Is this the innovation you were looking for?


Daniel Boorstin in The Americans: The Democratic Experience covers a variety of changes occurring in the post Civil-War America. In which technological diffusion is amplified by the peculiarities of American life. 

An interesting case study, presented by Boorstin, is the glass window. In the Old World, as it were, glass, an ancient tool, was difficult to use in making large structures. Techniques for large panels developed in France in the 17th century did not move on. It will take till the 19th century with the development of new techniques by horticulturist Joseph Paxton. Following the construction of Paxton’s greenhouse, the “Crystal Palace”, a new vision was grasped and many innovations followed. Boorstin remarks: 

It foreshadowed how technology would remove the barriers of space. The whole vast building, a dazzled spectator exclaimed, “dissolves into a distant background where all materiality is blended into the atmosphere … I call the spectacle incomparable and fairylike. It is a Midsummer Night’s Dream seen in the clear light to midday.”

The Americans (p.g. 340,341)

The wondrous effect of windows was to give the physical experiences of life a whole new medium. Improvements in glass making gave us simple items, which we take for granted. The development of the Americanism “window shopping,” an absurd thing to say before the 1850s, is a testament to the power of the window. 

Glass would play an important new role in this new consumer’s world. Before the introduction of electric lighting, large windows were needed to bring daylight into the extensive buildings. […] The large sheets of glass, combined with the light cast-iron frame of the building, transformed the ground floor of department stores. […] The shop itself, the stock, and the goods themselves had become a powerful new form of advertising.

The Americans (p.g. 103,104)

We take glass for granted in discussing technological change. We speak of only of clichéd efficiencies, at least ones easily observed. Most relevant, glass made businesses effective at retail. It even increased the value of a home:

Glass became a commonplace and a key to modern home design. A symbol of the modern American spirit was this removal of the sharp visual division between indoors and outdoors, with its new peril of walking through a glass door by mistake.

The Americans (p.g. 345)

To continue along a thread by Boorstin, the department/retail store, we notice another forgotten innovation. The paper bag, and packing in general, made the retail store tremendously more efficient. Boorstin mentions the remarkable improvements in paper packing, paper that could hold pounds of various grains and commodities. Improving over the cotton sacks. This paper would go on to help replace the box and twine. The arduous procedure of processing your customers’ goods became simple. You could serve more customers in a day. This and packaging (not to be confused with packing) would increase the traffic in retail. Make consumers enjoy the luxuries that the Old World would have never offered them.

Yet, what I have mentioned comprises of only two inventions, both of which changed how our daily lives proceed. Minor but very important in the grand scheme of things. I have not discussed sanitation, which eradicated diseases, or the electric light. The light allowed our brightest minds to read and think in the dark. I have also not discussed the car, a great beneficiary of the glass pane.

In reading this history one then jumps to the 1970s, somewhere in California, in the sand dunes, with the silica, to the ground zero for the digital revolution. It has without a doubt changed life, its medium, like glass window panes. Forget our conceptions of the outdoors and indoors, when it comes the Internet’s slice of the computing revolution we are in and out of some other form of interaction. Though at best it seems shallow.

Nicholas Carr discusses this in his aptly titled book The Shallows. On his blog, Carr mentions the continuing declarations of some sort of leap. He notes a series of articles on Wired Magazine repeating the Internet evangelist shibboleth: “This is only the beginning.” Carr finds it fascinating the effects of the Internet, as of yet, have been delayed.

It is remarkable the manner in which the invention’s biggest proponents seem convinced by its promise. Imagine you heard the same declaration from a paper bag producer or a glazier. Of course, we will never be able to re-contextualize them in a different setting. The proposition is theoretically unfounded but it should elicit one observation. The paper-maker and glazier created something, and once it was used, its value was uncontested. But the Internet is contested, on economic and cultural grounds. And in defense of its coming attractions its evangelists are ready at arms with rhetoric. It would be hyperbolic to say their statements are millenarian or messianic, but they are based at least in some sort of belief in technological determinism.

Maybe I’m not hyperbolic; Carr expands Michael Sacasas’ term the “Borg Complex.” This is quite the put-down. The Borg Complex (or mindset) is one in which, as in Star Trek, “resistance is futile.” Part of the rhetoric of the Internet booster versus the paper maker is that “this is the beginning” is appended to all the Internet booster’s words. As Carr puts it:

By perpetually refreshing the illusion that progress is just getting under way, gadget worshippers […] are able to wave away the problems that progress is causing.

Suppose your glazier in the 1890s was trying to do the same thing. Suppose you come from Old Money in New England and wanted to build some structure on your property. You invite a contractor of some sort and he berates you that you ought to get behind the greenhouse trend, invest in glass panels to improve your property’s value. Glass the future. Steel and masonry are old fashioned. But large panels, which are perfectly clear, have yet to be perfected. So, in those days you wouldn’t have accepted one word from the glazier. You would have had a greenhouse that let no light in, or maybe one which was prohibitively expensive, and in either case you’d kindly ask him to send you a telegram once the product has arrived.

Hell, the glazier wouldn’t speak about glass in the same way, well, because it is glass. But as I’ve discussed, large glass panes changed life. Changed the public and private realm. Yet the hypothetical situation is akin to the technologists’ sermons.

Daniel Boorstin discusses the many boosters of American commerce, who went on selling land in California, oil from salt wells to cure wounds, and insurance to anyone who breathes. They were intelligent entrepreneurs. But like web boosters a lot of their predictions were myopic. The same sense that surveying a business for an opinion on future aggregate economic outcome can only elicit a myopic concern for the business’ sector.


What if we wanted to be more concrete with the effects of technology? Say we only speak about productivity gains, in economic terms. John Cassidy, writing for The New Yorker, also mentions the rally cry of the Internet booster. The productivity gains made in the 90s’, which subsequently fell back to reality in the mid 2000s, caused many boosters to believe some great paradigm shift was awaiting humanity.

Even after 2000, when the Internet stock bubble burst, productivity growth remained high. […] Despite the mayhem on the Nasdaq, the Internet-productivity miracle seems to be alive and well. And with all the talk of “Web 2.0” […] the technology optimists argued there was plenty of scope left from further gains.

It didn’t happen!

Later Cassidy notes economist John Fernald’s (FRB SF) research shows that the trend of productivity growth has been in decline before the recession, at that Web 2.0 apex.

I might as well mention Robert Gordon’s work before I’m done. In Gordon (2000), there is a wonderful reading of history, as Gordon clusters the main technologies of the turn of the century together. Considering their impact, demographic changes, and the productivity gains we’ve experienced from the Internet (in the year 2000) he is not optimistic of future growth. His work is a proto-secular-stagnation piece in many ways. Highly contested, but still important in gauging the culture of the Internet boosters and evangelists.

Links: Boorstin, Robert Gordon (2000), Nicholas Carr blog article, New Yorker article, Michael Sacasas blog on Borg Complex

Photo: Screen capture from Blade Runner (1982)



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