American Capitalism – Toward a New History: Technology’s Influence on Politics

"Technology's Influence on Politics" is part 2 of a 3-part series on "American Capitalism—toward a new history.”

An entrepreneur has a radical vision:  moments after punching a key, customers will have any of a vast array of grocery items swiftly delivered.  The new technologies that make this possible, he believes, will transform the retail experience, eliminating inefficiencies, driving down costs, and propelling his organization to supplant the conventional stores that have long defined local economies.

To readers today, this might sound like Jeff Bezos, whose assault on the established grocery economy (via Amazon “Prime Now,” which recently became available in my home city of Baltimore) and attempt to develop automated delivery drones have been well documented.  But in the 1940s, this could just as easily have described Clarence Saunders, the one-time founder of Piggly Wiggly who was plowing the remnants of his fortune into an automated retail store called “Keedoozle.”

With the Piggly-Wiggly, Saunders had helped to eliminate cumbersome interactions between customers and clerks, bringing the items out onto open shelves for the customers to browse.  After a brief hiatus from the grocery industry in the mid-1930s, he became convinced that new technologies would make it possible to build stores that resembled oversized vending machines.  Customers would stroll around a plate-glass display space with specially designed keys, which they would use to identify the products they desired — at the conclusion of their trip, the items they chose would be dropped into a chute and conveyed into a waiting bag at the checkout counter. 

Each of Saunders’s attempts to implement the “Keedoozle” concept ran aground due to technological challenges:  he struggled to overcome balky conveyor belts, persistent electrical shorts, and customers who were puzzled by the peculiar keys.  But his efforts received widespread and sometimes breathless national attention in publications including Time, Life, Newsweek, and the New York Times.  By the early 1950s they were picked up by consultants as early exemplars of a new era:  one that would be defined by the “automation” of tasks that had previously required human labor.  Economists, sociologists, and journalists engaged in an increasingly urgent debate over the implications of technological developments that had the potential to perform ever more complicated and sensitive tasks.  Some worried that a new age of technological unemployment was on the horizon, while others (such as the cartoonist Arthur Radebaugh) envisioned a future of spectacular comfort and efficiency.

In some ways, such visions of the future — now over a half-century old — might strike contemporary observers as exotic and peculiar:  few prognosticators today dwell on the prospect of vending-machine stores or farming by helicopter.  But if we look beyond this initial dissonance, postwar debates about technology share many commonalities with the present.  In that era, leading scholars ranging from Norbert Wiener to Robert Heilbroner debated the human costs of “cybernetics” and the employment implications of the coming waves of “automation.”  Today, with the arrival of long-envisioned innovations including smart watches, digital libraries, and autonomous cars, we have once again entered an era of rapid and palpable technological change, with all the hope and anxieties it inspires.  Thus we find our bookstores overrun by a new wave of books predicting the Rise of the Robots, the onset of a Second Machine Age, or the onset of a new economy in which Average is Over.

Lou Galambos, Christy Chapin, and I have started the new research project on “American Capitalism” due in part to a belief that such contemporary debates at the intersection of technology and political economy — which are often framed by economists, political scientists, and engineers — can benefit from the contributions of historians as well.  Lou’s work, as he explained in his blog post last week, examines the cultural and economic “sequences” that have been set in motion by novel technologies, in order to situate contemporary debates about entrepreneurship in the context of its historical effects.   Christy’s current project explores the innovations and policy changes that have transformed credit allocation, which will help us to see the hidden ways in which government policy shaped the novel financial practices of the late twentieth century. 

My own research examines how technologies that came of age during the Second World War — like the complex mechanisms Clarence Saunders tried to leverage in building “Keedoozle” — influenced political debates in the decades that followed.  Many business executives and management theorists framed automation as a story of liberation, as humans would free themselves from the need to spend the vast majority of their labor growing food, making goods, or selling products.  Some sociologists and cultural critics envisioned a grim future in which work became both scarcer and more frivolous.  Regardless of their legitimacy, these competing visions of the future played a crucial role in shaping the responses of a broader public to the major policy questions of their time.

As we confront similar questions today, we gain some wisdom from the realization that the “radical disjuncts” proclaimed by forecasters today have been envisioned, debated, and to some extent experienced for the better part of a century.  The displacement of human labor by intelligent machines is an old story, albeit one with contours and implications that remain deeply inflected with uncertainty.  The intellectual history of technological entrepreneurship can help to remind us that even the future is rarely quite so new as it seems. 

Angus Burgin, Assistant Professor of History, Johns Hopkins University


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angus burgin

Angus Burgin

Angus Burgin’s research and teaching explores problems at the intersection of ideas, politics, and markets in the United States and the Atlantic world since the late 19th century.

Burgin serves on the faculty editorial board of Johns Hopkins University Press and is an executive editor of the series "Intellectual History of the Modern Age" with the University of Pennsylvania Press. He works with graduate students on a broad range of topics related to intellectual history, transnational history, and the history of capitalism.