Posted by: Kenn Hermann | February 7, 2006

Domesticating the Dishwasher

In my post on “The Satisfaction and Emptiness of Online Bookselling” I promised a deeper, fuller discussion of why it is important to understand the abstractive characteristics of the computer and most other electrical and electronic appliances. Rather than heading there directly I want to explore two other incidents in my experience that bring out important aspects of this phenomena. Today I want to examine the mundane dishwasher.

When my two daughters were in middle school some 20+ years ago, we moved into a house with a dishwasher. It was one of the first things my daughters spied in the house. At last, the days of hand-washing and wiping were gone! Who wouldn’t welcome such a labor-saving device? Alas, for my daughters, their dad didn’t. Why not? Well, it could be that I was really the ogre they thought I was. I preferred to think that I was domesticating this appliance to serve its subordinate role in the family.

There are several important characteristics to note about the dishwasher and its impact on the family. Prior to the invention of the dishwasher, everyone desiring clean dishes had to, out of necessity, physically wash the dishes themselves. If there were lots of dishes, they needed the help of others to wash and dry them. In many families the necessity of washing dishes became part of the routine chores that brought the family together: one person washing with another drying according to a weekly schedule. Being compelled to wash and dry together created the opportunity for the two to negotiate whose turn it was to wash, chat about the day’s events, or get on with the chore in sullen quiet. In this setting washing and drying were necessary physical activities that were deeply embedded into the life of the family. While often boring and disgusting, washing and drying also nurtured family cohesion in many ways, perhaps without even trying.

The dishwasher is a remarkable machine. Its inventor had successfully abstracted dish washing and drying from its embeddedness in the physical and social life of the family and created a machine that would focus exclusively on that single task and do it automatically without complaint. This was the division of labor now incarnated in a machine. That was a major technical achievement without question. But take a closer look at this innocuous-looking machine. It had no concerns about family love and cohesion, environmental impact, emotional endurance, beauty and ugliness, economic stewardship, water conservation, or any number of other cultural norms and obligations that families have. It did just one thing and did it flawlessly. For this reason, I would say that the dishwasher, like most other electrical and electronic devices, is a ‘material abstraction’ since it isolates, abstracts, and objectifies a physical activity in a material object. Such abstraction has moral consequences.

My daughters thought that now that we had the dishwasher, why not use it? After all, that’s what it was for. Why have a dishwasher if it is not used? It would free everyone in the family from the drudgery of washing dishes. One of us could just load the dishes in the dishwasher, walk away, and come back later to find clean and sterilzed dishes. Who wouldn’t agree with them? They had compelling arguments, the very ones that our society uses every day to justify using the technologies in its life. How many other technologies do you have in your life that ‘demand’ they be used if you have them? Televisions, cars, air conditioners, computers, cell phones?

Prior to the dishwasher, washing and drying were necessary activities; it was impossible to avoid washing dishes (unless you were a male college student). There were no choices; they had to be done. Afer the dishwasher, the situation was very different. Now, the default option was using the dishwasher for all washing and drying. For the first time my wife and I had to consciously choose not to use it; even more difficult, we had to give reasons for not using it. That’s a heavy burden to carry, as we learned as parents. It is much more difficult to give reasons for not driving a car, than it is for driving one, isn’t it?

That burden would only intensify in the following years with the advent of new consumer electronics. I believe this burden is part of the burden of knowing good and evil. A technogical society suffocates us with countless choices, so many that we are more often numbed by them than liberated. It also seems that while our choices have proliferated, our moral framework for making appropriate choices has grown increasingly impoverished.

The critical question for me was: if dishwashing had once served a ‘vital’ role in the family, what would replace that role once the dishwater entered the family? The dishwasher could be a valued servant in the family only if it did not usurp vital activities and connections in the family. If it took over washing dishes for us and with it, the family bonding that had accompanied washing dishes, what other bonding activities would replace it? We all know from personal experience that city dwelling necessitates fewer and fewer chores for family members, especially children, to do. Once those necessary chores have been eliminated, what will replace the contributions to the life of the family that chores once served?

In More Work for Mother (1983) Ruth Schwartz Cowan shows how the ‘labor-saving’ appliances invented in the early 20th century actually ‘saved’ only the labor of children and men by relieving them of the drudgery of hauling wood, carrying water, and flailing carpets. Mother could now do all of the household work herself with her new appliances. If the productive activities necessary to sustain the life of the family, those that have historically been the means for cementing family cohesion, are handed over to appliances, what will take their place in meeting the family’s ethical and social norms? Can consumptive activities serve the same vital role in families? Does the family that consumes together stay together? Because the dishwasher, and other such appliances, are ‘material abstractions,’ we are confronted with the strenuous moral task of reweaving the wholeness of the family fabric that these abstractions have stripped away.

How did I answer my daughters? I said (they would say ‘dictated’) that for all normal family meals we would continue our routine of taking turns washing and drying the dishes. Whenever we had company or there was an unusual number of dirty dishes, we would use the dishwasher. This was the only way I could see for keeping the dishwasher in a subordinate, servant role in the family. That continues to be its role in our household.

In the same way, we must learn to domesticate all technologies in our lives. The question is not whether dishwashers, or any other technology, are ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ The question is always: what are the norms, goals, and characteristics we want to encourage in our life and family? How will this particular technology enable us to fulfill those norms? The dishwasher, as every other technology, ought to be subordinated to the norms of a loving, cohesive family. Unfortunately, we have often allowed the technologies in our lives to quietly usurp this essential dimension of our being Yahweh’s image-bearers and dictate to us how they will be used.

. . . and now my granddaughter helps her mom load the dishwasher.

I just discovered this marvelous column that makes my point in a winsome and down-to-earth way. “Washing Dishes is not a Chore.”


  1. Just a note from a thinknetter from “down under” to say congrats on starting your blog, Ken. I’m enjoying reading your posts.

  2. […] “Domesticating the Dishwasher” […]

  3. I come from a family of six, and my immigrant parents always had an aversion to the dishwasher. Washing dishes was never a bonding time, because only one person did it (dishes were airdried rather than toweldried). It’s a big hassle, because as the oldest female, I work fulltime and get stuck with this chore twice a day. Today I am showing everyone how to load a dishwasher and it is going to save us time so I can participate in other, more meaningful activities.

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