On the Dynamo and EmailJune 22nd, 2021 · 11 comments
In an article about remote work that I wrote for the New Yorker last year, I pointed to an underground classic research paper titled “The Dynamo and the Computer: An Historical Perspective on the Modern Productivity Paradox.” It was written by a Stanford economist named Paul David, and published in the American Economic Review in 1989.
In the article, David performs a close study of the adoption of electric dynamos in factories at the turn of the twentieth century. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s obvious that the right way to leverage electric power in factories is to put a small individual motor on each piece of equipment. As David points out, however, it took decades after the introduction of practical electrical generation before this obvious shift finally occurred.
As I summarized:
“[A]t the turn of the century, most factories were powered by massive central steam engines. The engines turned overhead shafts, which were connected by an intricate array of belts and pulleys to close-packed machinery. When electric motors were first introduced, factory owners tried to integrate them into their existing setups; often, they’d simply replace the hulking steam engine with a giant electric dynamo. This introduced some conveniences—no one had to shovel coal—but also created complexities. It was hard to keep all the electrical components working; many factory owners opted to stay with steam.”
I think this example is useful in orienting our thinking about the technological disruptions afflicting commerce in our current century.
The arrival of digital networks in the office is similar to the arrival of electrical power to factories. In both cases, the innovation is accompanied by a confident intuition that the very nature of how we work is poised for an irreversible shift toward a new, better configuration.
But as David’s paper underscores, these shifts can be slow to unfold. New technology is often a necessary but not sufficient precondition for revolution. The other ingredient is the uneven, frustrating work of changing the definition of “work” to accompany the new tool.
At the turn of the century, factories had all of the components needed to deploy the much more efficient individual motor approach to manufacturing. But it still took decades for them to actually make the shift away from hulking central power plants and overhead spinning shafts.
Today we almost certainly have all the technological tools needed to push knowledge work into its next productive phase shift. But we remain in the moment mired to instead simply moving unstructured interactions into email threads and Zoom meetings; the Digital Age equivalent of hooking up a new electric motor to the old belt drive system.
The solution is not to look to Silicon Valley and ask for better innovations. The needed technological innovations have already arrived in the form of Ethernet, email, and interactive HTML. Where we need to turn our attention is back toward our own proverbial factories and ask if there’s a better way to run our machines.