Perpetual Accommodation: A History of Technology-Driven Change

In the June 2018 issue of The Atlantic, Henry Kissinger raises concerns about the rapid advancements in machine learning and AI. His worries about humanity’s preparedness for the future of AI are no doubt matters for serious discussion: Technological change inevitably provokes anxieties, for it reshapes our societal and commercial worlds to the benefit of some and the detriment of others. While there is much to be gained from advances in technology, they often challenge the cultural, political, and economic fabric of society, bringing into question our values and ways of life.

But if we pay too little attention to the past, we sometimes think of technological change as a particularly modern phenomenon. A brief review of the history of technological innovation indicates not only regular upheavals caused by new technologies, but also a perpetual cycle of (1) innovation, characterized by a period of creation and development; (2) resistance, where societal frictions result from the broader applications of the new technologies; and (3) adaptation, where society reshapes itself around the benefits of these technologies.

The stories of the six major technological innovations described below demonstrate this repeating pattern of conditioned responses. Each story illustrates how a different form of resistance was invoked against a particular technology and how adaptation eventually occurred. Each advancement drove societal shifts; some took years, some decades, and others centuries.

Early 14th Century: The Mechanical Clock

“Whereas … several men of crafts such as weavers of linen or cotton, fullers, washers, masons, carpenters, and several other kinds of workers in Paris have wanted and do want to start and stop work at certain hours while they are being paid by the day as though they were on the job the whole day long … the working day is fixed from the hour of sunrise until the hour of sunset, with meals to be taken at reasonable times.” – Provost of Paris, May 12, 1395

Illustration: Jen Backman

The mechanical clock is a device used to measure, keep, and indicate time using an oscillating mechanism. Invented in Europe around the turn of the 14th century, the mechanical clock replaced older systems, including sundials, water clocks, and the Church’s canonical hours of the day. The first mechanical clocks lacked faces or hands and simply delivered an acoustic signal every hour for all to hear. Beginning in the 14th century, clock towers were erected as public monuments on churches, particularly cathedrals, and civic buildings across Europe.

Resistance

The mechanical clock altered people’s conception of time from organic day-night cycles to abstract, precise segmentations. As city clocks beckoned each hour of the day, social discipline and expectations around daily activities heightened, causing tensions to emerge – particularly for the working class. As Jacques Le Goff explains in his book Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages (1980), the building of a bell tower in Aire-sur-la-Lys, a commune in northern France, had a profound effect on the lives of textile workers: “The communal clock was an instrument of economic, social, and political domination wielded by the merchants who ran the commune.” Whereas the workday had once been imprecise and tied to daylight and the canonical hours of the Church, it now gradually became measurable and adjustable, eventually giving rise to the hourly wage. In his article “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism” (1967), E.P. Thompson argues that the daily work pattern slowly became more pronounced over subsequent centuries, with life alternating between “bouts of intense labor and of idleness.”

Adaptation

New rules, conventions, customs, and expectations around measured time became widely adopted as the mechanical clock spread across Europe and the world. While today it may be taken for granted, the mechanical clock and its descendants underpinned the productivity growth of the post-Medieval period by enabling people to synchronize and coordinate activities. According to Lars Boerner and Battista Severgnini in “Time for Growth” (2015), while the building of public clocks was initially motivated by a desire for prestige, their presence led to significant long-term growth between 1500 and 1700. In this way, time became intimately tied to money – both were limited commodities, and neither was to be wasted. So deeply did measured time enter the fabric of society that in the 17th and 18th centuries, clockwork became a model for the universe.

Mid-15th Century: The Printing Press

“I even fear that after uselessly exhausting curiosity without obtaining from our investigations any considerable gain for our happiness, people may be disgusted with the sciences, and that a fatal despair may cause them to fall back into barbarism. To which result that horrible mass of books which keeps on growing might contribute very much.” – Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, 1680

Illustration: Jen Backman

The printing press is a machine that presses inked blocks onto paper and other media to represent text and images. Before Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1440, the duplication of writings and drawings in Europe was done exclusively by hand. Using the printing press, a human operator could create up to 250 copies of a sheet per hour. While the printing press was initially used for creating copies of the Bible, it quickly gave rise to mass authorship and the democratization of knowledge. As Marshall McLuhan writes in The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), by 1500 there were “fifteen to twenty million copies of 30,000 to 35,000 separate publications.”

Resistance

When the printing press emerged, books were predominantly handwritten by scribes belonging to the Church and were limited to the wealthy and the powerful. Concerned about interpolations and heretical interpretations of the Bible outside the confines of the Church, as well as about inauthentic copies being produced by those less knowledgable than scribes, the clergy resisted relinquishing control of religious texts. Intellectuals also raised fears about the deterioration of culture that could result from important knowledge being drowned out by a confusing overabundance of information. Pushback continued for centuries as the volume of books exploded across Europe.

Adaptation

The printing press began the shift of the locus of information and ideas from the Church to the public library, and the secularization of knowledge ensued. Wider availability and affordability of books led to the standardization of grammar, widespread literacy and education, the gradual replacement of Latin texts with books written in the vernacular, and the advent of copyright and intellectual property laws. The Age of Reason gradually superseded the Age of Religion. As Kissinger writes in The Atlantic, “Individual insight and scientific knowledge replaced faith as the principal criterion of human consciousness.”

Early 19th Century: The Power Loom

“Some of the old fellows from the mob spoke. They said, ‘What are we to do? We’re starving. Are we to starve to death?’ … Were the power-looms to be broken or not? Yes, it was decided. They must be broken at all costs.” – Thomas Duckworth, 1826

Illustration: Jen Backman

The power loom is a machine that uses mechanized power to weave cloth and tapestry. First designed by Edmund Cartwright in 1784, the power loom went through many iterations over subsequent decades to increasingly automate the process of weaving. As Robert C. Allen states in “The Hand-Loom Weaver and the Power Loom: A Schumpeterian Perspective” (2016), by 1836 the power loom was able to produce 100 picks per minute, in contrast to the 65 picks per minute that could be produced by a skilled hand-loom operator. Although it was more capital intensive than manual-based approaches, the power loom also offered the advantages of operating with inexpensive, low-skilled labor and for longer hours.

Resistance

The power loom faced significant backlash, sometimes violent, due to its displacement of skilled handweavers and textile workers. Facing reduced earnings and unemployment due to falling textile prices and increased automation, groups of workers – later dubbed “Luddites” – rebelled by destroying weaving machinery in riots throughout England between 1811 and 1816. As Allen sums it up, “poverty accompanied progress” as the power loom devalued old skills.

Adaptation

Despite the machine’s contribution to inequality and social unrest, by 1852 Hunt’s Merchants’ Magazine and Commercial Review reported that there were 260,000 power looms across England. Riots against automation were suppressed by the government, as Parliament made machine-breaking a capital offense with the Frame-Breaking Act of 1812. The power loom’s impact on the textile industry embodied broad, unalterable, messy economic shifts toward modernization. Soaring productivity initially benefited only factory owners and managers, but eventually also led to wage increases as workers acquired new skills for a new generation of productive, skilled jobs.

Late 19th Century: The Bicycle

“To men, the bicycle in the beginning was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play. To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world.” – Munsey’s Magazine, 1896

Illustration: Jen Backman

The bicycle is a human-powered, pedal-driven, single-track vehicle with two wheels attached to a frame, one behind the other. While early designs of the high-wheel bicycle (also called the penny-farthing) limited its utility to little more than a dangerous toy for wealthy urbanite men, the introduction of the safety bicycle – which is very similar in design to bicycles as we know them today – made it an everyday transport tool for people of all ages. For many, access to a bicycle made longer distance transportation possible for the first time. Riding a bicycle was much more energy efficient than walking, not to mention faster. Bicycles were also far more affordable than horse-drawn vehicles. The National Museum of American History estimates that the number of bicycles in use across the US boomed from an estimated 200,000 in 1889 to 1 million in 1899.

Resistance

As both a mode of transportation and a means of recreation, the bicycle symbolized freedom of mobility for the rich and poor alike. Its invention was met with widespread excitement and adoption. However, there was also backlash against a growing female ridership, which challenged conservative notions of female behavior and movement. Doctors warned that women could develop chronic dysentery from overexerting themselves, while others characterized straddling the bicycle as an immodest and unseemly act that could incite sexual arousal.

Adaptation

The democratization of mobility that the bicycle enabled reshaped the economic, social, and urban fabric leading into the modern era. For women, the bicycle changed broad aspects of everyday life, from increasing emancipation to changing restrictive Victorian fashions that inhibited female movement. It reduced crowding in inner-city tenements by allowing workers to commute from more spacious dwellings in the suburbs. The bicycle also impacted human evolution. In The Language of Genes (1993), geneticist Steve Jones argues that the bicycle widened the gene pool – especially for those living in rural areas – by connecting people beyond their local communities, and thereby dramatically increasing the number of potential spouses.

Early 20th Century: The Automobile

“The horrors of war appear to be less appalling than the horrors of peace. The automobile looms up as a far more destructive piece of mechanism than the machine gun. The reckless motorist deals more death than the artilleryman. The man in the streets seems less safe than the man in the trench. The greatest single lethal factor is the automobile.” — “Nation Roused Against Motor Killings,” The New York Times, 1924

Illustration: Jen Backman

The automobile is a road vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine or electric motor, which is able to carry a small number of people. While steam-, electricity-, and gasoline-powered motorized transport had existed for over two centuries before the advent of the automobile, these technologies were too inefficient and expensive to supersede the reliability of horse-drawn carts traveling at only 10-15 miles per hour. It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that production methods for the automobile were refined, expanding it from a toy for the rich to a tool for the public.

Resistance

There were polarized attitudes toward the automobile at the turn of the 20th century. Its early advocates were often wealthy and adventurous men who raced around the city and countryside, while its opponents perceived a jarring intrusion on life due to the automobile’s noise, danger, and pollution of dust and exhaust. As Brian Ladd states in Autophobia: Love and Hate in the Automotive Age (2008), movements to protect the countryside from the ravages of modernity became heightened in the decades after 1900. Furthermore, much of the public viewed the automobile as a death machine, with a 1923 cartoon in the St. Louis Star even comparing it to Moloch, the Canaanite god of child sacrifice. This perception arose in response to the thousands of pedestrian deaths caused by the automobile; these incidents were largely the result of legacy rules that treated roads like parks, in which people were allowed to move freely across streets.

Adaptation

The automobile’s unprecedented utility in freeing people from the limitations of their geography caused changes, not only to human values and behaviors, but also to the built environment. Within cities, the rules of the road changed, relegating people to sidewalks, while modes of public transportation shifted to reflect the public’s desire for individualized transport. Outside of cities, large infrastructure projects were undertaken to create paved highways to connect places to one another. The automobile’s rise as the predominant form of transportation in wealthy countries led to sweeping changes in employment patterns, social interactions, infrastructure, and the distribution of goods.

Mid-20th Century: Xerography

“The button waiting to be pushed, the whir of action, the neat reproduction dropping into the tray – all this adds up to a heady experience, and the neophyte operator of a copier feels an impulse to copy all the papers in his pockets.” — John Brooks, “Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox,” The New Yorker, 1967

Illustration: Jen Backman

Xerography is the process of using electrostatic charges to reproduce images onto paper and other media. While the technology was initially dismissed, the company Xerox (known at the time as the Haloid Company) developed a clean, dry process after more than two decades of experimentation. Unlike previous duplicators, which were messy and costly, xerography could create a permanent, high-quality copy on ordinary paper by scanning any input. Paper proliferated; in a 1967 issue of The New Yorker, John Brooks noted that Americans had gone from producing 20 million copies per year in the mid-1950s to 14 billion by 1966.

Resistance

Following Xerox’s introduction of its 914 copier in 1959, enthusiasm for copying began to spread. The uptake surprised even Xerox; soon customers were making copies at several times the company’s maximum forecasted rate. While office workers complained of information overload, they offset this downside by using their office Xerox machines to make copies of personal documents. Though the technology itself was welcomed, its application met some resistance – especially as it presented new challenges surrounding the duplication of copyrighted material. Publishers and authors, worried about how readers were now equipped to become publishers and authors themselves, went so far as to pursue legal reforms targeting prolific unpaid and unauthorized duplications of chapters from books and magazine articles.

Adaptation

Xerography spurred an analog information age, with lawmakers and judges ultimately loosening copyright laws despite lawsuits and lobbying from publishers. Individuals were able to access information that was otherwise inaccessible, and it became far easier to circulate ideas that previously would have been difficult to get past censors and editors. Productivity boomed as copying transformed how information flowed in organizations. The development of xerography marked a significant milestone in the evolution of information consumption.

It may be that Kissinger is correct when he says that machine learning and AI present us with unresolved questions of ethics and values that have the potential to challenge the core of Western civilization. That is yet to be determined. But it may also be that a repeating pattern of innovation, resistance, and adaptation will come to mark our own era, just as it has for those that came before it.

the author

Christopher Neels

Christopher Neels is an innovation strategist at Idea Couture.