Most Tech Just Puts Other People Out of Sight
All the way back to the dumbwaiter, we’ve used inventions to hide laborers
Under the pretense of solving problems and making people’s lives easier, most of our technological innovations just get people out of sight, or out of the way. This is the true legacy of the Industrial Age.
Consider Thomas Jefferson’s famous invention, the dumbwaiter. We think of it as a convenience: Instead of carrying food and wine from the kitchen up to the dining room, the servants could place items into the small lift and convey it upstairs by pulling on ropes. Food and drink appeared as if by magic. But the purpose of the dumbwaiter had nothing to do with saving effort. Its true purpose was to hide the grotesque crime of slavery. This may be less technology’s fault than the way we’ve chosen to use it. The Industrial Age brought us many mechanical innovations, but in very few cases did they actually make production more efficient. They simply made human skill less important, so that laborers could be paid less. Assembly line workers had to be taught only a single, simple task, such as nailing one tack into the sole of a shoe. Training took minutes instead of years, and if workers complained about their wages or conditions, they could be replaced the next day.
The industrialist’s dream was to replace them entirely — with machines. The consumers of early factory goods loved the idea that no human hands were involved in their creation. They marveled at the seamless machined edges and perfectly spaced stitches of Industrial Age products. There was no trace of humans at all.
Even today, Chinese laborers “finish” smartphones by wiping off any fingerprints with a highly toxic solvent proven to shorten the workers’ lives. That’s how valuable it is for consumers to believe their devices have been assembled by magic rather than by the fingers of underpaid and poisoned children. Creating the illusion of no human involvement actually costs human lives.
Of course, the mass production of goods requires mass marketing — which has proven just as dehumanizing. While people once bought products from the people who made them, mass production separates the consumer from the producer, and replaces this human relationship with the brand. So where people used to purchase oats from the miller down the block, now consumers go to the store and buy a box shipped from a thousand miles away. The brand image — in this case, a smiling Quaker — substitutes for the real human relationship, and is carefully designed to appeal to us more than a living person could.
To pull that off, producers turned again to technology. Mass production led to mass marketing, but mass marketing required mass media to reach the actual masses. We may like to think that radio and TV were invented so that entertainers could reach bigger audiences, but the proliferation of broadcast media was subsidized by America’s new, national brands, which gained access to consumers coast to coast. Marketers of the period believed they were performing a patriotic duty: fostering allegiance to mass-market brands that iconized American values and ingenuity. But the collateral damage was immense. Consumer culture was born, and media technologies became the main way to persuade people to desire possessions over relationships and social status over social connections. The less fruitful the relationships in a person’s life, the better target that person was for synthetic ones. The social fabric was undone.
Since at least the Industrial Age, technology has been used as a way to make humans less valued and essential to labor, business, and culture. This is the legacy that digital technology inherited.
This is section 28 of the new book Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff, which is being serialized weekly on Medium. Read the previous section here.