Technology, History, and Place

Tag: technological change

Mike Mulligan, Mary Anne, and History of Technology

It turns out that one of my favorite children’s books growing up is a story about history of technology, although I didn’t realize this until I was an adult.

The book is Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, written by Virginia Lee Burton in 1939. In the book, Mike Mulligan owns an anthropomorphized coal-powered steam shovel named Mary Anne. For years, Mike and Mary Anne had been at the top of their game, digging canals, building highways, and excavating the foundations for skyscrapers. But then along come newer, fancier shovels powered by diesel, gasoline, and electricity. Mike starts to have trouble getting work for Mary Anne, because old-fashioned steam shovels are no longer wanted at construction sites.

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel cover

The cover of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, by Virginia Lee Burton. © Houghton Mifflin Company.

Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne

Mike Mulligan with his steam shovel Mary Anne.

Gasoline, electric, and diesel shovels

The new gasoline, electric, and diesel shovels that replace steam shovels.

Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne outside a construction site with "No Steam Shovels Wanted" written on the fence.

Mary Anne and Mike Mulligan, out of work and out of luck.

At length, Mike finds a job digging the foundation for the town hall of Popperville, a small town a long ways away from the big cities. At the end of the job, Mary Anne gets stuck in the basement of the town hall, because Mike had neglected to leave an exit for the steam shovel in his his haste to dig the foundation. Mary Anne ends up staying there and being repurposed as the boiler for the heating system of the building.

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel is a story of technological change and adaptive reuse. The introduction of gasoline, diesel, and electric shovels represents technological change. With the newer, higher-tech shovels available, steam shovels come to be seen as obsolete and undesirable.

What to do with obsolete technology? One solution is just to throw it away. That happens to many other steam shovels; on one page of the book, Mary Anne and Mike look down in horror into a ravine where other steam shovels have been dumped to go to rust. “Mike loved Mary Anne,” the book says. “He couldn’t do that to her.”

Mike and Mary Anne looking down at junked steam shovels

Mike and Mary Anne looking aghast at junked steam shovels, the sad fate of many obsolete machines.

A technology considered obsolete in a high-profile market might still be useful in a marginal market. I have written plenty about how supposedly obsolete technologies like ox-driven plows and VCDs live on in the Garo Hills of northeast India (or at least did ten years ago). In the same way, Mike could find work for Mary Anne in a small town, Popperville, after being pushed out of higher-profile markets like canal-building and skyscrapers.

At the end of the book, Mary Anne finds a more meaningful retirement than rusting to oblivion: as a steam heater in the Popperville town hall foundation that she dug. This is an example of adaptive reuse – finding new uses for old things that can no longer be used for their original purpose. Adaptive reuse provides a sense of continuity and is an example of what Kevin Lynch calls “wasting well.”

I would like to think that I first learned the value of adaptive reuse from Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel as a child. Whatever the case, adaptive reuse is a value worth learning, for children and adults alike.

Mary Anne serving as steam-heater for the Popperville town hall.

In her new role as steam-heater for the Popperville town hall, Mary Anne has lost her treads and the red walls of her cab, but she retains her front boom and anthropomorphic bucket, creating a sense of continuity and a reminder of her past life as a steam shovel.

Phones in the United States and India (part 2)

Compared to mobile phones, an even more recent arrival in India is the smartphone. In 2009, smartphones were unheard-of in the Garo Hills. I don’t remember ever seeing them anywhere I went in north and northeast India either. By 2013, smartphones were more in evidence in Jaipur when I spent the summer there, but more in TV ads than real life. Now in 2015, smartphones are becoming increasingly ubiquitous. When I ride the Delhi Metro, half of the passengers are fiddling with smartphones, reading something in English, Hindi, or Punjabi, or playing a game. Apple iPhones are not as common in India as the USA, since most people don’t care to pay the premium price. The Samsung Galaxy is much more common as a prestige phone. There are also several indigenous brands not seen in the USA, such as Micromax.

What is remarkable to me about smartphones in India is that they are being adopted by a wide range of social classes. There is nothing remarkable about the privileged urban youth of India using smartphones in 2015, although I feel that they try too hard to prove that they have arrived in the twenty-first century by taking too many selfies and signing up for all of the social media services, and then posting all of those selfies, and anything else they think or do, on all of the services. They aren’t just using the usual suspects like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, but also services I’d never heard of before coming to India this time.

What I do find remarkable is that some manual laborers and service workers, like the maid who works in the house where I stay in Delhi, have started using smartphones. Non-smartphones have not been marginalized in the market as definitively as they have been in the West, but it is clear to me that for certain classes of Indians, smartphones are now the only socially acceptable option. This is not the case for lower classes, but it is worth noting that lower-income groups now have access to the same technology that the privileged classes are using for status symbols.

Mobile phones gave many members of lower-income and rural populations access to their own phones for the first time. In the same way, smartphones are making the Internet more widely accessible. In the Garo Hills in 2009, when I wanted to check my e-mail, I had to hitch a ride to the nearby town and pay Rs. 40 an hour to use a slow, unreliable cell-network connection at a computer services shop. Sometimes I would arrive and the power would be out, or the manager would be away, or the connection would inexplicably not be working. This was an all-afternoon outing, and I could only make it once every week or two. I went to the effort to access the Internet because I had already become reliant upon it from my life in the West. For those who had never used the Internet before, it wasn’t likely that they were going to go out of their way to start using it there. Now, the growing number of smartphone users can access the Internet whenever they want, without having to go anywhere.

It is much too early to make any conclusions about what all of this means for Indian society. Are smartphones an egalitarian technology, like non-smartphones? TV ads that show sequestered women in rural Haryana using their smartphones to access educational resources would have you believe so. Of course, TV ads playing on the same channels also claim that “Love and Nourish” soap will give you perfect skin like Kareena Kapoor, and “Juzt Jelly” candies will give you the strength of the children’s cartoon hero Chhota Bheem. In the case of smartphones, though, this technology may indeed give economically disadvantaged people access to knowledge resources that were too expensive to access beforehand. Or smartphones might prove to be just a passive form of entertainment, opening the way for huge sections of the Indian population to become addicted to the next “Candy Crush.” I suspect that smartphones in India are already on their way to proving themselves as both useful tools and useless toys.

Phones in the United States and India (part 1)

When I first went to India in 2009, I was surprised to see that seemingly everybody had a mobile phone. I still thought of mobile phones as a luxury, because that is how the technology began its life in the United States. But by 2009, even in the rural Garo Hills, cowherds and fishermen had mobiles, even though these people led lives that were figuratively and literally a world apart from the affluent American college students I had been used to seeing with cell phones. Surely if Garo villagers could afford mobiles, then this technology was no longer a luxury.

The course of technological change has been quite different in India and the United States. The adoption of telephones illustrates the difference. In the USA, the first telephones came into use in the late nineteenth century, and they worked by sending voice encoded as electric signals through lines specially strung for that purpose. Telephones served a niche urban market at first, but as they became cheaper and the American population became more affluent, they expanded to suburban and rural markets as well. Telephone use became overwhelmingly common in the United States after World War II.

Mobile phones, also known as cell phones, were a much later addition to the American technological landscape, but they took root faster than the traditional wired phones or landlines. The earliest handheld mobiles reached the market in the 1980s, but they were bulky and impractical, as well as extremely expensive. They came in two parts: a handset and an additional transmitter and battery pack that the user carried in the other hand, like a combat telephone. My father reports that despite their impracticality, early mobile phones were a status symbol, and he would see executives proudly carrying them on the streets of San Francisco.

Both the size and the cost of mobile phones decreased dramatically during the 1990s. By the middle of the decade, they were cheap enough to be within reach of the American middle class mass, although they did not really start to catch on until the end of the decade. Around the middle of the next decade, my demographic at the time, college students, had so thoroughly adopted mobile phones that now anybody who didn’t have one had to explain why not.

The course of technological adoption in India was quite different, because wired landlines never became as popular here as they did in the United States. Telephone networks existed in India during colonial times, but they were limited to large cities and were too expensive for the majority of the population. After Independence in 1947, cities were linked through Standard Trunk Dialing (STD) networks, but the vast majority of the Indian population still lived in villages and had no access to this service. Even for urbanites, installing a telephone line was a lengthy process with manifold bureaucratic hurdles. In Anurag Mathur’s novel The Inscrutable Americans, the main character Gopal tells his American friend Randy that the installation of a telephone line in a home is a cause for celebration, second in importance only to the birth of a son. This is of course artistic license, but it illustrates how difficult it was to obtain a telephone connection in pre-liberalization India.

This began to change with the advent of mobile phone networks in the 1990s. The widespread adoption of mobile phones in India lagged the United States by about five years. In 2000, mobile phones were still a luxury in India. Each call cost Rs. 10, and handsets were out of the reach of all but the wealthy. This changed when the private industrial conglomerate Reliance Industries forced competing carriers to lower their rates by slashing handset costs and call prices by 90 percent. (A friend of mine in Delhi tells me that he got his first mobile phone in 2003 as a free promotional with 5 kg of oil.) By 2009, mobile networks had spread all across the country, and now served rural areas where it would have been too expensive to run landlines. For most of the Indian population (India’s population is still 70 percent rural), mobile phones leapfrogged landlines. Communities that had no access to any form of two-way direct communication now had telephones that they could carry with them wherever they went.

Mobile phones facilitated cultural change in both the United States and India, but the change was much more dramatic in India. Ten years ago, when cell phones were still novel enough in my demographic to be worth discussing, I heard this line on a regular basis: “I just don’t know how we survived before cell phones!” But this was a silly thing to say. Of course the way we survived was by planning ahead and using landlines. For the mass of the Indian population, the adoption of mobile phones really was revolutionary, because it allowed instantaneous voice communication over a distance, as well as the mobility that my demographic found so indispensable. But for us in the West, mobile phones were evolutionary, not revolutionary, because they permitted an extension of capabilities that we already had. For those Indians who had never had landlines, mobile phones really were revolutionary.

By 2009, mobile phones had gotten cheap enough to be accessible even to most of the poorer classes of Indians. Mobile phones facilitated business transactions and community organization, more quickly and cheaply than any means available prior to the phones’ arrival. Since they are now so widely accessible, mobiles have become an egalitarian technology, as they give a large portion of the population access to useful services previously accessible only to the elite.

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