Hans Rosling and the Magic of Washing Machines

27 06 2011


A recent YouTube video got me thinking about how historians select their research topics. The TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) is a global set of conferences owned by the private non-profit Sapling Foundation. The talks, which can be by academics, entrepreneurs, and other visionaries, are put on YouTube and sometimes go viral. It was one of their videos that got me thinking.

Hans Rosling will be familiar to those of you who watch videos of TED talks online, since Rosling has appeared there many times in the past. I suspect that many people who will not recognize Rosling’s name will have seen his famous statistical presentation called “200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 Minutes: the Joy of Stats”. That video definitely went viral!

Rosling is a Swedish medical doctor, statistician, academic, and social thinker. He frequently grapples with Big Questions related to global health. He has spent a lot of time thinking about the relationship between poverty, health, economic growth, and inequality in developing countries. He is proficient in statistical analysis and disease forecasting (e.g., using computers to predict how epidemics will spread) and he is even better at presenting his research using stunning visual graphics that put the average PPT presentation to shame!! As Rosling never tires of saying, it is not enough to have a strong humanitarian conscience: a desire to help people has to be coupled with hard-nosed statistical analysis.

Rosling’s most recent TED talk was on the global diffusion of washing machines. The talk, which was personal at times, was based on lots of stats as well. Rosling, who can remember when his family got its first washing machine in the 1950s, clearly doesn’t have much time for people who are opposed to the spread of Western-style consumer durables to the developing world. Rosling’s view is that labour-saving devices, electrification, and so forth are good things, full stop. He concludes his speech by cheering the power plants and modern industries that make washing machines possible. I’m not certain how environmentalists would react to it. Some people would probably condemn Rosling for “his celebratory view of the Western discourse of material progress”. Others would say that is a damn good thing to have a washing machine and that anyone with an ounce of common sense and an ounce of humanity would want every family in the world to have one.

Rosling’s talk got me thinking about how historians go about selecting their research subjects. I would have to say that the washing machine is a under-researched topic, at least relative to its overall importance in human welfare. In the field of Canadian history, there have been a few stray articles on the history of the washing machine, such as Joy Parr, “What Makes Washday Less Blue? Gender, Nation, and Technology Choice in Postwar Canada” Technology and Culture 38 (1997): 153, but aside from that not that much sustained research into the matter.  The situation in other countries seems to be similar.

At a time when funding for economic and business history appears to be under threat, Rosling’s talk is certainly food for thought.




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