You know that wonderfully, wryly apt Gibson line: "The future is here, it's just not evenly distributed"?
I came across this article a few days ago, detailing several self-cleaning fabric technologies, some chemical, some using nanotech. Some safer than others. It is pretty damned awesome. And it made me think of one of the particular vectors of uneven distribution. Bear with me for a minute, this is going to seem like a tangent, but it's not.
In a former life, I lived in Japan for several years, in Yokosuka, which is just south of Yokohama, about two hours by train east of Tokyo. Now, this was in the early naughts, so I'm willing to entertain the notion that it's all completely changed by now and what I'm about to say no longer applies. Nevertheless, moving there was challenging on multiple levels--personally, in terms of severe isolation, professionally, since I started publishing in America while living there and was far too broke to fly back to go to conventions or give readings.
But also, technologically.
Japan in those days, and possibly now, was technologically schizophrenic. On the one hand, no one in the US was texting regularly yet, and our cell phones, both in the way of payment plans and the object themselves, were sad little things compared to what I could get in Japan. My phone would show me a little animated duck every morning, wearing a kimono. The duck would bow and say hello. If it was a holiday, my duck would be tricked out in a fabulous holiday-appropriate outfit and would wiggle its feathered butt, smile, and quack out a little greeting wishing me a Happy Boys' Day or O-Bon. I did not download the duck, it was just part of the phone. The toilets were deservedly notorious. If I went to the mall I could be treated to a heated-seat toiled with more options than my phone, which would sing me a little song when I used it. I had so many gadgets to heat various parts of my body individually, and a vending machine every 100 feet in my neighborhood that would dispense warm cans of coffee or cold ones, whichever the weather required.
Outside my house, the world was full of singing, bowing, wiggling, hot and cold running futuretech.
Inside my house was a different story.
Because I was then the wife of an American naval officer (I told you, a former life), we were given a washer and dryer by the Navy. It was a Japanese model, but it did not sing, it did not have many options at all, and it certainly did not have an animated duck that wished me a Happy Emperor's Birthday in a sudsy kimono. Eventually, as I got to know my neighbors, I realized that duck or not, the mere fact of owning a washing machine was unusual--having a dryer made me unique in the neighborhood. Everyone hung their wash out to dry, and most of the wives, the majority of whom stayed home, washed clothes by hand. Dishwashers were unheard of, there were no garbage disposals (instead you use a fine mesh bag inserted into a small bucket-sieve in the sink), and central heating or air conditioning was simply not done. Where I lived, there was no insulation in the houses. The walls were raw, exposed concrete; any heat or cool air escaped out of the walls the moment you turned the wall-mounted swamp heaters/coolers off. (It does, however, make a horrible kind of sense that so many of the houses in that part of Japan are 60 years old and quickly made of questionable materials, as the US bombed most major cities into rubble, and that goes double for a military town like Yokosuka.)
The electrical systems in our neck of the woods were such that you could only have one wall-mounted heater/cooler on at a time without blowing the breaker. Mildew was a huge problem because of the concrete walls and tatami floors, which look nice in movies but have to be replaced often in the humid climate as they slowly rot. The conventional wisdom on the temperature issue was that it was too expensive to heat a whole house. And yet, I have never spent so much money on heat as the winters I spent in Japan--and I moved during the California energy crisis. I owned gloves that could heat my hands and a table with heaters embedded underneath to heat my legs, heated footpads and kerosene heaters, all of which were considered the efficient way to go, but were vastly expensive items that sucked up electricity like elephants having a water fight. I spent a fortune to huddle in the dark next to a space heater I am still convinced gave off actively carcinogenic. (Even from several feet away, it left a red impression of its netted grate on my legs once I turned it off; if my dog lay near it her whole face swelled up until she couldn't see. Not a good sign.) I could go on. (The toilet in my house, by the way, did not have buttons or lights, however the mall model impressed.)
This may sound like bitching, and of course in some sense it is. But it began to occur to me that the tech I was using was incredibly gendered. In the "male" sphere, of professional operations, offices, corporations, pop culture, businesses, the available technology was extremely high-level, better than anywhere I'd yet lived. In the "female" sphere, the home, domestic duties, daily chores, cleaning, heating, anything inside the walls of a house, it was on a level my grandmother would find familiar.
Given that during the time I was there the Japanese parliament was suggesting removing the social safety net (social security benefits, in American parlance) for women who chose not to have children, and the issue of young men who expected a stay at home wife and young women who wanted to have careers was quite a hot one, I could not then and still do not believe that divide was an accident. The simple fact is that domestic chores take a huge amount of time and energy, and if a woman is occupied doing them, and especially doing them without the machines that speed up the process considerably, means that she rarely has the time to pursue interests and a career. Though for cultural and financial reasons, Japanese houses often house more than one generation, the lack of technology creates so much unnecessary work that most of my neighborhood required both the young mother and grandmother in a household to devote their days to it.
I don't think there's some dastardly man in a high office making Mr. Burns fingers and saying: EXCELLENT. I have oppressed women for another day! Let us celebrate! (Except the PMs who wanted to take away benefits for childless women--but not childless men.) This kind of thing is always more subtle than that. People who have imbibed from their culture that men and business are important and women and the home are slightly distasteful and irrelevant spending their time on inventions applicable to one and not the other. Corporate managers approving projects along the same lines. Everyone performs their upbringing in their work in one way or another. Obviously, I don't consider business a male bailiwick and the home the kingdom of woman, but a whole lot of people do, and a goodly number of them have a massive influence on the allocation of R & D funds and the political narrative than I do. Right this very second, here in the US, we are having an actual, serious, if incredibly stupid, conversation about whether or not women should have easy access to birth control. We are having this conversation because significant humans in our government believe women should not have access to it at all. I'm super excited about that, because it means it's 1965 and we're gonna go to the moon soon.
And Japan is HARDLY alone. C.f. that entire viciously moronic conversation about the care and feeding of my uterus. I merely noticed it for the first time over there. The article I linked to is fascinating because it is a very high tech response to a domestic issue, which is something I don't come across very often. Most of us are cooking in kitchens quite recognizable from 40 years ago. The Roomba in the corner of my living room is about the only chore-class object in my house that that same grandmother would not have used in cleaning up after my parents.
One of the things that has frustrated me about science fiction is that technology pertaining to the smaller aspects of our lives is often neglected in favor of big giant rockets and exotic weaponry. Birth control seems non-existent and childbirth is still rocking the stirrups. And the home is at best not mentioned much. One of the things that "the future," when we use that word as a metonymy for an idealized world in which machines solve all our problems, is supposed to do for us is give us time. Relieve us from work that is repetitive or unpleasant and allow us the sheer, simple hours in the day to do more. And yet, by far the biggest time sink going is the need to clean our habitats, prepare food and clothing, and maintain our environments. For those who have always had the, dare I say, privilege of ignoring that work, you simply cannot imagine how much time it takes to do all that and then turn around and do it again, often multiple times a day if there are offspring at play. Despite the fact that we here in the first world are supposed to have leveled up our gender equality stat, women still perform the majority of this labor, often in addition to a full shift outside the home. Fully automating this activity would free humanity on a scale that even the most awesome BFG can't even begin to contemplate.
And though many enjoy cooking, though food prep has become a source of pride and even a hobby for a lot of people, vanishingly few get excited about what they're going to clean today.
By far the biggest literary offender on this subject, I feel, is steampunk. Because when you're talking about the 19th century, the invention that changes everything is not the difference engine, it's not the airship, it's not clockwork robots. It's the washing machine. 19th century laundry was a brobdingnagian task that took all week, involved caustic chemicals that ruined the body over time, and exhausted both the spirit and the back. Only the ultra-rich could avoid taking part in at least some portion of it. Free women from that and you have a strong feminist movement almost instantly and probably a suffrage movement far earlier, you have a force of political action not broken by lye fumes and the crippling lack of time that hobbles any population attempting to manifest change. And yet we see again and again shiny tech meant to either imitate current "male" sphere toys, military and industrial and computational or to advance that same sphere past 19th c. specs, and very little thought at all spared for the half of humanity that spent that century maintaining households at the expense of most other activity.
Even today, that article on self-cleaning clothes was not greeted with near the excitement of the last miniscule change in the specs of a new Apple product or probably uninhabitable planets around a distant star. Yet it is far more likely to figure in the daily lives of each of us than any of that, and represents the first real change in how we do something as basic as cleaning our clothes in human history--soap, solvents, and water may no longer be necessary in the very near future. Even the Romans had dry cleaning--the Urine-Dervied Ammonia and Magnesium Oxide Clay Bear didn't have the same cache as the Snuggle Bear, but he got the job done.
Yet it seems silly to get excited about that. It might be cool because the word nanotechnology is involved, but it's not like the camera on the iPhone might be a tiny bit better, am I right? Things culturally associated with women pretty regularly get sniffed at as silly or insignificant or stupid or boring--even if men need clean clothes, too, even if some men somewhere surely do laundry. It's the association that kills the cool, and we are so far from not associating women with housework. If you don't think so, consider why you're laughing the next time you upvote a "get in the kitchen and make me a sandwich" "joke" on Reddit. (It's like a subway. If you missed the last one, don't worry, there'll be another along presently.) Laundry is not essentially feminine. But you'd be forgiven for thinking so, given every detergent commercial ever made, every sitcom scene involving a basket of clothes, and the household chores demographics. And it's a vicious circle, a self-feeding engine, that says women must be especially good at housework because they're the only ones I see on TV or hear talking about it and if there's ever a man doing it in the media he's being comically hopeless at it so housework must be a naturally, centrally, and immutably female activity. Feel free to substitute "child-rearing" "caretaking" or "talking about feelings" for "housework."
The future is not evenly distributed. Not along cultural lines, along language lines, along political, economic, class, or generational lines. And most certainly not along gender lines. A significant portion of the digital world proceeds on the quiet, probably subconscious meme that the future belongs to men and women are just along for the ride. Oh, sure, some women can play with the big boys. If they act right. But not the girly ones. They're feminine, therefore: weak and frivolous and shallow and shrill.
They can do the laundry.