Up in the air

Seat 3C, DL5580, September 19, 2018

On the flight up to Montreal, I’m listening to “Drifters” on Laurie Taylor’s Thinking Allowed BBC podcast. Commenting on economic development’s historic links with uncertain population mobility, US sociologist Jeff Ferrell says: “Wrapped up with almost every aspect of North American culture is an undercurrent of dislocation, spatial freedom, and also the loneliness and trauma that comes with that.” Wow! A powerful prelude as I commence my own travels on the societal implications of today’ emerging technologies!

Viewing technological change through mundane objects. Moving on, my next podcast is a 99 Percent Invisible episode on the “First Straw”. This recounts the story of the transformation from natural straws to the 19th century patented invention of the first “artificial straw” as a standardized, mass-produced manufactured product. Through to today, the straw has been associated with urban industrialization, public health and the temperance movement, consumerism, disposability, suburbanization and the rise of fast food (cf. Ray Kroc was a paper plate, cup and straw salesman before McDonalds), through to the rise of plastics, the financialization of business, and now environmental concerns. It’s a fascinating story. It highlights the value of taking a particular object and examining it in all its detail as a litmus of broader industrial, technological, economic, and social processes – as our Manchester RRI group has also done in its work on menthol in everyday life in the context of synthetic biology.  The 99 Percent Invisible episode is based on “Disposable America: A history of modern capitalism from the perspective of the straw. Seriously.” by Alexis C. Madrigal in the June 21, 2018, issue of The Atlantic.