With or without edtech.

Earlier today, my Twitter friend Jon Becker @ed me a link to an EdSurge essay about edtech and refrigerators, suggesting that I was “the only person qualified to comment on this.” Indeed, I can say with some certainty that I am the only person in the world who has written two books on refrigerators who is also interested in education technology. So when the Clayton Christensen Institute for Cheerleading Disruption of All Kinds throws a slow, hanging softball made especially for me, how can I possibly resist?

For those of you who refuse to read anything produced by the Clayton Christensen on principle (and I have some sympathy for that position these days), let may save you a click. The author, Julia Freeland Fisher, uses research on comparative appliance adoption rates by her colleague, Horace Dediu, to argue that:

[I]t’s becoming increasingly acknowledged that we need to pair investments in edtech tools with investments in professional development. But for the tools and models that least conform to traditional school structures, we’re also likely to need investments in fundamental reengineering—that is, not just developing teachers’ proficiency in using tools but rethinking processes like schedules, evaluations and staffing throughout an entire school building or district.

What do refrigerators have to do with restructuring schools? In order to use a new refrigerator, consumers only had to plug them in. In order to use washing machines, on the other hand, consumers needed plumbers to help them and maybe a whole new set of pipes in their houses. That’s why refrigerators became much more popular, much faster than washing machines and that’s why you need to change the way schools are structured so that they can best take advantage of all the wonderful new education technology that EdSurge must cover every day.

The first thing that jumped out at me about this article was Fisher’s basic dates in the history of the refrigerator. She says the refrigerator debuted in the 1930s. The first electric household refrigerators appeared during the 1910s. They were already being mass-produced by the late-1920s. “Refrigerators quickly took hold,” she writes “gaining over 90 percent adoption by the late 1950s.” I actually used the exact same statistic in my book Refrigeration Nation (p. 179, for all my fellow refrigerator aficionados who want to consult your own copies), but I used it to make the exact opposite point about refrigerators. In 1957, when over 90% of American households had refrigerators, only 12% of French households had refrigerators and less than 10% of English households did. If refrigerators were really that great, why didn’t they too just plug them in and enjoy the bounty?

As a historian, this is where I became really curious about where Fisher got her statistics. While she namechecks her colleague Dediu, there’s no link in the piece to any published study about refrigerators and washing machines. Indeed, the only link in the entire essay is to a general study about technological diffusion. There’s a chart in Fisher’s essay about comparative adoption curves, but there’s no source listed for that either. Other than completely leaving out the bottom left, the curve for refrigerators looks OK to me, but how can I trust her point about washing machines if I don’t anything about the source? How can I be sure that this isn’t the edtech equivalent of fake news?

That’s why I opened a book. Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s More Work for Mother is a classic in the history of technology and pretty close to the only scholarly work that tackled the history of refrigerators at any length before I did. Since it is a general history of appliances, I figured it might have a little bit about washing machine adoption rates in one of the sections I had forgotten about. So I pulled it down off my shelf, turned to the index and quickly hit the jackpot; “washing machines…diffusion, 195-96.” Here’s the quote:

“[I]n 1941–roughly thirty years after they came on the market, and twenty years after the prices had fallen to more or less reasonable levels as a result of mass production–only 52 percent of the families in the United States owned or had “interior access” to a washing machine. Thus, just under half the families in the land were either still hand rubbing or hand cranking their laundry or using commercial services.”

If you’re wondering, the Fisher/Dediu number is about 10 percentage points lower than the one that Cowan used. Perhaps this can be explained by the difference between owning a washing machine and “accessing” a washing machine in the basement of your apartment building or taking your dirty laundry down the street to a laundromat. But for purposes of Fisher’s overall point about edtech, this distinction means everything.

Can you live without a refrigerator? Most Americans can’t. [Indeed, the refrigerator adoption rate in the modern US is actually 99.5%.] However, French or English people in 1957 still had easy access to fresh meat and produce at large markets.  Many still choose to live that way today because fresh perishable food tastes better. Americans, on the other hand, tend to preference convenience over taste. That’s why the refrigerator industry was one of only three in the whole United States to grow during the Great Depression.  Anyone who had any money to spend at that time greatly valued the added convenience of electric refrigerators over ice. By 1960, the old ice industry basically disappeared because it ran out of customers.

Can you live without a washing machine? Of course you can. That’s why there are still coin-operated washing machines and laundromats. Keeping your food in other people’s refrigerators isn’t an option in the United States, but you don’t need constant access to a washing machine in order to get your clothes washed by machine when needed. In other words, owning your own refrigerator is close to the only way to have access to refrigeration, but dragging your dirty clothes to any laundromat is a reasonable way to get access to a washing machine even if there is none in your home or apartment.  There’s only one way to keep your perishable food fresh, but there are plenty of ways to get your clothes washed whether you own a washing machine or not. In short, refrigerators are close to a necessity. Washing machines are just really, really convenient.

Can you live without edtech? [You just knew I had to get around to edtech here eventually, right?] Shockingly enough, there were actually good schools in the United States long before Bill Clinton and Al Gore decided to put a computer in every classroom. Plenty of teachers and professors offer great classes of all kinds without anything more sophisticated than their voices and a chalkboard. Weirdly enough, just this morning, right after I read that article, I was pitching our dean on starting a digital humanities program in our college. “What about the professors who don’t want to use technology?,” he asked me. I said I would never in a million years force any teacher to use technology if they don’t want to, but it’s a actually a good thing if students have a wide range of classes in which they can enroll, some of which use educational technology and some of which don’t.

Which brings me to the fundamental problem with the Clayton Christensen Institute for Cheerleading Disruption of All Kinds. The whole assumption behind that article is that one technology will always inevitably drive another technology to extinction: Refrigerators will completely replace ice, washing machines will completely replace washboards and edtech will completely replace conventional teaching. That is only true for the first of those examples (and even then, only really in the United States). Whether teachers want to teach with or without edtech is a cultural decision, not some hard and fast rule determined by the universal laws of technology.

Unless, of course, you have some other axe to grind…

“You got so much to do and only so many hours in a day.”

From start to finish (minus another book in the middle) it took thirteen years to get Refrigeration Nation into print. The problem was deciding the level of focus that I wanted. I was drowning in material long before Google Books got large enough so that I could have spent the rest of my life trying to read everything ever written about the ice and refrigeration industries. But since there hadn’t been another book published on this subject since the early-1950s, I opted for a long relatively shallow history that offered a little bit about most of the things that I had researched rather than any kind of deep dive.

This left me with a lot of unused material. Some of that unused material went into this:

Yes, Refrigerator has arrived. It’s not just a cool-looking book. It looks like an art book to me. I expect to see it in small independent bookstores on a rack with all the other cool books from this series any day now.  Then I’ll go buy myself an expensive cup of coffee.

I hadn’t expected this when noted Renaissance Guy Ian Bogost recruited me for this assignment after reading one of my MOOC diatribes and seeing that I wrote about refrigeration. What I did expect was that this would be my chance to write about a lot more than the history of refrigerators, and it is.

At one time, Refrigeration Nation was going to have a Chapter Nine about the present. A lot of that stuff is in here. So is my experience walking around Lowe’s and Home Depot the summer before last and staring at refrigerator tags.  And so is everything that learned window shopping for refrigerators on Amazon.com [Yes, Amazon sells refrigerators. How? They call you within a few days to set up a delivery window. And of course they specialize in the REALLY expensive ones.]

I also devote even more space to the question of why American refrigerators are so darn big. Among the characters making appearances in this book are William “The Refrigerator” Perry, Mr. Freeze and former Obama Energy Secretary Stephen Chu. This ain’t exactly a conventional history book (in fact, it’s not really much of a history book at all), but writing it really was an awful lot of fun.

Coincidentally, I just handed a manuscript to my editor at Hopkins a week and a half ago for another closer look at refrigeration.  How We Used to Get Ice gets into greater detail about the American ice industry and even covers a few aspects of refrigeration history that weren’t in either of these other books because this subject is still just that wide open.  That book is much more scholarly than Refrigerator (in some ways more so than Refrigeration Nation even), but I’m still hoping antiquarian types obsessed with the ice man might want to read it. After that, I have one more thing to publish about refrigeration – an article on refrigeration and mortality for an economics journal co-written with my brother. Then I think that’s it for me and the cold, at least from a publishing standpoint.

So what’s next?  I’ve been very slowly working on a food history-related biography for a very long time now, but the going has been very slow because getting to the Library of Congress where his papers are is so hard. There are almost no funds for research in DC.  Furthermore, this guy has so many boxes in his collection that I can CamScanner everything in sight for a whole day and only make it through five boxes because you still have to read like crazy to decide what documents you want to shoot in the first place.

So I’m gonna simplify. Instead of being the refrigeration and food history and edtech guy, I think I’m just going be the history of technology guy.  Period.  I have two more chapters of the edtech book that I announced here to write before our February deadline, then I think I’m going to try my hand at something completely different  – a general history of the electrical grid in America.

I’ve actually developed a great fondness for the subject already just working with my brother since he has to be able to zero out the health effects of electricity in order to isolate the health benefits of refrigeration.  What were the health effects of electric ovens, fans and electric light?  Did electricity save jobs or cost them?  I don’t know…yet.

Yes, the history of electricity in America has been done, but as far as I know not with an emphasis on the social impact of this technology and not by me. I’m going to write it better.  I’ll make it interesting enough so that my Dad (whose favorite thing in the world to do on weekends was to read 700-page presidential biographies) would have enjoyed it.

I think I already understand what this decision could mean. One of the great things about this Bloomsbury experience is that they hired a book publicist for all the Object Lessons series. You’ll see links to the fruits of her work (at least her work for me) in this space over the next few weeks. How am I ever gonna go back to the farm now that I’ve seen Paris? My goal for the future is to get an agent, a decent advance, a couple of fellowships and then to sell books to the masses – with an occasional edtech-related diatribe thrown in so that I don’t feel left out of all the fun.

And with all the extra hours I get from only writing one book at a time, maybe I can enjoy living a little more.  As much as I love all my readers here, I gotta say that this not blogging very much thing has already done wonders for my outlook on life.  After all, being outraged two or three times a week takes an awful lot of energy.

* Oddly enough, there is already a new general history of refrigeration out since Refrigeration Nation came out in 2013 and a new one coming very soon. Great timing, huh?

Your mid-summer refrigeration history update.

Why haven’t I been blogging more?  Writing.  Refrigerator is now out of my hands and is scheduled to appear in September.  I wrote that last summer as something of a lark – heck, at least half of it isn’t even history – but it was lots of fun to do.

This summer I’ve been spending all my spare time on How We Used to Get Ice for Johns Hopkins againIf Refrigeration Nation is like the trunk of a tree, starting with 1806 at the base and the present at the top, this is the book where I follow some of the middle branches out towards their ends.  There’s a lot more juicy detail on natural ice harvesting, ice delivery men – even ice skating rinks and ice cream – not in either of the two previous books.  [Yes, that’s how much material got left on the proverbial cutting room floor for Refrigeration Nation.  I repeat a few small points and cite myself, but otherwise it’s all new evidence.]  I’m grateful that Hopkins gave me the opportunity to put more of all that research out in print.  All I have left to do is write the conclusion and then I’ll see how they like it.  Hopefully, it will appear sometime next year.

Speaking of Refrigeration Nation, the academic publishing and review process is so bloody slow that I’m just now seeing some of the stuff that was published about the book earlier this year.  Here’s a piece of one from History: Reviews of New Books which I just got this morning:

Refrigeration Nation is a well-written and useful book for both scholars and students.  Readers can learn a great deal from how Rees has researched, organized and presented his ideas and materials.”

Here’s part of the review in Agriculture History by Shane Hamilton (who I know from conferences, but then again that’s what makes him such a good choice as a reviewer):

“Rees’ book is a most welcome contribution to our understanding of how Americans came to expect cold drinks, unpickled produce, and unsalted meats as a matter of course.”

This is the last paragraph of the Food Culture & Society review:

Rees…is well equipped to write this scholarly and comprehensive account of the history of coolness. He delves into the very infrastructure of ice-making, chronicling the engineering feats, describing the machinery of temperature control, and a particularly appealing exploration of human ingenuity that has made refrigerated food the norm in American homes.

As you might imagine, this all makes me very happy.

Should all this reviewing incline you to actually purchase a copy of Refrigeration Nation. you can click the cover over on the right.  They tell me that I’m on the list for the next meeting to discuss what’s next to come out in paperback, but honestly I have no idea how long that might take.  At least these reviews greatly increase my confidence that you’ll see Refrigeration Nation in paperback before too long.