TCS Daily

Cottage Industry

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - September 3, 2003 12:00 AM

The Industrial Revolution, we're often told, started back when cottage industry was replaced by factories.  The results were widespread, ramifying throughout society.  Before the Industrial Revolution, artisans worked in or alongside their homes, often with children observing and even helping.  After the Industrial Revolution, workers were segregated in factories, where specialized facilities took advantage of new technologies, and of the economies of scope and scale that those technologies made available.


Blacksmiths could make steel or work iron in small quantities, but foundries could do it better, and cheaper.


Of course, with the workers off at factories learning the kind of skills -- like punctuality and the ability to follow orders -- that factories required, something had to be done with the kids.  This led to two major changes: women often specialized in childrearing to a much greater extent than previously, when childrearing was just part of the household work, and children were segregated in massive "educational factories' of their own: public schools that were organized, quite explicitly, in mimicry of factories and assembly lines, with students envisioned as the products.  (What's more, the student-products were designed to be good factory employees themselves.)


And that was, overall, a good thing.  Though blacksmiths are capable of amazing work (here's a good book on the subject, in which I have a passing interest), there's a reason they were replaced for almost all applications by industrial operations. Industrial Revolution techniques took precedence because they worked better than what they replaced.  And that made everyone richer, and, overall, freer.  The social transformations that went with them, on the other hand, were dragged along in their wake and didn't necessarily get adopted because they worked better than what they replaced.


Now, it may be that things are starting to change.  I was struck by this passage from the writer John Scalzi's weblog, describing the impact of wi-fi on his life:


At the moment, I'm writing this in Athena's room, on the floor the computer propped up on my lap; Athena is behind me on her bed making up a Powerpuff adventure. Three weeks ago I would have to be in my office to type this and Athena would be coming in about every six seconds to ask me something or to ask me to do something or whatever, which means I would actually have a difficult time getting work done when she was around; now she's happy to let me work because I have proximity to her. She still asks me questions and such, but once I've answered she's off on her own thing.


Interestingly, this also works with Krissy; she's more content to let me do work if I'm in line of sight. There's a real psychological difference between being in the office all the time, away from the family while I'm doing work, and being in the room, doing work while the family is doing stuff around me. It's useful for me (especially when I'm on deadline, like I am right now), and it's better for the family.


I've noticed much the same thing in my work.  I work at home a lot more often, and - thanks almost entirely to the combination of a laptop computer and wireless

Internet - I do it all over the house, often sitting in a chair while my daughter plays with dolls or does homework.  She spends a lot more time around me than I spent with my dad, and this is one reason why.


It's a mixed bag, of course: you can look at it as getting to spend time with your family while you take care of work, or you can look at it as having to work when you're with your family, and no doubt both perspectives are valid from time to time.  But overall, I think it's different, and I suspect that it's a lot better for kids.


What's more, I know a lot of other people who are doing the same thing as technology goes full circle and makes it easier to do many kinds of jobs at home.  Obviously, some jobs are more amenable to the cottage-industry approach than others.  It would be hard to run a car-repair business, much less a blast-furnace, out of your home.  (The folks across the street from me tried running a coffee service out of their home for a while, but the neighbors objected, reasonably enough, to semi-trailer trucks full of coffee backing down the street to make deliveries at all hours).


But many jobs will move back home, at least in part.  (And if you believe, as Virginia Postrel suggests, that more jobs will have an aesthetic component in the coming years, that trend may accelerate even more).  New advances in computer-aided design and manufacturing, along with things like nanotechnology further down the line, may advance the trend as well.


How will this change society at large?  Rather a lot, I expect, and the schools will just be part of it. But that's a topic for another column.

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