"They used a pencil": technology adoption in different countries
I now live in the United States, and amongst the differences from the otherwise-similar places I’ve lived before, Australia and the UK, is the adoption of domestic technologies here. The contrast between America and the UK seems greatest, with Australia—like in so many respects—sitting somewhere in between.
Americans living in Britain famously bemoan the lack of mixer taps on bathroom sinks, forcing one to choose between freezing and scalding, or mix the two in the basin. But it goes well beyond this. Based on my experiences so far, certain amenities seem to be more or less standard in medium-grade-and-above housing in America: dishwashers, garbage disposal units and air-conditioning being three particular examples.
According to various sources, 87 per cent of American housing units had air-conditioning in 2009, whereas only 67 per cent (see chapter 5) did in Australia. That’s similar to where the US was in 1993 (68%) when Australia had 32 per cent adoption (same sources). The UK had only 0.5 per cent adoption of AC in 2008.
Dishwashers and garbage disposals tell a similar story. In 2012, the US had 78 per cent adoption of dishwashers, versus only 40 per cent in the UK and 45 per cent [ch 5] in Australia in 2008. Figures on relatively low-cost garbage disposals are harder to come by, but Wikipedia cites sources claiming 50 per cent adoption in the US in 2009, and only 6 per cent in the UK around the same time. I can’t find a number for Australia, but I suspect it’s in between.
The mild British climate explains why domestic air-conditioning hasn’t caught on there. But why did subtropical Brisbane, Australia, where I grew up, only really take to home AC with the advent of cheap Chinese units in the 2000s? Americans I talk to find it odd that my late ’90s high-school had no air-conditioned classrooms. I have vivid memories of taking our version of the SATs in our school’s unairconditioned gym, sitting directly adjacent to a plate steel fire exit onto which the sun was shining, the radiated heat smudging my responses in a mess of sweat and ink.
As Robert Gordon describes in The Rise and Fall of American Growth, technologies like dishwashers and AC got an start early in America, and that may be part of it. Some of the lag in the UK must surely be a result of postwar austerity (only really ending as Nixon was already demonstrating the superiority of the American kitchen in Moscow) combined with a proportionately large pre-war housing stock, and smaller home sizes. Why Australia lagged in air-conditioning, though, I don’t really know. We don’t, for sure, have large hot inland cities like Dallas and Phoenix, and that may be part of it. The traditional “Queenslander” house was built on stilts, with verandahs, to take advantage of airflow from cooling breezes.
Another part, though, may be a deeper American tendency to adopt (and over-engineer) technological solutions. There is a story that NASA spent millions developing an ink pen that would write in space, while the Russians used a pencil. Sadly it’s not true. But it clearly resonates with our cultural stereotypes. Anyway, I now have an alternative anecdote that makes the same point.
Garbage disposal units, as it turns out, don’t actually work that well (as I discovered putting sweet potato peels down ours, clogging the sink for most of this week, until we gave in and sought professional assistance). There seems to be an unwritten rule that these grinders, universally installed though they are, shouldn’t really be used for food prep waste, at least in older apartment buildings with constricted plumbing.
Curious, and frankly burnt by my experience, I have since asked a number of American friends what use they actually do have. After all, they can easily cost over $100, not including installation. Oh that’s easy, they reply, they’re to catch food scraps off dirty plates, to stop them blocking the drains.
Ok. Sure. But here’s the British solution to that problem. It’s £2.50 and user-serviceable—the pencil to America’s electrically-powered pen.
Update (2020): I now live in New York, in a late-19th early-20th century brownstone with no garbage disposal and the American equivalent of the plug above. So perhaps I was too quick to extrapolate from Washington DC.