Thursday, June 3, 2010

Binding Innovation: Sewing Machines and Social Networking


I’ve been re-reading Daniel Boorstin’s The Americans: The Democratic Experience for maybe the third time.  It’s just full of compelling stories about the formation of America, and especially good in spotting unconventional entrepreneurs and innovators.  It’s fair to say, in fact, that in the America that Boorstin observes, there’s hardly an American who is not an entrepreneur or innovator.

Boorstin, who died in 2004, is one of those folks you can’t help but hold in awe.  He was a lawyer, a professor at the University of Chicago for 25 years, the librarian of Congress, the senior historian of the Smithsonian—the list goes on.  But what is most impressive is that Boorstin never, ever stopped writing, including dozens of books and two major trilogies (of which The Democratic Experience is part, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning part at that).

When Boorstin went before the Senate to be confirmed as librarian of Congress, several senators demanded that he not write while serving in the post.  He refused, but promised to do it on his personal time: weekends, evenings, and from 4 a.m. to 9 a.m. every morning.


One of the better-known stories Boorstin tells in The Democratic Experience is of the invention of the sewing machine, including the commercial and patent battle in the 1850s between Isaac Merrit Singer and Elias Howe, Jr.   In 1850 the sewing machine was a curiosity.  By 1870, 700,000 were being manufactured annually. By 1900, 8,000 patents had been issued on the machine, a tribute to relentless improvement.

This “tireless ally of the world’s great sisterhood” (as an immodest 1880 Singer brochure described it) turned out not to do precisely what it had been invented to do: reduce the time and drudgery of sewing.  An 1867 Atlantic Monthly article wondered aloud if there was any woman alive who could say her time spent sewing was less after than before the sewing machine.  “As soon as lovely woman finds that she can set ten stitches in the time that one used to require, a fury seizes her to put ten times as many stitches in the garment as she formerly did.”

So, clothing got better, but the time spent making it did not.  (This is the difference between sketching out a chart by hand in 60 seconds, and having to do it on PowerPoint.  What wonderful labor savings the computer has wrought, eh?)

But if the sewing machine was a spectacular invention, the real innovation that resulted changed the very meaning of clothing and led to a “clothing revolution” in the second half of the 19th century in America

First, where 80% of clothing was homemade in the years after the American Revolution, 80% of clothing was “ready-made” by 1900.   Or, as the American consumer ascended over the American producer, such clothing would come to be known as “ready to wear.”  Meanwhile, the once noble term “hand-me-down” took on the meaning of shabby, unwanted clothing.

It’s hard for us to imagine what this meant in a world of ill-fitting, ethnic, hand-me-downs.  Imagine a Russian Jew, an Irish Catholic and a French Huguenot all arriving on Ellis Island on a Monday, and by Thursday all wearing essentially the same affordable, well made, good-fitting clothing as they walked down Broadway.  Poof—the sewing machine was stitching Americans.

Boorstin points out that this “democracy of clothing” bedeviled Europeans who visited America and could not tell a person’s class by his clothing.

Ready-to-wear clothing is what I would call, for lack of a better term, a binding innovation.  It bound people more closely together and built community.  It leveled and connected individuals in a kind of invisible web.  In the case of nineteenth-century America, it helped form a national identity.

Now, consider the most binding innovations in American history.  The newspaper would have to have been one; Boorstin writes about farmers who subscribed to three daily newspapers when they became available (postal delivery being another binding innovation) just to reduce the isolation of the farm.  The Montgomery Ward and Sears catalogs were incredibly binding innovations as well, as was the retail storefront, mass merchandising and advertising

Perhaps the granddaddy of all binding innovations in America, and the one we have come to hate most, is the television.  Millions of people from Baton Rouge to Bangor to Topeka to Olympia would (not so long ago) rush home on Thursdays to watch the same show at 8 p.m. so that they could talk about it the next morning at work.  Television taught a country built in states and regions what was beautiful, funny, sad, and historic.  It created national products and stars.  It taught us—whether Southerner or Westerner or New Englander-- how we wanted to look and smell, how we should decorate our homes, and what we should covet at Christmas.  

It’s hard to imagine a more binding innovation—and a greater nation-maker—than network television.

Which gets to my final wondering: Have the important technologies of the last twenty years been binding in nature?  This seems particularly important if you consider that newspapers are imploding, television declining and fracturing, and ready-made clothing (from Carhartt to Abercrombie and Fitch) is as apt to denote class as not.

The MP3 (and iPod in particular) is clearly a splintering innovation; it isolates and reduces civil discourse.  So, too, the personal computer, which is a solitary experience that has replaced “group” television as the after-dinner technology of choice.  Counter this, of course, with social networking which binds, but in a funny kind of way—around tribes, as Seth Grodin might say--and quite often transitory and hurtful ones.  (I saw a 300,000 person tribe on Facebook today all planning to boycott BP, which would wipe out the local distributor who had nothing to do with the Gulf spill and likely push BP’s oil to China.  That’s the kind of tribe that clearly shows the clueless nature of binding social networking.)

The Web was supposed to give us democracy (like ready-made clothes) and instead gave us massive powerbrokers like Google and Facebook.  Google binds but only as a common tool; the activities we undertake with it are sublimely personal. 

So, it’s all got me a little bit worried.  I love modern innovations that provide choice and flexibility and speed and improve the quality of my life.  And there seem to be more and more of those coming out every year.  

All of which leaves me feeling a little bit unbound.  Fractured.  Even splintered.  

It sure is going to be a very interesting century.