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Our cultural values get baked into the materials we create, changing humanity along the way

The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another

Ainissa Ramirez
MIT Press
2020
328 pp.
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Humans spend a lot of time and effort making stuff. At last count, humanity has created more than 100,000 different materials from which we build our cities, our clothing, our smartphones, our world. Without our stuff, we would be naked, vulnerable, and, arguably, not very human. The question of how much of our humanity is due to this material wealth and how our cultural values are baked into the materials we create is the subject of Ainissa Ramirez’s fascinating new treatise, The Alchemy of Us.

The book is structured according to broad themes—e.g., “convey,” “capture,” “discover”—which provide a satisfying way to explore how new materials have influenced culture throughout history. The book’s central thesis is that we make materials and materials make us. The desire to articulate the relationship between materials and culture is not new, but the book brings a fresh perspective, in some ways taking up where Cyril Stanley Smith—who championed the role of aesthetics and the arts in the development of materials technologies—left off (1).

Ramirez’s meditation on the materials that have facilitated community (“share”) is particularly illuminating. Here, she writes about the phonograph’s impact on how music was enjoyed. The ability to record music meant that the experience of listening to it no longer had to be a communal one. This spelled the end of much homemade folk music defined by materials such as brass, wind, or strings—“cellos, violins, and guitars produced tones too soft for the early phonograph to pick up, so louder instruments like pianos, banjoes, xylophones, tubas, trumpets, and trombones became preferred for recordings of music”—but it also opened up uncharted horizons. The recordings allowed a cross-fertilization of musical culture between jazz, blues, and rock and roll, even as the musicians themselves remained segregated by race politics.

On the subject of race and racial discrimination, Ramirez argues that a society that is racist will reflect racism in the substances that it makes. For example, photographic film, she writes, was largely developed by white people for white people. Because dark skin absorbs more light than white skin, early photographs of black people were often underexposed, rendering images that were barely recognizable. Ramirez describes how Kodak, the major producer of color film in the early 20th century, was aware of this problem but failed to reformulate its product until furniture makers and confectioners started to complain that it was impossible for customers to discern the difference between wood species and chocolate varieties, respectively. And although the cultural bias embedded in color film was corrected through chemical reformulations, it reemerged decades later in digital photography’s automatic facial recognition, which frequently fails to detect darker skin tones.

Some of the book’s chapters are less dramatic than others, but only because Ramirez is not prepared to sacrifice the fruits of detailed research to render a simplified narrative. Instead, the book recounts the twists and turns of how materials evolved, describing how some people made huge contributions and received little credit, while others were rewarded with fame and money. One such story is that of Reverend Hannibal Goodwin, an Episcopalian pastor who experimented for 10 years in his attic to invent a method to make photographic film. After filing for a patent, he discussed his efforts with George Eastman, a camera manufacturer, who promptly patented his own version and made a fortune. In the end, Goodwin’s descendants did get financial redress, but Goodwin himself died a broken man.

Ramirez is particularly keen to debunk the idea that materials arise from flashes of insight experienced by extraordinary individuals, instead painting a picture of a diverse range of people from all walks of life driven by love, passion, and intellect. The culture of innovation, she maintains, does not belong only to privileged elites, it can be found in all those who care enough to reinvent the material world and, as a result, themselves.

References and Notes
1. C. S. Smith, A Search for Structure: Selected Essays on Science, Art and History (MIT Press, 1981).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Mechanical Engineering, University College London, London WC1E 7JE, UK.