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.