Review of Extinct: A Compendium of Obsolete Objects
Reaktion Books, London, UK, 2021
400 pp., illus. 74 col., 46 b/w
ISBN: 978178914425 9.
Like Leonardo, the journal Technology and Culture was founded to fill an important gap in the way that science and technology were discussed from both an internalist and externalist perspective. Slightly earlier out of the blocks in 1959, Technology and Culture announced its mission to "to promote the scholarly study of the history of technology, to show the relations between technology and other elements of culture, and to make these elements of knowledge available and comprehensible to the educated citizen. "Over the following 60+ years along with T&C other scholarly societies with cognate aims were formed to understand science and technology – not least ISAST (International Committee for the Arts, Science and Technology) and ICHOTEC (International Committee for the History of Technology). The bibliographies that can be aligned with what today might be called Technology Studies is extensive and indeed precedes these societies. Much of the published research is extremely clear and accessible while not compromising the breadth and complexity of the issues at stake. Champions of this approach are notably David Nye (especially in the wonderfully straightforward book Technology Matters, Questions to Live With), and Simon Schaffer, a scholar who is also an adept broadcaster, and collaborator Steven Shapin who draws a theoretical line between these approaches to technology and scientific truth. While key to this discourse are Frederick Kittler and Bruno Latour whose texts can be challenging, (but always worth the effort). More accessible are Weiber Bijker, John Law, Leo Marx and a host of others who have made positive efforts for their research to have a directness and accessibility that reflects the ubiquity of the topic. Most notable and recent in this trajectory is David Edgerton -– not least The Shock of the Old -– whose painstaking historical research undermines the myths that support technology as an inexorable autonomous agent lusting after progress. From the early 1990s feminist technology studies have been profoundly influential in Technology Studies with pioneering work by (among many others) Teresa De Lauretis, Rosalind Williams, Judy Wajcman and Ruth Schwartz Cowan, who was so influential in the Bella van Zuylan Institute. In currently fashionable approaches to contemporary theory, scholars such as Donna Haraway, Karen Barad, Judith Butler, Annemarie Mol, and Rosi Braidotti are recognised as the inheritors of their legacy. What is surprising in the wake of this amazing body of research is that it has so little influence on the current popular and journalistic literature on technology. Unlike art history, cultural theory and even film theory, there are visible traces over the past decades of its transformation of popular understanding. No longer is the attribution and connoisseurship of the aficionado the dominant approach to the history of art. Glosses of Foucault and Barthes seem to nourish the quality press while post-colonial theory and contemporary feminist gender criticism are commonplace in opinion articles. And while the dead hand of the auteur director is still ever present in blockbuster criticism, this now sits alongside sophisticated constructivist and receptionist readings, as well as cross-cultural contextualisation of film. Most notable the effects of the industry structure on film form now penetrates fan literature and popular commentary.
Part of the explanation of this is possibly that in the press the blinding glare of the techno-hype of the near future, the visibility of the past is obscured. While on the campus the tried and tested coupling of techno- with anything that is trending has the same effect. This adumbration is almost inevitable when the technological imaginary is driven by the imperatives of the casino culture of the military and commercial entrepreneurship. Technological form in these circumstances is always provisional and contingent and its promotion based on the promises of tomorrow. Not surprisingly there are high rates of attrition and a ‘failure to launch’ in a commercially competitive context in which efficiency and effectiveness are subordinate to market share. In the nineteenth century such high rates of technological failure were seen as a mark of inventive health in the USA. Moreover, accounts of technological form tend to overlook the high levels of modification, redundancy and shifts in the focus of investment that even a cursory glance in the rear-view mirror will reveal. The centrality of speculation and formal instability in technological research and development that is key to the processes of innovation are (as much as possible) doggedly disavowed. And while the myth of progress is still the dominant explanation for the volatility of technological form, for over half a century the body of research identifying the network of agencies that determine the shape and meaning of technology provides an overwhelming case that technology is not some new nature or an autonomous feature of modernism. Nonetheless, the myth of inevitable progress is seductive and the trail of quaint abandoned technologies detached from their context seems to provide an emollient to the demanding puzzle of the present.
Extinct, A Compendium of Obsolete Objects joins with a number of other enterprises, such as The Dead Media Project, The Vintage Software Collection and The Museum of Jurassic Technology, that throw a spotlight on examples of machines and products and offer them up them as isolated (and no longer useful) objects picked out from the vortex of progress. Extinct does this in a familiar and successful form that is possibly most familiar in the collaboration between the BBC and the British Museum entitled A History of the World in 100 Objects. A series of short essays each, with its own image as a talisman, follows a pre-determined sequence to form a collage that contains the whole idea as a single pattern. In the case of Extinct, 85 essays of around 1000+ words were commissioned to describe an object ‘…that once populated the world.’ The objects chosen are not all ubiquitous and certainly quite locally distributed. Although the selection appears quite arbitrary, they have a certain quirkiness and familiarity for the most part and are distributed alphabetically suggesting a prior curation process important for the coherence of the collection. (For some reason ‘Q’ and ‘X’ have been snubbed although there are plenty of objects that could fit the agenda). Each of the 85 essays has at least one key image of the ‘object’ and gives some account as to why it is no longer as prevalent as it once was. There is an introductory essay by the editors intended to outline the argument of the book. Largely this is based on correlation rather than causality and indeed in as much as extinction is a condition that prevails after the death of the last individual specimen it is difficult to reconcile this with the continued existence and indeed functioning of many of the examples that have been chosen. The idea of extinction might have had more purchase if Williams’ distinction between technological systems and technological devices had been factored in. However, on the whole the critical framework of the introduction invokes much of the sentiment of the authors cited at the beginning of this review, but the argument is slippery and at times there is a sense that Technology Studies has been somewhat reimagined away from the literature.
There is also a sense of a cargo cult in the way that many of the key images appear as perfectly crafted product photographs. Rather like an auction catalogue they have a fascination in that they reveal precise detail in ways that are purposely deprived of meaning. Similarly, most of the essays are all straightforward and have great charm, and as a whole the book is great fun to dip in and out of. The stand-out essays are of course by Edgerton. Nothing could be more resonant of misapplied endeavour than a huge plane pretending to be a boat. But as his careful study of the flying boat makes clear, when the capital costs of infrastructure (i.e., runways), are devolved to the carrier, landing on open water is possibly the only sensible option for long haul heavy payloads. Moreover, as he points out that the history of the flying boat is not quite over since they are still built and used in some circumstances. It seems that Howard Hughes’ infamous Spruce Goose is not quite the exorbitant vanity project that Hollywood suggests. Many of the essays are more personal and Richard Wentworth’s piece on the slotted screwdriver is one of the more heart-felt. He reflects on his own relationship with the demise of the slot head screw in favour of crosshead version which, as his son points out, is becoming dominant in the building trade because they speed up the process. For many years it has been clear in fabrication that connecting a star shaped driver is quicker and requires less precision than aligning a flat bladed screwdriver with a slot. The new screws may be expensive, but they are fast, self-countersinking, made of hardened steel and do not shear. They may not be the best technical solution but technological form, in the main, prioritises production imperatives over consumer needs. This new screw needs a special star driver so good luck trying to take them out in after twenty years when they are corroded – no deft recutting of the slot with a hacksaw blade will help here.
Reading the reviews of Extinct it seems the book has caught the imagination and it is not surprising. Many reviewers seem to have seen it as a licence to construct ‘selfies’ and to tell stories of an individual past. If not history, then an opportunity for some folksy auto-ethnography opens up the pleasures that this kind of near-history topic can stimulate. Although ‘Concord- died because of a catastrophic and spectacular technological failure.’ may grate with ANT and the STC community along with ‘…the moment of invention’, for the most part Extinct has purposes and avoids the lazy journalism that discussing technology seems to encourage. It is also to be commended that beyond that pleasure of self-recognition there is an attempt to expand the idea of technology beyond its current narrow meaning as the next “new digital thing”. It also points to the ongoing struggle facing Technology Studies in its efforts to bring to the fore the critical issues of agency and decision making in relation to those technologies that we choose to use and those that we decline. After 60 years of advocacy (in some amazingly accessible books and films) the determining agency of the user in shaping technological form still seems to be invisible in the dazzle of the headlights of the future and the soft-focus sepia tones of the past.