- Consumers, Tinkerers, Rebels: The People Who Shaped Europe by Ruth Oldenziel and Mikael Hård
We owe Michel de Certeau the insight that modernity invented everyday life and then conceived of it as a mystery. Therefore, this book probes the contours of Europeans’ everyday life in the last century and a half not by looking at the mainstream narratives of technological change, but by delving into its interstices. If the hallmark of industrial modernity is the construction of increasingly expansive technological systems by state and corporate powers, within these systems’ folds emerge countless opportunities for acts of anti-discipline (the tinkering and rebelling summoned in the book’s subtitle) by social actors who can only euphemistically be called “consumers.” The book’s protagonists are social actors who made citizenship claims by engaging with technology as users. These user-citizens, the authors argue, are the unsung heroes of both technological change and its political and cultural dimension, the production of increasingly interconnected European ways of life.
The first installment of a six-volume series titled Making Europe and devoted to exploring technology as a transnational phenomenon, this book pursues its admirably ambitious agenda by narrating illustrative (and smartly illustrated) stories. Following a loosely chronological order, each of the eight chapters focuses on a transnational technological system, broadly defined, and looks at it from the perspective of its intended and/or unintended users. The three chapters in part I, which covers the half century before World War I, deal with fashion and clothing, dwellings and home furnishing, and travel and transportation. In each of these cases, the strategies [End Page 993] that emanated from centers of power (the Parisian maisons, the hygiene experts, and the transportation industry with its political allies) confronted the subtly subversive tactics of heterogeneous users (women armed with fashion plates, paper patterns, and sewing machines; dwellers bent on interpreting comfort on their own terms; and travelers of vastly unequal classes eager to protect or challenge social and geographical boundaries). One of the book’s main accomplishments is that these tensions become materialized in satisfyingly concrete ways, as the reader is invited to follow, among many other things, hands skillfully copying Parisian designs, dwellers debating the pleasures and challenges of home furnaces, and migrants measuring the gap between the disinfecting border stations through which they must pass and the seamless journeys of the cosmopolitan elites on the Orient Express.
The three chapters in part II, which deals with the mid-century decades, examine similar tensions around bicycling and the rise of the automobile, home cooking and the industrialization of food processing and retailing, and “vernacular” and “expert” visions of European kitchens. The main goal here is to show that even at the height of state-centered modernism and American influence, users’ mobilization mattered. As long as the middle class rode on two wheels, governments and corporations could not ignore bicycling clubs, which greatly contributed to shaping the infrastructures on which automobility ended up relying. By the same token, ordinary Europeans resisted the lures of both the American supermarket and high-tech kitchen, inflecting these hallmarks of modernity in distinctive ways.
The final part has its inception in the 1960s, when European users on both sides of the iron curtain mobilized with renewed vigor to negotiate the technological systems that regulated their lives. A highly original chapter deals with the genealogy of recycling practices and links the environmental movement of the 1970s to older cultures of thrift, some of which emerged from society and others which were promoted by autarkic and nationalist governments. The last chapter takes on play and examines a wide array of practices, ranging from Western Europeans’ passion for making dresses for their Barbie dolls to the history of blue jeans in Communist Europe, and from the early development of personal computing in places, such as Greece and Yugoslavia, that U.S. corporations regarded as too marginal to invest in, to the recent “pirates” movements battling increasingly exclusive definitions of intellectual property.
This is a book of truly...