The Internet vs. the washing machine

The washing machine – a force for good.

In his book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, Ha-Joon Chang makes one of the best contrarian arguments of all time – that the washing machine is a more important invention than the Internet. Like Parmenides’ contention that motion doesn’t exist or Hobbes’ assertion that absolute monarchy is the ideal form of government, it is more convincing that one might think upon first hearing its thesis. It’s really not even that radical:

  1. The Internet has mostly impacted our leisure lives. When someone talks about “disruption,” she is referring to relatively low stakes changes such as getting celebrity news from Facebook rather than Entertainment Tonight, or reading the same stories that The New York Times breaks, only on Gawker rather than in the physical NYT or the NYT website.
  2. The washing machine eliminated an unfathomable amount of rote labor, much of which was done by women. It accelerated the entry of women into the workforce. In contrast, the Internet has eliminated…going to the store to buy a CD?

Moreover, it’s a striking argument for its demographic contours. I sometimes put “the Internet” in quotes because of the common portrayal of IP connectivity as an unfettered force for good, even as it primarily confers wealth on white men and is filtered through personality control mechanisms (“privacy” is the wrong word) like Facebook. (I didn’t do so above, since Chang doesn’t seem to politicize the term. Also, the linked with my first quoted instance provides more context on this practice, which isn’t original to me).

But isn’t “the Internet” an enabler of that other great transformative force, “globalization?” For now, the Internet is somewhat standard from one country to the next, although that could change especially in the wake of Edward Snowden. Still, it’s debatable whether globalization via “the Internet” has had anywhere near the emancipatory effect achieved by the humble washing machine.

[G]lobalization is not homogenization,” wrote Pierre Bourdieu in Acts of Resistance. “[I]t is, instead, continuation of the power and influence of a small number of the dominant nations over the totality of the national stock exchanges.”

One could make a similar assessment about “the Internet.” Let’s play a game, changing buzzwords into alternate lingo:

  • “openness” -> “largely unregulated commerce”
  • open source” -> “free software without ethical or philosophical concerns (so corporations can extract profit from it)”
  • “dialogue” -> “agenda-pushing with the formality of feedback”
  • “platform” -> “political action committee”
  • “disruption” -> “papering-over the ongoing domination of huge companies

It’s not hard to see that just as globalization has empowered the United States, China, and big business at the expense of seemingly everyone else, “the Internet” has enriched a handful of (mostly American) private sector companies while contributing little to public infrastructure. The trumpeted “disruption” of news media by Google or of the taxi and limousine industry by Uber pinpoint the intersection of the similar brands of domination behind globalization and “the Internet.”

The immense political weight of”the Internet” makes it seems much more important than mostly apolitical machines like washers and dryers, which aren’t terribly useful for dominating stock exchanges from New York to Buenos Aires. The gargantuan likes of Google and Facebook, with their poor track records on diversity, are representative effects of “the Internet”‘s ultimate perpetuation of entrenched interests rather than its illusory uplift of underdogs.

Washing machines, microwaves, and other household appliances, though? They empowered those without means. No wonder “the Internet” is out for them, too, in the form of the so-called Internet of Things. Think about your that the next time you throw in a load.

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