The annual meeting of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) concluded Sunday. SHOT features some of the most engaged discussions of the relationships of humans, the environment, and technology I have heard, and this year’s meeting in Portland, Maine was no exception. The presidential roundtables were especially good at fostering lively discussion, not least the roundtable on approaches to materiality Friday afternoon. Although the breakfast meeting of the Envirotech Special Interest Group (SIG) was (as always) held at an unholy hour, it was encouraging to hear all the good research directions pursued by colleagues and by the strong representation of graduate students at the meeting.
A few of us live-tweeted the conference, and Finn Arne Jørgensen has archived these tweets on Storify. Click the link to reconstruct discussions of engaging with the public and policy makers, 3-D gaming, technological enthusiasm, the abovementioned materiality roundtable, and much more.
Neither Finn Arne nor I live-tweeted the “Salvage: Reuse and Repurposing in the History of Technology” panel because we were presenting, but I think we, our organizer Hanna Rose Shell (who was unable to attend due to health reasons), and fellow panelist/incoming SHOT Executive Secretary Dave Lucsko would all like to thank the attendees for the terrific comments, both by commentator Merritt Roe Smith and the audience. Hanna conceived of a panel on salvage and the assembled papers featured several overlaps allowing for engaged discussion on nomenclature (including contested definitions of the terms “shoddy,” “junk,” and “waste”), social (and socioeconomic) dimensions of waste, notions of authenticity (including the evolution of Norwegian leisure cabins from salvaged materials in Finn Arne’s paper), skill and stewardship of objects (including identification of optimal salvaged automobile parts in Dave’s paper) and pondering what the term “upcycling” means.
That last point was the focus of my paper. Much of my work, including the book I am writing, is concerned with the ways waste and waste work have had particular consequences for particularly marginalized people in certain times and places. This paper, on high-end recycling of aluminum, seems a departure from that in it explores the creation of expensive goods by trained designers. In part, I am pursuing this project because of my teaching interests. I moved to the Pratt Institute in 2012 to teach the designers of tomorrow about the implications of mass production and disposal, figuring that was a unique opportunity to apply my historical training to present and future concerns. Given the skills developed at Pratt, we discuss ways in which design and production affect the waste stream.
Designers of fashion, furniture, jewelry, and other goods have embraced the idea of upcycling (making goods of increased value from salvaged material) over the past decade. The word is now also used by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, who discuss their vision of ecologically beneficial industrial production in the new book The Upcycle.
As an environmental historian, I try to understand how the past has shaped the present. My first book looked at the ways Americans have recycled material since the time of Paul Revere, seeking to understand the evolving motives, successes, and failures of efforts over two centuries. This paper is the beginning of an attempt to place this rather new term in historical context. How have designers used salvaged material to make new goods of increased value? What motivations have shaped these efforts, and how might past successes and failures inform the work of designers today?
To start this conversation, my paper discussed a few famous examples using salvaged aluminum since World War II, ranging from Eames Aluminum Group, Norman Foster, and Philippe Starck furniture to guitars made by the likes John Veleno, Travis Bean, and Kevin Burkett (an example of Burkett’s Electrical Guitar Company designs is included in this post). I look forward to developing this project further, thank Hanna for the opportunity to present it in such an ideal setting, and thank the SHOT community for engaging in the conversation. I imagine several scholars coming home from Maine this week share my gratitude on that last point, as these panels were the kind that make us excited to do our work.