Q&A: Paul Josephson

 

Paul Josephson, a historian of science and technology, discusses his new book, teaching his course Luddite Rantings, and life as “the fish-stick guy.”

By Gerry Boyle '78
Photography by Charlotte Wilder '11 and the Office of Communications
 

Josephson
So are you still teaching Luddite Rantings?
Yes. In fact I’m teaching it this semester.

What is students’ reaction when you challenge something as fundamental to their lives as earbuds and iPhones?
For many it’s eye opening because they do understand more and more how everything that they do has a direct impact on technology and the technology also has a direct impact on how they do what they do. I had a student this fall, I sent him a note that pointed out that his work was lagging. And he wrote me back a few moments later: “I can’t answer fully now because I’m in class.”

This must be on your mind more with each passing year.
It’s on my mind, but I’m a neo-Luddite, not a Luddite. I don’t reject technology. I reject bad technology. So in the course we try to define bad and good technology. And good technology is inherently democratic and bad technology is inherently authoritarian. So a nuclear power station is inherently authoritarian. You need to have armed guards and a police state and you need to have billions of dollars and you need to have someplace to store it, you have to worry about terrorists. Solar power is democratic. Anyone can have it.  So technology that’s democratic—that’s reversible if we discover bad things associated with it—I’m for those and they exist. But the political and economic system pushes us toward large scale, which are inherently less democratic.

So it’s not just communications?
We get to that as well. We do both historical and thematic, so there are communications technologies. I talk about the dumbing down of Americans, including our students, because they’ve stopped tactile research. They need to hold books and magazines and archival documents in their hands. And to ponder them. Instead they go right to the Internet and if they don’t find it within zero point three eight seconds then it doesn’t exist. Or if they do find something, they have no idea how to evaluate whether it’s valuable or not.

So how do you reverse that?
I make them write using primary sources—that’s the requirement of every class I have. Sometimes those primary sources, yes, are accessible through the Internet. But they must evaluate primary sources in their own words, in essays about which they feel proud and strong. That’s the only thing I think we can do. Teach critical reading, writing, and thinking by asking them to refrain from the Internet.

Do they find that refreshing?
I think they enjoy it. Maybe not as much as historians do.

So in the future will there always be a small percentage of people who want that tactile experience?
There will always be a large percentage of those people. We are friends of books. We understand the pressures of having things electronic, but electronic journals and books, good ones, are always based on hands-on research experience.

And your last book is an example of that? You immersed yourself in that.
Which one was that?

Lenin’s Laureate.
Yes, that was archival research and interviews with Zhores Alferov, this Nobel Prize winner himself.

Is he a friend of yours?
Yes. We met when I was a graduate student doing my doctoral dissertation research. I wrote about the history of Soviet physics before World War II. I focused on the Leningrad physics community, because Leningrad was the cradle of Soviet physics. And I ended up at the institute where he was a leading person and soon became the director. He’d done his Nobel research there in the 1960s. So when he got the Nobel Prize, in 2000, I called him to congratulate him. And then, a year or two later, I thought, this has the makings of a great book.

Was that one tough? It’s a pretty dense topic.
I never had such a hard time as writing this book. I wrote two other books in the time I was writing this one because, first of all, although he thinks I’m a physicist, I’m an historian of physics. It was hard for me to master the quantum electrodynamics of the solid state. I can remember him lecturing me and diagrams and things at his desk. I’m sitting there nodding, saying, “Yes, yes, I understand,” as all of this stuff is going over my head. I’m telling myself, I’ll get to it later.

And did you?
I did. It was extremely difficult. It took about a year before I felt comfortable.

Has Alferov read it?
He has. He loves it. In fact, I just wrote him. I would like it to come out in Russian and asked him to use his contacts to have someone translate it. … I’m going to have a cookie if you don’t mind. I had a long morning. I snowshoed for an hour. I shoveled snow for ninety minutes, and then I ran seven miles, so I’m low on energy.

It must have been a fun snowshoe.
It was, but I was the second person into the woods. Damn it.

So the book?
I immerse myself fully and entirely. That’s all you really can do. But I think the key to being productive, all of my colleagues will tell you, is if you write a page or two a day, then everything is fine. A page or two a day is five-hundred pages a year, which is a book. Not all of what you write is good, but if you do it every day, the editing process is easy, you never stumble, you’re always making some progress. The second thing I do is I like to have a second or third project going on because, if you get tired of one, you can do research and writing on another and you’re ready to plow ahead when the previous project is done.

Like the fish-sticks article. What was the title?
“The Ocean’s Hot Dog. The Development of the Fish Stick.” That came out of research I’d done for the book, Industrialized Nature.

And your thesis was?
No one ever demanded them. The fishing industry used advertising to create demand once they figured out how to turn big frozen blocks of fish into sticks using industrial band saws—and how to bread them. And the big blocks of fish came from increased ability to catch and process vast quantities of fish at sea because of technological revolutions in plastics for bigger and stronger nets, sonar to locate fish, refrigeration and freezing, and simply bigger ships—trawlers—that came out of military applications during World War II.

Interesting. But still, when you told people you were writing about fish sticks, did you get a few chuckles?
At first people were skeptical. They thought it was funny, they thought it was Josephson being Josephson. Since then a lot of people having read the final version have said, “This is really great. I use it in my courses.” And the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung [newspaper] wrote an article about fish sticks based on this article. So a German friend sent me a copy. He said German scholars wait their whole lives to be in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

So the fish-stick article attracted some notice.
Yes, but the neatest thing that happened was, I was sitting at a conference and the guy next to me was talking about something about environmental history. He turned to me suddenly and he said, “Wait a minute—you’re the fish-stick guy.”

 
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