Technology in Everyday Life c.1939-1968

A collection of household items from the 1951 Festival of Britain now on display at the Science Museum.

A brave new world after all? Science and technology invade the home.

From prams and washing machines to radios and vacuum cleaners, this display of items from the 1951 Festival of Britain is clearly domestically centred.  Here, science and technology appear to impinge on almost every aspect of day-to-day British life with items for entertainment (games, fireworks and broadcasting technologies), beauty (hair styling and clothes tailoring), cleaning (washing machines and vacuums), home improvement (workbench and tools), cooking (crockery, cutlery and appliances) and basic healthcare (glasses). However, the image of science does not appear as prominently as the idea of technology when considering these objects. Many, such as the games and tableware seem to advertise British manufacturing and craftsmanship rather than British scientific development, while there is not a single object in the display without a functional use, reflecting a greater governmental emphasis on applied rather than pure science from the Second World War onwards.

All of these items seem, aesthetically, to be pulling away from connections with the idea of sharp, angular, metallic and dirty wartime science and attempting to portray an idealistic technological future. Elegantly designed, acrylic, shiny, colourful and clean, with rounded edges, these technologies seem to embody the ideal of futurism so present in the popular culture of 1930’s Britain, as described in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and as seen in the film Things to Come (1936) based on H.G. Wells’ novel (1933) of the same name. It is almost as if the technology itself is encouraging the user to think of themselves as living in ‘the future’ and that the future is now. Meanwhile, the only remnants of wartime in these technologies are those related to children on the far left of the cabinet; the baby’s full body gas mask and the children’s game of risk. It is surprising that the baby’s gas mask has been included because in 1951 it would have conjured up emotive and destructive images of the effects and fears of wartime on British civilians, especially those within London.

In a way, this proportional representation of these objects illustrates clearly the post-war consensus that the war must not be forgotten, but that Britain had to now move on and look to the future, evident in the Labour landslide victory of 1945. This is also represented in the general femininity of the items on display which focus on children and domesticity, which at the same time are elegant and feminine in their style and colour, showing a shift away from the masculine idea of war and towards the ideas of peace and utopian leisure. The most futuristic looking object in the display, though not the most technologically futuristic, is the chrome at home salon hairdryer, which reiterates the idea of science moving from masculinity to femininity. When considering this idea within the context of scientific Britain in the 1950’s, this shows that not only was Britain not keeping up with the American idea of Big Science, but also that the British populace did not want science to do so, preferring it to focus on improving standards of living (as was the post-war consensus).

by Rebecca Martin

Fellow experimenters in art and science part II

Sarah Craske, one of our Chain Reactionists, put me onto this one: BioARTCAMP.  There’s also a video of the project.  BioARTCAMP was a project run out in the wilds of the Rocky Mountains, bringing together artists and scientists into an unfamiliar and necessarily improvisatory environment.  This simple act of transportation has a transformative effect on the behaviours and relationships of the participants; because it’s no-one’s ‘own’ space, they have to figure out the rules and aims of what they do completely afresh. Paul Vanouse, for example, has to figure out how to do PCR in the forest.  He has to go without the modern kit: to go back to before the automatic machine we’re exploring in Chain Reaction! was invented.  He heats up his water-baths laboriously to the right temperature – over the campfire – barbecues will never seem the same again …

Heating up water baths for a PCR the old-fashioned way … on a campfire

 One unexpected element of the video is seeing children run around the camp – whoever saw that in a lab or even in most artists’ studio?  In another social reconfiguration, scientists and artists alike are kitted out in the same professional ‘uniform’, a hi-vis jacket decorated with a brassiere image on the front (complete with Canadian maple leaf).  And then there’s just weird stuff around the place, like a fridge inside the body of a goat or deer of some sort.

In their turn, these social rearrangements reconfigure relationships with nature, which is after all the stuff of both science and art.  The feminised uniforms are echoed in the mating experiments done at the camp by Marta de Menezes (another Chain Reactionist) who unpicks the binary notion of gender with her seven-gendered organism.

Dr Jennifer Willet (director of BioARTCAMP) comments:

The lab itself is an ecology … The laboratory is in fact teaming with life.  When we manipulate life in the lab we are in turn manipulating ourselves and our ecology.

What BioARTCAMP does is to get people thinking about how these manipulations can be humane, witty, creative, fun.  Artists and scientists alike partake in the same social project, that is, of choosing natural manipulations.

Above all I respect the political angle of BioARTCAMP, which is based in an appreciation that both art and science are at root social projects, and that good science communication digs beneath the science to its purposes.  Here’s Willet again:

I’m really interested in a social and political analysis of technology.  I’m fearful that as a culture we’re … falling into a future that is not being determined for our best needs or for our ecology’s best needs, but instead for the economy’s best needs, and for the best needs of business men.  So with a project like this I’m driven primarily by the images it will create … secondary to that I am driven by the political and social economy of the arguments that we are making with those images.

We could do a lot worse than this for a vision of science communication.

Fellow experimenters in art and science part I

Fellow experimenters in art and science part I

Since Chain Reaction! got underway, several people have sent links to other projects around the world.

Do You Mind? is a New Zealand collaboration based on neuroscience (thanks, Janet Young!).  Its rationale is pretty much the opposite to ours; rather than demystifying science for artists, it’s trying to re-inject a sense of mystery into the scientists. 

 brain images

I enjoy a sense of mystery as much as the next person, but I have to confess by being frustrated at how this ambition caused the project to stop a little short.  The researchers conclude that their project ‘increased awareness of current neuroscience research’ – which is great: but awareness is not necessarily empowerment.  In this context quite the reverse, in fact. 

Current controversies about neurorealism demand that the public be able to move beyond an awestruck response when confronted with these types of images.  These images, now so prevalent, have been shown to bamboozle audiences into accepting scientific claims when shown in conjunction with them.  This worked when the claim was totally unconnected to the image, or when patently ridiculous, such as the claim that ability in mathematics is positively correlated with watching TV.

Images of the brain are too easily mystifying – what we need is less mystery, and more information about how and why scientists make these pictures – what they get from them – and who else is using them, and why.

On opening some black boxes

What is the history of science?  A clichéd answer might invoke a parade of big names: Galileo, Darwin, Einstein. 

But this is a really rubbish history if we are trying to get people to understand and engage with science in the present day.  Will solar power save us from global warming?  Do neutrinos move faster than light?  Is cannabis dangerous?   Do pharmaceutical companies invent diseases to sell their drugs?  Giant figures (who in any case are created retrospectively) won’t help us answer these questions.  To do answer these kinds of questions we need to know how science actually works.  Or, we should more accurately say: we need to know how scientists actually work.  There is no such thing as science, only scientists. 

Preparing for the first Chain Reaction! workshop it struck me that there are big parallels between this and the history of art.  My strong hunch is that the succession Michelangelo, Monet, Picasso is no more a meaningful story of our artists than Galileo, Darwin, Einstein is the story that explains the work of Kent’s Bioscientists.  These hero figures are at best the tip of an iceberg.

What is a practising artist’s story?  A lot of it is the story of the development of the media that they use: the history of pigments, metal alloys.  In their own personal histories, it’s a story of a very physical, hands-on process of learning how to use these media and how they respond – just as scientists learn to use pipettes, gels and PCRs.

So, having spotted some similar challenges in clichéd vs. real histories of science and art, I wanted to give the Chain Reaction! artists a couple of ideas from historians of science that I thought might help them think through their experiences in the lab.

One of these ideas is that of the ‘black box’.  Popularised by the sociologist of science, Bruno Latour, a black box is any piece of technology where everyone agrees that the input reliably leads to output, and no-one questions this process even when things go wrong.  For example, imagine if I’ve received a letter from my boss saying that my contract will not be renewed; I won’t wonder whether perhaps his printer has inserted the word ‘not’ into that sentence.  I assume (alas) that the printer reliably outputs whatever was sent to it.  One can productively broaden the notion of the black box beyond literal technologies.  We could think, for example, of the journal Nature as a kind of black box; we assume that any paper published in it has been put through a reliable system of checking by qualified peer reviewers.  Only in extreme circumstances do black boxes get reopened.  Historians of science, on the other hand, like to open black boxes all the time, to discover how they were put together.  They like to see how and why a piece of technology has come to be trusted, or how and why certain human processes come to be relied upon. 

Chain Reaction! aims to open at least three black boxes. 

First, of course, the PCR machine itself.  OK it’s beige or cream, not black, but it’s a classic black box.  No one doubts that what goes in comes out – except in extreme cases like in court, where DNA evidence may be challenged on the grounds that the scientists sneezed into the test tube.  (Mind you, I was talking to a Seattle based scientist who uses PCR all the time, and she seemed to have a distinctly cautious attitude to PCR outputs…)

Secondly, the laboratory is also a box: a room full of people who know what they are supposed to do and how they are supposed to behave.  They move around and do things and out of the room comes scientific knowledge.  But for the general public, its workings are as mysterious as the inside of a computer.  What goes into the box, and how does it work, to output things like the ancestry of humankind, or the identity of a father? 

Finally, the human mind is also a bit of a black box: we learn stuff, experience things, and out come ideas and conclusions.  But what goes on inside?  Does it work the same for artists and scientists?  These days we tend to assume that scientists’ minds are tidier and more rational places than artists’, but that’s a historically local assumption.  At other times, creativity and romanticism have been highly rated in scientists. 

Let’s see what happens when we open some black boxes.

The birth of Chain Reaction!

Beginning a Chain Reaction!

An image of a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) machine.Chain Reaction! is an attempt to do some creative science communication in a way that embodies approaches taken by historians of science.
On a simple level, it celebrates a piece of laboratory kit the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) machine, which is 30 years old in 2013.  By rapidly multiplying fragments of DNA into the kind of quantities necessary for experiment, the PCR machine has made possible all of the genetic science of the past generation.

And yet the PCR machine is an incredibly humble and simple piece of kit, essentially a water bath – a boiler – with a cycling thermostat.  As such, the PCR challenges many common assumptions about science.  Science is not all about fancy ideas; simple and basic graft is a vital part of it.  Or, as physiologist L. J. Henderson put it in 1917: ‘Science owes more to the steam engine than the steam engine owes to Science.’  Historians of science (starting with Steve Shapin) have sometimes referred to ‘hidden technicians’ – the army of workers and gadgets who make it all possible, yet are rarely noticed – let alone celebrated.

On 19 July 2012 the University of Kent, with support from the Creative Campus fund, will bring together artists and scientists to start a chain reaction of a related kind.  The scientists will teach the artists how to use the PCR machine, with the aim that the artists can begin to shed creative light on how science actually works – with all of its hidden technicians.

Conversation will be at the heart of the process.  We’ll be provoking artists and scientists alike with serious and cheesy icebreakers:

  • What got you into art/science?
  • What are the stages of process in one of your projects?
  • What kind of thoughts go through your head while you work?
  • Choose three words to describe your practice of art/science
  • If you were a chemical element which one would you be?
  • If you were a colour which one would you be?

… further suggestions welcomed!

Ultimately all of this will result in an art show at the Sidney Cooper Gallery in November/December 2013. Chain Reaction! is being run by Dan Lloyd and Charlotte Sleigh, the directors of the Kent MSc Science, Communication and Society.

Let the Chain Reaction begin!

The logo of the University of Kent's Creative Campus initiative.

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