Technology’s Spillover Effect

It should be obvious that technology has profound effects on human belief and behavior, but it isn’t. We talk all the time about changing social trends, shifts in cultural beliefs, and developments in human sexuality, but we often look to other cultural influences to explain them. Why did the West come to value property rights and religious freedom? The Enlightenment, of course. Well, yes. But would there have been an Enlightenment without important technological changes like movable type or the successes of certain scientific discoveries? Doubtful. Important technological changes influenced the thought and behavior of people, which in turn, produced the cultural conditions for the Enlightenment. The technological changes that preceded the Enlightenment were already doing the job of closing down the medieval worldview and opening people’s minds to empirical science, free inquiry, and human reason. Technological change gave birth to the Enlightenment.

We can see the same effect that technology has on other streams of cultural thought. Before the cultural winds of women’s liberation blew, women were already opening their minds to ideas of equality and independence. For that, they owe a great deal of gratitude to their household appliances. Especially their refrigerators. Yes, I know how sexist that sounds. But keep following, and I think you’ll agree. I don’t mean to say that a woman’s place is in the home and that she should be grateful that she’s got all those appliances to help her do her job. I mean that, without household appliances, a woman’s place would still be entirely in the home. Household appliances made it possible for today’s Western society to reject the belief that a woman’s place is in the home. Without them, we’d never think any differently. Here’s what household appliances did for women. They gave them:

  • Power over their sexuality
  • Time to read and learn
  • Richer social lives
  • Healthier children
  • Greater independence from men
  • Careers outside the home

Even the most vein-popping third-wave feminist shouting “Defiance to the appliance!” while pouring menstrual blood on a dustbuster owes a great deal of gratitude to household appliances. Without them, she wouldn’t have the luxury of her feminist beliefs. There would be no feminism. She would probably be married with fifteen children, hand-sewing without a thimble, since she doesn’t worry that a needle would ever pierce the thickness of her butter-churning callouses.

Let’s talk about refrigerators for just a moment. Refrigerators changed life for women. Before refrigeration, women spent an obscene part of their day preparing meals.

Let’s have chicken for dinner, Richard,” Martha Jefferson suggested to her husband in the early half of the nineteenth century.

“That sounds excellent, wife. Now go catch one, kill it, pluck it, gut it, butcher it, season it, cook it and serve it. And don’t forget to make use of every part of that chicken in our lives. Ah, and I’d like a delicious glass of milk at dinner too. Hope you managed to find time to go out to the field, walk a cow to the barn, hitch her in place, get the bucket in place, milk the cow slowly, carry the milk inside, unhitch the cow, and lead it back to the pasture. Otherwise, how will I have my milk at dinner?!”

Martha knew that all that work was just for today’s dinner. Tomorrow’s would be just as labor intensive, and so would the day after that. She was well aware that none of Richard’s instructions (which she didn’t need because she had been doing this exact job for the last twenty years of her life) covered the work that goes into breakfast and lunch. She remembered that she also had thirteen children to feed and that she needed to feed them more calories than the great many they burned from the heavy workloads that they had on the family farm. [Anachronistic. “Calorie” would not enter the English lexicon until the later half of the nineteenth century.]

But with the advent of the home refrigerator, Martha didn’t have to butcher a chicken one at a time. She could butcher several at once and store meat in the refrigerator for the next week, and before long, she would be able to purchase pre-butchered, pre-packaged meat from a store. Vegetables lasted longer. Milk would stay fresh for weeks. Her family would be eating more food, prepared in less time, for less money, and that meant that hours in her day were freed up. A refrigerator had given her more power over her day. Now she could go to the market and get food instead of staying on the farm all day. At the market, she could make friends and hear new ideas she would have never heard before. Since meals were easier to prepare, she could rely more on her teenage daughter to make meals, which gave her even more time and independence. Because of refrigeration, women gained more power over their sexuality. Since food was cheaper, more available, and in greater variety, women ate more, which gave them larger hips and larger breasts. The feminine form would never be the same.

Is it too much to say that electric household appliances changed women’s lives? Not at all. That’s exactly what they did. They gave women a chance at the lives that women chose today. Because without them, women’s lives are chosen for them.

There were several household tasks that took a common woman in the early nineteenth century six to seven hours to complete. Now think of a household task that takes six to seven hours today….

Don’t say “Laundry!” If laundry takes you six to seven hours to complete, it’s only because you haven’t washed clothes in weeks, you have about twenty times the number of clothes as someone of your social stature would have in the nineteenth century, and you wash them more often. Also, most of that time is spent waiting on a machine to do it’s work. You didn’t spend it scrubbing clothes on a washboard in a tub of water.

Speaking of laundry and female sexuality. The electric washing machine meant women could own more clothes. They would last longer, and they would get cleaner. She could feel more feminine and smell more feminine. Her hands were softer. And it all saved time.

Hair dryers and curling irons let everyday women have a variety of hairstyles and focus more on their beauty, thus giving them greater power over their sexuality. And electric sewing machines let women women wear more precise, form fitting clothes.

Electric ovens, like refrigerators, made preparing meals faster and easier. Once again, saving more time and money.

A woman with electric household appliances had time to read and discuss ideas. She could contemplate issues of equality and race. She could begin to level the playing field of education and work.

And household appliances gave women greater independence from men. Women could be single mothers and survive. They weren’t tied to the home as much. With so much more free time, they could go to college or have a paid career.

To sum it up in one word, household appliances gave women power. Women had power to make choices. Power to shape their futures. Because that’s what technology does. It gives you power that you didn’t have before. But that power has a lot of implications that we never intended. In this case, household appliances helped shape our views on marriage and the role of women in society. Of course, no one bought a refrigerator wanting it to shape their views on marriage and the role of women, but that’s what happened nevertheless. And that’s just the refrigerator. If you add together all of the other technological elements in our lives, then we’re talking massive social changes that we didn’t predict or intend. Technology ends up shaping our beliefs in deep ways that we never saw coming.

Household appliances are just one small way that technological advances have had social effects.

  • Radio helped unify the American accent.
  • The Internet let us learn ideas from people with different beliefs.
  • The Internet changed our sexual behavior.
  • Cars made divorce easier.
  • Computers allowed women to fight in the military.

The list goes on for miles.

The effects of technology go far beyond the effects we desired them to have. We only want them to make our lives easier, but they have a ripple effect right down to the deepest things we believe.

So when I want to understand why people believe or behave like they do today, I see technology written all over it. All the major issues and debates that take place in the world are shaped by technology. Transgenderism is a cause today because technology has allowed the hard lines that once drew an obvious difference between men and women to be erased. Technology led to childbearing being disassociated with womanhood, and that cracked open the door to the consideration that people born as male could become female. I think constantly in these terms, and yet, it surprises me that more of us don’t bring technology to bear more in our explanations of human belief and behavior.

Why is atheism on the rise in the West? Technology. What about the drop in violent crime? Technology. Waive to the five-thousand surveillance cameras! What about the advent of the helicopter parent? Technology again.

Technology has changed and is changing what people believe about God, about themselves, and about literally everything around them.

This may be technology’s greatest power in our lives.

Sylvie Guillot
“Bridge Emmanuelle”

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