Monday, June 27, 2016

Book Review: Paper

Paper: Paging Through History.
Mark Kurlansky
History, technology

I liked this book. I wanted to like it more than I did, though. The central idea is wonderful, but Paper is marred by too much sweeping pronouncement and too little sober fact.

For one thing, there are a good many assertions that are ill-phrased, dubious, or just plain wrong. Here are a few.

  • In the tenth century, "Most European languages only had words for 'one,' 'two,' and 'many.'" I call bullshit. Most European languages are Indo-European, and the cardinal numbers all derive from Proto-Indo-European roots.
  • Kurlansky quotes a ditty allegedly from a paper manufacturer: "John Clark & Company, which opened in 1807 in Black River, Wisconsin." In 1807, Wisconsin was the wilderness. In 1820, the year of its first U.S. census, its non-native population was 1,444. There was no railroad, not even an Erie Canal (1825), to connect it with population centers. It didn't get its first newspaper until 1833, and it didn't become a territory until 1836. This looks like, at the very least, absurdly lackadaisical fact-checking.
  • At the time of the American Civil War, "The only soldiers who could stay still long enough to be photographs were dead"--a pronouncement that will be startling to anyone who's ever seen a Ken Burns documentary. (Evidently these guys, for example, were all dead. Who knew?)

Etc., etc.

And then there's the big one, the assertion that Kurlansky trots out in his introduction and drives home at every opportunity. He dignifies it by the term "the technological fallacy": 
... the idea that technology changes society. It is exactly the reverse. Society develops technology to address the changes that are taking place within it.
This isn't as revolutionary an idea as Kurlansky seems to think. When it's time for light bulbs, as someone once remarked, you get light bulbs. More importantly, it's easily falsifiable. To take one relatively recent example, it's not true that Africa failed to develop land-line telecom networks because African society "had no need of the telephone"; the subsequent wildfire-like spread of cell phones proves as much. (If you want to go back further and wider, look up the effects of the padded horse collar on post-Roman Europe.)

So the generalization, like all generalizations, is false (see what I did there?). The truth is that both things happen. Societies develop technologies--sometimes! not always!--to cope with new demands; and technologies--sometimes! not always!--mutate societies. Sometimes it's the same technology doing both: the cotton gin (for instance) made processing cotton easier, which was clearly a response to demand, but it also shifted the American South away from tobacco growing (which wears out the soil), engendered a new generation of cotton aristocrats, crowded out the development of industry,  made slavery vastly more profitable than ever before, and thereby helped make the American Civil War inevitable.

So much for my gripes. As noted, I still liked the book, though. Some of the things I liked: fluid and graceful writing; a tremendous narrative sense; excellent illustrations. The level of detail is just right, which is no small trick. The subject is fascinating in its own right, and the various associated technologies--printing, lithography, photography, newspapers, and so forth--each get an appropriate share of the limelight. The book is nicely and illuminatingly cross-cultural, too.

If you like the now-classic single-word-title biography-of-a-thing book, you'll like this. Go ahead, read Paper. Just don't take it for gospel.

An extraordinarily fine book, and one that both (a) involves paper, and (b) neatly rebuts Kurlansky's central premise, is Copies in Seconds by David Owens. This is the story of the birth of the photocopier--a machine that nobody wanted, because existing copying technology was adequate to all existing needs. Until, that is, it was invented, after which nobody could live without it.

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