MARK KURLANSKY is all over the map, literally and figuratively.
The award-winning journalist and historian has written more than 30 meticulously researched books on topics from far flung fishing ports to frozen food to Basque culture to baseball. He has won a James Beard Award for food writing and a Dayton Literary Peace Prize.
But it is Kurlansky’s treatises on the stuff we take for granted that really rattle the zeitgeist. His 1997 book Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World was an international bestseller and has been translated into 16 languages, and he shook up the way we look at our favorite seasoning with 2002’s Salt: A World History.
His latest work is Paper: Paging Through History, due out in May. With his signature rigor and accessibility, Kurlansky tracks the origins of “one of the most essential pieces of human technology” and challenges its purported obsolescence in the age of computers. In fact, studying paper caused Kurlansky to rethink the role of technology in modern society, leading him to believe that the world could never “go paperless.”
He’ll discuss such notions and more Wednesday evening, March 2 at Armstrong State University’s Mark Finlay Memorial Lecture. The annual lecture series debuted last year with musician activist Chuck Leavell and is dedicated to environmental stewardship, historic preservation and other pursuits of the late Dr. Finlay, who died in a car accident in 2013.
We chatted with Kurlansky from his home in New York, where he writes notes with pen and paper.
So what is this “technological fallacy” of which you speak?
Mark Kurlansky: Well, in the process of doing this book, I've just completely changed my thinking about technology. The center of that is the technological fallacy, which is the idea that technology changes society. That's completely backwards. In reality, society creates technology to facilitate the changes that it's making.
So if you don’t like the way society is going, you have to change society, you can’t blame it on the computers.
I’m thinking about all of us with our faces in our tablets and phones. How do we change society back?
[laughs] Karl Marx, of all people, talked about that in Das Kapital. There was this movement the Luddites, who were weavers in England. Then a Frenchman named Jacquard invented a loom that was programmable with punch cards. Weavers were highly skilled and could command good salaries and all sorts of benefits, so this technology was created to undercut the power of these skilled workers.
The Luddites reacted by smashing the looms. Nowadays people call someone who rejects technology a Luddite, but the original Luddites tried to create a movement. Karl Marx wrote later that they failed because they were attacking the machines instead of the problem, which was society.
That’s still true. Machines are created and then society adapts to them.
So technology makes some things easier but brings other problems, like devaluing human labor and effort?
It depends. When technology devalues human labor like it did, say, during the Industrial Revolution, this wasn’t an outgrowth of industrialization, it was the purpose of it.
When society switched from oral histories to the written word, Plato talked about how people weren’t going to have memories anymore and those who were just getting their information from reading wouldn’t have any “true knowledge.” I think of that line all the time when I’m in conversation with someone and they take out their phone and start Googling answers. Maybe that’s what Plato meant by no true knowledge!
He was right, just a few centuries early?
Well, you know, things take place and society moves on. The written word didn’t really destroy memory and there were still people with true knowledge, geniuses who went on to create and none of that stopped because they were using written language. I don’t believe it’s going to stop because people are using computers either.
Will paper endure as a medium?
Not only do I believe that, but everyone I talk to believes it—including people in the computer industry.
Oh good, that means we newspaper people have job security.
Actually, newspapers are an exception, but that has less to do with the future of paper than it does that newspapers suffer from an economic model that no longer works.
What will be the most valuable form of paper?
Well, paper for packaging is absolutely booming because of online shopping, so that will continue. Books will continue to do pretty well, that’s clear. They’re not going to be shoved out by e-books—that’s another fallacy, that new technology eliminates the old.
Consider the fact that the candles are 4 billion dollar a year industry in the US alone, in spite of electricity! And while Adele and Taylor Swift are arguing about streaming their music, more and more people are buying vinyl records. So technology creates choices, which is a good thing.
You reframe everyday products so readers come away never looking at these things the same way again. What do you want people to take away from Paper?
I think that people will have the same experience I had writing it—I think they'll completely rethink the role of technology in history. There's a pattern I noticed in this book and in the other books I've written. In The Big Oyster, I write that Robert Fulton didn't really invent the steamship, and in Birdseye, that Clarence Birdseye didn't invent frozen food. Every kid in China is taught that Ts'ai Lun of the Han Dynasty was the inventor of paper, but he didn't, because we have paper that was made earlier than his lifetime.
So why do remember these people? Because these were the people not who came up with the idea but who understood why this idea was valuable to society. And often how to make money from it.
It happened with computers, too. Steve Jobs didn’t invent computers, but he had commercial and design and marketing ideas that brought the technology to the public. He understood how society could use this stuff.
So when tech intersects with mass marketing, that’s when society changes?
Everyone always says, “It’s a changing world.” I keep thinking, why are they saying that? There’s never been any point in history when it wasn’t a changing world! There’s the idea that it’s changing even more now than it ever did before, which I used to believe.
But the more I look at history, I don’t think the changes we live with can keep up with the changes people experienced at the end of the 19th century. I mean, is the cell phone really as big a change as the invention of the telephone?
Isn’t it though? We can Google anything, right?
That’s a good example of what I’m talking about. Denis Diderot in the 18th century was a leader in the Encyclopedism movement. He said that eventually encyclopedias weren’t going to be able to catalog everything, libraries either, because there was going to be so much knowledge.
After tremendous advances in information and science during WWII, Vanover Bush wrote an article in 1945 which influenced the whole generation of people who created computer software. He said the same thing Diderot said: We need to be able to put all of this knowledge in one place so that it interconnects and it’s easy to access. That’s the idea of computers—it was never to replace paper, it was never to replace books.
What’s the next commodity you’re putting under examination?
I’m doing a book about milk and that industry. Milk is so interesting, because it’s kind of odd, you know, to think about that moment when people decided, “let’s stop having our bodies produce this food for our children and instead let’s have animals do it.” Fascinating stuff.
I’m also working on another book about salmon. Now that’s a really interesting animal, very poetic. The thing about salmon is that it’s under environmental pressure. It touches so many issues, deforestation and pollution, and all sorts of things that screwing up the dams. If we can figure out to keep salmon going, we can save the world.