Review: Tech Refactored Ep. 16- The Fabric of Civilization with Virginia Postrel

Tue, 05/04/2021

This post is a summary of Episode 16 of The Nebraska Governance & Technology Center’s (NGTC) Podcast Series, Tech Refactored. Host Gus Hurwitz, Director of the NGTC was joined by Virginia Postrel, author of several books focusing on the intersection of culture, commerce and technology, including, most recently, The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World.

            If the quote by Mark Weiser that “the most profound technologies are those that disappear,” (a quote with which Hurwitz begins the interview), then textiles must surely fall into that category. The average consumer gives precious-little thought to the processes by which the fabrics that they clothe their body come into being, and even less to the historical proceedings that led to those processes. Certainly styles and fashions are given plenty of thought, but to some degree fabrics themselves are often treated as little more than a background medium, the oil-based paint from which a Rembrandt is rendered.

Postrel’s book untwines (forgive the pun) that conception, shedding light on the technological evolution (first informal, and later deliberate) that led to the modern textile industry. Indeed other major transformational changes, (Postrel cites the industrial revolution itself), were in some ways derivative of the underlying primary goal of spinning cloth more efficiently. And that process began far earlier- “textiles, first of all, are very, very old. They go back at least 10,000 years. And if you are going to talk about string, then you’re going back 50,000 years.”

“You can find exceptions, but pretty much every human settlement, from time immemorial, has used textiles; so if you want to look on a grand scale, they are useful for understanding the evolution of civilization.” Understanding fundamental technologies, for Postrel, also has important ramifications for how both lives and laws are structured. “We lose something when we don’t know where things come from. Partly, we tend to think we understand more than we do, and that can lead to ignorant prescriptions for regulation or policy- or it can lead to people to start businesses when they don’t grasp how difficult it will be.”

For Postrel, there are those practical considerations that make understanding background technologies useful, but there are also more intangible implications as well. “If you have at least a modicum of understanding of where things come from, I think it makes you just appreciate the world we live in better, and the work that other people do. I think it just makes us more fully rounded, better human beings.”

Postrel provides a vivid example:

Yesterday afternoon I was sitting in a chair, just thinking about some of the questions for our discussion today. And I looked and I could see my feet, they were covered in socks, and I was sitting in an upholstered chair. There was a leather chair next to me, and I could see the thread that was used in the upholstery in some stretched canvas paintings on the wall. And I thought: wow, I see all of these things differently. I wouldn’t have noticed them in the same way.

Turning back to history, Postrel also acknowledges that the narratives of fabric production are littered with stories of human exploitation as well. The most well known example is that of cotton production and its role in the mass enslavement of West Africans, and their transportation, en masse, to the Americas. An impenetrable number of other examples exist as well. One example Postrel mentions is the Mongol enslavement of the weavers of the city of Herat (present day Afghanistan) and their forced migration “1,500 miles across Asia, because they wanted to make cloth of a particular kind closer to the Mongel homeland.”

But the story of textiles is also one of the interconnectedness of peoples. “You definitely see, in the history of textiles, that there’s a lot of cross-fertilization and some of that is through voluntary trade. Some of it’s through warfare, through captives.” But having developed separately, often you can see “new and different things that wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t come in contact with each other.” And certainly there is something profoundly redeeming about that.

Tech Refactored Text Logo underlined with the words Episode Review underneath