Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement

PWRM Button
Button from the PRWM. (source)

The Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement (PRWM) began October 5th, 1970 when a number of fliers were posted on Polaroid bulletin boards and left at all entrances of the Cambridge, MA offices.

It was started by two African American Polaroid employees, Ken Williams and Caroline Hunter. Caroline Hunter explains how it came about:

“I worked at Polaroid as a research chemist and my late husband Ken Williams was in the photo department producing advertisements for Polaroid, and one day I went to pick him up for lunch and we discovered an ID badge with a mockup of a black guy that we knew from Polaroid saying ‘Union of South Africa Department of the Mines’,” Hunter said. “We discovered that Polaroid was in South Africa and that they’d been there for quite some time, since 1938, and that they were actually the producers of the notorious passbook photographs which South Africans, black South Africans called their ‘handcuffs.'”  (html)

Polaroid initially denied the allegations, but later conceded their materials were involved in passbook production:

The next day Polaroid denied it was aiding apartheid either “directly or indirectly.” But company officials took a closer look and two weeks later admitted that about 20 per cent of the film sold to their South African distributor had found its way into the passbook program — one of the chief instruments used by the South African government and its 3 million whites in the subjugation of the country’s 13 million blacks. (paid)

These revelations were particularly damaging to Polaroid as it was a company that had built up a reputation as a progressive company.

The movement was joined by many other groups, and an early example of calls for divestment as an activist tactic. It was the first South African divestment campaign organized by black workers.

tumblr_mxdqnnvLFY1qaihw2o1_1280 (1)
From a PRWM pamphlet. (source)

In 1971, in reaction to the campaign, Polaroid announced the Polaroid Experiment, under which they would continue to do business in South Africa with some modifications.

In 1978, after a number of revelations about how their materials were being used, they announced they would be pulling out of South Africa completely.


The workers were initially focused on the sales of the Polaroid ID-2 identification system, which was seen as part of the machinery of apartheid. See ID-2 Controversy

Polaroid’s involvement was opposed by many groups, including Science for the People (or, SftP).

Caroline Hunter is still active in divestment activism, focusing recent efforts on Palestine.

Ken Williams died several years back. He co-founded the movement with Hunter.

Guardian revelations about 1977 trade. (pdf)

Article on Polaroid’s eventual pull-out. (pdf)

Source: Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement


ID-2 Controversy

The Polaroid ID-2 System was implicated in the debates around Polaroid’s dealings with the apartheid regime in South Africa. Here we examine the claims made of it.

Illustration from a Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement pamphlet (source)

Polaroid did admit that about 20% of the film they sold in South Africa ended up used for the passbooks, a tool of oppression in South Africa. See Pass Laws

But according to Polaroid in 1971, only sixty-five systems were sold to South Africa before sales were stopped, and none of those systems were sold to government agencies.

However the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement countered that sales were still going on through indirect channels.

Additionally, Polaroid lied from 1971 to 1978, claiming that they had ceased supplying materials to the regime, when in fact there was an elaborate shell game which allowed them to sell through a third party.


“sixty-five systems”, “20% of film”: see Widmer, 1970 for UPI. paid

Source: ID-2 Controversy

Pass Laws

A man shows his passbook. source

From Wikipedia:

> In South Africa, pass laws were a form of internal passport system designed to segregate the population, severely limit the movements of the black African populace, manage urbanisation, and allocate migrant labour. The black population was required to carry these pass books with them when outside their homelands or designated areas. Passes were opposed by groups like the revolutionary syndicalists and the black nationalists. Before the 1950s, this legislation largely applied to African men, and attempts to apply it to women in the 1910s and 1950s were met with significant protests. Pass laws would be one of the dominant features of the country’s apartheid system, until effectively ended in 1986.

Source: Pass Laws

Social Change Is Fast

We tend to think of social change as slow, and it can be. But in many important cases, stagnation in social change was followed by blazingly fast progress.

Marriage equality is a recent example, but abortion, women’s suffrage, and prohibition followed similar patterns in the U.S.

These patterns lead some policy theorists to propose a Punctuated Equlibrium Theory of policy change. books


We see this in technology use as well. See Gradually, Then Suddenly, Digital Camera Decline

Source: Social Change Is Fast

Gradually, Then Suddenly

One argument favored by education futurists is that while things have changed little in the past century they may change quickly when we least expect it. AI is often cited as a possible trigger, but there are many other potential drivers (digital sharing?).

A Hemingway quote from The Sun Also Rises provides the title and context for this idea.

How did you go bankrupt?’ Bill asked.

‘Two ways,’ Mike said. ‘Gradually and then suddenly.’

-The Sun Also Rises (1926), Ernest Hemingway. Via Asymco (post)

The idea is that dying industries go through a familiar sequence of steps. First, technology introduces affordances that chip away at a long-standing business model. The chipping is so slow that the industry begins to think the threat is overhyped. But just when the industry breathes a sigh of relief, everything collapses.

Cell phone and landline usage grew together, then landline adoption slowed. Then came the relentless decline. (source)

This pattern *does* repeat itself with a disturbing frequency. Initially, cell phones were seen as a threat to landlines. Then, for a while cell phone adoption exploded while landline adoption also increased then stabilized.

During this time a narrative developed. Maybe these two technologies were complementary. From the late 1990s to around 2002 it seemed like the danger had passed — over 150 million cellphones had been absorbed into the U.S. population with almost no impact on landlines.

Around 2001/2002 that narrative begins to die. But even then people can still claim that while subscriptions are stalling, mobile-only households are rare. In 2002 there were close to zero cell-phone only households. And even by 2008 only 17% of households are mobile-online. The landline is still a complement.

Landlines and cell-phones, 2003-2014 (source)

But it took only a mild acceleration in adoption to destroy that narrative. From 2008 to 2011 cell-phone only households nearly double. This year they will become the dominant model. The story just gets worse from there.You can find the same pattern in other industries. Newspapers began to worry about the internet in the 1980s, but for a while profited from the technology more than suffered. By 1999 they could be excused for thinking they weathered the storm. History proved otherwise.

Video stores and bookstores were surprisingly resilient in the face of digital reproduction. Until they weren’t.

Digital cameras were a complement to cameraphones and early smartphones. Until they weren’t.

Cable TV is likely undergoing a similar process as we speak. post

Education isn’t a telephone or cable service, and people who have mistaken education for a technology or form of content (cough, Christensen, cough) have been proved more wrong than right.

That said, there *is* an education industry, and Slowly, then Suddenly *is* a real thing. Disrupting Education may be a phrase tossed around by more hucksters than scholars, but quick slides are very real, and the reminder that the human mind tends to misinterpret certain types of non-linear decay as stabilization is worth remembering.


Artificial Intelligence is often seen as a potential disruptor.

New evidence suggests Disruption Is Real But Rare.

Social Change Is Fast outlines this pattern applied to laws.

Some thinkers have talked about a related (mostly negative) pattern called a Moral Cascade.

Digital Camera Decline is yet another example, perhaps.

Source: Gradually, Then Suddenly

The Kodak Jobs Myth

Kodak vs. Instagram is one way people often pitch the job killing potential of technology — a small startup functionally replaced an industrial behemoth. Veteran technology reporter says this example is far more complex.

The classic example is that almost everybody cites this apparent juxtaposition of Instagram—thirteen programmers taking out a giant corporation, Kodak, with 140,000 workers. In fact, that’s not what happened at all. For one thing, Kodak wasn’t killed by Instagram. Kodak was a company that put a gun to its head and pulled the trigger multiple times until it was dead. It just made all kinds of strategic blunders. The simplest evidence of that is its competitor, Fuji, which did very well across this chasm of the Internet. The deeper thought is that Instagram, as a new‑age photo sharing system, couldn’t exist until the modern Internet was built, and that probably created somewhere between 2.5 and 5 million jobs, and made them good jobs. The notion that Instagram killed both Kodak and the jobs is just fundamentally wrong.  (html)


For a somewhat different view, see Gradually, Then Suddenly

Initially it looked like digital cameras might complement cell phones. See Digital Camera Decline

Source: The Kodak Jobs Myth

Digital Camera Decline

Digital cameras lived as a complement to cameraphones for a couple years, then not so much. They are an example of how technology moves from “used-with” to “used-instead-of”.

Camera Production since 1933
Digital camera growth exploded as the first smartphones wave hit (2007-2010), but declined under broader adoption (2011-present). (source)


Digital Camera Decline is an example of Gradually, then Suddenly.

Some people claim that smart phones and Instagram killed Kodak, John Markoff says that isn’t so. See The Kodak Jobs Myth

Cable TV was also initially a complement to broadcast TV, a way to boost the quality of reception. See Cable as Community Antenna

Source: Digital Camera Decline

From Toys

From Jane Jacobs, on the way transformations come out of weird sectors.

Even the most startling cultural and economic developments do not arise out of thin air. They are always built upon prior developments and upon a certain amount of serendipity and chance. And their consequences are unpredictable, even to their originators and the pioneers who believed in them and initiated them. After all, the first financially successful railroad in the world was an amusement ride in London. Many of us remember when plastics were useful for little except toys, kitchen gadgets and decorative touches that taste-makers derided for their vulgarity. That was before strong, lightweight plastics, reinforced with fibers of glass, boron or carbon, replaced metals in the making of springs and joints. These plastics transformed serious spectacle frames like mine. At last I have frames that never hurt my nose and ears and that last for years without weakened joints. These plastics were originated by the makers of tennis rackets and of rods for surf and sport fishing. nyt


While this sounds like disruptive innovation, Disruption is Real But Rare

Source: From Toys

Arne Naess

Arne Næss was a Norwegian philosopher, ecologist, and activist who coined the term Deep Ecology. He was a divisive figure in the environmental movement, making the claim that much ecology refused to deal with the root cause of environmental destruction: society itself.



Deep Ecology removes man from his privileged place at the center of the environment. See Deep Ecology

Næss’s work was inspired by Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring.

Source: Arne Naess