Chad Comello

books, movies, libraries, typewriters

Category: Technology (page 1 of 3)

1946 Olympia typewriter vs. 2012 iPad – who ya got?

Matt Thomas, via Submitted For Your Perusal, spotlights an interesting contrast between two New York Times stories in the same week.

Exhibit #1, from a brief feature on Danielle Steel:

After all these years, Steel continues to use the same 1946 Olympia typewriter she bought used when working on her first book. “I am utterly, totally and faithfully in love with my typewriter,” she says. “I think I paid $20 for it. Excellent investment! And by now, we’re old friends.”

Exhibit #2, from a John Herrman’s essay What I Learned from Watching My iPad’s Slow Death:

Above all, my old iPad has revealed itself as a cursed object of a modern sort. It wears out without wearing. It breaks down without breaking. And it will be left for dead before it dies.

A machine that’s over 70 years old (!) is still performing exactly as it did the year after World War II ended, and another machine that’s not even 7 years old is now a digital dotard. An iPad of course can do far more things than a typewriter. But if it can only do those things for the length of two presidential terms, tops, is it truly worth the investment?

My 1970 Hermes 3000 originally sold for $129.50, according to the sticker still on its body. That’s about $845 in 2017 dollars, which would get you an iPad Pro or basic laptop today. I bought it last year for $30 at an antique store. It’s in seemingly mint condition all these years later, and I can’t wait to see what words it will produce—from me and any future owners. If the iPad’s “slow death” takes place after only a few years, the death of this Hermes—perish the thought—will be downright glacial.

Yet what Herrman concludes about a tablet is also true of a typewriter: “It will still be a wonder of industrial design and a technological marvel, right up until the moment it is destroyed for scrap.”

Which machine’s scraps, however, can actually be turned into something beautiful? Advantage typewriters.

Refer Madness: The Worst Thing

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

Some days on the desk are rough. Challenging patrons, technical difficulties, a case of the Mondays—whatever the issues are, like sneezes and football sacks they often come in bunches to create a day that’s better forgotten.

This was not one of those days.

First, there was a man who said he’d submitted an interlibrary loan request for a movie two months ago, hadn’t heard back, then found out there wasn’t a record of it at all. This is an aggravating situation all around, for patrons who deserve better service and for staff who seek to eliminate mistakes. Such a blunder can make a patron visibly and justifiably frustrated, but this gentleman wasn’t. “If this is the worst thing to happen to me today,” he said, “then I really just have first-world problems.”

Thirty minutes later, a colleague was setting up for a presenter who needed a PowerPoint and projector. Such a routine and simple task that usually goes off without a hitch. Instead, the laptop decides to become possessed and inhabit the projector as well. Murphy’s Law reasserts itself yet again. The speaker could not have been nicer. He spoke to the attendees as we futzed with cables and buttons. “If this is the worst to happen to your day,” he said, “it was probably a great day.”

That really happened: two different people used the same line within a half-hour of each other.

Not ten minutes later, I had to bump a patron from a study room to make room for someone who’d made a reservation. He was a regular and knew the study room policies, but you never know how people will react to getting booted. “I don’t have to go home but I can’t stay here, right?” he said with a smile. It wasn’t quite closing time, but he got the picture.

The next time I am having one of those terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad days on the desk, I’ll remember this hat-trick of good humor and hope to experience it again.

Ursula Le Guin on the ‘media golem’

A pox upon me for never having read Ursula Le Guin before she died last week. I’ll get right on that, as her reputation is high among many different kinds of readers.

Before diving into her novels, though, I encountered her blog (an 88 year old blogging!) on which last year she posted “Constructing the Golem”, pretty thoroughly diagnosing our political moment and offering advice for overcoming it:

When he does something weird (which he does constantly in order to keep media attention on him), look not at him but at the people whom his irresponsible acts or words affect — the Republicans who try to collaborate with him (like collaborating with a loose cannon), the Democrats and Government employees he bullies, the statesmen from friendly countries he offends, the ordinary people he uses, insults, and hurts. Look away from him, and at the people who are working desperately to save what they can save of our Republic and our hope of avoiding nuclear catastrophe. Look away from him, and at reality, and things begin to get back into proportion.

Or: just don’t look.

He is entirely a creature of the media. He is a media golem. If you take the camera and mike off him, if you take your attention off him, nothing is left — mud.

Oh, would that it were so simple. He is the president, and the office of the presidency is unable to be ignored no matter who occupies its office. This is the present conundrum.

Nicholas Carr, incisive as always, speaks to this in an essay at Politico. He first zooms in on the president’s Twitter addiction:

Thanks to Twitter, the national conversation is now yoked to the vagaries of Trump’s mind. Politics has been subsumed by psychology. Twitter’s formal qualities as an informational medium—its immediacy and ephemerality, its vast reach, its lack of filters—mirror and reinforce the impulsiveness, solipsism, and grandiosity that define Trump’s personality and presidency and, by extension, the times. Banal yet mesmerizing, the president’s Twitter stream distills our strange cultural moment—the moment the noise became the signal.

…and then zooms out on its larger implications:

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the nation and its institutions have become a sort of drug-delivery system engineered to feed the compulsions of a single, unusual man. And given what we know about the way media technologies shape society, a bigger question looms: Are we stuck here for good?

Dear lord I hope not.

A president’s pronouncements will always be news, but they don’t have to grab headlines the way Trump’s tweets routinely do. The messages’ enduring power to seize attention and shape debate springs from a deeper source. It reflects the polarized state of the country and its politics. Among both the president’s fans and his foes, the tweets provoke extreme reactions, which serve to reinforce each side’s confidence in the righteousness of its cause. We listen so intently to Trump’s tweets because they tell us what we want to hear about the political brand we’ve chosen. In a perverse way, they serve as the rallying cries of two opposed and warring tribes.

And when you’re stuck between these two warring tribes, you don’t even get to enjoy the psychological benefits from tribalism. You just witness the carnage and wonder which side you’d rather see lose.

Cmd + Ctrl: towards smarter searching and dumber devices

Let me echo Austin Kleon’s ode to the search box:

Maybe it’s not so much the command prompt I’m nostalgic for, but the days when the computer wouldn’t do anything without me — I had to explicitly tell the computer what I wanted to do, and if I didn’t tell it, it would just sit there, patiently, with a dumb look on its face.

I really miss how computers used to be “dumb” in this way. The primary computer in my life — my “smartphone” — is too smart. It used to constantly push things on me — push notifications — letting me know about all sorts of stuff it thought I wanted to know about, and it continued doing this until I had the good sense to turn them all off. It’s dumber now, and much better.

Besides text messages and Snapchat pictures of my new nephew, I don’t get notifications on my phone and haven’t for a long time. I can’t imagine how people with news or social media apps subject themselves to the onslaught of Fresh Hell in their pockets all day.

In Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, Cory Doctorow writes about the need to be protected from computers as they burrow further into our lives and bodies:

I want to be sure that it is designed to take orders from its user, and to hide nothing.

Take orders and hide nothing. Command and control. Pull rather than push. Make Computers Dumb Again.

Relatedly, at Mashable, “Stop reading what Facebook tells you to read” calls for consumers to break out of Facebook’s detention center walled garden and use a web browser to find things:

By choosing to be a reader of websites whose voices and ideas you’re fundamentally interested in and care about, you’re taking control. And by doing that, you’ll chip away at the incentive publishers have to create headlines and stories weaponized for the purpose of sharing on social media. You’ll be stripping away at the motivation for websites everywhere (including this one) to make dumb hollow mindgarbage. At the same time, you’ll increase the incentive for these websites to be (if nothing else) more consistent and less desperate for your attention.

See also: Just don’t look.

Here’s to smarter searching and clicking by everyone in 2018.

Paper: the once and future king

Richard Polt has an interesting post about the assumption of paper in speculative fiction from the past:

Apparently, a mere 40 years ago it still didn’t occur to some science fiction novelists that paper would become a second-class citizen to glass screens studded with millions of tiny pixels.

Note that the word “paper” does not actually appear in any of these passages. That’s the way it is with things we take for granted: they’re as invisible as the air we breathe.

I expect that our own speculative futures will look just as ridiculous 40 years from now. What developments are we failing to imagine?

(This reminds me of Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” briefing, which actually establishes a helpful framework for analysis, and Chuck Klosterman’s great book But What If We’re Wrong?, which interrogates the assumptions we’ve turned into self-evident conclusions.)

The question of paper’s place in a digital society popped into my life today at a doctor’s office. I had to fill out an intake form as usual, but with a twist: it was the first time the form was digital. It was on a PhreesiaPad, a touchscreen encased by a clunky orange plastic shell that made it look like a kid’s toy. The opening screen said “Paper Is So 20th Century”.

PhreesiaPad

Paper’s fearsome competitor.

I assume these devices help speed up information processing in clinics and contribute to the all-encompassing idol goal of Efficiency in businesses. But if I had to bet on whether the PhreesiaPad or paper will still be around in 10 years, even 5 years, it’s paper all the way. I’ll be surprised if all those cheaply made tablets and their ilk make it to next year before getting disrupted into obsolescence by the Next Big Thing.

Paper is so 20th century. And 19th. And 18th. And 17th. And 16th. And 15th. And so on for a long, long time. So long that you can count paper’s age in millennia. Silicon Valley startups and speculative fiction authors have a lot of intriguing ideas about what the future will look like, but until they figure out how to close in on paper’s 2,000-year head start I won’t be worried about its fate.

Hear Ye! Listening to ‘The New Analog’

new-analog

“Noise has value.”

So goes the thesis statement of The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World, a wonderful new book by musician Damon Krukowski. He reckons with how digital media has changed how we consume music and what we’ve come to expect from it. New technologies have begat new ways of listening, but to get to that newness, music has been stripped of its context and surrounding “noise” and turned (for a profit) into pure “signal” over a disembodied digital stream.

In theory this would be ideal; noise is usually considered a bad thing, and boosting signal above it separates the gold from the dross, the wheat from the chaff, etc. But what happens when everything becomes signal? What happens when we cede the authority to determine what ought to be signal to Spotify’s mysterious algorithms and the rigid perfectionism of digital recording equipment?

Krukowski illuminates what we lose when we ignore or eliminate noise. It’s not only the small things— incidental studio sounds captured alongside the recorded music and how smartphones flatten the richness of our voices—but bigger ones too: how we’ve come to occupy space “simultaneously but not together”, and how streaming encourages “ahistorical listening.”

This isn’t a fusty screed against newfangled media. Krukowski avoids nostalgia as he straddles the analog/digital divide, opting for clear-headed rumination on “aspects of the analog that persist—that must persist—that we need persist—in the digital era.” These aspects involve early 20th century player pianos, Sinatra’s microphone technique, the “loudness wars”, and Napster, among other topics I learned a lot about.

The book overlaps a lot with Krukowski’s podcast miniseries Ways of Hearing, though I’m not sure which informed the other more. Ironically, despite its inability to convey sound, I thought the book was better at explaining the concepts and aural phenomena of analog that Krukowski dives into. With the relentless iterations of new media keeping us ever focused on the present and future, it’s more important than ever for thoughtful critics like Krukowski and Nicholas Carr and Alan Jacobs to help promote intentional thinking and challenge our modern assumptions.

Google Past

This is the Google Maps Street View of my parents’ home. It’s from 2007, which is old by Google Maps standards. The current view looks very different ten years later. The house is a different color, the front lawn is now completely garden (more like a jungle at this point), and the tree on the road verge was slain by ash borer.

All three cars are gone too. The black Corolla was my sister’s first car. The blue Corolla we inherited from my grandma; it nearly won Worst Car senior year, and my cymbals were stolen from it once, but I remember it fondly. The white Camry was an inheritance from the other grandma, since replaced by another.

I suspect the Google Maps Camera Car will make its way back to this street one day and replace this image with a new one. Until then this snapshot will remain like a mural, a mosaic of memory, unaware a new coat of paint will erase it from existence, but only for most.

Saint Benedict in Technopoly

Perhaps it was because I had just finished reading Neil Postman’s 1992 book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology when I started in on Rod Dreher’s latest, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, but I was detecting a subtle yet strong Postmanian vibe throughout the book. Then, when Dreher actually quoted Technopoly, I realized that wasn’t a coincidence.

First, a disclaimer: I am (briefly) in The Benedict Option. When Dreher put out a call on his blog for examples of Christian-run businesses, I emailed him about Reba Place Fellowship, the intentional Christian community that over the years has spun off church ministries into actual businesses, like a bicycle repair shop and an Amish furniture store. Months later, in a reply to my comment on one of his unrelated blog posts, he told me I was in the book, much to my surprise. And sure enough, on page 189 there was my name and a short paragraph adapted from my email about Reba.

I felt compelled to alert Dreher about RPF not only because I think they are a living, functional example of the Benedict Option in action, but also because I’ve followed Rod Dreher’s blog for a while, really enjoyed his books Crunchy Cons and The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, and hoped his new one would contribute to the conversation about religious engagement in civic life.

The Benedict Option really does feel like the secular successor to Technopoly. The two books share a pessimism about the Way Things Are Now and a dire outlook of what’s to come. Dreher’s thesis is that Christians have lost the culture wars and need to reconsider their embedded relationship with the wider (Western) culture, in order to strengthen what’s left of the Church before a new anti-religion dark age descends. This seems like a natural response to the trajectory of Postman’s theory of the Technopoly, which he defines as “totalitarian technocracy” and “the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology.

Written 25 years ago, several passages in Technopoly would be right at home in The Benedict Option, like the one about the erosion of cultural symbols:

In Technopoly, the trivialization of significant cultural symbols is largely conducted by commercial enterprise. This occurs not because corporate America is greedy but because the adoration of technology preempts the adoration of anything else. … Tradition is, in fact, nothing but the acknowledgment of the authority of symbols and the relevance of the narratives that gave birth to them. With the erosion of symbols there follows a loss of narrative, which is one of the most debilitating consequences of Technopoly’s power.

And Technopoly’s hollow solipsism:

The Technopoly story is without a moral center. It puts in its place efficiency, interest, and economic advantage. It promises heaven on earth through the conveniences of technological progress. It casts aside all traditional narratives and symbols that suggest stability and orderliness, and tells, instead, of a life of skills, technical expertise, and the ecstasy of consumption. Its purpose is to produce functionaries for an ongoing Technopoly.

Technopoly offers so much more to unpack, much of it specifically related to technology and education, but another nugget I thought aligned very well with Dreher’s Benedict Option is Postman’s call for “those who wish to defend themselves against the worst effects of the American Technopoly” to become “loving resistance fighters.” He defines a technological resistance fighter as someone who “maintains an epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural.”

Religious resistance fighters don’t “run for the hills” as critics of the Benedict Option would have it say. (Though Dreher does end the book with Benedictine monks in Italy literally running for the hills after an earthquake destroys their monastery—a reasonable action, but ironic given his frustration for the “run for the hills” criticism.) In fact, the work of resistance requires direct engagement within the larger cultural life. But it also requires deliberate and distinctive separation—if not physically, then spiritually, ethically, and intellectually.

Dreher bemoans the submission of churchgoers to the pressures of secular culture (i.e. the Technopoly), whether it’s the now widespread acceptance of gay marriage, the rootless and self-interested browsing of different churches, or the unfettered access to technology parents allow their children. The principles in the Rule of St. Benedict, originally established for sixth-century monks cloistered away from the chaotic post-Rome Europe, offer a way for modern Christians to shore up their spiritual discipline while reconnecting with ancient traditions.

Most of his proposals (neatly summarized here) should not be terribly controversial among committed believers, though some, like pulling your kids out of public school, seem unduly influenced by his alarmism and are much easier said than done.

But that seems to be his point: Christianity isn’t supposed to be easy. Monks don’t join a monastery to sit around and avoid the world; they work hard! They take the claims and commandments of their Savior and Scripture seriously and endeavor to follow them.

Postman has been proven right. He didn’t live to see today’s wholesale surrender to smartphones and Silicon Valley’s tech-utopianism, but he’d have a serious case of the “I told you so”s if he did. Whether Dreher’s predictions for the demise of Christianity also come to pass remains to be seen, but you don’t have to be a doomsday prepping zealot to realize that it is good to hope for the best while preparing for the worst.

“Let me exhort you, people: close Twitter and read a book. Take delight in something well-made, well-made because the author loved her task and sought to bring her best intellectual resources to bear on her work. Take delight in words crafted to increase the world’s store of intelligence, to share what the author knows and bring forth knowledge in readers. It’s a better way for us to live that to spend even a few minutes a day in the company of people who have made the cultivation of stupidity into a virtue.” — Alan Jacobs

Technically First

This happens to me all the time: I hear about a book (or movie or album, but usually book) and find it at my library, then I read it and see mention of another book or figure, sending me off into that direction, where I find another book to read. And so on. I’ll call it the Wikipedia Effect, which is a little less hippie-dippie than calling it the Everything Is Connected Effect, though it’s of the same spirit.

This time, I listened to the 99% Invisible episode on the U.S. Post Office, based on Winifred Gallagher’s new book How the Post Office Created America: A History, which I went to look at in the stacks. I didn’t end up checking it out, but as my eyes wandered a little farther down the shelf I did see an intriguing title: A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable by John Steele Gordon.

Calling the story “heroic” is a bit much, but it’s a quick and well-done story of the small group of monied men in mid-eighteenth-century New York who staked their fortunes on basically willing the oceanic cable into being, even after some pretty serious setbacks. It’s a good companion with Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-Line Pioneers, a broader history of the invention of telegraphy.

I spotted it on a shelf at the library when I was looking for something completely different—is there a word for serendipity striking in the library? Librindipity?—but my interest in it made me realize I’m intrigued by the stories of how innovative technologies came into being.

In addition to these two books about the telegraph, I’ve already read a few books I think fit into this theme of the development of a revolutionary technology or notable technical achievement:

  • Screw and screwdriver (One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw by Witold Rybczynski)
  • Chairs (Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair by Witold Rybczynski)
  • Photography (River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West by Rebecca Solnit)
  • Longitude (Longitude by Dava Sobel)

Some of these were heralded in their time, known right away to be revolutionary, but some were not. I’m interested in both: how things came into being whether we noticed them or not.

A quick brainstorm yielded a few more ideas for future reading along these lines. (I’ll need a hashtag for when I catch up with these. Let’s go with #TechnicallyFirst). There’s no guarantee I’ll read these; they’re just ideas gathered in one place for future reference:

  • Transcontinental Railroad (Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad by Stephen Ambrose)
  • Interstate Highways (The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways by Earl Swift)
  • Electricity (Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World by Jill Jonnes)
  • Pencils (The Pencil: A History Of Design And Circumstance by Henry Petroski)

Will have to keep adding to the list. But I thank A Thread Across the Ocean for sending me down this path, wherever it leads.

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