Feb 22 2012: Thirty-Eight Plates from How Things Work Magazine (Marshall Cavendish, 1982)

These are mainly library and archive photographs, all featured in How Things Work, an early 1980s part-work published by Marshall Cavendish in the UK to create a week by week encyclopaedia of (then) current and recent technological developments. In some respects it’s a publication that sits somewhere between the same company’s seventies home-making and DIY material of a few years earlier (an issue of this was featured here last month) and the interests of Military Technology Magazine at the same moment (literally so, as the issues of that publication and this one were found together, so presumably collected by the same reader back in 1982). There are also, of course, the usual propaganda elements we’ve seen before, whether in Soviet Union magazine’s celebrations of big infrastructure projects and consumer electronics or the likes of the USSR Academy of Science’s 1961 exhibition catalogue about achievements in rocket engineering. That we think of this propaganda function as synonymous with one system rather than another, despite the publications of both drawing from the same well of formats, devices and strategies of persuasion throughout the Cold War, just shows how effective propaganda can be in achieving its objectives. Here, the scientific accomplishments of Apollo and commercial satellites are used to promote the idea of aggressively militarised space (something of a contrast to the wider-eyed approach taken in the later sixties ABC of Space) while the undeniably impressive automation in a high-tech warehouse is used to sell an idea of a future with minimal workforces, an idea that in the years after 1982 quickly eroded much in the way of employment security and economic influence for large sections of the Western workforce. In other words, selling the idea of technology as our saviour from labour is one thing, implementing it in ways that lead to mass unemployment and the use of that pool of discarded labour to drive down wages, terms and conditions is quite another. The most potent propaganda element lies in the promotion of an idea of inevitability, that technology, by itself, defines the manner of its own implementation, making such side-effects regrettable but unavoidable. We’d do well to bear this in mind whenever current arguments about the digital and networked realms of the WorldWideWeb and mobile communications raise their invariably utopian or dystopian heads: the social, economic and political consequences of such developments are neither inevitable nor even especially complicated to deal with. That there are many ideologues with powerful motivations to suggest otherwise is what ensures the mark of propaganda remains much as it’s always been: that whenever the phrase ‘there is no alternative’ gets uttered, we’re knee deep in its construction.

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