TED Conversations

Hans Rosling

Director, Gapminder Foundation


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What are your thoughts and questions on "the magic washing machine"?

I will be answering questions on my new TED talk today at 11.30 -1.30 pm EST.
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  • Mar 21 2011: You make a solid case that technology frees up (and therefore empowers people (particularly women) ) but what about the case where the poorest people tend to pool their work that you are replacing reading or solitary endeavours with social ones. Isn't it a loss to have the group of women who together washed their clothes down by the river together, that while they washed they talked and shared expertise, gave advice and support each other, and now with an electric wash machine are cut off from that social interaction? I wonder if technology is really a step forward, or step backward. Although I completely agree with your case for the air crowd going greener, it's their responsibility.
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      Mar 21 2011: Hi Kelly,
      I think you are completely wrong! It is so easy to think that hard and boring work is nicer than a life with more time for reading (like TED conversation). But pleas prove me wrong by telling me which women would choose to wash by the river instead of having a washing machine. My mother and my grandmothers loved the washing machine. And it was really so that my grandmothers and my mothers loved to read books.
      I have also failed to find any study that reports where young women with families state that they prefer to live without electricity. I have spent 20 years doing annual 2-4 weeks field surveys in remote rural parts of Africa. And without exception all women want electricity and all forms of lamps and machines that can make their hard daily life easier. SO MY PERSONAL QUESTION KELLY, HOW DO YOU WASH YOUR BEDSHEETS AND LAUNDRY! :-) I hand-washed one pair of pants for my grandchild this week-end because we were in a hurry, but I also loaded 3 washing machines.
      • Mar 21 2011: well, I have to say I still think you are characterizing solo versus group activity by subjective cultural difference. In my western experience, yes, washing clothes is a solitary experience, it is in my house, I even have a room dedicated to it I am from the air group, I am sure! My responsibility, highlighted by your talk is to use my technology in a greener manner/

        I am not saying that technology isn't a good thing, just that we may be giving up things that we don't know we value, and the movement towards individualized, automated tasks isn't always good. I wouldn't deny that your mother and grandmother enjoyed the advent of the wash machine.

        My mother enjoyed the using the microwave, and , plastic storage that we now know is harmful.

        In cultures where, from a western standpoint, we would find the treatment of women oppressive, does cutting them off from social interaction help?

        Just because it helped your grandmother, does it mean it's going to help everyone? Do we have the right to apply our ideals on any culture? There are so many examples of how that has gone wrong.

        And would delivering a wash machine to a community that doesn't have clean drinking water be a helpful thing?

        Your statistics, if I remember had the energy output, I wonder how many loads of laundry that means? The greater our income, maybe we have more clothes to wash, maybe our standard of what we consider clean is higher, but really what it seems to me is that the higher the income, maybe the more laundry we do. is that a good thing?

        By the way, I really enjoyed your talk! it clearly invigorated me, caused me to think, thank you for being available to answer questions!
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          Mar 21 2011: In which way is plastic storage and micro wave harmful. I have never heard that. Which study have you read?
        • Mar 21 2011: Kelly, let me add some details as to how washing is done in rural Kenya and Rwanda (two places I have lived), at least based on my observations and experiences.

          In such rural areas families live in multi-generational compounds. Great-grandparents (if they are still alive), grandparents, parents and children all live together or within very close proximity to one another. In such cases, as you say, washing (and cooking and cleaning and pretty much everything) is a social activity. But when you bring a washing machine into the main house (typically you'll only have one for the compound) the washing continues to be a social activity, it's just now done in the house and is much more efficient and less laborious.

          But forget washing machines for a moment and apply this logic to fetching water from the nearest water source (river or community tap). It's not uncommon for women to walk for over an hour round-trip to get the daily water. If a water tap can be brought into the compound this saves all these daily trips. The social component does not go away. There's plenty of other work (no shortage, really) that keeps these women interacting socially. But a small amount of their time is now suddenly freed up.

          Based on my experience, these are not changes being forced onto anyone. If given the choice between spending a dozen hours or more per week on these tasks and swapping them for less labor-intensive solutions it's not really much of a choice.
        • Mar 22 2011: @ Kelly; I would like to point out one thing. In his talk Anil Gupta showed his dismay when the indian government came up with picture for promoting tourism in India. In the picture there was a woman carrying a pot full of water in her head. Some may say that woman is putting her effort for preserving her tradition but placing us in her shoes would help to think better (I don't think she has a pair of shoe). Solo versus group activity. People will always find ways to work together whether it is about washing clothes together or reading books together. I will opt for second option.
        • Mar 23 2011: I agree with many who have responded to you, Kelly. I believe that the whole point is that something like a washing machine is a labor saving device, enabling people to spend time on an education, on books, on spending valuable time with others doing other things--socializing, working, reading, improving their lives. And I also agree with a point in Hans's talk, and referenced by another poster in entirely different comment, that it is rather hypocritical of those of us with the benefits of modern technology to say to those with so little: no, the planet cannot afford for you to get these benefits. We are all in this together, and need to help raise people up, not keep them down.
          Sorry...I will get down off my soap box now.
        • Mar 23 2011: Dear Kelly,

          I'm quite persuaded by your viewpoint but was more swayed by Prof Hans argument having had firsthand experiences of the two worlds. Born and bred in a first class village that still has resemblance of stone age, and now inhabiting a developed society and having traveled extensively in the recent years. The fact of life in such poverty-stricken societies like mine (BTW, I am from Africa, and precisely from SE part of Nigeria) is that they could be poor economically but really rich socially. This could goes to explain why inspite their sufferings at least speaking from daily experience of my own community, it is unheard of, hearing or seeing people committing suicide as often the daily realities in developed societies. This is a real dilemma of life that some of us, are facing trying to find a balance of the two opposing worlds where people have all they wants/needs but are socially elusive and miserable compared to those in the "poverty line" where people lack basic things of life, but at least they are closer touch to nature.

          To buttress my point, in most part of Africa, the revolution in mobile telephoning is legendary and in my opinion, is the most outstanding technology one can readily think about. It's incredible to see how it has improved lives and even created and enlarged social space. In such societies, even the most wretched households could afford to starve to be able to have a phone. There is really a huge market in such places. Therefore, deploying washing machines in my opinion might only redefine the social dynamics but certainly not limit or undermine it. People will still find a socially creative way of using their washing "free time". Maybe not reading books like Hans Grannie who is fortunate to have at least basic education, but maybe participating in community organising self-help activities. No doubt technology has pervasive impacts on lives irrespective of where one lives, and the difference only lies on their creative use
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          Mar 24 2011: First, Dr. Rosling is using a strawman argument. Western environmentalists are not against people in the developing world from having any particular technology. The issue is over negative externalities and how western economies often try to separate social costs from transaction costs. Electric washing machines are not technologies that can function alone, they require a whole ecosystem of other technologies to make them work, which in turn can be very damaging to cultures and ecosystems.

          Second, if there were non-electric based washing machines available, green-conscious consumers would buy them. If some entrepreneur wanted to make a quieter version of this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Le85KjalzwM&feature=watch_response_rev, I'm sure a lot of people would want one. A small village could pool together its resources to buy one or two of these. They need to make sure that they don't use harsh detergent soaps if they plan to take the water from a public source that other people use.

          Third, if we combine other similar innovative approaches, we can give people in non-industrialized countries a high quality of life without using such destructive methods. Such as the clay jar refrigerator, solar thermal cooking, and more. The great thing about developing nations is that they can leap frog the industrial period and lead the green technology revolution.
        • Mar 25 2011: Dear Kelly, Emmanuel, and everyone else,

          I see a lot of value in all points expressed here, but I believe we should look at a different society and from a different angle when we want to prevent social ills like loneliness and lack of social contact.
          Technology and modern culture have indeed lead to estrangement in "developed" societies. I completely hear you, Emmanuel, when you talk about suicide being very strange in poorer societies. Depression is another ill we really need to look at...
          So if there is a NEGATIVE correlation between wealth (expressed in access to technology and free time) and the quality of social life, I think what we should try is to address the SIGN of this correlation. We want technology to bring more positive, worthwhile, enriching and empowering social experiences. We want people to learn to value their social life as much as (and even more than) they value their possessions. We want to measure social status not by the car we drive (alone) or the brands we wear, or the facebook friends we have, but by the quality time we spend with friends, family, or even strangers, whether online or face-to-face!
          So let's take this 0-sum game and make it a win-win, just like it was in Hans Rosling's bed time story experience!
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      • Mar 21 2011: "how their life is being wasted" really? I just hope that once "they" get access to their time saving device, the have a school to go to, that accepts female students, that they have opportunities that are equal to their dreams.

        I guess I worry about a world where we see female empowerment by male standards. and in many countries where female and male rights are not equal, I don't see that solved by a clothes washer, not without deep infrastructure change, and superficial technological solutions aren't what is going to power those deep change.

        thanks for your response,
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          Mar 24 2011: Hi Kelly - I'm with your argument, but not wholly. In short, we collectively need to understand that it is unfair for us to say 'we have our energy, but you can't have yours because its destroying the planet'. What is required is a more wise and considered pursuit of technological (and social ) change. Not all change is progress, and it easy to be whipped along by the enthusiasm of the change itself, without considering the wider future implications. I can't help feeling that some way back, humanity took a wrong turn and as a result is now faced with the most pressing challenges the world has ever faced. The challenge is to find new ways, and new philosophies, that allow progress for all, whilst protecting and marshalling the resources we have. Option that seem impractical and illogical right now, will, when we look back, seem the most logical and practical.
          Social health and integrity, physical and mental health, education and learning, a pathway out of poverty, and opportunity for fulfilling lives are all far more important than financial wealth or technological advancement for faster living. I don't have the answer - just the will and passion to find one that works for the majority, rather than the minority. I guess I'm an awakened 'Airliner'. And yes, I do sometimes (often) wash my clothes by hand - we don't have a washing machine on my expedition truck :-)
        • Mar 27 2011: I wish I owned an expedition truck so I could have an excuse to wash my clothes by hand, but I'm too poor :] Thanks for your insight Paul
        • Mar 27 2011: YES Kelly, standing at a single point and washing clothes repeatedly for numerous hours on end IS wasting your time when you can efficiently wash clothes in a fraction of that time. This repetitive and strenuous form of manual labor causes arthritis, back pains and is a great catalyst for carpal tunnel syndrome and variety of other horrible outcomes. To think for a moment that there is ANYTHING positive to come from it shows that you must have an entirely romanticized view of what is actually happening here. The fact is that a lot of the people (I'm speaking of kids now which is what I assume you are referring to when you brought up education) are most likely going to school. Adding manual labor to their day does not help them with their schooling, it impedes it.

          I have been to South Africa and spent some time there and witnessed first hand what the conditions are like. There is not a single person I have EVER met would prefer the manual labor you believe is so invigorating and essential in social aspects.

          From a different angle; I also have many friends from India who describe waking up at 3a.m to work for 5 hours on their parents farm before walking for an hour to school as nothing but depressing.

          Another fact is that most of these communities we speak of are not isolated out in the wilderness impervious to the impact of our first world society. Countries like Africa and India are riddled with contradicting standards. You'll find 1st world and 3rd world in the same postcode. You won't find people in these communities looking upon us thinking "Oh what a shame that they live their 21st century lifestyles while here I am, with my simple life, where I romantically wash clothes by the riverside with my 5 best friends in these beautiful cholera infested waters." You'll probably find the sort of jealousy and envy that is associated with the increase in petty crime in these countries.
      • Mar 21 2011: It is very easy from a western culture Point of view to say that these women in rural areas would love to have a washing machine. But, you fail to understand the concepts of simplicity and hard work that other cultures value in these seemingly "life-wasting" tasks. You would be GREATLY surprised how much one could learn about life by simply taking a long journey to the river and using your bare hands to wash these clothes.
        • Mar 26 2011: Nafissa, you have got to the heart of the matter here. Thanks
    • Mar 21 2011: Hi Kelly,

      I think you have a pretty tough argument at hand :-). Making it short, I agree to the social point and disagree to the washing mashine point. I think that there are only few people who do not want to have a washing mashine, because they like it ;-).

      It's hard to tell people to live without energy.

      Why do we have nuclear plants when everybody knows that it's dangerous as the world can see in Fukushima today? It's simply because everyone wants energy and nobody wants to fall short of it.

      Electricity is comfortable and frees up time!

      But I feel your social point is true. Maybe not with the washing mashine, but I think, technology can also be a great barrier to social communication.

      My personal experience with electronic communication, for example, is that I have more means of communication: e-mail, chat, social networks... and I can chat/mail to a plenty of people, but I don't feel it as real communication because it's only text; I cannot look in their eyes.

      Im actually happier at work, when I am having a face-to-face communication with my boss :-). Yeah, sounds crazy.

      I want to enforce your social point, because I think that the "washing mashine" (don't take it literally here) robs socially weak people the chance to have a real face-to-face communication.
    • Mar 22 2011: might I add to Hans that the invention of 'washing machine' does not force everyone to use one. If people would enjoy hand washing clothes then let them be free to do so.
      For all others there is this automatic device...

      Your argument is about as strong as "Because I have a mobile phone I spent less time with my friends, as now I don't go over to tell them something which I can also text"
      • Mar 22 2011: Yes, my argument is as strong as "Because I have a mobile phone I spent less time with my friends, as now I don't go over to tell them something which I can also text".

        This may sound ridiculous, but there are people who think like I do.

        Technology changes our culture and it also has negative side-effects.

        Your first argument is also a bit too straight forward. Of cource you are not forced to use the washing mashine. There's no one with a gun behind you :-D. But if everyone else does, then you are forced, too.

        Remember, social is more than one!
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          Mar 27 2011: In this case, you, and every one who thinks cell phones and washing machines ruin the good old days lifestyle of simplicity can just get rid of your phones and washing machines.
          You are not forced into using cellphones and washing machines just because everyone else does.

          What Hans is doing is simply noting that MOST people (almost every single person on the planet) prefers having machines do the hard work for them instead of doing it by hand.
          Most people think it is a good thing for themselves, and they have the freedom to do so. Why argue with them?

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