Back in April I wrote in this blog that technological change appears to be accompanied by old jokes. That was six months ago, and jokes have dried up a bit. The boredom continues, but people have overcome isolation through the use of modern devices. The use of new technology changes how we live.
For example, new technology has changed our lives by providing us with virtual education through Zoom meetings. My granddaughter before the pandemic played drums in the high school band. The pandemic stopped that. Now she teaches younger students how to play percussion through the internet. She has two students, one eight-year-old and one about thirteen, and she has written to me about her challenges teaching drums using Zoom.
My granddaughter becomes irritated after sitting in front of a computer screen for eight hours doing high school work. She takes a break by writing me a long-hand letter that she places in an envelope, stamps and mails. I’m sure she also bangs on her drums now and then for the pleasure it gives her. I treasure her letters and they bring back old memories.
Fountain Pens Were Once New Technology
My father’s pen, coated in dark red wood, felt heavy in my hand. An early fountain pen, its gold point wrote smoothly. My father loved doing this. I think his pen, a gift from his parents, brought back memories of his childhood. He loved the beautiful sleek instrument and valued it more than jewelry.
Fountain pens came with rubber inserts that carried more ink than a simple dipping, and in its day represented a great innovation, a new technology. The defective ones leaked, but fine fountain pens became works of art and style. They were favorite gifts to children, and writers used them to create wondrous long letters. Without the fountain pen, Bob Dylan might not have written the 20-page letter to an ex-girlfriend, from which he later extracted the lyrics to “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Fountain Pens Had Style
In response to my grand-daughter’s letter, I dragged out my old fountain pens from a box at the top of my closet. I answered her last letter using one and it wasn’t easy. Like shoes, fountain pens have to be used regularly to feel comfortable. Their points change shape over time and the pressure used by the writer affects how much ink is released. I wasn’t used to my own pens, and my favorite one seemed scratchy. In this case, technology (new pens) has changed my life for the better.
Nobody thinks about pens as valuable any more. Modern technology produces pens that write smoothly, are cheap and easily replaced. Who needs fancy pens when nobody writes letters? The old companies- Parker, Waterman, Cross- don’t exist any longer. Their brand names now belong to foreign firms that manufacture mostly in China. We communicate through smart phones and the internet.
Technology Changes Life in Unforeseen Ways
We already can see the next revolution in how people will live. Pens are ordinary cheap instruments, but changes in their use affects the economy. Great companies disappear when people no longer buy their products. We can’t foresee all the effects of people moving their work back into the home, and communicating electronically instead of personally or through the mail.
Ruth Goldman in her book “The Domestic Revolution” writes about the shift from wood to coal fuel in sixteenth century Elizabethan England. The population of London grew and wood prices became exorbitant because wood had to be shipped from miles away overland. Coal could be shipped by sea from Newcastle. Britain was the first country to convert from wood to coal fuel and it happened quickly.
The switch to coal transformed the country. Since wood wasn’t needed for fuel, forest areas were converted to agriculture. Smoke stacks with chimneys were built to vent the noxious fumes caused by coal fire. Once tall smoke stacks were being constructed, it made sense to build larger buildings and London began to see two and three-story buildings topped by chimneys.
Coal burned hotter than wood and British industry began to develop and produce cooking utensils made of iron and brass. This laid the foundation for the Industrial Revolution hundreds of years later, based on knowledge and machinery using iron and coal.
Technology changed life dramatically. People cooked, ate and lived differently. Coal fires stained walls and wall hangings. Tapestries came down and wall paints were developed as well as wall papers. Coal ovens could be regulated producing a steady temperature. The use of coal-fire for cooking allowed foods to be roasted. With the new technology, the British invented boiled puddings and kidney pies.
Coal Fire Made Possible the Baking of Steak and Kidney Pie
Will the Use of Virtual Communication and Technology Change How we Live Long-term?
Moving people back to home from the place of work reverses trends of the last few hundred years. The industrial revolution began with cottage industries. Workers in their own homes had to produce goods, without regulation of hours, working conditions and no restrictions on child labor. When factories were built, they were considered an advance in living conditions. Factories had light, heat, and were designed to produce goods efficiently.
Factories moved manufacturing out of the home and away from crafts and hand labor. Eventually abuses brought about strikes and legislation regulating conditions of work.
When we move work back to the home, we aren’t going back to the eighteenth century. We’ll expect our salaries, pensions, health care and other legislatively provided protections to continue.
Nevertheless, we’re moving back. A house that contains workers as well as families has to be built to accommodate all the functions necessary for the people living and working in it. Will houses be redesigned to house work spaces? What would that kind of house look like?
If very many people work at home, will food delivery services have to improve and increase? What will happen to food production and delivery, if restaurants stay in a state of decline? Will our stay-at-home chefs come up with brand new food ideas and how to prepare them?
What about big cities and big office buildings? Will the city of the future be simply an entertainment park where very little productive work is done? Technology changes how we live, how we eat, and how we work in unpredictable ways.
Technology has Already Changed How We Live and More Change is Coming
We are aware of how technology changes how we live, but we don’t see the wider picture of where we are going.
But the following describes what we are experiencing now:
- You have a list of 15 phone numbers to reach a family of four
- Your reason for not staying in touch with friends and family is that they don’t have email addresses
- Accidentally you enter your password on the microwave
- You haven’t played solitaire with real cards in years
- You pull in your own driveway and use your cell phone to see if anyone is home to help you carry in the groceries.
My newspaper this morning delivered the news about dictatorship in the world, and the role of communication in supporting or defying it. The stories told about actions taken by dictatorial bosses who did not consult the general public. Consequently, whether they liked it or not, dictators had their acts communicated to the public.
For example, three unconnected stories illustrate similar truths:
- The dictator Lukashenko in Belarus called out troops to put down protestors who claim he stole a recent election. In the old days, he would have shot a few people and gotten away with it. The protestors are organized and communicating with each other and the international press. Subsequently, Lukashenko alerted his Russian patrons that he may need military help. In a timely way, I’m reading about it in my newspaper.
- Israel imposed a national lockdown forbidding large groups from gathering, on the eve of the Jewish high holidays. Most importantly, the lockdown will last till October, making impossible worship of the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur by large groups of people sitting together. Ultra-religious Israeli citizens are very angry, and my newspaper presents the details.
- The Dallas Symphony for the first time during the pandemic held a concert in its usual concert hall for some of its subscribers. The symphony hall holds more than 1800 seats, and this concert played for about seventy subscribers. The program consisted of three relatively short Beethoven pieces, short because no intermissions were allowed. A famous pianist played with an orchestra of 35, under an Italian conductor who entered the U. S. by special arrangements. First steps taken against rules imposed by government, and now people everywhere know about it.
Communication has Changed Form
This blog is about as old as the current pandemic lockdown. In a way it’s a child of current trends in communication. In my lifetime, communication has moved from newspapers, radio and movies, to television, and to digital communication. Print media gradually faded into the background, replaced by cable television and digital media.
Many newspapers, book publishers, and movie theaters failed well before the pandemic lockdowns. However, fifty years ago the communications media provided widely watched and respected national news, as well as high quality popular entertainment and artistry. Newspapers and books printed educated commentary and thoughtful essays.
Newspapers Used to be Numerous
Today, instant images of events, distributed to a world-wide audience by electronic devices, stand in the place of the news reported in the old media. The time consuming business of creating thoughtful commentary today is replaced by partisan shouting on television and in newspapers. As a result, newspapers keep dying and the old broadcast television and theater-based movie businesses continue to shrink. In other words, we are seeing a Gresham’s Law in communications: bad news drives out good news.
Communication and Dictatorship
Like most complex changes, there are pluses and minuses to the transformation of modes of communication. In days when literacy wasn’t widespread and small elites owned the newspapers, newspapers could sway national leaders and affect policy. Elites monopolized national communications and could excite the public. They created fervor for whatever interested them. Newspapers could start wars. Dictators also used them to support their actions and abuse opponents..
The old dictatorships manipulated radio, movie and print communication. If they didn’t like a newspaper, they sent thugs to destroy the printing presses. They could forcibly take over radio stations and stop the showing of movies they didn’t like.
The dictator has a harder time monopolizing thought and communication when everyone is a communicator. For example, if Lukashenko sends in troops to support his rule, the images of the event will appear on cellphones and mobile media instantly and world-wide. His Russian patrons know that.
Cell Phones Tell the News When it Happens
Lukashenko can’t stop cell phones from working in Belarus and throughout the world. When Israel decreed the lockdown, the government couldn’t stop loud complaints. When the Dallas symphony took small steps at reopening, it was reported not only in Texas but in The Wall Street Journal.
Forms of Communication and Content
About eighty per cent of the readers of this little blog use mobile devices. In other words, people are reading this mainly on smart phones. Since I’ve already reached my 80th birthday this delights me, At my age, the feeling of being relevant is very enjoyable.
The digital world has no geographic limits. My readers live in India, the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh, as well as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and other places. Because I write in English, and mostly about the lessons of American history, I’m not surprised my readers live mainly where English is spoken.
I can’t tell which blogs do best in which place. I guess comments about the contributions of women to history and visions of grandchildren are appreciated everywhere.
Communication and the Breakdown of Dictatorship
As everyone probably knows, state governments have imposed a pandemic lockdown on those of us living in the United States. We are also enduring a national election.
Local governors have seized emergency powers, without resort to public approval. They are miniature dictators, imposing rules by emergency decree. They dictate the size of group gatherings, spacing for social distancing, and the opening or closing of various businesses. Governors decree what size of group can meet where and where people are required to wear masks. State governors decree whether restaurants can open and when they can serve indoors. They dictate the distances people must observe when out in public. Governors make decisions about placing sick people in nursing homes or quarantining nursing homes.
These rules vary from state to state. Some states permit large numbers of people to carry on public protests. If protests become too violent, governors make the decision whether or not to call out the national guard. Social media report events in real time, instantaneously. Newspapers and television follow up with partisan shouting and little objective analysis.
It is hard to measure the effects of widespread instantaneous communication. How soon do people make decisions on elections? Do they wait for debates? Which is more prone to partisan manipulation and outright deceit: newspapers, television news reports, or social media?
Dictators have a harder time with social media. They can’t ban the use of phones and digital media without harming the general economy: business requires regular communication and ease of data collection. But with that, you get twitter, and personal tweets from the president down (or up?) to everyone, including children, and the reverse.
It’s the reverse that counts: dictators now can hear what people are saying and can’t control everything that’s said.