Revolutions are messy things, whether they’re either polit­i­cal or tech­no­log­i­cal. The first indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion was pow­ered by coal and steam, but it was also pow­ered by slav­ery, col­o­niza­tion and child labor, which result­ed in cen­turies of social unrest. The upend­ing of tra­di­tion­al economies and tra­di­tion­al indus­tries cre­at­ed an envi­ron­men­tal impact that is still with us today.

One of the ways that indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tions are inter­est­ing to think about is that they look dif­fer­ent­ly depend­ing on how and where you see them from. They look dif­fer­ent whether you see them from Europe or Asia or Africa. But regard­less of time or place, econ­o­mists and his­to­ri­ans gen­er­al­ly tend to look at indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tions through the lens of inno­va­tion. And in my short talk today I want to encour­age a dif­fer­ent way of think­ing about this.

We can imag­ine think­ing about this as stand­ing very close to a sin­gle tree called the Tree of Innovation, if you will. And I want to encour­age us to move away from that tree, to step out­side the shad­ow of inno­va­tion, and to think about new per­spec­tives that one gets on indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tions by doing this. And I want to talk about three of these things.

Every year at the University of California, I teach an under­grad­u­ate class in the his­to­ry of tech­nol­o­gy. And at the start of the course I ask my stu­dents to com­plete a sen­tence. And that sen­tence is, Technology is…?” And the respons­es are fair­ly pre­dictable. To the aver­age twen­ty year-old, tech­nol­o­gy means cars and lap­tops and smart­phones. But hope­ful­ly by the end of the semes­ter, my stu­dents have got­ten a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on this and have come to appre­ci­ate that tech­nol­o­gy is more than just about stuff.

So for exam­ple, in the 19th cen­tu­ry, engi­neers and entre­pre­neurs cre­at­ed com­plex sys­tems of trans­porta­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. But to make some­thing like what’s show­ing here work prop­er­ly required that it have order and reg­u­lar­i­ty. And in order to accom­plish this, this required adopt­ing scores of tech­ni­cal stan­dards. Technical stan­dards cre­at­ed sta­bil­i­ty in tech­no­log­i­cal sys­tems, whether it’s screws or ship­ping con­tain­ers, stan­dards are what make the nov­el into the mun­dane, and they’re what trans­form the local into the global.

Now, mak­ing stan­dards isn’t mak­ing things per se, but rather it’s about man­u­fac­tur­ing con­sen­sus about tech­nolo­gies. What they’re sup­posed to be, and how they will coor­di­nate and com­mu­ni­cate with one anoth­er. And if there’s going to be any sort of Fourth Industrial Revolution, then par­ties will have to adopt sim­i­lar tech­ni­cal stan­dards to make that work.

Now, indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tions don’t cre­ate just stan­dard­ized parts, they also cre­ate stan­dard­ized peo­ple. Here, for exam­ple, is an image from around 1920 show­ing a group of Ford work­ers, most of them recent immi­grants to the United States, hav­ing grad­u­at­ed from that com­pa­ny’s school. There they were taught the basis of a new cor­po­rate cul­ture, and for many of them they were taught the English lan­guage so they could com­mu­ni­cate with their coworkers. 

This process of mak­ing stan­dard­ized peo­ple is some­thing that we can think about as one of the hall­marks of the Industrial Revolution, as well. And this process was­n’t lim­it­ed to just blue col­lar work­ers. Professional cre­den­tials and shared research prac­tices fos­tered the rise of cor­po­rate research that was so essen­tial for indus­tri­al man­u­fac­tur­ing in the United States and Europe through­out the 20th cen­tu­ry. And this lega­cy is still with us now. Think about the num­bers that define us. Our school test scores, our cred­it reports, our actu­ar­i­al tables. As we go through our lives, our days lit­er­al­ly are in so many ways, numbered. 

These intan­gi­bles, if you will, stan­dards, quan­tifi­ca­tion, and ide­ol­o­gy of effi­cien­cy, these are part of the foun­da­tions of indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tions. And although tech­nol­o­gy isn’t just things, there is no deny­ing its mate­r­i­al basis. And that brings me to my sec­ond point. 

Over time tech­nolo­gies stack. They lay­er on top of one anoth­er. Their phys­i­cal­i­ty, their mate­r­i­al basis, set­tles on top and forms lay­ers that a geol­o­gist might appre­ci­ate, and which a his­to­ri­an can reveal and try to understand. 

So, con­sid­er this pic­ture. It was paint­ed in 1872. It’s called American Progress.” It’s a not-so-subtle image of the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of man­i­fest des­tiny. As Liberty glides forth across the North American con­ti­nent, set­tlers fol­low in her wake, and natives and nature are scat­tered before her.

But what’s inter­est­ing to me is that in her right hand, Liberty holds a tele­graph cable that she is unspool­ing along the path­way of an advanc­ing rail­way. So again, on one hand it’s a pic­ture of man­i­fest des­tiny, but in anoth­er way we can see this as an image of how inter­con­nect­ed the era’s trans­porta­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems were. 

Here’s anoth­er way of think­ing about it. This is a map of one American rail­road com­pa­ny’s map of their rail­ways around 1890. And this is a map of the Internet from about a hun­dred years lat­er. Should we be sur­prised that these two lay­er on top of one another?

Or if we were to put a map of the elec­tri­cal grid, we would see a very sim­i­lar pat­tern. Or if we were to map air­mail routes on top of this, we would see a sim­i­lar pattern.

The point from this is that geog­ra­phy and the envi­ron­ment and the tech­nol­o­gy all mutu­al­ly shape one anoth­er. Technologies per­sist through time. But they also coexist with one anoth­er in very fas­ci­nat­ing sorts of ways. 

So, this is an image from late 19th cen­tu­ry Japan, and what I love about it is it shows a world in which rick­shaws and rail­roads and steam and sail all coex­ist­ed with one anoth­er. So we can think about indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tions as being dis­trib­uted unequal­ly in time and space. The tech­no­log­i­cal world isn’t flat. And we are still liv­ing in this lumpy and bumpy world as old and new tech­nolo­gies coex­ist with one anoth­er in time.

And what results from this is if we focus too much on the new, the nov­el, the inno­v­a­tive, we lose track of some of the old­er tech­nolo­gies that were in some ways more impor­tant and more foun­da­tion­al. So, it’s com­mon to hear about how the 19th cen­tu­ry tele­graph sys­tem was like today’s Internet. Except that this isn’t true. Sending a telegram in 1900 was very expen­sive. It was a one per­center tech­nol­o­gy, we might say. Not many peo­ple could afford to do it. What was rev­o­lu­tion­ary for the bulk of peo­ple who want­ed to trans­mit infor­ma­tion was the avail­abil­i­ty of cheap postage. Systems of transocean­ic and transcon­ti­nen­tal postage sys­tems allowed for the rapid flow of infor­ma­tion and cor­re­spon­dence. But in the shad­ow of nov­el­ty, things like cheap postage get lost in the shad­ow of the tele­graph, if you will.

Speaking of hid­den his­to­ries, recent­ly Walter Isaacson wrote a best-selling book called The Innovators. It’s a com­pelling sto­ry about how a group of geeky genius entre­pre­neurs and engi­neers formed col­lab­o­ra­tions and helped cre­ate the mod­ern dig­i­tal era. But a dif­fi­cul­ty with the book is that it miss­es the point of what most engi­neers and sci­en­tists actu­al­ly do. Most of them aren’t engaged in dis­rupt­ing exist­ing sys­tem. Most engi­neers and sci­en­tists spend their careers main­tain­ing sys­tems, main­tain­ing con­ti­nu­ity, keep­ing them functioning. 

So. Imagine a book, a hypo­thet­i­cal book. It’s called The Maintainers. What will we see in this hypo­thet­i­cal book? We would see a group of dif­fer­ent actors. We would­n’t see the same peo­ple who invent­ed the Web, for exam­ple. But we’d see the peo­ple who kept that sys­tem func­tion­ing. It would shift our gaze from Manchester and Silicon Valley and Detroit to wider glob­al infrastructure. 

It would be a sto­ry more about con­ti­nu­ity rather than change. In it, we would see activ­i­ties like the reuse, the recy­cling, the repair, some­times even the rejec­tion of tech­nol­o­gy. And in the process, peo­ple who had pre­vi­ous­ly been on the mar­gins would come into focus in this new and I think quite impor­tant story.

People like these folks. This is a farm cou­ple in Kansas dur­ing the Dust Bowl era around 1930. What have they done? They’ve tak­en their auto­mo­bile and they’ve con­nect­ed it to their wash­ing machine. We don’t real­ly know much about these peo­ple, but I would make the case that they were inven­tive and inno­v­a­tive in their own par­tic­u­lar ways. And it’s by focus­ing our his­to­ries on folks like these as well as the famous and the pow­er­ful that will cre­ate a rich tapes­try of under­stand­ing indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tions. We can think about peo­ple like these as hav­ing hacked the auto­mo­bile, if you will.

So, mov­ing away from the shad­ow of inno­va­tion gives us a rich­er his­to­ry about indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tions. We see how tech­nolo­gies per­sist over time. We see how tech­nol­o­gy is more than about just the stuff around us. And we see the impor­tant role that main­tain­ers and users have in fos­ter­ing inno­va­tion. We real­ize then that indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tions and tech­nol­o­gy itself is more than just about sto­ries of inno­va­tion and progress. Technology as well as the social fab­ric that it is embed­ded in is itself a work in progress. 

Thank you very much.

Further Reference

A Mountain of Magical Thinking”, a follow-up/summary post about this pre­sen­ta­tion at Patrick McCray’s blog.