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Hedonizing Technologies: a book review

By Sue Brettingen
Published: April 20, 2010
Hedonizing Technologies
Once upon a time, needlework was a chore.

Home brewing was a housewife’s duty.

Engineers built models of vehicles and train layouts for practical purposes, such as experimenting with elaborate structures, rather than for fun.

But eventually, sewing changed from being labor into a labor of love. Men as well as women began making their own beer because they wanted to, not because they had to. And people started putting together replicas of ships for sheer enjoyment.

In the book Hedonizing Technologies: Paths to Pleasure in Hobbies and Leisure, author Rachel P. Maines examines how an activity evolves from production line to pastime.

According to Maines – a visiting scholar in the Department of Science & Technology Studies at Cornell University – any technology that privileges the pleasures of production over the value and/or significance of the product can be a hedonizing technology.

Maines begins by focusing on needle arts, such as sewing, quiltmaking, embroidery and crochet, to make her case. Once the stuff of drudgery, these have now become diversions, with some enthusiasts going so far as to form social clubs based around these activities. Maines suggests that people pursue hobbies for a number of reasons: among them, the sake of simple physical and creative pleasure; building our self-esteem and enhancing our reputations for competence; killing time; and finding ways to bond with others interested in similar goals, such as quilting and model railroading.

“When one gets one’s bread from craft, at least part of the motivation is extrinsic; for true hobbies, the leisure theorists tell us, the motivations and satisfactions must be at least primarily intrinsic; they must be, as anthropologist Clifford Geertz tells us, ‘deep play,’” Maines notes.

Scholarly stuff, indeed!

Although hobbies and leisure activities predate the 19th century, this was an era of marked growth for technology-dependent hobbies such as model railroading, photography and ham radio. This too was also a time when the demand for hobby-related publications grew.

If your store includes yarn and needle crafts in its product mix, or it’s one of your hobbies, you may take an interest in Maines’ in-depth examination of the history of this pastime. For example, Maines notes how gender lines have sometimes been crossed; sailors throughout history have been known to take up fiber arts such as embroidery in their long shipboard leisure hours.

If modeling is more your thing, Maines takes a good hard look at this in the “Garage and Workshop Hobbies” section of Chapter 4. Modelmaking, she notes, “had its origins, like many other artisan hobbies, in a tradition of miniature construction for practical purposes, mainly education, experimentation, patent demonstration, and administration of complex systems over larger geographical areas than could be overseen by eye.” In other words, models were “tools, not toys.”

Writes Maines: “By the early years of the 20th century, leisure modelmaking not only had its own literature and its own marketplace for tools and materials, but had picked up its third derivative as well: collecting, connoisseurship, and museum exhibitions.”

During the prosperity that followed World War II, hobbies expanded even more, sometimes quite literally, moving from attics and garages to spaces that may not even have existed in homes before then, such as recreation rooms.

Retailers responded in kind. In 1958, Maines notes, hobby, toy and game shops became so plentiful, they emerged as a separate heading and code under what was then the Standard Industrial Classification system (SIC), now known as the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS). In that year, enumerators counted nearly 4,500 such establishments; 10 years later, there were more than 10,000; by 1977, there were 18,000.

What has been driving the upward trend in the market for hedonizing technologies? “Clearly, part of the attraction is the closing-out of ordinary daily concerns: the capacity of the hobby to fully engage the attention of the participant seems to be a critical element, as is the calming and self-affirming quality of power over both the process and the product,” Maines states.

As for the marketplace’s response, she says, “Hobby activities support a large array of manufacturing and retailing enterprises, many of which are very small and specialized, surviving by staying close to their consumers, often by interacting with them at shows, or by sending representatives into retail units to find out what consumers want this year, this month, or this week.”

Maines discusses this in more depth near the end of the book, which most “traditional hobby” retailers will find the most engaging. If arts and crafts are not a part of your product mix, you may be tempted to pass up Hedonizing Technologies. However, much of what Maines addresses in the way of needle crafts lends itself to other hobbies.

If you want an academic but jargon-free treatise on the rise of hobbies, this book presents you with a big-picture perspective you may be overlooking in your focus on day-to-day store operations.

You can order Hedonizing Technologies: Paths to Pleasure in Hobbies and Leisure (ISBN: 9780-80189-146-5, $55) from the John Hopkins University Press or by call 410-516-6900.

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