Gorenstein lays the groundwork for the ten essays in this volume by discussing the cultural-social quality of all artifacts: that which is conveyed and understood in the design and materials of an object and apprehended "sentiently" by contemporaries using and living with those objects. "Cultural themes, then, like any other component of design, can be expressed in objects without resorting to language. If they can be expressed in the object, then, assuming that cultural themes are not individual but social, other members of the knowledge community will grasp the theme in the object without language." Since objects mutely carry not only cultural themes, or "root conceptions that underlie all cultural expressions" (6), but also convey "themes that are not commonly accepted in a community," (8) Gorenstein reminds the reader that objects will be developed, accepted and rejected for reasons not entirely to do with function or utility.
Pamela Walker Laird leads off with an article on "Progress in Separate Spheres: Selling Nineteenth Century Technologies." Her effort is to trace, through advertisements, how the use of certain consumer products was linked to gender, and promoted as progressive. The computer, according to Merete Lie in "Computer as Gendered Material Culture," is not typically perceived as gendered, and has yet to acquire settled cultural meaning(s). Certain aspects of the computer may make it attractive to men and women: its unbounded possibilities, but abstract, rule-bound activities, its mysterious inner workings, and its positioning as an cold, hard, intellectual and expensive object: these features may be used to change one's image of oneself, or other's image of oneself. Liv Emman Thorsen, "The Electric Fridge and Other Recollections," taps the nostalgic memories of her subjects about the entrance of new technology into the home: they remembered vividly the dresses, pianos refrigerators, coats, and underwear that they saved and scrimped for, the objects that they had, and those that they desired or feared. John Bakke's contribution in "Technologies and Interpretation" is a review of the early positioning and repositioning of the telephone: to what class of items did it belong? How was it to be used? Nothing about the phone and its system, from assigned individual numbers to the design of the handset, was inevitable. With regard to social use, telephones spawned etiquette books and mobile phones continue the tradition. With regard to kind, telephones early achieved the status of a powerful and personal communications technology distinct from telegraphs, but today they are again being re-figured for new uses, including, but not limited to, mobile entertainment.
"The Culture of the Instrument," by Lusin Bagla-G?kalp, takes a closer look at two forms of a particular instrument: the laser Doppler anemometer and the hot wire anemometer. Scientists used to the older, hand-held instrument, which lent itself to small scale experiments, were unenthusiastic about a new, grant-requiring, difficult-to-operate, opto-electronics-inspired machine. The instrument changed the nature of the social relations in the lab as well as the kinds of experiments that could be done. Continuing the themes raised by the particularities of group of users, Russell Mills uses mountain bike design to develop his thesis in "Toward a Grammar of Artifacts." Mills argues that technological features are not fixed, but rather can carry a variety of meanings, and that these meanings will be, and are, altered by new contexts, such as California extreme sports cultures. Also reviewing countercultures, Kenneth Croes in "Separate from the 'World': The Use of Material Culture in Shaker Social Reproduction," suggests that the Shakers needed artifacts to convey Shaker values to insiders and outsiders alike, and also to distinguish and support the communities of believers. Linda Strauss concludes the volume with "Reflections in a Mechanical Mirror: Automata as Doubles and Tools." As much a literary as a technological review, Strauss pulls together ideas about the 'superstitious' fear inspired by robot doubles (and twins in general). By placing automata in a "safe" liminal social and physical space, they can be used to work out questions about the essential nature of humanity.
Gorenstein's opening article is also a useful framework for beginning
(advanced) students of material culture. Although he doesn't really
offer a "grammar" of artifacts, Russell Mills also offers a model that
may be of use, and bears interesting resemblance to the ideas in Bloor's
Scientific Knowledge. The notes to Linda Strauss's article
may also yield interesting information on the historical figure Robert-Houdin
and the making of automata.