One thing that popped out to me was the role of women in the Post Office’s workforce. Women made up two-thirds of all Post Office employees by the end of the 1870s, with the Post Office itself accounting for 75% of all federal civilian employees at the time. This made it a vital source of work for women early in the movement for women’s suffrage.
Their chief work was within the Topographer’s Office, which produced maps of postal routes. The layout and drawing of the maps was done by men (it was actually called “gentlemen’s work”). But the “ladies’ work” of coloring the routes according to frequency of delivery was arguably just as if not more important, because it added the dimension of time to the otherwise inert graphics and kept the maps up to date and therefore useful.
This wasn’t easy given the constantly changing routes and limitations of paper. As Blevins put it: “These women were, in effect, trying to paint a still life while someone kept rearranging the fruit.”
All this was on my mind when I saw Richard Polt’s Instagram post for International Typewriter Day.
I’m not sure how much typewriters factored into the work of the female “colorists” given its graphical nature, but the people’s machine without a doubt contributed to the societal sea change happening concurrently as women marched first into offices and then, eventually, the voting booth.
Anyway, I recommend Paper Trails primarily for history nerds—specifically 19th century America. The academic writing is refreshingly accessible and peppered with illustrative graphs throughout. I’m happy to file it under my “technically first” series of books about how innovative technologies came into being.
I don’t have to go looking for synchronicity because it always finds me. This time it was on Netflix.
The other day I watched Netflix’s new docu-drama The Social Dilemma (trailer) based on the recommendation from a friend and a lively text thread about its implications.
The film’s thesis is that social networks are engineered to hack human psychology and prey upon our attention as a means to serve advertisers, which is detrimental to humans specifically and society generally. We learn this from the talking heads of former Silicon Valley executives, whose firsthand experience with the dark side of social media have motivated them to speak out against their former employers and advocate for reform.
Interwoven with the talking heads is the drama part of the film, which depict a family wrestling with the many ways technology can negatively affect our lives: the son slowly being radicalized by extremist propaganda, the tween daughter tormented by insecurity and social media bullying, the mother witnessing the fraying of family cohesion.
Though the dramatized storyline sometimes felt a little “anti-smoking PSA” to me, as a morality tale it was an effective companion to the talking heads. (This interview with Tristan Harris, one of the subjects and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, gives some needed context to his contributions.)
The documentary stimulated a valuable discussion between my wife and I about social media’s role in our family. But it wasn’t until later that night when its lessons sank into my consciousness in a tangible way.
Diving into the divine milieu
Later that same night, I decided to watch My Octopus Teacher, another new Netflix documentary featuring freediver and filmmaker Craig Foster. The banal description (“A filmmaker forges an unusual friendship with an octopus living in a South African kelp forest, learning as the animal shares the mysteries of her world”) belies the transcendent richness of what we see develop on screen—both between Foster and the octopus and between Foster and the underwater environment.
He describes how diving in the cold seawater makes you “come alive to the world” and focuses your mind intently on your surroundings. I’ve written about freediving before, and how the “divine milieu” of the sea—or any uncivilized landscape—can open us to transformation.
Foster’s own transformation happens over the course of a year as he encounters and befriends a common octopus. And thanks to his abundant underwater footage, we get to witness a series of moments—surprises, scares, sorrows, and simplicities—that teach so much about a reclusive and otherworldly creature. Due to Foster’s soothing narration, the gentle piano score, and the meditative quality of being immersed underwater, it’s a beautiful and emotional story that shows the stunning possibilities of what being present in nature can offer.
That also makes it a fascinating contrast to The Social Dilemma, chiefly in how it offers an antidote to all the ails social media can create. If we feel distracted, we should seek focus. If we feel fragmented, we should seek embodiment. (Brené Brown: “We move what we’re learning from our heads to our hearts through our hands”—a lesson I have to constantly relearn.)
Being in nature, in silence, or at least away from screens allow for both of those things if you let it. And recently I did.
My toddler teacher
A few days after watching both of these films, for undetermined reasons Mr. 19 Months was refusing to fall asleep. I brought him out to his play area and he started tinkering with a wooden train set we recently put into toy circulation. He usually doesn’t focus on one activity for very long, yet for at least 15 minutes he sat there quietly exploring and experimenting with this new contraption.
Usually my phone is with me in our living room post-bedtime, but it wasn’t that night. I could have retrieved it, but I didn’t want to break this spell as I knew he’d either want to follow me or jump to another activity. I soon realized that if I did have my phone, I would have missed so much.
I would have missed his subtle gestures as he figured out how to put the cylindrical blocks into their corresponding holes in the train car.
I would have missed trying to decipher his thought process of how to slot the various discs onto their poles.
I would have missed out on pondering how toddlers can be ferocious one moment and beautifully serene the next—not unlike octopuses.
Similarly, Foster’s unique story wouldn’t have happened if he didn’t dedicate himself to visiting the kelp forest every day, and if he hadn’t noticed the octopus beneath its camouflaged hideout, and if he didn’t intentionally seek to cultivate trust with a marvelous and mysterious creature.
My own marvelous and mysterious creature has taught me a lot in his short time on Earth. (See the tag Baby Comello for the continuing journey.) Just by living out his full self—and toddlers can’t do anything else—he demonstrates the rewards of using your attention wisely, whether it’s for a glowing screen or a wooden train set or an inquisitive toddler or a reclusive cephalopod.
You don’t have to choose one, but you do have to choose.
Thanks to Jessamyn West for republishing Phil Agre’s advice from 1996 on how to help someone use a computer. Swap out computer for “smartphone” or “e-reader” and it’s still quite relevant. Some favorites:
Nobody is born knowing this stuff.
You’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner.
If it’s not obvious to them, it’s not obvious.
Most user interfaces are terrible. When people make mistakes it’s usually the fault of the interface. You’ve forgotten how many ways you’ve learned to adapt to bad interfaces. You’ve forgotten how many things you once assumed that the interface would be able to do for you.
Explain your thinking. Don’t make it mysterious. If something is true, show them how they can see it’s true. When you don’t know, say “I don’t know”. When you’re guessing, say “let’s try … because …”. Resist the temptation to appear all-knowing. Help them learn to think like you.
Be aware of how abstract your language is.
As someone who helps people with technology for a living, both at a public service desk and in one-on-one appointments, I appreciate the reminders. One of the biggest challenges I’ve encountered is breaking through people’s technological self-hatred. A common refrain I hear from people struggling with their devices is “I know I’m stupid, but…” It drives me insane. They are not stupid. Their frustrations are almost always justified, being the result of a user interface that was not built with them in mind. What seems simple and sleek for Silicon Valley technophiles might be baffling, counterintuitive, or simply too small for the less agile fingers of the digital immigrants I encounter every day.
Agre has advice for these situations too:
Whenever they start to blame themselves, blame the computer, no matter how many times it takes, in a calm, authoritative tone of voice. If you need to show off, show off your ability to criticize the bad interface.
Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy stories from the library reference desk.
A while back, my department’s email received this message:
“What happened to the CLASSIC CATALOG? I am old, I hate change, but love my library. Thanks.”
I had to laugh. Funny but dead serious, succinct and self-aware, this missive captures a very real conundrum: How do we serve people who hate change but love their library?
The “CLASSIC CATALOG” in question was my library’s previous OPAC. We migrated from it a few years ago but still allowed access for those diehards who didn’t want to use the new system. Recently, that access disappeared. Probably 99 percent of our users had already moved to the new catalog, but I’ll bet those bitter-enders really loved the old one.
Soon my library will be migrating to yet another catalog, this time because we are joining a consortium. It’s change for the better, I believe, but it will also be disruptive to the status quo. That means it won’t just be the CLASSIC CATALOG patron who speaks up about it . . .
On the one hand, constant change is the new normal with technology, in libraries and the world at large. The newer and shinier (if not always better) version of whatever you’re using seems ever around the corner. Libraries can try as much as possible to prepare patrons, but at some point, the base expectation for technical competence will rise, and everyone will have to adapt.
On the other hand, I empathize with this patron. Though being tech savvy is part of my job, in my personal life, I’m far from an early adopter. Even products with a fairly strong reputation for reliability and style, like Apple devices, to me aren’t worth the headaches their debuts can create. I prefer to wait out the newest thing. Let beta testers and true believers ride the first few waves of glitches that inevitably pop up—I’ll come in later and enjoy the smoother ride.
Most patrons understand that tech is ever-changing. But for those who don’t, librarians and IT staff can do a lot. We can offer abundant opportunities for instruction, both online, with explainer videos or blog posts, and in person, with classes or one-on-one sessions. We can use whatever power we have to make the new technology as user-friendly as possible. We can try to anticipate questions that any disruptive changes might trigger and smooth out as many potential stumbling blocks as possible.
Above all, we can and must be patient and listen.
If we can do that, I think even the bitter-enders will still be able to love their library.
Writing by hand on paper is becoming a revolutionary act. Reading a physical book is becoming a revolutionary act. Protecting the books in our libraries, the arts and humanities in our colleges and universities is becoming a revolutionary act. Doing things with warm hand to warm hand, face to face, without photographing them, posting them, is becoming a revolutionary act.
Those two original digital devices you have at the end of your forearms are the means of resistance. As is eye-contact with the world instead of staring at your phone.
She begins her post with screenshots from someone’s downloaded Facebook archive, which showed that Facebook had extensive records of phone calls and other communications that were unrelated to Facebook.
The most valuable thing you have is your attention. It’s also the most valuable condition for survival of the non-digital world.
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.
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.
This 1987 concept video from Apple predicts not only the iPad and all of its capabilities, but also Siri, the speech-activated personal assistant that will be ubiquitous technology in a few years given how Apple products usually work. (H/T to Andrew Sullivan for the video)
Based on the dates mentioned in the Knowledge Navigator video, it takes place on September 16, 2011. The date on the professor’s calendar is September 16, and he’s looking for a 2006 paper written “about five years ago,” setting the year as 2011. And this morning, at the iPhone keynote, Apple announced Siri, a natural language-based voice assistant, would be built into iOS 5 and a core part of the new iPhone 4S.
So, 24 years ago, Apple predicted a complex natural-language voice assistant built into a touchscreen Apple device, and was less than a month off.
I never had the emotional attachment to Steve Jobs as many others around the web have been describing, but I do use his products. The iPhone, Macbook laptop, and the iPod seem so ordinary now, but 24 years ago who could have predicted how they would change the world as they did? I suppose that’s the best compliment you can give a technology geek like Jobs – that what he did changed the world for the better.
What’s the difference between Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange? A recent Saturday Night Live skit with Bill Hader as Assange answered that question: “I give you private information on corporations for free and I’m a villain,” he says. “Mark Zuckerberg gives your private information to corporations for money and he’s Man of the Year.”
It seems backwards, right? In a perfect world, the release of free information about corporate malfeasance would be celebrated and the selling of private information for profit would be illegal, or at least frowned upon. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Instead, Assange gets arrested and Zuckerberg makes billions and is named Time magazine’s Person of the Year.
The U.S. government insists on secrecy. Every politician seems to campaign on bring transparency to Washington and making the government more for, by, and of the people. Yet it never seems to work. So when someone like Assange comes along and pulls back the curtain on important areas of public interest like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the government goes code red.
Facebook is the opposite. No one is forced to reveal personal information; we do it willingly. And the company takes that information and uses it to sell advertising and make billions of dollars in profit. Zuckerberg believes in total openness—on Facebook and in the world as a whole—yet somehow I think he’d had a problem if Wikileaks revealed how Facebook was using people and their information to make a huge profit.
I’m not wholly anti-Facebook. I think it’s a great way to communicate and stay in touch with friends and family. And the way things are going it looks like the site will be the Internet one day. But there’s something very unsettling about how disclosure through Facebook is encouraged yet through Wikileaks it’s demonized. And as long as institutions like Time continue to honor this dangerous dichotomy, things won’t change.