for the first time. These differed from tokens in that they were made of valuable materials — typically gold or silver — and had a set value determined by their weight. This meant they could be used as a medium of exchange without having to be exchanged with each other first.
The idea here was to make it easier to trade with people you didn’t know very well. If you came across someone with a bunch of beans you wanted, and you had something they wanted, you could trade directly with each other and avoid having to find a mutual third party who also wanted what you had and had what you needed.