In one of the free-access halls of the Art Gallery of New South Wales you can find this painting. It’s called The Widower, and was painted by Joseph Tisott in 1877. I cannot go to the Art Gallery without looking at this painting, and I cannot do so without tears in my eyes.
This painting encapsulates so much emotion. The little girl is happy; the father worries. The year is 1877. His wife has died leaving him to look after his children by himself. He works a back-breaking job on the land or doing some trade. He cannot stop work or work less to look after his children. There is no worker protection or insurance. There is no 9 to 5. There is no one to look after the children. If he doesn’t already know how to cook, sew or clean, he could learn to do this without a doubt, but, the thing is… merely doing the laundry is a major backbreaking task, and so is cooking and cleaning, and there is no time in the day for him to do this. Not while he is alone. He’ll need a housekeeper, or he’ll need to re-marry.
This post is not about gender issues. It is about how much technology has liberated us from doing menial tasks whose only function it is to keep ourselves fed and clean.
I read an article in the newspaper a while back that the greatest technological invention that has made the most profound difference on our daily lives is not the internet, or the car. It is the humble washing machine.
My paternal grandmother was born in 1897, and she grew up in a fairly backward place, where there was no electricity. Their pre-contraception household had 13 people, and doing the washing was a huge, hard and relentless task. They surely didn’t wash clothes as often as we do, but they did change one sheet on the bed every week, and washed, bleached and ironed all their clothes. Pre-electricity.
Our family has only five people, but the contraption I fear breaking down the most is the washing machine. At our place, I do the washing. If I had to hand-wash our clothes, or even half of them, I would spend a couple of hours a day doing this. I would have no time to work. Moreover, I would not be able to leave the house for more than a day, because my family, lovely and able as they all are, would not have this kind of time in their day to do this either.
So, consider that next time you design a low-technology world.