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Holograms: A Cultural History

by Sean F. Johnston
Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 2016
272 pp., illus. Trade, £39.99
ISBN: 9780198712763.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

This book is the companion volume of another work by the same author, Holographic Visions: A History of New Science (Oxford UP, 2006). It is however anything but an update or an expansion of the latter. Holograms: A Cultural History offers an engaging and highly readable history of the hologram from a totally different point of view. Whereas Holographic Visions was focused on the history of the makers and the evolving techniques of the hologram, the present book is interested in the uses and the users of this technology, whose cultural importance is much higher than its more modest success in engineering and business.

Johnston's approach is very classic. Holograms follows the theoretical and methodological strands outlined by STS (science and technology studies) and SCOT (social construction of technology). As such, it is in line with well-known studies such as those by Bijker and Pinch, but also the young Latour–and these are of course good references. Holograms emphasizes the role played by the so-called 'relevant social groups' and scrutinizes the many ways in which the holographic technique has been appropriated, that is used and modified but also misunderstood if not widely dreamt upon by scientists (often working for the military), engineers (trying to develop commercial applications), hippies (holograms appeared in the social sphere in the 1960s), artists (in the wake of op art as well as the arts and science movement), and above all amateurs and hobbyists (more than once encouraged or triggered by initial but not always successful efforts to foster technological education in schools). Johnston's knowledge of all these subcultures is simply amazing––for instance when the author gives details the evolution of the hologram. Johnston is an excellent storyteller, however, and he always avoids the danger of information overkill.

Johnston's STS/SCOT approach has a strong historical dimension, which opens the analysis to the larger field of visual and technological culture. On the one hand, the author gives a good overview of the place of the hologram in the progressive invention and social use of visual technologies. On the other hand, he also stresses the great variety of functions these technologies have always had in the broader social field outside the laboratory: reproduction, exhilaration, education, emulation, entertainment, and the display of progress–definitely a key theme in the history of hologram, whose major cultural function has always been to channel dreams about a (good) technological future.

To write such a cultural history, which foregrounds not the meaning of a technology per se but the way in which it changes the society that changes it, is quite a challenge mainly for two reasons. 1) The hologram is a medium that has never been a real mass medium. Quantitatively speaking, its success has always been rather unassertive; 2) Most people have only a second-hand knowledge of holograms. We all know about it but not always because we are actually using it. Often we are unaware of it, and our knowledge of the actual technology is close to inexistent. At the same time, the relative absence of the hologram in culture at large is also what makes the hologram such a fascinating medium. It explains the crucially cultural dimension of this technology, which triggers and fertilizes many dreams via the cultural and imaginary representations we make of it. People may not know how the technology exactly works just as they may ignore the fact that they are actually using it, but we have read about it, seen films on the subject, and dreamed of what holograms are and mean. This relative absence explains also the exceptional longevity of the hologram not as a cutting-edge technique or groundbreaking device, but as a cultural phenomenon, something that keeps us dreaming precisely thanks to the fact that the hologram technology never produced a killer application that made it popular enough to become invisible, so to speak. Since the hologram has never been really a familiar technology, it has remained magical and exciting in the eyes of the larger audience. Holograms have never been really fashionable and therefore they have never been out of fashion.

A last but very important advantage of the hologram's relative invisibility (Johnston uses the iceberg metaphor to describe the discrepancy between the modest actual presence of the hologram in the technological field and its huge cultural importance) is that it foregrounds the role of a group that is often overlooked: that of the hobbyist-amateur. A typical intermediary between scientific innovation and commercial implementation, the amateur represents a group whose significance is not always sufficiently acknowledged. In comparison with the other maverick that is the artist, the amateur is not seen as an autonomous and creative agent. In the case of the hologram, however, the key relevant social group is definitely that of the amateur-hobbyist. Given the failures of a technology that has never become a leading visualization technology, it is the amateur that has kept the fire burning and that continues to convert a perhaps secondary technology (at least in comparison with technologies such as photography and television) into a still very vital cultural phenomenon that remains at the very heart of how we think about our future.


Last Updated 1 July 2016

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