Sunday, February 22, 2015

Miss Conduct to the Rescue: A Case for "Big Narrative"

Chillicothe, Missouri, paved and tidy for the automobile,
was also home of the first sliced bread in 1928
It’s relatively easy to measure the speed of technology adoption. We know, for instance, that there were 8,000 automobiles on American roads in 1900 and about 25 million in 1950.  Both quantitatively and intuitively, that’s rapid growth.   Likewise, U.S. smartphone penetration in 2005 was 20.2% and in 2014 was 50.1%, another technological blur.

What’s harder to measure is the speed at which technology changes our behavior, or our ideas about how the world should work.  Speed, penetration and adoption are a function of numbers and can be charted.  Behavior is a function of opinion and emotion, and for that we need narrative.

In 1950 journalist Clyde Brion Davis (1894-1962) wrote a colorful biography, The Age of Indiscretion, about growing up at the turn of the 20th century in Chillicothe, Missouri.  Davis’s folksy story of the coming of the automobile provides a textured narrative for how one small Midwestern town adapted.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Innovator's Dilemma, 1972 Style

I was reading an article in the November 1972 Harper's Magazine and came upon this advertisement for a Hermes typewriter.  It reads like an early recipe for Clayton Christensen's Innovator's Dilemma, a book not due out for another 25 years.

"We've always made big, fancy-featured" typewriters, the ad says.  "Then we realized. . .the secretaries hardly ever used the fancy frills we put on the machines.  And what they really needed was a typewriter that could do all the basic things well. . .Best of all, the clever Swiss engineering that makes our typewriters just half the size of the usual office clunkers, also makes it about half the price."

Monday, February 2, 2015

Gone With the Hogshead Cask and Demijohn

Over the last week I have breezed through about 20 issues of The Outlook, a national magazine published in New York City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The Outlook had broad appeal as a general interest magazine not unlike the Saturday Evening Post, but paid particular attention to the social ills of the Industrial Revolution.  I had a special interest in getting a “boots on the ground” feel for the opening years of the 20th century, and with that in mind, had acquired on eBay a cluster of the magazine ranging in dates from 1898 to 1908. 

It only takes a few hours to get drawn into the old century.  Queen Victoria died in January 1901, the end of an era.  President McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo.  The Boer War raged in South Africa.  America struggled with what to do in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, how to deal with Hawaii, and whether to pick up work in Panama on an abandoned French canal.  Reporters also closely followed France’s shameful Dreyfus Affair.  The Outlook detailed the so-called "Japanese problem” and “Chinese problem,” wrestling with how America could assimilate tens of thousands of immigrants whose cultures seemed so different.  The lynching of blacks in the South and West was becoming more violent and pervasive.  Labor and “capital” were at each other’s throats from the mills of Pennsylvania to the textile factories of New England to the mines of Colorado.  There were features on skyscrapers, the nascent automobile industry, women’s education, and the ten greatest books of the 19th century (with the consensus #1 being Darwin’s Origin of the Species followed closely by Goethe’s Faust).