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Technology and fundamentals

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | May 11, 2011

One is always reading and being told about the pell-mell technological rush of our time and how that is upsetting our lives. One literary critic, for example, bemoans “the loneliness of our electronic caves . . .  We have given our hearts to machines, and now we are turning into machines.” Breathless news accounts worry about how each new technical marvel is altering Americans’ families, social lives, and personalities. Historically speaking, however, there’s really not that much going on.

Albert Einstein


What sparked this post was re-hearing the introductory lyrics to an old song: “This day and age we’re living in / Gives cause for apprehension / With speed and new invention / And things like fourth dimension. / Yet we get a trifle weary / with Mr. Einstein’s theory . . . .” Some may recognize this as the lead-in to the classic “As Time Goes By,” written by Herman Hupfeld, published in 1931, and reprised in Casablanca a decade later.

A songwriter in 1931 might reasonably assume that his listeners felt some apprehension about and some weariness from technological change. Today not so much.

Einstein in a Model-T

Looking back on his lifetime, Hupfeld, who was a bit under 40 at the time, would have seen considerable scientific and technological disruption. Mr. Einstein’s theory of relativity was really understood, so legend had it, by only a dozen people. But its popularization in the press made many in the news-reading public feel that all that was solidly Newtonian, like the pull of gravity and the ticktock of time, had melted away. And if everything was “relative,” the absolutes upon which they stood, the Earth and their beliefs, were dissolved into vague preferences.

More practically, new technologies redefined the very way people existed in Einstein’s time-space continuum. The telephone had been around since about 1880. By Hupfeld’s writing of the song, the telephone was common in every middle-class home. Yet, how amazing a common thing it was: Two people separated by miles could talk to one another as if they were standing face to face! Distance had disappeared. Movie theaters sprang up in American neighborhoods in the 1900s. For the price of a cheap ticket, audiences could see in front of their own eyes people from the past and from far away performing (and by the 1920s hear them talking) as if the actors were right there in the same room! Also in the 1920s, radio arrived, bringing voices and music from studios, ballrooms, and ballparks thousands of miles away simultaneously into millions of homes across the nation. Einstein was right; time and space were relative – or maybe just irrelevant.

Then there was the automobile. By 1930, common both in middle class garages and on farms, cars allowed Americans to span long distances at speeds unimaginable just a generation before. You could travel to town, perhaps to see the movies, two or three times a week. Traveling west to see the sights was a short vacation, not a major railroad journey. The car became so important that the average family spent large chunks of its income on automobile buying, fueling, and maintenance, enough to scare experts on household budgeting. Adapting to the car transformed the American landscape, from the shape of our houses to the layouts of our cities. But even before Americans could fully absorb having cars, the airplane had arrived. One could flash from one side of the continent to the other as if through a wormhole in time-space.

The automobile reminds us that work also changed. Mass production was not new, but Henry Ford made the assembly line ubiquitous in the 1900s. Related mechanization transformed agriculture as motor-driven machines displaced millions of farm workers. And the airplane reminds us of the dark technologies that came to the front in World War I: airplane bombing, tanks, advanced machine guns, poison gas. The Great War was still traumatic in 1931 not only for its until-then unimaginable level of killing, but also for the mechanical means of that killing.

A Computer in Your Pocket

If we look back from 2011 over the last 40 years, the technological developments are, in contrast, relatively modest. New medical breakthroughs have extended the lifetimes and health of Americans, but those have been marginal additions compared to ones of the early 20th century. The mechanics of everyday life have gotten faster and more efficient, but are still pretty much what they were.  A time-traveler from 1891 to 1931 would have been at a loss to even make sense of 1931′s everyday technologies. But a time-traveler from 1971 to 2011 would recognize and, with little prompting, use today’s cars, telephones, airplanes, movies, radio, television, and he or she would recognize satellites and the atomic threat. And no scientific idea, not even string theory, upset the equilibrium of the reading public the way that Einstein (and, for that matter, Freud) had in the early 20th century.

The computer revolution, of course, is the major development of the recent decades. Technologies that allow you to talk, see, read, buy, and act at a distance are not novel. But that one small device can do all that is pretty nifty. Instead of chatting from a public phone booth, you can pull the phone out of your pocket or purse; instead of ordering goods by telephone, you can order over the same device; instead of calling an office to get an answer to your question, you surf the web; instead of reading a map, Google Maps navigates; instead of watching the news on television, you get a clip from CNN on your device. The personal computer transcends space and time. But so did the earlier technologies.

To be sure, computerization has created a vast set of changes below the surface, in making much more efficient the information-processing aspects of work and industry. But as to individuals’ encounters with “speed and new invention” that might cause some “apprehension,” things are not as new as they used to be.

As Time Goes ByDespite a lot of hyperventilating about the personal consequences of the new electronic technologies, the evidence so far describes a much more placid story. Yes, indeed, web commerce is growing, people SMS each other a lot, and telephone booths are disappearing, but to the extent that we have systematic evidence, people seem to have adjusted and maintained their social and psychological equilibria, to have in their personal lives turned the devices to their own ends (see, e.g., here).

And even early in the 20th century, Americans generally handled “all that speed and new invention” well (see, e.g. here). Herman Hupfeld said as much: despite the “apprehension,” in the end, “no matter what the progress / Or what may yet be proved / The simple facts of life are such / They cannot be removed. / You must remember this / A kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh /The fundamental things apply / As time goes by.”