Tuesday, August 24, 2010

dictated but not signed

I was sitting in a bookstore, blizting through The Best Technology Writing 2010, and came upon Anne Trubeck's piece, "Handwriting is History." It's a searching, historically minded piece in the best way, one that recalls McLuhan's musings on the effects of alphabetical type, and Kittler's notions on the 'discourse network' of 1800 that prized handwriting as the ineffable expression of one's character. It also includes the requisite depiction of traditionalists as stuck in the mud. I'm not going to argue from a traditionalist viewpoint, but more one of neurodiversity.

Trubeck describes the desired goal of writing technologies as "cognitive automaticity," the ability to transmit ideas wholly formed from our brain to the page, so that we don't forget our poems about Kublai Khan's pleasure domes and so forth. But I'm not sure that's always the case.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


It's sometimes hard to describe my interests in a concise way, (though I have tried listing them in the past.) To put it plainly, I'm interested in the many ways that people relate to technology, both as individuals and within social structures, and the ways that they have done so in the past-- then, we might have an insight in to how we might in the future. 

It's easy to say that technology drives social change, but it's a much more interrelated, dynamic process. Things start to get really interesting when you're looking at the macro-structures behind inventions and their conditions of possibility, because you start to examine all of the non-material aspects behind technology. Sometimes all the materials are there to make something, but there's no economic means of support for research and development, or it's not conceivable given the mindset of the time.  I'm personally fascinated by the mental universes of people in the 1600s who were doing pioneering science, but in crazily magical ways (like Helmont or Newton, who did private alchemy experiments and believed that God that went bowling with comets.) In a more modern vein, Eleanor Saitta has a call for papers up that asks what ideas of the last few decades will be incomprehensible to future generations--an interesting question.

Or, you have situations like a war where both sides have pretty similar tech and forces, but one side completely wipes the floor with the other (my favorite examples are the 1940 Fall of France, or the 1895 Sino-Japanese War). Surprising results like that are really useful, because they show you things you otherwise wouldn't know. In both those cases, the (superior) ideas of the winning side were embodied in effective organizations, and that won wars. (In the science-fictional realm, Arthur C. Clarke's short story "Superiority" is a fantastic example of a materially superior force hamstrung by a dysfunctional organization and priorities.)

 I think that it's worth it to examine nearly-forgotten artifacts of past media and technology because they give us a ton more examples and case studies of socio-technological relations and forms of interaction than we'd have if we only paid attention to what exists today. Given the accelerating rate of technological change over the past 100 years, It's a dangerous trap to assume that anything about our era is 'normal' for the range of human existence or to project our own patterns too far into the future. That's where history comes in. By paying attention to weird strange things in our past, we're better protected against weird, catastrophic things in the future.

For more information:
Athanasius Kircher
Edward Tenner
Dead Media Archive