Way back in the day, when I was in grad school, I had an advisor that studied early 19th-century technological disrupters, individuals that took the existing economic order and turned it on the collective ear. Not too dissimilar in effect to our modern-day disrupters of the world order through things like social media. He argued that they affected technological and social paradigm shifts in society. One was how you look at things when you can buy various factory-made clothes cheaply. It’s much different than when it’s only village homespun. The quality may not be as good as homemade, but oh, the variety of colors and textures. 

The caveat on cheap factory-made goods was that they eventually extracted costs of pollution and sweat-shop labor that the original entrepreneurs never imagined. 

  • Not too far from me, parts of the Charles River used to run colors from the fabric dye released into the waters as a by-product of the textile factories located in one town: further downstream, the river filled with the waste from a massive abattoir.
  • As the mills developed, they outgrew the supply of farm girls that planned to come to work for a few years and go home to raise families. The necessity for workers consumed generation after generation of immigrants. The xenophobia that developed of the foreign was deemed the necessary cost of the most current goods.

Today’s disrupters purposely want to break society and reshape it in their mold. But the disrupters of the early 19th century were of a different type. Often they were failures seeking to regain lost social status. Or individuals who’d finally hit it lucky after many previous tries. They were not interested in, nor planned to remodel society.

Intentions don’t seem to matter where technological change is concerned. We can’t gauge the tree size from the acorn we plant. It’s too late to do much by the time we notice that it’s buckled the pavement and shoved into the building’s foundations.

I have no solutions, but there must be a better way.