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Packaged Pleasures

How Technology and Marketing Revolutionised Desire

Gary Cross and Robert Proctor

(New Scientist)

HOW did we get our senses sold back to us? Gary Cross and Robert Proctor's ambitious book examines the "packaged pleasure" revolution, as late-19th-century technologies for mass manufacture bumped up against the new "science" of marketing to create cheap, accessible products that offered the consumer sensual satisfaction.

Focusing on tubularisation (think cans and toothpaste tubes), foodstuffs, sound and sight, and "multisensual" amusement parks, the authors carefully describe how rare sensations became commonplace.

What we see, taste, touch, hear and smell is fleeting, constrained by the limits of the human body, the changing of the seasons and collective memory. Packaging pleasures preserved them in amber (or at any rate, gelatin); sensual experiences once considered rare and fragile were made accessible, knowable and repeatable. Gramophones preserved the "living voice"; water achieved temporary effervescence after being impregnated with carbon dioxide.

Cross and Proctor are historians, and their book comes into its own when it hunkers down on the detail of the social and technological systems that pushed hard candy, rollercoasters, cigarettes and moving pictures into the world. There are no heroic narratives or stories of astonishing invention. Instead, the authors emphasise how messy and incremental innovation is. Tinned goods developed through a series of small changes that led to the tops and bottoms of cans being "stamped" and their sides sealed. Jell-O was born from industrial slaughterhouse waste.

And none of this would have happened without the railways which, while delivering eager crowds to the electromechanical thrills of amusement parks, brought in their wake the telegraphs and telephones needed to keep up with the boom in trade.

Marketing was essential in carving out a place for these products. Women, who had limited access to alcohol and tobacco, were targeted by sweet sellers, and moralists worried that young women might be lured into unsavoury romances by boxes of seductive sweets.

In a period when infant mortality was high, advertising of a wide range of products, including soap, ginger ale and tyres, played on parents' fears for their children's health, even as mothers who once bought professional "mortuary photos" of their deceased children were taking spontaneous images of happy and energetic babies with new, easy-to-use Kodak cameras.

Cross and Proctor have a keen ear for detail and anecdotes, and their stories are more compelling than the context in which they set them. Theirs is a complicated tale. Nevertheless, while networked technologies are reconfiguring associations between the senses, space and society - with work emails checked on holiday, selfies taken at funerals and 3D objects printed locally from a CAD file stored in the "cloud" - Packaged Pleasures offers a timely reminder of the longer history of the relationship between technology, industry and the self.

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