Chad Comello

books, movies, libraries, typewriters

Category: Technology (page 2 of 3)

“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.

Towards Integrity

Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows, re: Hawthorne’s “The Celestial Railroad”: “The old world, Hawthorne seemed to argue, was arduous, but it knew where it was going, and it went the slow sure way. Machines made life easier, faster, more predictable, but they led away from an integrity that people missed from the beginning.”


Now I Sit Me Down

“A chair is an everyday object with which the human body has an intimate relationship. You sit down in an armchair and it embraces you, you rub against it, you caress the fabric, touch the wood, grip the arms. It is this intimacy, not merely utility, that ultimately distinguishes a beautiful chair from a beautiful painting. If you sit on it, can it still be art? Perhaps it is more.”

Indeed it is. Witold Rybczynski’s new book Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair: A Natural History is one of my favorite genres: a nichestory (as in niche + history). Like the first Rybczynski book I read (One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw), this one is a loving and learned micro-history of an everyday thing we usually don’t regard at all. The book weaves Rybczynski’s expertise and personal experience with stories about influential designers and craftsmen throughout history, along with some wider cultural criticism.

NPR’s review of the book has a nice collection of Rybczynski’s own illustrations from the book of the many different kinds of chairs he writes about. After reading this you’ll see them everywhere.

Track Changes

A good argument could be made for several different technologies being the ideal tool for writers. Pen and paper have proved durable and flexible but aren’t easily manipulated. Typewriters provide an attractive single-purpose distraction-free environment but don’t allow for easy duplication. Modern computers are powerful and multi-purpose, but easily distract.

We all are fortunate to live in a time when we can choose between these options. That wasn’t the case until certain benchmarks in history, which Matthew Kirschenbaum explores in his new book Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (which I learned about from the review in The New Republic). I was born in 1987, so I missed the period Kirschenbaum covers here (mostly the 1970s and ’80s), but I distinctly remember Windows 95, floppy disks, and everything going much slower than they do now. I wouldn’t chose to be transported back to the early 80s, when having a home computer required so much more work than it does now. Some people liked that work, and hey, to each’s own. But I’m a late-adopter. Whether it’s a new device, app, or other web service, I’m happy to let the early-adopters suffer through the bugs and relative paucity of features while I wait for things to get smoother and more robust.

The book explores several things I’m moderately interested in — chiefly literature, philosophy of writing, and the technical aspects of early personal computers — so I thought I’d give it a whirl and see what it came to. Since Kirschenbaum goes deep on those things I’m only moderately interested in, I found myself skimming through several passages that someone more invested in the topic might find more worthwhile. Overall, though, I thought it was a nice niche history, with perspective on where we’ve come from as a creative species and how the tools writers specifically use have shaped their work.

How Tweet It Is

At the beginning of December I had my wife change my Twitter password so I couldn’t access it. I’ve learned that I’m a cold turkey guy. Maybe I have some elements of an addictive personality, because for things like social media that act as mini dopamine triggers, I can’t use them moderately. I’m either on them every day, usually several times, or I deactivate the account and pretend they don’t exist for a time in order to unclog my mental plumping.

I really like Twitter. It’s nice to communicate occasionally with people I admire, get the latest on the things I enjoy, and above all share the things I’m proud of or interested in. I don’t have to deal with the spam and garbage trolls that celebrities and well-known figures endure, so it’s generally a pleasant experience.

I just sought it out too much. This sabbatical forces me to live without it for a time—to rewire my brain to not think in tweets, seek validation in retweets and likes, and be proud of how clever I am.

It feels good. I’m not rushing back.

The Typewriter Revolution


I discovered, located at my local library, checked out, and read Richard Polt’s The Typewriter’s Revolution within about two days. And wouldn’t you know it, now all I want to do is use my typewriter.

Reading this beautiful book—nay, merely getting a few pages in—inspired me to uncover the IBM Selectric I that I inherited from my grandma when she moved into a different place and get the ink flowing again. Despite the incessant hum that accompanies electrics, I love the whole process of using it, and the basic thrill of having a piece of paper stamped with the words of my doing without the overlording influence of the Internet and that blasted distraction machine we call a laptop. I can’t wait to write more on it, and to retrieve the other typewriters from my parents’ storage and see if they can’t be brought back to life and service.

Usually when we see a typewriter in action these days, it’s at the hands of a young Occupy Wherever libertine or an elderly, quite possibly curmudgeonly, traditionalist: people who don’t accede, intentionally or otherwise, to the Information Regime (as Polt’s Typewriter Insurgency Manifesto calls it). My chief connotation with them were my grandma’s missives on birthday and Christmas cards, discussing the weather and congratulating me on recent academic achievements. “Take care and keep in touch,” they would always end. Perhaps she was on to something. Taking care of ourselves and our instruments, keeping in touch with them and each other; these are the principles inherent in the Manifesto, which affirms “the real over representation, the physical over digital, the durable over the unsustainable, the self-sufficient over the efficient.”

It’s easy and tempting to scoff at these “insurgents” for not giving in to the Regime, or for doing it so ostentatiously, until you actually consider why typewriters remain useful tools and toys. The possibility that I might find some practical application for these not-dead-yet mechanical wonders, and do so without ostentation, thrills me. Here’s to the ongoing Revolution.

How to Feel Small

I like things that make me feel small.

Like If The Moon Were Only 1 Pixel, a “tediously accurate scale model of the solar system” that, as you scroll horizontally, reveals the vast span of our neighborhood:

Or Why Time Flies, a philosophical exploration of our fungible awareness of time:

Or The Scale of the Universe (my favorite), which, as you zoom in and out, shows the comparative sizes of all creation, from the largest supercluster to the smallest neutrino (notice how everything at some point is the same size):

Or, a “journey through space, time & music” that plays songs of the past according to how far their waves have traveled from Earth since they were released:

Make Yourselves Whole Again: On ‘Dataclysm’ and ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’

In a sloppy but understandable attempt at satire, Justine Sacco tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Then she got on a long plane ride to South Africa. During the flight her tweet went viral, enraging the easily enraged bastions of social media and catapulting the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet around the world. When she landed in Johannesburg she was out of a job and in the throes of a scorching, unmerciful online public shaming.

I was on Twitter the day #HasJustineLandedYet was in progress. When I figured out what it was about, I probably chuckled, thought “Sucks to be her…” and clicked elsewhere. But Justine, freshly captive prey of the collective shaming committee that is the Internet, wasn’t allowed to move on. The invisible, crushing weight of public opinion had pinned her to her momentary mistake. Jon Ronson interviewed her about this experience for his new book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, an eye-opening panorama of the dark, menacing, deceptively fleeting phenomenon of online shaming. His dissection of these digital witch hunts led him on a listening tour of other recent victims like Jonah Lehrer, Lindsay Stone, and Adria Richards, who were, months or years after their respective ordeals, still haunted by a modern twist on PTSD. Call it Post Traumatic Shaming Disorder.

Before her Twitstorm, Sacco was director of communications at IAC, the parent company of OkCupid, whose co-founder Christian Rudder wrote another fascinating book recently released called Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking). I read Dataclysm right after So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which was fortuitous not only because both books feature the Justine Sacco saga, but because Rudder’s deep dive into the data about our online selves—dating site profiles and otherwise—weaved perfectly with Ronson’s closely observed stories of public shaming. And the joint conclusion we can make doesn’t look good.

The “when we think no one’s looking” part of Rudder’s title is key here. Dataclysm focuses on OkCupid users, but he might as well be writing about Us. “So much of what makes the Internet useful for communication—asynchrony, anonymity, escapism, a lack of central authority—also makes it frightening,” he writes. Nearly everything we do online we do when no one’s looking. Even if a real name and picture is attached to a Twitter profile viciously trolling the Justine Saccos of the web, the ramifications are few. Kill that account, another will pop up.

The really interesting stuff, then, is what lies beneath the cultivated online personas, the stuff we don’t have incentive to lie about or craft for a particular purpose. What if your Google searches were made public? (Because they basically are.) Our searches would paint a much finer (though not prettier) portrait of ourselves than our Facebook posts, try as we might to convince ourselves otherwise.

Compared to Facebook, Rudder writes, which is “compulsively networked” and rich with interconnected data, dating sites like OkCupid pull people away from their inner circle and into an intentional solitude: “Your experience is just you and the people you choose to be with; and what you do is secret. Often the very fact that you have an account—let alone what you do with it—is unknown to your friends. So people can act on attitudes and desires relatively free from social pressure.”

OkCupid users are prompted to answer questions the site’s algorithms use to find other compatible users. The answers are confidential, so like Google searches they tell a more nuanced story about the user than whatever they write in their OkCupid self-summary. And yet there persists a wide discrepancy between what people say they believe—what they tell the algorithm—and how they actually behave on the site. The stats on who they chat with, for how long, and whether an in-person date occurs end up revealing more about a user’s preferences than their expressed beliefs.

Does the same apply to the hordes of people behind #HasJustineLandedYet? They might not be quite as evil and sadistic in real life as they seem online, but they can afford to play-act in whatever persona they’re cultivating because they’re protected by distance: abstractly, the virtual world being a different, cloudier dimension than the physical one; but also concretely, in that the odds of bumping into your shaming victim on the street is practically nil.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and Dataclysm travel on the same track, but start out in opposite directions. Both concern themselves with the real-life implications of desire, how it’s wielded and to what end. Desiring companionship, love, or sex, OkCupid users seek opportunities to encounter whatever it is they’re looking for, personal fulfillment usually being the ultimate goal. Ronson’s case studies, heading the other way, illustrate the deviousness of desire—when on the road to euphoria we carelessly or even intentionally run down whoever gets in our way. “There is strength in collective guilt,” Rudder writes, “and guilt is diffused in the sharing. Extirpate the Other and make yourselves whole again.”

Yet neither book is as depressing as I’ve portrayed them. Dataclysm wades into a bevy of interesting data-driven topics, like the most common and uncommon words used in OkCupid profiles based on race and gender, how beauty gives people a quantifiable edge, and the emergence of digital communities. And Ronson’s journey leads to a host of stories, historical and contemporary, that lend depth and nuance to a social phenomenon desperately in need of them.

Above all, these books should make us think twice before hitting Send. “If you’re reading a popular science book about Big Data and all its portents,” writes Rudder, “rest assured the data in it is you.” Whether we’re chirping into a stupid hashtag or perusing profile pics in search of The One, someone is always watching.

The Glass Cage

To never confront the possibility of getting lost is to live in a state of perpetual dislocation. If you never have to worry about not knowing where you are, then you never have to know where you are. —Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage

One time the internet went down at the library and it was like the Apocalypse. Patrons at the public computers and on their laptops saw their pages not loading and came to the desk to ask what was wrong. We told them the internet’s down, it’ll have to be restarted and it’ll be up again in a few minutes. Most were satisfied by this, if a bit peeved, but waited for order to be restored. But it was a serious outage and the wait was much longer than usual, so people at the computers just left. The lab, usually almost or completely full, was a ghost town.

Just as I was thinking (a bit judgmentally) how odd it was that people who temporarily didn’t have internet would just leave instead of using other parts of the library (like, you know, books ‘n’ stuff), I realized that the library catalog was down too. Without this mechanism that we use to search for items and get their call number for retrieval, I was librarianing in the dark. If someone came to the desk looking for a specific book, I had no way of a) knowing if we had it and it was on the shelf, or b) where it was among the thousands of books neatly lining the stacks before me. I knew generally where books on certain topics were—sports in the 790s, the 200s had religion, and so on—but without a specific call number I’d have to navigate the sea of spines book by book until by providence or luck I found the item within a reasonable amount of time.

The internet was restored, the computer lab filled again, and the catalog came back to life. No crises came to pass during this internet-less interlude, but I did wonder if I knew as much as I thought I did. Did I as a librarian rely too heavily on access to the online catalog to do my job? Without internet connectivity or hard-copy reference material, would we still be able to provide the information people ask for every day? Even looking up a phone number is much more easily done on Google than through a paper trail.

The times we’re not connected to the internet somehow are becoming less and less frequent, so existential crises like mine don’t have to last long. But the questions lingered as I read Nicholas Carr‘s new book, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. It asks questions that apply not only to libraries but every facet of our lives: do humans rely too heavily on technology? And if so, what is that reliance doing to us? Well-versed in the effects of technology on human behavior, Carr, author of The Shallows and The Big Switch, posits that automated technology, though responsible for many improvements in industry, health care, transportation, and many other areas, can also degrade our natural skill-learning abilities and generate a false sense of security in technology that aims (yet often fails) to be perfect in an imperfect world.

Carr points to two phenomena that, taken separately or together, exacerbate our worst human tendencies and stunt the mental and physiological growth required for mastering complex tasks. Automation complacency, writes Carr, “takes hold when a computer lulls us into a false sense of security. We become so confident that the machine will work flawlessly, handling any challenge that may arise, that we allow our attention to drift.” Exhibit A: the opening library anecdote. Knowing that the online catalog will reliably provide the information I need when I ask for it, I’m much more liable not to retain useful knowledge despite the usefulness of retaining it and the pleasure I get from learning it.

The second phenomena is automation bias, which occurs “when people give undue weight to the information coming through their monitors. Even when the information is wrong or misleading, they believe it. Their trust in the software becomes so strong that they ignore or discount other sources of information, including their own senses.” I’ve experienced this too. One time a patron asked for the phone number of a business; because I was dealing with multiple things at once, I provided the first number that came up on Google without confirming its validity through another source, like the business’s website or the Yellow Pages. Turns out that number was outdated and the search engine hadn’t indexed the new one yet. But because I’d done that before with numbers that were accurate, to be expedient I trusted Google in that moment when I should have been more discerning.

Whichever technological tools Carr cites—airplane autopilot, assembly-line manufacturing, GPS—the theme that emerges is that after a certain point, the more automated technology takes away from humans the more we lose. This runs counter to the utopian belief that the iPhones and Google Glasses and self-driving cars of the world make our lives better by making them easier, that by ceding difficult tasks to machines we will be able to focus on more important things or use that extra time for leisure.

To some extent that is true, but there’s also a dark side to this bargain. By abdicating power over how we interact with the world, we stop being doers with agency over our skills and trades and become monitors of computer screens—supervisors of fast, mysterious, and smart machines that almost always seem to know more than us. This dynamic puts us at cross-purposes with the tools that should be working with us and for us, not in our stead. Humans’ greatest ability, writes Carr, is not to cull large amounts of data and make sense of complex patterns: “It’s our ability to make sense of things, to weave the knowledge we draw from observation and experience, from living, into a rich and fluid understanding of the world that we can then apply to any task or challenge.”

Automated tools like GPS, which we rely upon and follow without much question, take away that innate ability of sense-making and even dampen our desire to make our own observations based on first-hand experience. I should replace “we” with “I” here, because I struggle greatly with navigation and love being able to know where I am and get to where I’m going. But navigation is more than following the blue line directly from point A to point B as if A and B are the only data points that matter. The point of navigation is the map itself, the ability to make assessments based on acquired knowledge and turn that knowledge into informed action. When a computer does all that for us in a microsecond, then what’s the point of knowing anything?

Ominous implications like this are the star of The Glass Cage, which casts a discerning eye on the assumptions, implicit and explicit, that govern our relationship with technology. It’s a relationship that can be fruitful and healthy for everyone involved, but it also needs some work. Thankfully, Nicholas Carr has done the work for us in The Glass Cage. All we have to do is sit back and receive this knowledge.


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