Ainissa Ramirez; The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another (The MIT Press 2020)
In The Alchemy of Us, Dr. Anissa Ramirez has produced an incisive and readable work history of technology that covers everything from the way we think about time to the political implications of instant photography. Ramirez, a Standford PhD in materials science who worked at Bell Labs and taught engineering at Yale prior to becoming a science writer, centers this book around the best traditions of storytelling combined with the latest historiographical interventions in history of technology. As such, her book is both readable and a clarion call to our field about how to integrate people into key histories of technology who have too long been discarded or ignored. “When books about technology reflect readers, those readers come away with more than just stories but a sense that they can create too,” explains Ramirez.
By highlighting lesser-known inventors many of whom were people of color or white women, Ramirez ensures that this is a new history of familiar topics. She skillfully defamiliarizes common narratives of railway history, telecommunications history, and other histories of major technological systems to hook readers into a set of new stories and new agents of technological change. Ramirez focuses not only on technologies and how the patterns they produce shaped culture, but how the unintended consequences of these patterns form critical, often underdiscussed parts of these histories of technology.
Ramirez begins her book with Ruth Belleville a 19th and 20th century woman who was literally a timekeeper back in the days when clocks needed to be constantly updated to stay accurate. She ends her book with a quote from Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, who talks about another type of accuracy check, that of checking that the books we read truly reflect our reality. In between, she takes on thorny questions—such as whether technologies like cameras can be racist, or how a white Southern housewife helped in the development of borosilicate glass. Each chapter brings into the story people who were considered too peripheral or unimportant to be included in earlier canonical accounts as legitimate and important actors, but whose presence in her narrative brings new richness, depth, and approachability to these histories.
One story in particular exemplifies this deft historical reorientation: Caroline Hunter, a Black woman who co-founded the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement to help bring to light the uses of her employer’s instant photographs in abetting the South African government’s apartheid policies, and who lost her job for doing so. Ramirez explains that when Caroline Hunter went to work for Polaroid that company was synonymous with technological innovation and prestige, much like Apple or other high-tech companies are today.
Caroline, however, had grown up in a segregated U.S. and brought her understanding of the way the world worked to her job in chemical science, working on the product line for instant color photographs. When she found out, along with her boyfriend and PRWM co-founder Ken Williams, who was also a Black Polaroid employee, that Polaroid was selling instant camera film to the government of South Africa to create the passbooks that helped police limit and control the movement of Black South Africans, she began a years-long campaign which eventually led to Polaroid divesting from South Africa in 1977. Then as now, Polaroid’s leaders initially claimed that selling their technology to people who would do something racist or destructive with it was not their intent or their responsibility, but then as now, they eventually had to accept the reality that it was.
“Technologies we make are not innocuous and their use is not always for the greater good. technologies such as photographic film also capture the issues and beliefs and values of their times,” Ramirez writes, with incisive clarity. And, “the bias built-in into past technologies echoes today.” One of the ways to combat it is to understand the intricacies of technological history that produced it in the first place so that those who design, deploy, and manufacture technologies that perpetuate these biases cannot have an endless free pass to profit off of them.
It’s fitting that Ramirez has written such a wonderful book that communicates the history of science and technology in new and more inclusive ways. In her introduction, Ramirez talks about how television shows that had to do with science were instrumental in cementing her desires to be a scientist. One of the repeating segments on the television show 3-2-1 Contact, she recalls, had a young African-American girl doing science, in whom Ramirez says she saw her reflection. Yet years later, in college, she found the wonder and the joy drained out of science by an educational culture that was focused on trying to gatekeep people out. When she found the field of materials science she finally felt at home. She notes that after making it through the hurdles put in front of her by science courses that were more interested in weeding people out and welcoming them in, she became determined to make sure no one else lost their love of science in that way, and this book is her attempt to keep that promise, she notes. The 2021 Hacker Prize committee congratulate her on the fulfillment of that promise and on the publication of a truly remarkable work of science communication and history of science and technology.