Hot metal

Material culture and tangible labour

Jesse Adams Stein
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With the increasing digitisation of almost every facet of human endeavour, concerns persist about ‘deskilling’ and precarious employment. The publishing industry has turned its energy to online and electronic media, and jobs continue to disappear from printing, publishing and journalism. The replacement of human labour with computerised technologies is not merely a contemporary issue; it has an established history dating from the mid-twentieth century. What is often missing from this record is an understanding of how the world of work is tightly interwoven with the tangible and affective worlds of material culture and design, even in ‘clean’ computerised environments. Workplace culture is not only made up of socio-political relationships and dynamics. It is also bound up with a world of things, with and through which the social and gendered processes of workplace life are enacted and experienced. Understanding how we interact with and interpret design is crucial for appreciating the complexities of the labour experience, particularly at times of technological disruption. Hot Metal reveals integral labour-design relationships through an examination of three decades in the printing industry, between the 1960s and 1980s. This was the period when hot-metal typesetting and letterpress was in decline; the early years of the ‘digital switch’. Using oral histories from an intriguing case-study – a doggedly traditional Government Printing Office in Australia – this book provides an evocative rendering of design culture and embodied practice in a context that was, like many workplaces, not quite ‘up-to-date’ with technology. Hot Metal is also history of how digital technologies ruptured and transformed working life in manufacturing. Rather than focusing solely on ‘official’ labour, this book will introduce the reader to workers’ clandestine creative practices; the making of things ‘on the side’.

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‘…this is a fitting comprehensive record, and an exciting template for future studies in this area of technological change and material affect.'
Alex Griffin, The University of Melbourne, Australia
Media International Australia

‘It demonstrates the powerful attachments that past workers felt for the building's internal spaces, for the revolving door of material culture items associated with printing, and the camaraderie and contestation between workers. It is a persuasive and moving study of human feelings and workplace meanings.'
Dr Steve Brown, Lecturer in Archaeology (Heritage Studies)
University of Sydney, Australia Oral History Australia Journal

‘It's an ambitious work. Printers, and the printing trades have been the subject of quite a lot of scholarship over a long time, which produced some truly classic works. Yet in this book the author has found a way to bring a new approach to contribute to a well ploughed field. She succeeds admirably. She takes a workplace which is a building, with a single employer, a skilled workforce, an institutional identity which extends beyond the work, and a long history, and gives us a cohesive and compelling account of working life. It is at once a study of people and their relationship to technology, and a record of a period of history that is usually treated from quite different perspectives. It shows us how labour history can lead the way that history is written. In that, it is pathbreaking and important. This a terrific story. It is a critical reflection on the mistakes of economic rationalism, and the losses from deindustrialisation without becoming only a story of loss with nostalgia for a golden era. Its findings are salutary.'
Diane Kirkby
Recorder Issue 228
March 2017

‘Jesse Adams Stein combines meticulous and imaginative research with sophisticated analysis to produce a highly original, engaging and illuminating account of the final decades of an Australian state enterprise, the Government Printing Office (known as the Gov) in Sydney, Australia.'
Raelene Frances, Monash University
Labour History, Number 112
May 2017

‘Jesse Adams Stein's book is a fascinating and accessible study of the declining fortunes of the Government Printing Office, located on Harris Street, Ultimo. It is greatly enriched by the oral histories of the (mostly) men and some women who found themselves in an almost Kafkaesque position, facing rapid technological change, corporatisation – which undermined traditional unionism – neo-liberalism and post-industrial capitalism in the later decades of the 20th century. Its special contribution comes from its thoughtful analysis of the role of objects in this process. 'Work', the author notes, “is inextricably bound up with a world of things, with and through which the social and gendered processes of workplace life are enacted and experienced. Understanding how we interact with and interpret design is crucial for appreciating the complexities of the labour experience, particularly at times of technological disruption.” This original and cross-disciplinary book brings together design, design history, oral history, labour history, gender and material culture studies. It sheds a powerful light on the transformation and loss of blue-collar work and the demise of printing as a craft.'
U: Magazine
April 2017

‘Stein successfully uses the case study as a jumping off-point to explore much broader conceptual questions. Her creative leaps of analysis are productive and energising; they will hopefully provoke further study in the areas of material culture, design and space, and contribute to methodological approaches in oral and photographic histories.'
Emma Robertson, La Trobe University
Law and History, 5:1

‘This inventive book about new approaches to material culture and labour history is a remarkable intervention in the field of design history. It will, I am confident, incite future scholars to investigate the people, spaces and objects that define and complicate the world of work.'
David Brody
Journal of Design History

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