What the technology of the past can tell us about the technology of the future

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For most of human history, women have been associated with weaving. Weaving was integral to making clothing, and making clothing was a central role in women taking care of the home. Even goddesses such as Athena were heavily associated with weaving (as we see in the story of Athena and Arachne). In this wikipedia article you can see in many cultures how weaving and women are heavily intertwined in their mythology and folklore. However, that association has not carried over to the present day, thanks to the automation of weaving and particularly the Jacquard loom, which introduced the idea of a machine weaving instead of a human.

In Sadie Plant’s “The Future Looms: Weaving Women and Cybernetics,” she discusses Margaret Mead’s research on the Tiv people of Nigeria. In particular she observes that the mechanization of weaving led to a huge disruption in the home, where one of the woman’s main tasks was in fact weaving. This leads her to this observation:

Mead’s study suggests that weaving was integral to the identity of the Tiv women; washing, pounding and carrying water may fulfil this role in other cultures where they, like weaving, are always more than utilitarian tasks. (pg. 56)

In other words, weaving was about more than just producing cloth. Weaving was a part of a Tiv woman’s identity, it was one of the ways she defined herself. Plant continues discussing the implications of mechanized weaving below:

The disruption of family relations caused by the introduction of mechanics to any of these tasks shatters the scenery of female identity: mechanization saves time and labour, but these were not the issue (pg. 56)

Again, weaving, for a Tiv woman, was not just about the outcome. Weaving was just as much about the person making it as it was about the resulting product. All of this leads Plant to a central question posed by introduction of this new technology:

If women were not the weavers and water carriers, who would they be?

This may seem like a ridiculous question now, but at the time, this was a very legitimate question. Weaving was an integral part of the woman’s identity, now with that job being taken by machines, who were they now?

The reason this sounds like a ridiculous question now is we know women are so much more than water carriers and weavers. While they can choose to focus on domestic tasks and staying home, they aren’t confined to that. At least, they aren’t as confined to that as they once were. As a whole, we’ve certainly acknowledged that women are not just defined by their domestic skills.

What does this have to do with AI?

Any kind of coverage of AI is deeply polarized. It’s either the thing that’s going to save the world or it’s going to be the thing that ends the world. This is something that I’ve discussed in previous articles, and it’s something discussed at length in the news corpus study of Framing Big Data. One of the things that is discussed as a negative is that AI is going to automate everything and take all our jobs. Everyone at some point has heard, either serious or joking, that, “the robots are going to take our jobs.” This is constructed to be this huge cause for concern and anxiety. People are going to be out of jobs as soon as technology does what they can do, especially if that technology is more efficient or less error-prone or can work longer hours.

While I’m not going to say these concerns are totally illegitimate, I do think this is another case of “the sky is not actually falling.” Sure, there will be jobs that will no longer exist because a machine can do it just as well as a human. But that’s not unique to AI, that’s just how human progress works. Additionally, by focusing on what we lose, we forget to focus on what we may gain. This is where the advent of mechanized weaving can show us a glimpse of our own future.

There are many reasons why women have been given the option of leaving the domestic sphere. One of the huge reasons is because there is enough technology that can automatically do the things she used to have to manually do. She doesn’t have to weave, she doesn’t even have to make her own or her family’s clothes. When we gain technology that does things for us, we’re able to accomplish so much more. Women are able to do more and accomplish more because running a house literally takes less work than it used to. This hasn’t led to an entire gender languishing away in the home, hardly doing a thing. This has led to the redefinition of gender roles and a greater range of options for women in society.

It’s easy to be anxious about the future, but the truth is, there is nothing new under the sun. While the technology itself may be novel, its impact and potential is something we’ve seen many times over. By looking back at the seemingly unassuming example of weaving, we can see an example of mechanization and automation changing human societal roles. There are certainly people that will say that something is lost in automation, and as someone who knits and has made her own clothes, I can’t say I completely disagree with them. However, I don’t knit out of necessity, and because of that, I feel free to make more complex, time consuming projects. In the same way, automation can, and does, lead to human creativity and innovation, because they’re not bound to monotonous tasks. Plus, I think we all know someone whose job title didn’t even exist not too long ago. We may lose jobs in some areas, but we’ll gain so much as well.

[1] PLANT, SADIE. “The Future Looms: Weaving Women and Cybernetics.” Body & Society 1, no. 3–4 (November 1995): 45–64. doi:10.1177/1357034X95001003003.

[2] Paganoni, Maria Cristina. Framing Big Data: A Linguistic and Discursive Approach. Springer, 2019.

Weaving and AI was originally published in Towards Data Science on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.