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A Magazine of Ideas

Tomorrow's Technological Breakthroughs: Hiding in Plain Sight?

Thursday, November 28, 2013

A look back at the Depression era reminds us to be skeptical of the technological pessimism of some leading economists today — few people foresaw just which inventions would be most momentous.

As Paul Krugman details in a recent column, many mainstream economists are concerned that a depressed economy may be the new norm. The case “was made forcefully recently at the most ultrarespectable of venues, the IMF’s big annual research conference,” he writes. Robert J. Gordon, Stanley G. Harris Professor in the Social Sciences at Northwestern University, has dismissed the job-creating potential of technological optimists’ favorite projects like biotechnology and self-driving cars, and concluded: “The future of American economic growth is dismal, and policy solutions are elusive.” Among others, the economics Nobel Laureate Edmund Phelps — no determinist — has deplored the decline of America’s innovative spirit.

But we should be skeptical of growing pessimism about the possibilities of technological innovation. A look back at the Depression era shows how many experts were similarly – and wrongly – myopic.

A new exhibition at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York casts remarkable light on the 1930s, a decade still synonymous for many people with images of gaunt-faced men in breadlines. Tragically, they were a large part of the story — but, as the photographs of Lewis Hine (1874-1940) show, far from the whole story. The ICP has two separately organized shows. One features the disturbing pictures of slum conditions and child laborers that first earned Hine fame before World War I. Hine had turned to photography to document immigration and the ills of urban life, as well as of Southern textile mills. Foundations and relief organizations engaged him to report on their work.


Tenner-hine-2Lewis Hine, “Worker making matchboard on cylinder machine, American Writing Paper Company, Holyoke, Massachusetts”, December 1936. ©International Center of Photography. Gift of the National Archives, Washington, D.C., 1975.


Throughout these projects, Hine kept a dual view of early 20th-century technology as often oppressive but sometimes ennobling. His “Power House Mechanic Working on a Steam Pump” (1920) was posed to show not a downtrodden laborer but a Promethean athlete of industry. In an apparently unpublished poster design in this exhibition, Hine celebrated automatic machinery for helping spare “breaker boys” the often life-threatening drudgery of separating impurities from coal by hand. In the early Depression years, he created a series of classic images of the construction of the Empire State Building by fearless riggers and riveters. “Work must develop, not deaden,” he once wrote.

Hine’s muckraking and celebratory works alike have been reproduced thousands of times. A much lesser-known project is the subject of the ICP’s second exhibition, “The Future of America.” The guest curator,  Judith Mara Gutman, author of Lewis W. Hine and the American Social Conscience, discovered box after box of documents in the National Archives pertaining to Hine’s work as chief photographer for a now-obscure enterprise of the Works Progress Administration, the National Research Project (NRP). The project, with a staff of 400 professional and support personnel, was the Roosevelt administration’s response to concerns often heard today: that innovation would continue to make more and more workers redundant.

One photograph by Hine from an NRP report reflects these fears — a track walker (a railroad worker responsible for inspecting and maintaining rails) at work on a right-of-way. New machines, including spike drivers, drilling machines, and mechanical track oilers, were displacing these once-ubiquitous generalists, the wall text notes. Advances in metallurgy were making possible more durable rails. Could such men be retrained and reemployed on the railroads or in other industries? Historian of technology Amy Sue Bix, in her book Inventing Ourselves Out of Jobs?, points to movements for a “technotax” levied on output of worker-displacing devices to provide relief and boost purchasing power. The NRP appears to have stayed clear of such controversial plans, and the idea was soon shot down, but not before achieving some mainstream support, for example in Kiwanis Magazine in 1935.

Hine’s photographs show how many small changes in production techniques were adding up to a revolution that would be apparent only during World War II. An image of a man painting doll heads by hand may look quaint to us, but the rubber-molding machinery was new. Innovative looms could be switched between weaving silk and new synthetic fibers. While mechanical watchmaking today is an enthusiast niche, it was at the forefront of 1930s technology; Hine portrayed a skilled inspector using a “high-precision toolmaker’s microscope, accurate to .0001 of an inch,” in the Hamilton Watch Co. factory in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.


Tenner-hine-3Lewis Hine, “Worker taking bottle off I.S. automatic glass-blowing machine for testing, Whitall Tatum Company, Millville, New Jersey”, April 1937. ©International Center of Photography. Gift of the National Archives, Washington, D.C., 1975.


The real picture, as the NRP concluded, was complex. Some skilled workers remained highly competitive using 19th-century equipment, like one 72-year-old weaver working with a 100-year-old knitting machine in a Pennsylvania mill. (Indeed, it might still be in use somewhere, perhaps in Asia, for fine woolens; today, Swiss luxury watchmakers employ some 19th-century geometric lathes for finishing complex decorations by hand, even though robots now produce many of the most precise mechanical parts). People trained on new machines might be in the same shop with skilled traditional operators. Relatively more workers were semiskilled than skilled. There were more opportunities for women. While unemployment declined from about 13 million in the early Depression to around 8 million in 1937, many of the technologically displaced, like track workers, could not find new positions.

Gutman, who is completing a new book on Hine and 1930s industry, notes that new forms of labor-management cooperation in some industries were in part created by the 1935 National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act, a side of the Depression that has received less attention than front-page strikes such as the bloody Battle of the Overpass at Ford Motor Company in 1937. Hine’s photography captures a patriotic optimism that, Gutman believes, helped assure the economy’s productivity in the coming war. What struck her in reviewing Hine’s work and the papers of the NRP was how — with collective bargaining, new technology, and workers' greater role — employers ceded some control, and unions accepted more of management's point of view. This compromise, she believes, helped revive the economy.

But Hine did not recognize, or was not given access to, many of the innovations that proved vital in the long run. One of his photos shows more efficient production of radios, but they were big, 1920s-style models. Meanwhile, in its factory in New Jersey, the Emerson Radio Co. had pioneered miniaturization with its “Peewee” model in 1932, beginning the transformation of listening from a wood-cased family console to a portable, plastic-housed set, the first step toward postwar personalized music. There are no aircraft assembly images among Hine’s photos in the exhibition, yet the DC-3, introduced in 1938 as the NRP was winding up its work, was the first aircraft that could pay for itself from scheduled passenger revenue.

Bix has noted that many manufacturers, stung by criticism of machinery and suspicious of the left-wing background of NRP staffers, did not cooperate with the survey. Some of the most advanced may have been sensitive about trade secrets. As a private photographer, Hine had only sporadic success in attracting commissions from companies seeking promotional photography, despite his skill and earlier fame. Thus even NRP’s reports and Hine’s photographs understated the potential for growth.  Sadly, Hine died poor in 1940, but he may have been cheered the previous year by an appreciation in Coronet magazine displayed at the ICP exhibition: “Necessity taught him technique. He was stepped over, unnoticed, while the masters wrestled at the rear door of the Metropolitan . . . His biting work will live long after academic fumes have blown away.”

Hine’s glimpses of the future – and those scenes he missed – remind us to be skeptical of technological pessimism. As the historian and economist Joel Mokyr (Robert Gordon’s colleague at Northwestern) has reminded us, the idea that we have picked the low-hanging fruit of technology calls for a counter-metaphor that bring to mind Hine’s photo of the toolmaker’s microscope: “Technology creates taller and taller ladders, and the higher-hanging fruits are within reach and may be just as juicy.”

Edward Tenner is author of Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences and Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity. He is a visiting researcher in the Rutgers Department of History and the Princeton Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies.   

FURTHER READING: Tenner also writes “The Value of Scientific Prizes,” “An Unnatural History of the Electronic Mouse,” and “The Dismal New Science of Stagnationism.” Arnold Kling contributes “Prosperity, Depression, and Progress,” Bret Swanson offers “Technology and the Growth Imperative” while Michael Sacasas describes “Technology in America.” Nick Schulz notes “The End of Stagnation and the Coming Innovation Boom” and “Innovation, Risk, and the ‘Most Hated Book of the Year.’” James Pethokoukis asks “The Slump That Never Ends: Does the U.S. Face ‘Secular Stagnation’?

Featured Image: Lewis W. Hine, “Mechanic at Steam Pump in Electric Power House”, 1920. Transfer from Photo League Lewis Hine Memorial Committee; ex-collection of Corydon Hine. © George Eastman House Collection. Reformatted by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group