Ha-Joon Chang, a Cambridge economist, turns conventional wisdom about the free market on its head in his new book, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. In it, he argues that the washing machine was more revolutionary than the Internet.
Wait a minute. Has the Internet not revolutionized everything?
“Not really, no. Instead of reading a paper, we now read the news online. Instead of buying books at a store, we buy them online. What’s so revolutionary? The Internet has mainly affected our leisure life.”
So what has the washing machine done for us?
“Like other household appliances, it has liberated women from doing household work or doing tedious jobs as a domestic servant. A century ago, 10 percent of the labor force worked in other people’s households. Today, very few people do. Apart from the Industrial Revolution, which decreased the number of farmers substantially, I don’t know of a technology that has almost abolished a whole profession on such a scale, in such short time. In short, the washing machine has allowed women to get into the labor market so that we have nearly doubled the work force.”
What else did it do for society?
“Women started having fewer children, gained more bargaining power in their relationships and enjoyed a higher status. This liberation of women has done more for democracy than the Internet. The washing machine is a symbol of a fundamental change in how we look at women. It has changed society more than the Internet.”
Hmmm, never looked at it that way…
“That’s because people like you and me have no memory of spending two hours a day washing our clothes in cold water. People always think they’re in the middle of a revolution while they tend not to realize the enormity of a change that has happened in the past. The telegraph was a revolution, but who looks at it that way these days? The telegraph sped up the transportation of messages over long distances by a huge factor. The fax machine made it even quicker, and the Internet has made it a bit quicker again—but really, not by so much.”
But the belief in the Internet’s revolutionary power is pretty harmless, right?
“I don’t know. Charities are now working to give people in poor countries access to the Internet. But shouldn’t we spend that money on providing health clinics and safe water? Aren’t these things more relevant? I have no intention of downplaying the importance of the Internet, but its impact has been exaggerated.”