Big Shiny Public Tech vs Little Nifty Domestic Tech

Which sort of tech actually makes the most daily difference to the largest number of people?

Life With And Without Animated Ducks: The Future is Gender Distributed:

One of the things that has frustrated me about science fiction is that technology pertaining to the smaller aspects of our lives is often neglected in favor of big giant rockets and exotic weaponry. Birth control seems non-existent and childbirth is still rocking the stirrups. And the home is at best not mentioned much. One of the things that “the future,” when we use that word as a metonymy for an idealized world in which machines solve all our problems, is supposed to do for us is give us time. Relieve us from work that is repetitive or unpleasant and allow us the sheer, simple hours in the day to do more. And yet, by far the biggest time sink going is the need to clean our habitats, prepare food and clothing, and maintain our environments. For those who have always had the, dare I say, privilege of ignoring that work, you simply cannot imagine how much time it takes to do all that and then turn around and do it again, often multiple times a day if there are offspring at play. Despite the fact that we here in the first world are supposed to have leveled up our gender equality stat, women still perform the majority of this labor, often in addition to a full shift outside the home. Fully automating this activity would free humanity on a scale that even the most awesome BFG can’t even begin to contemplate.

And though many enjoy cooking, though food prep has become a source of pride and even a hobby for a lot of people, vanishingly few get excited about what they’re going to clean today.

By far the biggest literary offender on this subject, I feel, is steampunk. Because when you’re talking about the 19th century, the invention that changes everything is not the difference engine, it’s not the airship, it’s not clockwork robots. It’s the washing machine. 19th century laundry was a brobdingnagian task that took all week, involved caustic chemicals that ruined the body over time, and exhausted both the spirit and the back. Only the ultra-rich could avoid taking part in at least some portion of it. Free women from that and you have a strong feminist movement almost instantly and probably a suffrage movement far earlier, you have a force of political action not broken by lye fumes and the crippling lack of time that hobbles any population attempting to manifest change. And yet we see again and again shiny tech meant to either imitate current “male” sphere toys, military and industrial and computational or to advance that same sphere past 19th c. specs, and very little thought at all spared for the half of humanity that spent that century maintaining households at the expense of most other activity.

In comments there someone notes that the gendered tech division is also about what gets tax credits and what doesn’t. Want to replace a team of cleaners in an office building with a floor-scrubbing machine that can be depreciated? Tax Office says YES, this is a legitimate cost of doing business. Want to have a home floor-scrubber to save woman-hours that could be used productively earning income elsewhere? Tax Office says NO, this is not a legitimate cost of earning an income.

I’d also like to note how religious family-first movements such as Quiverfull valorise traditional housekeeping skills with a minimum of time-saving appliances, and how that affects the time women in such families have to spare on any non-household activities.

Categories: gender & feminism, history, technology, work and family

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13 replies

  1. I’m reminded of “What Diantha Did”.
    We still have a ways to go.

  2. Quiverfull valorise traditional housekeeping skills with a minimum of time-saving appliances

    Which would also mean for many of these women doing it all while pregnant/breastfeeding/caring for other young children or all of them at once plus probably homeschooling for many. I’m not a fan of movements such as Quiverfull, but FSM those are some strong women.

  3. Which would also mean for many of these women doing it all while pregnant/breastfeeding/caring for other young children or all of them at once

    Probably not *all* of them at once, from what I’ve read – the women in these movements tend to stop breastfeeding quite quickly in order to return to a fertile state asap.

  4. If I’m after an idea of how things have changed since the Victorian era, I tend to pull down my copy of Mrs Beeton, and read through the daily duties of the housemaid. The main differences, as far as I can tell, involve the absence of wood or coal fires to supply the majority of the heating and cooking energy, and the presence of the washing machine to make washing clothes and household linen less of a day-long, back-breaking chore. But for everything else, it’s pretty much business as usual. The vacuum cleaner has replaced the rug beater, and fitted carpets have thus replaced hard floor surfaces in the majority of homes, but the actual amount of work required to keep floors clean hasn’t changed – it’s just that instead of being done relatively quietly with a broom and a dustpan, it’s done with a noisy vacuum cleaner. The food processor cuts the amount of time you have to spend chopping vegetables, but it replaces it with an equal amount of time spent dismembering, cleaning and re-assembling the food processor.
    Yes, we’re doing housework differently to the way our great-grandmothers did it. But we haven’t really lost that much time in the process.

  5. The fires-and-laundry issue is enormous, however, and unremitting. Even keeping up the laundry with machines feels difficult at times, as things pile up so, so fast; I find it hard to imagine doing it myself, while feeding and tending the fires to heat the water and rendering the fats and making the laundry soap the old-fashioned way and stirring/turning whatever’s on the stove to make sure it doesn’t burn. (Love my crockpot.)
    Heck, just having good protective gloves for housework makes a pretty significant difference, speaking of little tech. And modern detergents clean dishes more easily than soaps, too. Also, “housework” wasn’t just housework; it also included dealing with the kitchen garden.
    It’s a smaller issue, but I also wonder about the issue of dealing with vermin without any modern methods. Cats and traps for the mice, I guess; but what about arthropod life?

  6. You made me go and pull out my CWA book and my Mrs B! (Or rather, my partner’s Mrs B.) Stove polishing, mincer maintenance, making feather pillows, trying to clean old sink pipes. And there’s all the baking to be done, too. Even the idea of having furniture that needs to be polished makes me screw my nose up with laziness (and anticipation of the icky smell). Even having no fitted sheets would drive me batty. Oh, ugh – there’s a recipe here for household soap made from borax, caustic, dripping, resin, and machinery oil.
    Another huge issue I didn’t mention above is refrigeration. Now, we get home from the shops (or unpack the grocery delivery) and put stuff in the fridge; you know it’s going to stay fresh till its use-by-date or beyond. Without that, juggling freshness is a constant game, and must use up a fair bit of brainspace (with a holla to bluemilk.)
    And then there’s the section in Mrs B’s on how to select and instruct respectable, respectful servants. Not so relevant for most of us (nor for most folks back then, either). I wonder whether that section was meant to be more aspirational than reality-based for the intended audience? Though a mother would surely need all those servants in order to maintain the life of pleasing occupation and copious singing and dancing that is required for a healthy nine-to-fifteen months of lactation, especially since she’ll be spending so much time pumping off the overheated and overexcited milk that results from such pursuits, before her infant can be allowed to nurse.
    I’ll leave you with… “2331. Breaking glass and china is about the most disagreeable thing that can happen in a family […]”

  7. One of the aspects of Nora Roberts’ In Death series is her invention of the AutoChef. As far as i can tell it’s like a fridge in that you put stuff into it, but it’s also like an oven and a chef in one because it makes stuff from the stuff you put into it.
    Screw space travel, i want an AutoChef.

  8. Oh yeah, you put something in and program what you want to get out of it. Sounds awesome to me. I wish those things really existed.

  9. Ok, tedious historian here, but I think the claims the impact of the washing-machine is much later than implied in the above quote, and we shouldn’t be under-estimating the importance of servants across social levels.
    So, laundry first: anybody who had any money in the European past avoided doing their own laundry, and I don’t mean just those the rich. Many, many working-class women paid other women to do their laundry, just as they paid other women to make them meals that they could collect at dinner time. Out-sourcing laundry was very normal and not particularly expensive thing to do, and so laundry was performed by professional laundry woman, who did it for a career. Even large households with servants did this, because servants hated doing it and sometimes it wasn’t worth the hassle of forcing them to do it. It definitely wasn’t a nice job, but it was often a specialist one. On farms and other larger households that didn’t outsource laundry, it was usually a group activity that happened once a week. So, still hard and not fun, but a ritualised part of the working-week. The people who couldn’t afford to have laundry done for them were often the very poor and they would often only own a single outfit, which might not have been fun but reduced their laundry loads! More seriously, clothing was more hardwearing and only the very rich and huge amounts of clothes. To maintain cleanliness, most people had underlinens which they changed washed regularly and they cleaned their external outfits less frequently. They also didn’t shower everyday and so have piles of towels etc and this sort of thing reduced amounts of laundry. I would say the actual washing machine isn’t a significant player in helping housewives until well into the 20thC.
    Ok servants: these are also not the preserve of the rich until the late 19thC. Even a lower-middle-class woman who took in laundry to supplement her household income might have had a servant (I can actually think of a real example of this!). Being in service was a life-cycle experience that the majority of the early modern population would have experienced. They would then set up their own homes and expect to have servants of their own, so there was a cycle to this, and it reflected the fact that it was unrealistic for people to survive without the help of others. This is still true today, but we just hide our ‘servants’ in factories and supermarkets, so they are less visible. There are also lifetime servants who do this for a career and so continue to live within other people’s households. This sort of thing is aided by a young population with a high mortality rate, so we always have more young people than happily married couples with a need for servants. Again, this is not to say that there aren’t poor people who can’t afford servants and who are not servants themselves, but the key thing to note is they are not a huge part of the population, and they are seen as an unstable, poor element – not a stable part of society (rather sadly).

  10. Lauredhel @5 – I’d guess that in the Victorian era people who didn’t have minions to do their washing washed their clothes a whole lot less often than we do now. They simply wouldn’t have had the time, probably couldn’t afford the soap either.

  11. Indoor plumbing and sewage systems do tend to be relatively lauded compared to some of the things listed here, but managing sewage in various ways falls into a similar category of work.
    Also, for people in cold climates, maintaining a home at a livable temperature can involve considerable labour depending on what fuels you have to hand. That is work that extends into the present day for a significant part of the middle-class in some countries: in Australia I know a bunch of people who heat with wood, although they at least have chainsaws to break it up into initial chunks.
    Wood gathering or purchasing, storage, log splitting, setting and maintaining fires, watching children around fires (burns were a major cause of child fatality), there’s another set of labour practices there. Various big and little techs help, including different fuels and mining them of course, but also safer fireplaces/heaters, heating systems that are more efficient and so on. (Even in the last 20 years this has improved at least in affordability: my parents now have a closed fireplace and a system that ducts heat so efficiently around their home that they often need to open windows in winter.)

  12. My epistle on the history of laundry is stuck in moderation, possibly reflecting the ranting length of it. But the gist was neither servants or paying people to do your laundry was unusual in the past, even amongst the lower classes.

    [released ~ M]

  13. Chris, there’s no need to guess, some of it is documented. I’m not an expert on domestic tech but see for example
    The description is of washing and drying laundry occupying a working day for the women in the household once a week. My partner and I, like most parents, spend a lot of time on laundry (and add an extra 2 to 3 loads a week for part-time cloth nappying*) but it doesn’t come to anything like a full working day for both of us, although it does amount to a few hours of active labour. (We don’t iron.)
    * Our son wears disposables in childcare.

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