Since my last post, Ha Joon Chang – a prominent Economist and author – came to give a talk at my University. As I like to write about things that I find surprising, I thought I would share one particular belief of his which stands out and has caused quite a stir: the washing machine has changed the world more than the internet.
No statement like this can be met without opposition, and given my wholehearted support of Roots and Wings International and its focus on education and technology to promote development in rural Guatemala, I am keen to probe around Chang’s statement.
Of course, the obvious argument against this hypothesis would be that the invention of the Internet has dramatically changed how the world communicates, learns and works. There are now over 35% of the world’s population identifying themselves as regular Internet users and over 1 million subscribers to the most popular social networking site; the Internet has clearly changed the world. However, to support Chang’s point, I ask you to consider the impact of the impact of this on the economy and acknowledge that the largest impact of the internet has been in the domain of leisure.
The washing machine, on the other hand, constitutes an apparatus to master a necessary household task. The fact that we can classify doing laundry as a common household chore means that the ability of the washing machine to make a common action more efficient and less time consuming, which in turn changes lives more lives than the Internet on a daily basis. I found one report suggesting that 1,100 loads of washing are started every second in the United States. Those whose lives have been significantly changed by the Internet are a tiny majority of the world’s population, who benefit from the luxury of access to technology, time to use it and IT skills to use it. These really are luxuries; it’s just that we often stop seeing them in this way.
If it helps to convince you, then economists have not actually found any evidence to support that the Internet revolution has helped production to grow. As far as my personal experience goes, I can easily access information via the Internet to write an essay or I can go to a library where it takes longer to find the same information. In this case, the Internet has changed my life. More important than this, though, is the fact that I am studying in the first place. I would not be able to study if I had a family of dependents and spent my waking hours cooking, cleaning and doing the laundry by hand.
In the developing world most laundry is done by hand which requires multiple resources. It is labour intensive, time consuming, and damaging for fabric. Women are tied to the household and have less time free to be active members of the labour market or study. The washing machine has thus changed structures within patriarchal societies and raised household incomes. To put it simply, in Chang’s view, the washing machine has doubled the workforce.
Can the same thing be said about the Internet?
We do have to acknowledge the presence of other developments which have facilitated the success of the washing machine such as water supply and electricity, but fundamentally it is the washing machine that responded to the needs of the most restricted members of society in a measurable way. Stoves and other household appliances have also been important for similar advancements in gender equality and increase workforce participation.
So we can conclude that Chang has a strong argument for his claim. Whilst we might not all agree that the impact of the washing machine has been greater than that of the internet, it is hard to dispute the growing role of technology as a life-changing force in developed nations, and even more so in developing nations. The poorer the country, the greater the marginal gain of a basic appliance that increases productivity. It is also hard to dispute the magnitude of the Internet’s role in proliferating knowledge. RWI fully supports the use of technology for education and provides students in rural Guatemala with access to it via its Learning Center and Computer Literacy programs. The washing machine is just the start; there is still a lot of work to be done. RWI is excited to be part of this development and will continue to encourage young people in impoverished areas to change their lives through education and technology.