- Fish Sticks, Sports Bras, and Aluminum Cans: The Politics of Everyday Technologies by Paul R. Josephson
Paul R. Josephson's Fish Sticks, Sports Bras, and Aluminum Cans is intended to be "engaging and readable," not "deeply theoretical" (4), enabling it to serve as "a textbook for a high school or college course" concerned about "the place of technology in the modern world" (5). His central argument is that "we cannot look at objects in isolation, but must consider the messy interaction of engineering, scientific, financial, governmental, consumer, and social institutions in giving impetus—or creating obstacles—to the dissemination of technology, and [that] we must recognize all of the actors involved in their history" (4). The first part of the claim would be banal if not for the kind of audience imagined for the book, which may include many readers who need gentle guidance to see how objects they use in their daily lives do not arise ex nihilo but instead are products of "technological systems … consisting of physical components (artifacts), natural resources, and organizations (manufacturing firms, utility companies, investment banks, scientific and engineering research organizations, and universities) that interact with other artifacts" (3). The second part of the claim would, if taken literally, establish from the outset the impossibility of Josephson's project, for no analysis could possibly "recognize all of the actors involved" in inventing, improving, producing, financing, regulating, transporting, marketing, selling, consuming, recycling, or discarding any commonplace object.
Consequently, the merit of Josephson's book derives not from his overarching argument but from the particular patterns and idiosyncratic details that emerge from rich case studies assembled from wide-ranging primary and secondary sources, which include corporate archives and websites, government reports, industry and trade publications, patent applications, personal interviews, popular magazines and newspapers, and scholarly books and articles. Using these materials, Josephson traces the complicated histories of such quotidian objects as the fish stick, the sports bra, the banana, the aluminum can, the potato, and high fructose corn syrup. In their best moments, these histories reveal the confluence of unforeseen circumstances and flashes of serendipity, such as the curious way by which the fish stick, "the ocean's hot dog" (6), came into existence, "less [in response to] consumer demand and more in response to overproduction based on new fishing and refrigeration technologies, including sonar that enabled locating schools of fish, advances in materials science that led to light, strong, and very large nets that allowed for bigger catches, a weak fish market" (6), and shifts in attitudes about food preparation that, at the level of the household, valued the convenience of heat-and-eat frozen meals and that, at the institutional-level, emphasized the efficiency of portion control (20–21).
It should be noted, however, that Josephson sometimes loses himself—and certainly his readers—in minutiae that should have been relegated to endnotes if included at all. After all, some details that would certainly have been relevant for actors involved the history of these objects are not equally relevant for his targeted audience of high school students, college students, and—according to the back cover—general readers. For example, in Chapter 2, do such readers really need to know about a particular 2012 study that found that the "mean bilateral vertical component of the bra-breast force in standing was 11.7 ± 4.6 N, whereas during treadmill running the mean unilateral bra-breast force ranged from 8.7 ± 6.4 N to 14.7 ± 10.3 N in the high and low support conditions, respectively," with N standing for a Newton, the unit that measures "the amount of net force required to accelerate a mass of one kilogram at a rate of one meter per second squared" (45)? Or, in Chapter 6, what is added to the reader's understanding of "the role of big technology under Stalin and Putin" in Soviet and Russian history by mentioning that the Bilibino [End Page 122] Station in Chukotka "consists of four graphite-moderated EPG-6 reactors, related to the RMBK...