Fish Sticks, Sports Bras and Aluminum Cans: The Politics of Everyday Technologies
by Paul R. Josephson
Johns Hopkins University Press (2015)
Historian Paul R. Josephson has big claims for the sports bra, suggesting that with it, “science and technology combined to assist women athletes, dancers and exercise aficionados to occupy a major public position in the sports world with vastly increased numbers of participants”.
That’s as maybe, but the product, devised and developed by women, certainly stands out in a marketing history where technological privilege usually goes to the male of the species. And the sports bra (the first was two jockstraps sewn together) continues to attract science knowhow, including from the self-styled “grandmother of the sports bar industry”, Lajean Lawson, who has two advanced degrees in the subject.
The bra is one of the subjects in this collection of essays that explore the surprising origins, political contexts and social meanings of commonplace items. Josephson considers the many forces that have shaped their development and marketing. It is a fascinating account of how technology and science have been brought to bear on our everyday world in ways both good and bad.
Mass-produced nutrition, for example, ensured that we were less likely to starve, but in the process set the stage for the obesity epidemic. And who knew that there was a direct link between the increased use of high fructose corn syrup and flood mitigation projects in the Mississippi River?
The book is filled with stories of how apparently disparate developments are closely aligned and how most objects – even bananas – represent a string of technologies. “They are plantations of trees, irrigation systems, workers, trucks, trains, and ships, urban infrastructure, and hospitals …” And these objects have long-standing roots. Again, consider the banana. “[Its] development into a major worldwide trade commodity has its roots in the 19th century and played out after the emancipation of slaves when plantation owners sought other ways – including violence – to tie recently freed small farmers to their production.”
Josephson’s conclusions are guaranteed to make you think of the modern world and its interconnectedness in a different light.
“Sometimes,” he writes “you should just say, ‘no’, refuse that new-fangled fish stick or aluminium soda can or smart phone or online source.”
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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