Albert Robida was a 19th century French artist and writer of satirical science fiction. I first heard of him last year when I read about him in Maggie Jackson's Distracted. Jackson described some of Robida's surprisingly accurate predictions from his 1882 novel The Twentieth Century, which is the only work of his that's currently in print in English translation. Robida was a contemporary of Jules Verne but is much less known today, at least in the English-speaking world.
I was searching for more information on Robida and came across a short story from 1894 called The End of Books, written by Octave Uzanne and illustrated by Robida. It's a pretty amusing read in light of the ever-present fretting over the death of books, the threat of audio books (see Kindle), and the invention of things called "video books" (see Jeff Jarvis). Uzanne and Robida predict (and to my ears make fun of) this very same stuff. Below is one of Robida's illustrations of a future reader, enjoying a book the modern way -- by listening to and viewing it.
Links to the story and related material:
Nicholas Carr has posted a fine critique of Clay Shirky's "Gin, Television and the Social Surplus" talk/theory (see earlier post for context) on his blog. Excerpt:
Did my friends and I watch Gilligan's Island? You bet your ass we did - and thoroughly enjoyed it (though with a bit more ironic distance than Shirky allows). Watching sitcoms and the other drek served up by the boob tube was certainly part of our lives. But it was not the center of our lives. Most of the people I knew were doing a whole lot of "participating," "producing," and "sharing," and, to boot, they were doing it not only in the symbolic sphere of the media but in the actual physical world as well. They were making 8-millimeter films, playing drums and guitars and saxophones in bands, composing songs, writing poems and stories, painting pictures, making woodblock prints, taking and developing photographs, drawing comics, souping up cars, constructing elaborate model railroads, reading great books and watching great movies and discussing them passionately well into the night, volunteering in political campaigns, protesting for various causes, and on and on and on. I'm sorry, but nobody was stuck, like some pathetic shred of waterborne trash, in a single media-regulated channel.
Link: Gilligan's Web.
This past weekend Clay Shirky posted a transcript of a talk he gave called Gin, Television, and Social Surplus that's been getting a lot of links around the blogosphere. Following on themes from his book, Here Comes Everybody, he tells a story that goes like this: We gained lots of free time (a "cognitive surplus") in the 40s and 50s because of shorter workweeks. We squandered the surplus by watching TV sitcoms and the like. Now we're finally waking up from this "collective bender" and putting our energies into better things, like editing Wikipedia.
I have a number of problems with this story. First of all, did we gain free time in the 40s and 50s? I'm not an expert, but what I've read about work life has said that Americans are working more hours now than they did at the beginning of the 20th century, not less.
Second, is the time now spent editing Wikipedia or doing other things online really coming from time formerly spent watching TV? In other words, even if there's a negative correlation between TV viewing and online activity, correlation doesn't imply causality.
Third, who's to say which of these activities is more valuable? Shirky has a couple of fairly simple rules for assigning value. Producing is better than consuming -- so writing a blog or posting to a mailing list is better than watching TV or reading. Activity is better than inactivity or passivity -- playing World of Warcraft is more valuable than watching a movie.
I think those rules are awfully simplistic and don't seem to get at the heart of what's valuable. Some TV shows and movies are far more sophisticated works of art than are most video games. Reading a book can be a much more efficient way to deepen one's understanding of a topic than debating it online. Even an adolescence wasted watching Gilligan's Island (an example of Shirky's) might reward you later with the creative juice to launch a career writing postmodern novels.
It's wishful thinking to believe that all of these new technologies will bring forth some great creative and intellectual bounty. We've already got hundreds of millions of blogs -- how much have they really changed things? How important is Wikipedia, really? If it disappeared tomorrow would anyone be truly inconvenienced? I doubt it -- Google would turn up another source or you'd go look in the library if it really mattered. Yet think of all the energy and hours that have been put into Wikipedia. The return on investment just doesn't seem that impressive.
Clay Shirky's new book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations is about the power of the social web or web 2.0 or whatever you like to call it. It's getting a lot of positive coverage. I just received a review copy and I'll post some notes once I've read it.
Book series about philosophy and pop culture seem to be multiplying. Open Court was the first publisher to take up the idea, I believe, followed by Blackwell. I've yet to actually read any of these books, but that may change. The forthcoming iPod and Philosophy (Fall '08) looks very good. I may also check out The Office and Philosophy too, just because I like the show and I'm baffled as to where they're finding philosophy in it. Both publishers are releasing books on Battlestar Gallactica and Philosophy (Blackwell, OpenCourt), which seems like overkill. It's a good show but not quite as deep as all the hype suggests, in my humble opinion.
A show that none of these publishers has yet tackled is the SciFi channel's Eureka. It may not be popular enough (though surely it's more current than Dune) and it is far from deep, but it rehashes just about every cliche about science and scientists you can imagine. I'm slightly embarrassed to admit I watch it. The back story of the show is here: A (Confidential) Town History. They also have a page of futuristic gadgets that exist only in this fictional town: Made in Eureka.
The TV show Heroes has a new promotional tie-in site called Activating Evolution, on which the character Mohinder tells you all about evolution and the existence of radically evolved humans. What's creepy is the site's resemblance to real sites on the web made by transhumanists and other proponents of radical human enhancement and/or a new eugenics (e.g. Better Humans). I wonder if the transhumanists will start contributing to Mohinder's wiki.
Speaking of multitasking...
French long-distance truck drivers have sparked alarm with a new pastime for beating boredom at the wheel: watching television.
From today, police have been ordered to keep a close watch on the cabs of heavy goods vehicles after reports that drivers are putting their feet up on the dashboard and watching videos or playing computer games while steaming along at 90 kilometres per hour.
To take their eyes off the road, they have devised a technique for "driving by ear," according to Le Figaro.
When traffic is not too dense, the driver sets the truck on cruise control and puts its right wheels on the band that marks the edge of the hard shoulder. These are often ribbed and are meant to create a noise to alert sleepy drivers that they are heading off the road.
The driver then steers by sound, leaving him free to watch a DVD, play a game or read, witnesses say.
Links: Truckers drive 'by ear' so they can keep eye on TV (Ottawa Citizen/Times of London), or in French: Ces routiers qui regardent la télévision en conduisant (Le Figaro). Via Watching TV Online.
In the Guardian, Joe Queenan asks:
Why are so many dramas and thrillers now set in the past? Is it because, in a world of mobile phones, satnav and Google, suspense is impossible?
It's an interesting question, and maybe this is true for some types of drama, but the many tech-heavy shows like 24 and CSI on American TV don't seem to be having a problem.
Critic Lee Siegel has a new book out later in January called Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. From the publisher's description:
[...] a ruthless challenge to the conventional wisdom about the most consequential cultural development of our time: the Internet.
Of course the Internet is not one thing or another; if anything, its boosters claim, the Web is everything at once. It’s become not only our primary medium for communication and information but also the place we go to shop, to play, to debate, to find love. Lee Siegel argues that our ever-deepening immersion in life online doesn’t just reshape the ordinary rhythms of our days; it also reshapes our minds and culture, in ways with which we haven’t yet reckoned. The web and its cultural correlatives and by-products—such as the dominance of reality television and the rise of the “bourgeois bohemian”—have turned privacy into performance, play into commerce, and confused “self-expression” with art. And even as technology gurus ply their trade using the language of freedom and democracy, we cede more and more control of our freedom and individuality to the needs of the machine—that confluence of business and technology whose boundaries now stretch to encompass almost all human activity.
Siegel’s argument isn’t a Luddite intervention against the Internet itself but rather a bracing appeal for us to contend with how it is transforming us all. Dazzlingly erudite, full of startlingly original insights, and buoyed by sharp wit, Against the Machine will force you to see our culture—for better and worse—in an entirely new way.
An amusing post (and reader comments) at Sean Lindsey's blog, 101 Reasons to Stop Writing:
Pundits have been predicting for years that ebooks and ebook devices will eventually, finally, once and for all free us from the tyranny of having to carry around more than one book when we travel. This neotopian vision of a paperless, rights-managed future took one giant stumble forward last week with the launch of the Amazon Kindle ebook reader.
For those of you who think that books made of wood just aren’t portable enough, and want a book that you can’t loan to a friend, will be utterly ruined if you drop it in the bath, and looks like it was made by the props department from Space: 1999, then perhaps the Kindle is for you.
Whither the name ‘Kindle’, I’m not sure, but I think any word that connotes ‘burning’ probably shouldn’t be part of a book product promotion (unless you’re promoting International Slushpile Bonfire Day).
Link: Where's The Fire?
Mildly creepy Jeff Bezos interview with Charlie Rose, in which he explains the name Kindle and predicts the return of the serial novel in electronic format: Bezos predicts demise of books, return of Charles Dickens (Valleywag).
Schools in the San Francisco area are encouraging participation. But what do the kids think?
Carson Tsang, 13, wrinkled his nose and scoffed at the idea of no television for 10 days.
"Television is important," the Visitacion Valley Middle School seventh-grader said. "There's commercials. There's news. And there's animals in trouble."
See also: TV Turnoff Network
A disjointed little essay by Cory Doctorow tries to argue that you do like reading off of screens. In it he makes light of the fact that he welcomes distractions from e-mail, IM, YouTube, etc., though it could help explain his bizarre logic. Some excerpts:
"I don't like reading off a computer screen" — it's a cliché of the e-book world. It means "I don't read novels off of computer screens" (or phones, or PDAs, or dedicated e-book readers), and often as not the person who says it is someone who, in fact, spends every hour that Cthulhu sends reading off a computer screen. It's like watching someone shovel Mars Bars into his gob while telling you how much he hates chocolate.
But I know what you mean. You don't like reading long-form works off of a computer screen. I understand perfectly — in the ten minutes since I typed the first word in the paragraph above, I've checked my mail, deleted two spams, checked an image-sharing community I like, downloaded a YouTube clip of Stephen Colbert complaining about the iPhone (pausing my MP3 player first), cleared out my RSS reader, and then returned to write this paragraph.
This is not an ideal environment in which to concentrate on long-form narrative (sorry, one sec, gotta blog this guy who's made cardboard furniture) (wait, the Colbert clip's done, gotta start the music up) (19 more RSS items). But that's not to say that it's not an entertainment medium — indeed, practically everything I do on the computer entertains the hell out of me. It's nearly all text-based, too. Basically, what I do on the computer is pleasure-reading. But it's a fundamentally more scattered, splintered kind of pleasure. Computers have their own cognitive style, and it's not much like the cognitive style invented with the first modern novel (one sec, let me google that and confirm it), Don Quixote, some 400 years ago.
The novel is an invention, one that was engendered by technological changes in information display, reproduction, and distribution. The cognitive style of the novel is different from the cognitive style of the legend. The cognitive style of the computer is different from the cognitive style of the novel.
Or look at digital video. We're watching more digital video, sooner, than anyone imagined. But we're watching it in three-minute chunks from YouTube. The video's got a pause button so you can stop it when the phone rings and a scrubber to go back and forth when you miss something while answering an IM.
And attention spans don't increase when you move from the PC to a handheld device. These things have less capacity for multitasking than real PCs, and the network connections are slower and more expensive. But they are fundamentally multitasking devices — you can always stop reading an e-book to play a hand of solitaire that is interrupted by a phone call — and their social context is that they are used in public places, with a million distractions. It is socially acceptable to interrupt someone who is looking at a PDA screen. By contrast, the TV room — a whole room for TV! — is a shrine where none may speak until the commercial airs.
The problem, then, isn't that screens aren't sharp enough to read novels off of. The problem is that novels aren't screeny enough to warrant protracted, regular reading on screens.
Richard Louv has a new article in Orion that follows up on his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.
I don't know anything about this book, but I like the hamster art! It's The Hamster Revolution: How to Manage Your Email Before It Manages You (official website). The premise sounds reasonable enough too.
I grew up watching Hammy Hamster, back in the days before he had e-mail.