Lessons About the iPhone, Courtesy of a Depression-Era Children's Book

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and other classics by Virginia Lee Burton capture a bias in the way people look at technological innovation.

A 100-ton steam shovel, circa 1919 (Wikimedia Commons)

I loved the children’s story Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel when I was young. Mike Mulligan, the operator of Mary Anne, his beloved steam-powered excavating machine, attempts to dig a cellar for the town hall of Popperville in a single day, in a last hurrah of obsolete steam technology. Everything goes well until (spoiler!) Mike Mulligan forgets to provide a way for Mary Anne to leave the hole that they’ve dug. The solution: turn Mary Anne into the town hall’s boiler and Mike Mulligan into the janitor. Problem solved.

I was recently reading this story to my 3-year-old daughter, along with two other stories by Mike Mulligan’s author, Virginia Lee Burton: The Little House and Maybelle the Cable Car. These three books were published over the course of about 15 years several decades ago, beginning in 1939 with Mike Mulligan, during a period of hefty economic and societal upheaval in America. As I returned to these worlds (or in the case of Maybelle, experienced it for the first time), I noticed that they were engaging with the same ideas that are now constantly in the news: how people perceive and adapt to technological change, how workers deal with automation, and how machines are changing jobs.

At first, I wasn’t so sure I liked Burton’s conclusions—an apparent knee-jerk dislike of novel technologies—and what these books might be teaching my daughter about these matters. But I’ve since realized that these stories actually highlight a rather fundamental bias that most people have when it comes to viewing technology.

The changes depicted in these books are part of grander trends in the decades surrounding their publication, and broadly are the byproducts of the Industrial Revolution, from mechanization and urbanization to changes in energy sources. In Mike Mulligan, inexorable technological progress renders Mary Anne an outdated machine, superseded by “the new gasoline shovels and the new electric shovels and the new Diesel motor shovels.” (Note that “Diesel” is capitalized, presumably because this was still when it was the surname of engineer Rudolf Diesel.) But Mike Mulligan simply can’t bear to get rid of his beloved Mary Anne, even when the rest of the steam shovels are being discarded. He’s not a technophobe; the steam shovel once was quite cutting-edge itself, and he prides himself on knowing how to use it well. Yet he’s so attached that he fails to adapt.

Contrast this with The Little House. Published in 1942, three years after Mike Mulligan, the book is about a charming house built many years earlier far out in the country. Over the years, the house’s idyllic location is intruded upon by cars and other houses, and eventually, she is surrounded by the city that was once far-off. She is flanked by skyscrapers. Subway trains run below her, elevated trains above. She is no longer even able to see the stars and moon at night. In the end, the Little House is spotted by the granddaughter of a woman who grew up in the house. The woman relocates her back to the countryside, far from the city, where the Little House once again feels she belongs.

The intended message of The Little House is that progress is far from a good thing. The Little House is unhappy with the changes that progress has wrought around her, and the city’s fast pace, distance from nature, and dinginess are portrayed as something bad once she has experienced them. Mike Mulligan, meanwhile, paints a more nuanced picture of progress, one specifically of obsolescence in the face of newer technology, rather than the inherent evils of any technological change at all. Mike Mulligan is a fan of technology, but he simply can’t give up his steam shovel (and perhaps is unwilling to learn a new skill). Instead, after one last use of his old technology, he changes professions—to the town hall janitor—and is content.

Intriguingly, one of the earliest signs of change in The Little House is a steam shovel digging a paved road for faster automobiles to go by. As my daughter and I noted, this harbinger of change sure looks a lot like Mike Mulligan’s Mary Anne. The steam shovel’s appearance underscores a subtle irony that runs throughout the book. In the end, the only way that the Little House can return to the country is by being jacked up and moved on a flatbed and pulled by a truck out of the city. It’s precisely technological advances that allow for her to return to her rural roots.

So what to make of all of this? There is a clear ambivalence, and even internal contradiction, in how these books treat technological change: It’s a force to be both opposed and embraced, something that presses toward a complicated future and returns to a simpler past. The implication, then, is that technological progress and technology itself aren’t monolithic. Instead, there’s a certain amount of inconsistency, one that fits well with the perspective summed up by the computer scientist Alan Kay: “Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born.”

Many people are perfectly fine embracing new technologies. But whether they do or not, Kay’s point is that technology still tends to be viewed only as something new, as opposed to something that has always been part of society. The Little House is intimately familiar with technology: plows, horses and carts, ice skates, even her own chimney. She is simply uncomfortable with change in these technologies and what they mean for her way of life. This discomfort shows up in another of Burton books, Maybelle the Cable Car. The cable cars in San Francisco are in danger of being supplanted by buses until a ballot item saves them. Burton even refers to the changes in the early part of the 20th century as “Progress,” quotations included. After the cable-car victory, Maybelle is reminded of the “good old times.”

This constitutional unwillingness to change in Burton’s books represents a bias that, despite the decades that separate Burton’s time and today, is still prevalent. It’s easy to forget, for instance, that objects now as mundane as pencils or windows or books are technologies. Even more modern devices, like kitchen appliances, unless they connect to the internet or do something else new, are not really thought of as profoundly advanced technologies, because they’ve always been around. This tendency to discount all the change that has happened in earlier eras feels a bit like the ecological concept of shifting baseline syndrome, where there’s a difficulty in recognizing previous changes, especially on a multigenerational level, such as a reduction in the population of fisheries. Conversely, there’s often an unwillingness to learn new things, embodied in the very term “new-fangled gadgets.”

Burton’s books can demonstrate, even to children, this contradictory approach to technology. Which makes sense. Burton, who lived from 1909 to 1968, witnessed an era that brought forth everything from commercial air travel and spaceflight to frozen food. And intriguingly, her father was an engineer and dean at MIT. While I am hesitant to read too much into this fact (another story in the collection I read to my daughter is about little more than a snowplow digging out an entire town), perhaps her familiarity as well as hesitation around machines and modernity grew out of a familial connection to this cathedral of technology.

It’s natural to be blindsided by technology, to be subject to biases about progress and novelty, and to have difficulty recognizing something new as part of a continuum of change. Reading a children’s book is one way to be more aware of this, because it forces you to confront the perceptions of a different generation. I recognize the novelty of Amazon’s Alexa or even the iPhone, while my daughter seems to view these technologies as part of the fabric of her life.

When reading Burton’s stories to my daughter, I initially was annoyed by Burton’s approach to technology. But slowly, I’ve recognized that a somewhat double-minded view of innovation is not just something that other people fall prey to; it’s something that I no doubt end up having sometimes as well. This inconsistency is part of each of us. And in some ways, the ambivalence is indicative of a muddling through, a slowly working out of opinions in the open, which sure sounds like a virtue, rather than a vice. It avoids dogmatism and close-mindedness, and allows us to constantly reevaluate our stances. So let’s continue to be ambivalent about technology. But let’s at least be aware of it.