15. Reflections on Technology: Electricity at Home
In its first phase, the impact of the Industrial Revolution was only through its manufactured goods. Whether it was paper or cloth, the locomotive or the telegraph, it was only the final product of technology that the layman witnessed. No new process was introduced into the home.
In 1888 something of enormous significance happened. A Serbian inventor who was born in a remote mountain village in the Austro-Hungarian empire, patented a number of electrical components: dynamos that work on alternating currents, motors, transformers, etc. (In 1831 Michael Faraday had already discovered the principle of the electric motor.) The new inventions led to two major possibilities: On the one hand electricity could be generated on a large scale and distributed to homes. On the other hand, small devices using electric motors were constructed that could be used in homes. The inventor’s name was Nikola Tesla.
One of the first items of modern electric-current technology to be introduced into the home was the electric fan: patented by Tesla and the Westinghouse Corporation in 1889. It was this invention that led to the installation of plug points in homes, so that the fan could be moved from room to room. We must remember, however, that in the early days not everyone could afford an electric fan, let alone electricity at home. Some reckless soothsayers prophesied that electric currents would be too expensive to be of general use in all homes!
Since then, as every school child knows, electrical home appliances have been increasing in number and in variety. We have telephones and tooth brushes, washers and driers, computers and bells, vacuum cleaners and air conditioners, clocks and can openers, sewing machines and sump-pumps, radios and phonographs, and a good deal more, all working on electrical energy.
In all these instances we see technology in action in our homes. Note that the goal in every such item is either to diminish human effort or to increase human comfort and enjoyment. Essentially these devices have replaced human labor. In former times, only the rich could afford to have their clothes washed, and their homes cleaned by others, i.e. by servants, slaves, or people of lower castes. Now, much of the hard work that servants used to do is done for us by electricity.
We never really consume electricity: we merely use it. When we pay for coal, gas, or water, we are actually paying for the material we are using up. But with electricity, we do not use up any electric charge or current; all we do is to let them pass through our appliances, and they do the work. Electric currents are like a band of well trained servants, silent and clean, who are sent by a central agency to our homes to do chores for us.
Computers and automation have caused what it sometimes described as the Second Industrial Revolution: one in which technology replaces not only the muscular, but also the mental effort of humans. In industry and in factories automata are already functioning very efficiently. Just as the First Industrial Revolution eventually moved from the workplace into the home, we may expect the Second Industrial Revolution to do likewise. In other words, the automata or robots that we now find in huge factories will have their smaller-sized kith and kin installed in the homes of the future.
Indeed the field of research and development known as robotics deals precisely with problems of this kind: to exploit the possibilities of artificial intelligence to such an extent that even the efforts involved in pushing the vacuum cleaner from room to room, or of pushing the lawn mower in the yard, or of dumping dirty linen into the washing machine will be done by robots. And more: domestic robots keep account of family income and expenditures, remind us of our appointments, switch on the TV for appropriate programs, alert us in case of fire, and possibly extinguish it, cook meals for us, scare away intruders, take messages, and so on. More is yet to come.
What would be the overall effect of such changes in home life? At the one extreme some people – usually those who are not directly involved with scientific and technological matters – have expressed the fear that robots will eventually take over control, and human beings will come under their merciless sway. At the other extreme are the perennial technological optimists who insist that robots will eventually become and for ever remain our most versatile and efficient slaves that will work without complaining or will never get tired. Most of the experts in the field tend to hold this second view.
As a matter of fact, the fears expressed by the first group do not arise from simple-mindedness. Robots can gain control over our lives. However, they will do so in the same sense that we have become pitifully dependent upon many other gadgets and people in technological societies find themselves to be in an utterly helpless state if they are deprived of the automobile, telephone, TV, electric lights, or hot water furnace.
On the other hand, even assuming that we will never be deprived of robotic services, another major problem that is expected to arise when technology takes over more of our domestic chores will be related to leisure. Unfortunately, there is more than a grain of truth in the old prejudice of 18th century aristocracy that the labor class will be out for mischief and drunkenness only if they are kept constantly busy; except that this is valid for most human beings, irrespective of their class or caste. A healthy and meaningful utilization of leisure doesn’t seem to be easy.
September 22, 2010