Technology Case Studies: Paper, Microwaves, Self-Portraits

Because our thinking about “technology” should be informed by, if not grounded in, the history of particular technologies, I’ve been a fan of work that zooms in to explore the often engaging and surprising history of a technological artifact that we’ve long taken for granted and hardly think of as “technology” any longer. Toilet paper, for instance.

One of the three pieces I’m passing along happens to mention that during WWII, generals decided how many sheets of toilet paper soldiers were allotted per day: “the British got three sheets a day, American GIs twenty-two.” That fact comes from, “Hold or Fold,” a review of a new book on the history of paper: On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History. The review concludes, counter-intuitively, “For the moment, at least, paper remains the standard to which digital media can only aspire,” and it includes more than few surprising and instructive observations along the way.

The second piece traces the history of a more recent invention, the microwave. “The Slow Death of the Microwave” takes as its point of departure declining microwave sales over the last several years. It goes on to sketch the history of the microwave and to illustrate a number of recurring principles in the history of technology. For example, while new technologies can contribute to a shift in cultural practices, such as the preparation and consumption of food, cultural shifts can and do reshape the way we use and value technologies.

The third piece is not about any one technology, but about a technologically mediated practice: self-portraiture. We may immediately think of the ubiquitous and much-maligned “selfie,” but, of course, self-portraits have been around for a long, long time. How much more interesting to think about “selfies” as one iteration of a long-standing practice? You can begin to do so by reading The Guardian’s review of The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History.

It’s been a little quiet on here for the past couple of weeks. You can expect some more frequent posts in the next few days. You may take that as either a promise or a warning.

3 thoughts on “Technology Case Studies: Paper, Microwaves, Self-Portraits

  1. Great articles.

    Forgive me, but in her review of On Paper, Leah Price says: “Paper and computers may not be polar opposites so much as conjoined twins.” I think if you were in the British army you would be painfully aware of the digital/paper interface!

  2. I have only recently found your blog and I was glad to see that you don’t post every day. The quality of your posts require time and thought. At least for me. So, more posts could be too much to absorb. I appreciate the time you spend linking to so much information to provide even more flesh on top of your excellent writing.
    For the microwave part of your article: this is a paradox of our spinning world. It seems like the faster we live the more hungry we are to return to more traditional ways of life. Cooking from scratch is a great example.
    Idem for the current need of physical venues to exchange ideas. Although blogs and social media allow a flow of thoughts comimg from all over the world, we still want to meet for real, and not only virtually.
    I am looking forward to reading you soon. Not too soon!

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