Category Archives: consumerproducts

Sue the TRex lipbalm

This was originally posted on our student blog, Refractive Index.

This is a picture of some Sue the TRex lipbalm, on sale at the gift shop at the Chicago’s Field Museum. Behind it is the eponymous Sue: the largest, most complete, best preserved Tyrannosaurus rex in the world.

lipbalm: Sue

If you look carefully, you’ll see a sign saying the museum’s purchase of the fossil was made possible by a donation from McDonald’s. Disney helped too with the $8.36 million it cost (great book on this). I’m posting it because I think that the lipbalm and Sue itself are nice examples of the ways in which museum exhibits are more than just exhibits in a museum, but belong to a broader set of intersecting cultures, including consumer culture, and the ways in which we construct as well as reconstruct them.

Putting dinosaurs aside for a moment, I’ve always found the idea of a science museum a bit weird, especially when you try to display the physical sciences and technology. What makes a lot of science amazing enough to want to display is often what also makes it either hard or simply plain boring to put in a glass case. Newton’s 3rd law of motion is so exciting because it is so applicable. Material cultures are part of a story of Newton, but they aren’t necessarily the top-line. Similarly, the chemistry and engineering of a ball point pen is pretty interesting, as is the personal history of the Biro brothers, but what makes the humble biro quite so iconic is how humble it is. We don’t have to go to Exhibition Road to see one, we already have one in our pocket. As a consequence, museums of science and industry often have to find ways to manufacture their exhibits, or at least add a sense of theatre to them. It’s the push button side of the science museum experience, and part of the long-standing role artists, designers, writers, film-makers and game-producers have had in the production of exhibits, not just displaying of them.

Museum-made exhibits like these have been around a while now, and I love the way in which these models have become part of the history of science. The Science Museum has a fair number of its old models in store, I remember stumbling across a load when I got to on a tour of Blythe House (a study of them would make a great PhD). My favourite example of this is the push-button door in the Science Museum‘s basement. I’ve seen lovely pictures of kids from the 1950s starring in amazement at this door which OPENED FOR YOU IF YOU PRESS A BUTTON. Today, kids walk up to it expectantly, amazed when they realise they AND YOU HAVE TO PRESS A BUTTON?! The exhibit has never moved physically, but the world around it shifted so it’s gone from being one of the museum’s “geez whizz look at the future” pieces to historical artifact.

Museums of science also find odd ways to turn abstract ideas into something to display in a classic glass case. Einstein’s chalkboard at the Museum for the History of Science in Oxford is a lovely example, as is the relic-like display of Galileo’s finger in Florence, but my favourite is London’s DNA model. You know, that iconic picture of Watson and Crick with their model of DNA? The Science Museum wanted to put the model on display. Except the people in Watson and Crick’s lab had, quite understandably, taken the model apart to reuse not longer after the photo was staged. So, the museum dug out the old pieces from the back of a cupboard, dusted them down and rebuilt the model. It is a reconstruction. The museum are honest about this (if you read the sign), for all that they also nod to a sense of authenticity with a sign saying Watson unveiled it and it was made from the same pieces as the one in the picture.

The Diplodocus in the main hall at the London Natural History Museum is a reconstruction too. The original is in Pittsburgh. It has a fascinating history in itself  though, I don’t think that because it’s a cast it’s any less interesting, just differently so. On the subject of iconic exhibits at the NHM, there’s also the lovely story about the distillery built inside the giant whale, which I guess says something more about the role and use of these exhibits within specific cultures. I think it’s an urban myth, though wikipedia says there is a trap door inside it the workmen used for fag breaks (you have to buy me a drink before I tell any more stories of museum staff ‘tinkering’ with exhibits).

Back to the TRex lipbalm: I find the manufacture of science not only for display on gallery, but then for sale in the museum shop fascinating too. It reflects not only the cultural appeal of scientific ideas and work, but also the ways iconic science museum exhibits have their own cultural currency.  Books, toys, postcards, pencils, glow in the dark periodic table tshirts, dinosaur soft toys, science themed ties… The Mütter Museum sells conjoined twin gingerbread men cookie cutters and the Franklin Institute have Ben Franklin ‘original nerd’ spectacles. Some of these products sell a nod to the collection of the museum (postcards, logos on a pencil) some sell a promise of connection with the scientific profession (how to kits, books). I bet the the Science Museum has an archive of its shop somewhere, which’d be another treasure trove of material for a PhD.

science ties

Science and craft

Mendel's peas
Mendel’s pea, by some of last year’s science communication MSc students

There seems to be more and more events happening which I can only describe as science-craft. I thought I’d write about it, and did a post for the Guardian Science blog.

There are overlaps here with sci-art projects, just as there are overlaps (sometimes problematic ones) between arts and crafts more generally. However, I think science craft events have the potential to involve new and different communities which sci-art doesn’t necessary reach, and to be more participatory in their whole project set up too.

There is the question of what you participate for exactly: what are you making? At danger of repeating myself, science communication isn’t all about baking a cake shaped like a neuron. In particular, I worry that the fluffier ends of sci-craft might act as a distraction from the production of more politically controversial outcomes.

Still, we shouldn’t loose sight of the use of these more playful products too. Or rather, we shouldn’t ignore the power of the social interactions which surround their production. My knitting friends often laugh at me for being a ‘process knitter’. I’ll happily take a piece apart and re-knit it, several times. Finishing is nice. But, for me, the fun’s in the doing. Similarly, I suspect much of the worth of public engagement happens in the process rather than the outcome. The various collaborative processes often involved in crafting can provide a space for people to talk through and think through ideas together. As I end the piece for the Guardian:

At a knitting evening held at Hunterian Museum a few years back, I ended up sitting next to a homeopath. As well as swapping tips on the best way to bind off for socks, we discussed our own research projects, including the ways in which they might be seen to clash, and some of the items of the history of surgery that surrounded us. Other people listened and joined in, before we all moved on to complaining about estate agents. It was polite, humorous and thoughtful. It was also pleasingly mundane; something that we’d all do well to remember a lot of science is.

To give another example, I spotted this video of a neuroscientist, Zarinah Agnew,  making a giant sandcastle. She told me she wants to do it again, but as a workshop rather than a film. I like this idea, because the time spent making the sandcastle allows space for social interaction which simply watching the film might inspire, but won’t necessarily do in itself.

Not all public engagement can or should have an obvious political or scientific outcome. Whether you want to open up the governance of science or increase the public understanding of science, you are unlikely to get anywhere without quite a bit of cultural change first. Playing with a bit of yarn might seem unambitious, but arguably the social interaction and reflection that comes with it can help us get there. Or this social interaction might lead us somewhere else entirely.

Science Top Trumps

This is a picture of my small collection of science-themed Top Trumps. It’s one of those things you only remember you own when you are moving house (I have just packed up my possessions to store while I spend two months in North America*).

my science-y top trumps colection

Top Trumps, if you haven’t heard of it, is a card game. Each set of cards is themed. In the picture above you can see chemistry, dinosaurs and scientific careers, but they’re more likely to be characters in a TV show, cars or footballers (yes, there is a Royal Wedding set…). Each card will have a set of values relating to that theme (e.g. height, weight). You play in rounds. Someone picks a category, and the player with the card with the highest value in that category wins the round. Popular in the 1970s and 80s in the UK, they were relaunched about ten years ago. As one might expect, there’s a detailed Wikipedia entry. Or there’s the official site, Planet Top Trumps.

I’ve written about the dinosaur set before. As I said then, it reminded me a bit of Buckingham & Scanlon’s comparison the way dinosaurs are used in non-fiction publishing with Pokémon (it’s all about collecting and exchanging facts, with the odd semi-fantastic monster thrown in).

dino top trumps

Each round of Top Trumps is very quick, but this doesn’t leave much time for considering the context of the values assigned, and we did query the scientific basis for some of these too. The ‘dinoman’ card is especially weird (I’m not the only person to have spotted this. There is a facebook appreciation page).

That old post about these was passed around a few bits of the internet, and as a result I was sent a pack of Dr Hal’s Chemistry Top Trumps. The ‘values’ here are atomic weight, danger factor, usefulness factor, melting point and year of discovery. Each card comes with a picture and a few sentences of ‘elementary facts’. I played this with some friends recently, and like the dinosaurs set, we wondered why we had to assume the biggest number is best, and there was some debate over whether it should be the biggest amount from 0 (either 0 degrees for temperature, of 0 years before common era in terms of discovery date) that won.

chemistry top trumps

Still, even our grumbles were, arguably, forms of learning about chemistry, and I do think I gained some feel for the elements as we sifted through them in the course of the game.

About a year ago I picked up a set of science career trumps card at the Science Museum shop. As a procrastination from packing I was reflecting on the chemistry pack anyway, I had a bit of a shuffle and a read.

Science careers top trumps.

Each card is carries the logo of an organsation connected to the job, and along with the values (travel, communication , numeracy, computer and technical) there are illustrations and a blurb. Here’s a picture of a few more. I was a bit surprised that the Association of British Science Writers say a qualification in a scientific subject is essential for a career in science journalism (I’m a member of the ABSW. I don’t have any scientific qualifications).

Science careers top trumps.

Playing the careers one, I really felt this was a blunt way of learning. I could see how the processes of the game could help bring some familiarity with the materials (and, as with the chemical elements, reminded me of ones I forgot I knew about), and I could imagine kids going ‘I want to be a…’ or ‘ha, I wouldn’t be a…’ off the back of one card ‘trumping’ another. Still, for me, it’s no substitute for something like the I’m A Scientist project, which connects young people to professional scientists. I’m not sure we should play games with careers. Maybe I’m being oversensitive.

I should probably note that the I’m a Scientist team do also produce debate packs structured through cards as another thread of their work. These aren’t Top Trumps though, they aren’t so competitive and don’t try to assign these odd numerical values to everything. The aim of the card-playing aspect of these packs is to prompt and help structure discussion (it’s worth looking up Democs if you are interested), which I suspect is the key way people learn from the chemistry or careers sets too.

I’d be interested to know if any science teachers have used Top Trumps though, and what the students thought.

I'm a Scientist cards

* I’ll be in the USA and Canada from the 18th of April. I’m mainly going to be in DC (at American University, School of Communication) but with some time in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Toronto and Ottawa while I’m in that part of the world.

The brain: the new weather?

What’s with the brain these days? This was the question Steve Woolgar started off a conference on Neurosociety, held at the Saïd Business School late last term (see also my post on STS and the Bernalian nightmare).

Why do we increasingly seem to feel the need to explain, plan and sell with reference to research to neuroscience, or at least with allusions to such research? Why do we ask questions of what we can know, what we must do and what we may hope couched in terms of various transcriptions of the brain? Are we living in a neurosociety, or at least moving towards one?

Drinks for sale at my local corner shop

It seems that neuro is the prefix of the day, perhaps interchangeable with ‘e’ or ‘information’, or similar hype over the idea we are living in ‘the era of the gene’. Or perhaps, neurosociety could be a development of such previous technoscientific epochs: arguably, much discussion of the brain stems from worries about digital culture, and is couched in genetic terms. Whether we see ourselves through the brain, our genes, or the technology we use, the central object we take as a figure of human behaviour seems to have changed slightly over time. Is the heart next?

(Perhaps illuminatingly, no one seemed to reflect on the prefixes of ‘big’ or ‘no such thing as’ for the word society. We largely stuck to science and technology framings)

Jonathan Rownson of the RSA was one of the many speakers to argue that the brain has become an object that brings people together, it functions as a social device to get people together to talk. In STS terms we might, very loosely, call it a ‘boundary object’. As Rownson put it: you ask people about their psychology, their behaviour, and they feel defensive but ‘the brain animates people, the brain interests people’. Is the brain, Rownson asked, the new weather?

Rownson also mentioned what I felt was the most interesting theme of the conference: that of social reflexivity. We are aware of our own condition more than ever before, and use this understanding to self-analyse. As Umberto Eco might put it, we are ‘non-innocent’ about culture, including neuro-themed culture. We no longer see the brain naively. We know we cannot simply say ‘as neuroscientists would say’. We know it is not so simple. We are not so unquestioning of science these days (if we ever were).

Who this ‘we’ might be exactly is ambiguous though, there was a fair amount of talk at the conference about the pervasiveness of ‘neuromyths’ and the need for some active mythbusting around neuroscience.

There was some connected discussion of what STS scholars can offer our understanding of neurosociety, and whether they should retain some ethnographic distance from neuroscientists. This debate included the idea that scientists themselves are insufficiently sceptical of their own work. This is an arguably unfair prejudice of many STS schoars which I suspect has its roots in a loose application of Kuhn’s idea of normal science. In contrast, Nikolas Rose argued that from his perspective of someone who has been studying the field very closely for several years, neuroscientists are incredibly critical of their own work, as well as the ways in which aspects or images of neuroscience are applied/ alluded to commercially or in popular culture. As Rose put it, ‘if anything, the further away from researchers you get, the less reflexive you get’.

It’s all to easy to assume some other people blindly believe what they are told, be these people ‘the public’, ‘scientists’, ‘humanities graduates’, ‘the media’, ‘politicians’, women, children, the working class or another social group. But, as Dorothy Nelkin and Celeste Condit argued over the reality of ‘the DNA Mystique’ in the mid ’90s, we should be careful of assuming a lack of critical faculties in others (just as we should be careful of assuming too many in ourselves).

Thinking broadly about this non-innocence view of the brain, if and wherever such non-innocence might exist: perhaps it is simply the moment in late modernity our move to neurosociety has occurred within. Maybe we live in non-innocent times no matter what we are looking at. Or perhaps the brain is a topic which invites reflexivity: we cannot help thinking about what makes us think. More pragmatically, I wonder if the historical associations between some areas of philosophy, psychology and neuroscience are worth noting. Perhaps this frames knowledge and debate on the issue in more questioning ways that discussion of genetics or computing ever did.

Or maybe it really isn’t all that more reflexive than other issues. We might argue that there has always been a mix of credulity and criticism about science and technology, in various places, in a variety of ways. No one ever really took a gene’s eye view? Technological determinism was always a strawman argument?

The conference website should be updated with audio with some of the keynotes soon.

For my part in aiming to learn more about conversations surrounding neurosociety, I have started a small research project on bloggers (details of how you can help).

Anti-quackery underpants

Something ticked off the lifetime to-do list: I have managed to get the words “anti-quackery underpants” into a scholarly publication. An encyclopedia. This encyclopedia. It’s page 586 of volume two, if you’re interested, part of the entry on Popular Science Media.

anti-quack underpants

It’s these underpants I’m referring to; the ones sold via I noticed recently that SciCurious has just gone into merchandise too, including underwear. This is just a funny and recent example, my broader point is that the popularisation of science exists across a range of platforms and is something (at least some) people like to buy.

The term “popular science” is a bit weird. We might take it quite strictly as a category of contemporary bookselling (i.e. the sign above Dawkins and Hawkin at Waterstone’s), but historically the term means a lot more than that. It has a sometimes uncomfortable relationship with both scholarly and popular media, and in a way, is quite explicitly neither. As such, it can be quite slippery to pin down, but as I attempt to define it in the encyclopedia entry, popular science is:

science to be consumed in our free time, largely for personal rather than professional reasons. It is science for fun: to experience the wonders of nature, learn more about an issue which is important to you, on a friend’s recommendation, or simply because a piece of promotional material caught your eye.

The underpants example help demonstrate the way in which popular science may exist on a range of media platforms, but also how inter-connected popular science media is. It spins-off from one format to another (and has done for centuries): blog to book, magazine to blog, museum to magazine, book to toy, live show to toy, toy to museum, museum to book, documentary to live show, book to documentary, documentary to book, live show to book, book to blog, blog to underpants.

I also wanted to use the underpants to emphasise that popular science as something audiences enthusiastically buy into. People queue round the block for science, they sell out the Royal Albert Hall, they sign petitions because of it. Ok, so we might argue that it’s still a very limited group that do such queuing/ buying/ signing, but science has its fans. Again, this has been going on for centuries. I think this is important to remember this. Scholars in the field often conceive of popular science as if it exists largely to let science show off; that it only invites non-scientists to play so as to reinforce a boundary between those clever professional scientists and everyone else. Read thus, one would wonder why the audiences of popular science would bother. And they clearly do bother. And they come back, again and again. And they buy branded pants (and calendars – the weridos). We might argue that popular science does still patronise it’s audience through it’s very existence, but audiences seem to feel they are getting something out of it too

(For the academically minded, I’m referring to the slight difference between Hilgartner’s take on the subject and Fyfe and Lightman‘s. Personally I both apply and take some scepticism to each of those approaches, and in addition like to fold in Bourdieu’s approach to cultural consumption).

My encyclopedia entry is nothing especially profound. It’s a basic primer. If you are interested in the topic, the entry’s list of recommended readings includes:

I also wrote the Communicating Science to Children entry. Obviously, everyone should read that too because <irony> it’s seminal stuff </irony> but I’m aware this encyclopedia is a couple of hundred quid (it’s very much a publication for libraries). I have a paper from 2008 on a similar topic you can download for free (pdf).

The piece on children doesn’t mention underpants, though you can read my blogpost on poo and kids’ books or purchase pro-MMR bibs along with the anti-quack pants from the Bad Science store.

Mechanical metaphors in kid’s body books

This is the cover of Usborne’s classic kid’s book How Your Body Works. The book has been around in some form since 1975, so you might have seen it before. I’m interested in it for many reasons, but this blogpost is going to focus on the way it reflects an oft-used metaphor when it comes to explaining the human body, that of a machine.

Cover of How Your Body Works

Comparisons of the body to machine are sometimes seen in a negative light; endemic of a mechanistic worldview which is overly-reductive approach to something as complex and beautiful as the human body.


Ok, a “yawn” is over-trivialising the anti-mechanist critique, but I want to argue that kid’s body books employing robot metaphors are a bit more complicated than that (personally, I think you can say the same of Blake’s Newton, but that’s another story). My central point is that mechanical analogies provide a diverse set of cultural referents. Machines comes in a range of sizes, shapes and styles, and people use and think about them in a range of ways. Further, both machines and the way cultures have understood them has changed over time.

Perhaps a mechanical analogy allows some form of abstraction, providing some distance from specifics when handling issues like reproduction, infection and digestion. For example, the section outlining what happens when a blue robot loves an orange robot very much.

how (robot) babies are made
Such abstraction may also provide an expository role. Yes, the human body is a lot more than, for example, a set of bellows (below), but the image filtered down the multitude of things going on inside a person’s chest so we can learn about one thing at a time. Reduction for explanatory purposes isn’t (necessarily) to say the world really is that simple.


Mechanical analogies for specific systems (e.g. lungs as bellows) is one thing, but when it becomes a matter of depicting the whole body, we start moving towards associations with robots. The metallic skeleton on the cover of the Usborne book isn’t necessarily a robot, but there is something robot-like about him.

There are a wide range of cultural associations that might come with such allusions. Think of Dr Who, and robots are nearly always symbols of what is inhuman or a lost humanity (e.g. their nod-to-Metropolis Cybermen, or hide-behind-the-sofa Daleks). But think of Wall-E, or these smiling robot tshirts I spotted recently, or these robot cookies. Robots can be your friends. At the Science museum this week you can “meet Kaspar the friendly humanoid robot”.

There’s a nice study of robots in children’s literature by Margaret Esmonde in this 1982 collection of essays on machines in science fiction. According to this study, the robot or cyborg is generally a benevolent character in children’s stories, often acting in loco parentis or as a reasonably sympathetic step-brother. Even where there are “bad” robots, they tend to be destroyed with the aid of “good” ones. Her only example otherwise being Dr Who. Interestingly,  such child characters tend to be boys – a robo-brother, not sister – though she does mention one, it is very much an exception to the rule. I also wonder if there is something to be said about the childlike representation of robots in not only fiction, but news stories (even research projects) too; that we take the sometimes limited abilities of robots as a reason to pat them on the head and go “aww”.

The gender and generational points are just as an aside though, my main reason for mentioning Esmonde’s study is that the robot of children’s popular culture may well be a very sympathetic, even empathetic, character. Just because it is not human, doesn’t mean it is inhuman. Esmonde describes a few fascinating case studies. For example, a picture book produced to illustrate the UN declaration on rights of the child: a little boy lives a secure and caring life under the love and protection provided by his robot guardian. ‘Nosey’ people intervene and separate them, so the robot returns, disguised as a human and takes the boy back and they live happily ever after.

Esmonde traces mechanical characters in children’s fiction back to  L. Frank Baum’s Oz series. There is Tik-Tok, pictured, who you might know from the 1985 movie (see also this io9 piece on Pre-Golden Age SF Robots), and possibly the most straightforwardly mechanical man, the Tin Woodman, who everyone knows from the musical (“if I only had a heart”). Esmonde also discusses the lesser-known Chopfyt, a fascinating character made from cast-off “meat” parts of the two other men. She stresses these characters were all relatively ambiguous in their humanity, there isn’t the humans vs robots distinction which is so often played out in Dr Who. She also argues that Baum is content to leave these questions unanswered.

In my introduction I stressed that technologies and our cultural ideas about them have changed over time.  With this in mind, it’s interesting to see a very Tik-Tok style robot re-used in Phillip Reeve’s steampunk-ish Larklight books which self consciously re-uses old futuristic tropes of the robot to play with hopes, fears and other aesthetics surrounding them. Reeve is an extremely complex writer when it comes to images of technology, I haven’t space to discuss it here, but there are some brief notes on him buried in this paper. Or just read his books (the Mortal Engines series too, and do it before they are all movies).

Getting back to non-fiction, let me introduce you to The Body Owner’s Handbook (Nick Arnold & Tony De Saulles, 2002). This is part of Scholastic’s Horrible Science series, and structured out under the narrative conceit an instruction manual for the human body. In some respects, this is quite straightforward body as machine stuff. As are later points in the text which refer to the digestive system as a ‘fuel storage tank and conveyor belt’ and a ‘body repair shop’ is used to discuss cell replacement (The Body Owner’s Handbook, 2002: 22, 28). It is quite self-aware about this, and seem to expect the audience to be as well. As mentioned in my post about poo books, in some respects make fun of the distance provided by the mechanistic imagery (whilst also applying the convenience of it).

However, I think The Body Owner’s Handbook is slightly different from How Your Body Works in the way it conceives of its technological metaphor. For a start, it combines it with a loose narrative of a childlike Frankenstein monster. I’m drawing a line under the Shelly comparisons now. It is fascinating and arguably key to understanding the book, but a whole other blogpost. Suffice to say this is a slightly more “meaty” approach to (bio)technology and a (post)modern critique.

Monsters aside, The Body Owner’s Handbook seems to be applying a machine metaphor rooted in consumer technology. As with a lot of the books in Horrible Science, the language and imagery is heavily influenced by advertising styles (though, it should be noted with their tongue firmly in cheek):

Looking for a new body? Why not choose the real McCoy – the one and only Human Body. It’s Planet Earth’s most advanced living machine! It’s built of the finest material to a tried and tested design that’s over two hundred thousand years old! (The Body Owner’s Handbook, 2002: 8 )

This is a technology you would buy. It is not one that powers the “dark satanic mills”. Neither is it one you’d build yourself. It is ready made, just for you. This is not a Fordist form of mass production where the mechanical body is available in any colour as long as it’s black. This body is available in a variety of colours; “light brown, dark brown, pink, beige and yellow” (The Body Owner’s Handbook, 2002: 9).

In some respects such a contemporary consumer-tech model of the body allows for a connection with a sense of individualism: note the location of the apostrophe in the book’s title, it is body-owner singular. Yet, this note on race is emphasised by arguing that bodies are all the same underneath; the sense that everybody’s body is the same is very important to the scientific stories of the book. Perhaps this is the curtailed (and occasionally illusionary) individualism of interaction with branded technology. To some extent such identities come, to some degree, pre-packaged. Pink microscope anyone?

Moreover, such pre-packaged advanced tech comes with a greater degree of ineviable black-boxing. There are right and wrong ways of interacting with its surface, but its internal workings are a relative mystery to users. As many writers on technology have argued – indeed many writers on post/ late modernity have argued – the quantity of specialisation that goes into producing much contemporary means they come with greater mystery. Personal computers make one of the nicest examples of this. In the early 1980s, many personal computer users not only programmed but actually made their own kit. By the early 1990s, even the professionals could only produce one small aspects. Perhaps then, mechanical metaphors no longer provide simplicity? (if they ever really did)

Significantly, The Body Owner’s Handbook warns: “The body isn’t designed to be opened by non-experts and this can result in serious body breakdowns” (p12). In some respects this is in some contrast to a line in one of the first Horrible Science books, also about the body:

[science] belongs to everybody, because everybody’s got a body – and you’ve got every right to know what’s going on in yours (Blood, Bones & Body Bits, 1996: 5).

That said, perhaps back in those golden years of hobbyist tech and meccano collections, when kids built their own crystal radios (grew their own computers, spewed out their own difference engine, etc etc), no one told them to “tinker” with their physiology. Or maybe they did (um, maybe let’s not go too far with this tinkering analogy…). As The Body Owner’s Handbook‘s use of Frankenstein reflects, biotech has always been a slightly different matter.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that they are only interesting as examples of what adults choose to produce for children. Personally, I think this is fascinating in itself, but it isn’t necessarily a sign of what children themselves think. In the light of a spate of “wrong superheroes” stories last week, this is something to keep in mind. If you want to know what children think, ask them. Musing about the media presented to young people is interesting and worthwhile when understood on it’s on terms, but it doesn’t tell us what is going on in the heads of actual children.

My main point, however is that if we do want to think through some of the symbols involved in technologically informed explanations of bodies, is pays not be reductive/ simplistic about machines.

CSI: the children’s toy

I attended a conference on Forensics in Culture last week. The very first slide in the very first paper was of some children’s edu-tainment toys inspired by CSI. E.g.: this facial reconstruction kit. The speaker implied a sense of surprise that children would be playing with forensics in such a way. I thought it was a bit weird too. I suspect this amazon reviewer speaks for many:

those eyes, man! Those EYES! […] it will be staring at you, waiting to make its move, plotting your demise – or at least that’s what it feels like. Maybe if the head didn’t have such an accusatory look on its face (“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME?”) […] “Merry Christmas Timmy! Here’s your CSI Facial Reconstruction head. Now you can reconstruct the ruined face of the victim of a violent and gruesome murder!”

When did forensics become entertainment? Moreover, when did it become so domesticated it could be packaged into a childrens’ toy? It’s about death and crime. The slide of this toy was met with several laughs at the conference. For me, however, it was the lack of humour embodied by the product itself which interested me.

It reminded me a bit of The Planet Science Whodunit, a forensic education event for teenagers I worked on back in 2003. The premise was that someone had stolen a guitar from boy-band Busted. Schoolchildren could sign up for kits to do some forensics-inspired activities to “solve” the crime. There were prizes; we had a panel of celebrity suspects; it was all played for fun. Although in many respects this project was inspired by CSI, we were careful to limit any references to traumatic crime. It was lighthearted. Indeed, one of the criticisms that could be leveled at this project was that it trivalised issues surrounding crime.

Another comparison with the CSI toy is the style applied by Horrible Science (major UK brand of science books for 7-11’s, I did my PhD on them). Perhaps the best example of their approach to blood and guts is the covers of Blood, Bones and Body Bits (1995, and 2008). Here, Horrible Science wraps its dismembered bodies, blood and viscera in a comic book form.

It’s ok somehow because it’s “just for fun”. Blood and guts take center stage here, but in a very comic way. It knows “those eyes, man! Those EYES!” are following you, it camps it up deliberately. It doesn’t take itself seriously and doesn’t expect you to either. It’s childish and Bugs-Bunny like, it’s surreal and so slightly unreal through it’s comic qualities. This is an example of what I described in my thesis as Horrible Science’s “ironic bloodthirsty pose”, something you can see applied across the series, to lesser and greater degrees than in the Horrible Histories, depending on topic. It is one of the many ways in which the series are “Science as Pantomime” (title I gave my thesis).

I took “ironic bloodthirsty pose” from David Buckingham’s great book on children and television, where he listens to children explain what they like about watching horror. One of the points Buckingham makes from these conversations is the appeal of a sense of adulthood in watching horror. For all their slightly childish joking, in some respects what the young people relished was the seriousness of it all, it helped them create distance from an idea of a trivial silly little kid. I remember feeling that the Whodunit idea was a bit more grownup than other Planet Science projects I’d worked on, the allusions to forensics were a key part of that, even framed as a joke.

You can find some more discussion of such ambivalences in Martin Barker’s excellent history of a campaign in 1960s Britain against horror comics. I’ve blogged on this before: why the Horrible books might be illegal. As I mention there, Horrible Histories author Terry Deary has argued that his approach wouldn’t have been possible if Roald Dahl hadn’t already brought about an acceptability of the grotesque in British children’s literature. Or, for slightly different analysis, Jane Kenway and Elizabeth Bullen, in their book Consuming Childhood, also talk about the way contemporary children’s media tries to make children “aspirational”, to want to act more grownup, as a sort of marketing strategy (see also this and this on such late 20th century shifts in style of address in children’s media).

So, considered from the perspective of the comic-gore of Horrible Science, the CSI facial reconstruction kit seems odd that it doesn’t frame itself in humour jokes (though we may laugh at it). Maybe, conversely, the seriousness allows for the gruesome-ness in a US context, where edu-tainment media tends not to have comic-gore and irreverence of Britain’s Horrible books? A rather straightforward example of forensic science lending a form of legitimacy, even in kids’ media?

That said, it looks as if the company who make these toys has gone bust, so maybe everyone had the WTF reaction of the “those eyes, man! Those EYES!” comment on Amazon.

On the repackaging of technological objects (or not)

new laptop case - zips

This is my new laptop case. The design features the “TG12345 Mk II recording desk” from London’s famous Abbey Road studios. You can read a bit about that mixing desk, and buy your own laptop case (or notebook, t-shirt…) here.

It was a birthday present from my mother. It reminds us both of my father, a professional musician who spent a lot of his life working at those studios. Most people hear “Abbey Road” and think Beatles; I think “Ah, Dad’s got sessions this week, he’ll be wandering around the house distracted, loosing his glasses, making endless cups of tea, muttering about percussionists and swearing at his piano at 2am…”. My brother did loads of work experience there as a teenager and, or at least so he says, met Paul McCartney. Apparently I spent a fair bit of time there as a baby too, quietly sleeping in the corner of the studio (I must have been an unusually quiet baby).

Personal connections aside, I think this laptop case is interesting object. It’s a desirable consumer product, at least for those of a certain aesthetic. I’m very much looking forward to showing it off at the British Library. I think it’s fascinating that what is, in many ways, a technical object designed for utilitarian purpose has been repackaged purely for its image. I think this is interesting. Also, it’s a relatively “retro” piece of technology. These desks were used between 1975 and 1985, somewhat before the emergence of the laptop case as a consumer product. So it signals technology and geekiness, whilst at the same time reflecting a form of nostalgia. Technostalgia perhaps.

I’ve blogged elsewhere about some of these issues before, inspired by some children’s t-shirts which recycled old cover art from Popular Mechanics. Now, I could bang on about the everyday anachronism of postmodern technological media consumption. Clothing remade from cassette tapes, or our delight in old internet sites, for example. I could also return to the personal connection and use it to make a point about the personal relationships we all have to technological objects. I don’t name my laptop, phone, ipod, bicycle, etc, but I know a fair number of people who do. Or, there’s that odd disconnection between the public cultural associations of Abbey road compared to my more individual domestic one: ripe for a bit of structuration theory. Or perhaps, in honor of Susan Leigh Star who died recently, I might reflect on the ways in which single objects may have multiple meanings for multiple peoples; this multiplicitous nature allowing them to be sites for both the making and unmaking of boundaries. Cultural theorists of technology do love an artefactual case study. And er, emphasising plurality and words like multiplicitous.

But I won’t drone on about all that. It’s my birthday and although I’ve worked a chunk of it already, right now I’m going to zip-up all my sociological citations firmly inside this laptop case and potter down to the pub for lunch (a pub with its own history of technology associations, but a pub nonetheless).

new laptop case - sliders