February 26, 2012

Connected to the electricity network

There used to be a time when having mains electricity was a selling point for a house.

These advertisements appeared in The Times of 18 September 1935.  As you can imagine, many of the advertised properties for sale are rather large with rambling gardens and situated in the Home Counties.  Each would need a whole battalion of servants to keep them in good working order - you could pick and choose a domestic servant from the small ads that covered pages 2 and 3 of the same newspaper.  Running hot water would make life a lot easier for housekeepers and maids.  The lady of the house wouldn't need anyone to boil up water for her morning bath anymore; she could just turn on the tap and out it would come.

I find it quaint that, even in 1935, people felt they had to mention the existence of an electricity connection.  I wonder when they stopped mentioning it.  It would also be interesting to learn when electricity in working-class houses finally became so common that people didn't need to mention it any more. 

February 21, 2012

Lewis Mumford (1895-1990)

As a theorist, Mumford is no better or worse than any other commentator on technology, past or present.  I don't know whether it's good or bad that he had so many job titles: sociologist, historian, philosopher, student of architect, literary critic.  It's good that he had access to so many varied fields of study - Mr Inter-disciplinary personified.  Knowledge from one domain can enrich and provide a new perspective in another.  But it's bad in the sense that it seems he flitted from one area to another, with a finger in every pie.  Couldn't he stick at one subject and become an expert in that?

Mumford's writing can provide some useful background to my research in the sense that he lived through the period under investigation.  Whereas his ideas are certainly not representative, they do give a taste of contemporary notions on technology.  He expresses some novel (to us) thoughts on communication in his Technics and Civilization (1934).  Telecommunications meant that an individual acquired more and more contacts, which also made increasing demands on that person's time and attention.  Nothing new here.  But these demands, Mumford asserts, result in a weakening of "reflective thought and deliberate action."  More time chatting on the phone means less time available for reading, writing and drawing.  Isn't this true though of all/most forms of communications technology?  Television, laptops, iPhones, internet all divert our attention away from reading/writing/drawing.  I'm not sure how widespread television was in 1930s America, but certainly the telephone and radio were then the only devices capable of distracting middle-class Americans.

Mumford believed the telephone was overused and that people made calls for "personal intercourse" too frequently.  Instead, he recommended that lots of short calls could be easily condensed into a short written note.  A hand-written note requires less time and effort (!) and consumes less "nervous energy."  I'm not sure if Mumford is a bit behind his times with this concern about nervous energy.  With the appearance of each technical innovation, doomsayers foresaw catastrophe for the human race.  Racing along in the first steam train (or bicycle, or motor car) was bad for the heart and nervous system.  Telephone operators suffered from nervous exhaustion and hysteria because they had to answer so many calls per hour and had subscribers yelling in their ears.  The ringing of the telephone bell during dinner was bad for the digestion and delayed the postprandial brandy.  And so on and so forth.  The appearance of a new technology will always have its fanatic supporters and detractors.  But I would have thought that such ideas about telephone communication would be long extinct by the 1930s.  

Mumford also complains of an overuse of inventions, even when there is no real need for them.  (If they are there, then why not use them?)  He gives the example of the phonograph.  People stopped learning to play the violin, he claims, and listened to the phonograph instead.  I don't know on what he bases this assertion, nor how he can equate the two activities.  He implies that a live music performance is better than the "passive" activity of listening to records.  In this respect he does have a point.  But how many of us are able to perform Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, say, or get Guns n' Roses to perform November Rain live in our living rooms when the mood takes us?  This is the era of mass production.  Ready-made products are being manufactured in greater number and the hard sell is in full force.  Families are buying factory-produced jam - it's easier and quicker than making your own.  The same holds true for making music.

In 1959 Mumford wrote an appraisal of Technics and Civilization, in which he resorts to a gendered image of various technologies.  Technics with dynamic tools and machines, and "artificial extensions" (read: protuberances) of limbs, hands, teeth are masculine.  On the other hand, containers of various kinds (read: receptacles for aforementioned protuberances) e.g. cisterns, irrigation canals, barns, reservoirs, are passive and feminine.  They store potential energy and further "chemical, biological, and social reactions."  I'm sure that with Mumford's background in literary criticism, he was well aware of the impact this binary opposition would impart.

Can it be that Mumford was alone in adhering to this gendered vision of technology?  Maybe not, and if I can find others who voice similar attitudes then perhaps I can make the sweeping statement that 'people in the interwar years believed in 'male' and 'female' technologies.'  But in locating these others, I fear I am being guilty of having a theory and looking for evidence to support it. 

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Digital Telephone Book by Elizabeth Chairopoulou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.