I adore all types of technology. My favourite is the selfie toaster that imprints your photo directly onto your morning toast. In my opinion this toaster is a must for every modern kitchen. It is these types of automated inventions that make me wonder why was it created, and what problem was it trying to solve?
So when I was visiting the Museum of Modern Art in New York City a few months ago I was overjoyed to discover an exhibition called Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959–1989. This exhibit combined art and design to trace back how computers transformed and reshaped our lives.
The questions that came to my mind when touring the Thinking Machines exhibit was: what causes ineffectiveness in our processes, and does technology help or make it worse?
In the year 1804, a man named Joseph Marie Jacquard asked this same question. Jacquard was born to a family of weavers and strived to improve the textile loom used to create fabrics. Jacquard wanted to improve the manual and labour intensive process to weave existing designs. He created a head that controlled a chain of punch cards laced together in a sequence, and each row of punched holes matched one row of thread in the design. With the Jacquard head attached to existing looms, the time to create a textile was considerably shortened and the loom could be operated by one person instead of multiple people.
Jacquard recognized the nature of weaving was repetitive, and his invention changed the way patterns were created. According to The Institute, the Jacquard loom quickly became the standard during the industrial revolution for weaving luxury fabrics.
The first punch card computer invented in the early 1880’s by Herman Hollerith was said to be inspired by the Jacquard loom. Hollerith’s new company called the Tabulating Machine Company eventually became IBM. And Charles Babbage, known as the “father of the computer”, was also influenced by Jacquard’s work. Some historians believe the Jacquard loom was the earliest computer as it produced an output (the woven fabric) in response to the input (the string of punch card designs). Many process experts also believe it was the earliest known form of LEAN techniques in the workplace, since this invention and the later power driven loom set in motion a stream of continuous improvements over time. I find it fascinating how Jacquard’s work influenced modern computing and process improvement techniques.
However automation of textiles led to mass production of clothing and left many workers unemployed during the industrial revolution. When we fast forward to present day there is an overabundance of clothing choices; I can buy six inexpensive shirts that never get worn. When I donate these shirts to a charitable organization, they are offered to individuals in a developing nation who find the shirts culturally inappropriate and all six shirts land in that country’s landfill. This is an unintended consequence of automation. A LEAN process is supposed to eliminate waste, but in the case of textile automation we may be creating more waste over time.
When considering whether or not to automate, we should be asking the most important question of all: what is the real problem we are trying to solve and will automation always be the answer?
No, I do not own a selfie toaster. But to those of you that do, as you gaze at your toast each morning you could ask – has this really solved my problem?