The Stresses of New Technology in Firm and Family

28 August 2011 at 10:25 pm 6 comments

| Peter Lewin |

Many of the same theoretical tools and concepts that we use for the business firm are applicable to that other ubiquitous social institution, the family; though of course there are important differences (even though I am sure you know people who are “all business”). Steve Horwitz and I have written a paper that illustrates some of this.

The affects of the march of technology on the firm — for example, rendering obsolete certain kinds of physical and human capital, reducing production cost, increasing specialization and product variation, etc. — receive considerable attention. I have not seen much on these affects insude the family. Our article does analyze the long-term effects of the rising opportunity cost of labor in general and of women’s work in particular, which is the theme of a massive research literature. I have in mind rather the “mundane” effects on the family, and on the marriage, of unanticipated technological changes that, for example, affect the spouses differently. In effect, this is an unanticipated change in the marriage bargain that will plausibly bring with it additional un-bargained for stresses and tensions — an unanticipated rise in the cost of marriage (or of staying in the marriage).

I love my wife and I am not contemplating leaving, but I do feel the stress of having to perform all of the 21st century tasks for which I have a substantial comparative advantage, and which have become necessary and routine — like ordering things online, backing up data, downloading audio books (a necessity for exercising!) and so on.  I wonder how common this is.

I might be in real trouble for this one  :-).

Entry filed under: Ephemera, Former Guest Bloggers, Innovation, Institutions, Theory of the Firm.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. The Peak Oil Poet  |  28 August 2011 at 10:47 pm

    welcome to “modern man”

    back when we used to hunt mammoth (the hombre) and dig yams (the babes) for a living

    the girls would periodically complain:

    “my yam digging stick is to blunt! can you fix it?”

    the thing is, if “technically capable” people are not around the rest of the tribe will either make do without or figure out how to do it

    most of the time mammoth hunters tried to stay away

    for just this reason

    but they were forever being drawn back – for other reasons

    eventually, men would get old enough to know better and never go back

    which of course was the foundation of the hermit sage


  • 2. Steffen  |  29 August 2011 at 1:40 am

    My wife’s the creative artist, while I’m the nerdy scientist. Still, she buys a whole more things online than I do, backs up her own data (kudos to Apple for making time machine available to non-rsync folks), and certainly downloads all of her audio books for herself. Now, I’d be happy to perform all these things for her if I could just get out of cleaning my half of the house ;)

  • 3. Peter Lewin  |  29 August 2011 at 10:05 am

    Oh, I should confess, I don’t cook :-).

  • 4. Michael Marotta  |  29 August 2011 at 10:09 pm

    The classic entities of businesses, households, and governments might be useful constructs for conceptualizing market operations, but, really, like planets, meteors, and stars, they all must obey the same same general laws – and distinctions among them can be blurred easily.

    I am 61. In my generation, we experienced a shift in cultural paradigm that i do not see reflected in this paper, which could have come from Max Weber or Carl Menger.

    I do appreciate the approach. This economic thinking should be commonly taught – along with Benjamin Franklin’s “The Way to Wealth.” We suffer from anti-capitalism in our common educations.

    Theodore Sturgeon said that we fall in love where the lightening strikes, but my maternal grandparents had an arranged marriage: they did not know each other socially. That is the norm for much of the world. Dowery and bride price are real and functional economic considerations. In ancient China, a woman’s production of silk cloth was the creation of household savings – and she knew it.

    Households produce goods and services for their own consumption and not for the market.
    FIrms have internal accountants, rather than hiring accounting firms – which they also do. Shipping and receiving, sales, etc., all could be contracted but are produced internally. If nothing else, households export labor – and capital goods such as the lawn mower and dishwasher enable that.

    Households do not exist in an environment that could meaningfully be called “competitive” in this sense and therefore do not find imitation a threatening prospect.
    The Capulets and Montagues would disagree, as would the Rothschilds and Warburgs. Family businesses are still fundamental in much of the world, including the USA.

    “Generally, young women expect more success for their future husbands than young men do for their future wives” The work of Emily Chamlee Wright on women entrepreneurs in Africa suggests that we not generalize from a theoretically likely “middle America” to all of humanity.

    (But it is still a good paper. I saved it in a sociology folder.)

  • 5. Peter Lewin  |  30 August 2011 at 1:25 pm

    @Michael, the paper was really an aside to the point made in the post, but I appreciate your comments.

  • 6. Michael Marotta  |  7 September 2011 at 7:32 pm

    If there is a bee, it is in my own bonnet.

    First, for 20 or 25 years now, I have been both dissatisfied with and yet caught in the “online dialectic.” We post ten good points and only get replies on the areas of disagreement. Perhaps it is Plato, perhaps Hegel, but the road to truth online seems to be by disagreements rather than consonances.

    It may be human nature, as, in this case, the changing of technologies causes “stresses” in firms and families. No one seems to welcome altered circumstances — except perhaps entrepreneurs.

    The primary purpose of government is to correct past injustices. Again, in this case, firms experience obsolescences and lobby for remediations via the tax laws (accelerated depreciations; one-time write downs). Households do not enjoy the same opportunities. But it is not the purpose of government to predict or create new folkways: businesses do that.

    We just moved from Ann Arbor to Austin. I have no idea how many fractional horsepower motors I packed – drills, sander, saber saws; mixer, blender; – or how many obsolete 5.25-inch diskettes I dumped. My Carmen Sandiego and SimAnt were still pretty fresh.

    Like you, I followed my wife’s directions because she is the professional techie in this house, not me. She finished her degrees first, also. Long ago, we experienced a turning point in the household routine when our daughter complained that I did not use enough fabric softener. “Honey,” I said, “you’re old enough to do your own laundry.” I still do all the daily cooking – but that, too, is, as you note, the result of a technology shift: I do not have to chop wood or cut peat and mind a kettle all day. So, I can have a job outside the house, too…

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