Inside the Machine (Book acquired 6.25.2015)


My crappy iPhone pics aren’t doing justice to these images from Megan Prelinger’s Inside the Machine (glossy pages are hard to photograph). Book is out in August from W.W. Norton—their blurb:

A visual history of the electronic age captures the collision of technology and art—and our collective visions of the future.

A hidden history of the twentieth century’s brilliant innovations—as seen through art and images of electronics that fed the dreams of millions.

A rich historical account of electronic technology in the twentieth century, Inside the Machine journeys from the very origins of electronics, vacuum tubes, through the invention of cathode-ray tubes and transistors to the bold frontier of digital computing in the 1960s.

But, as cultural historian Megan Prelinger explores here, the history of electronics in the twentieth century is not only a history of scientific discoveries carried out in laboratories across America. It is also a story shaped by a generation of artists, designers, and creative thinkers who gave imaginative form to the most elusive matter of all: electrons and their revolutionary powers.

As inventors learned to channel the flow of electrons, starting revolutions in automation, bionics, and cybernetics, generations of commercial artists moved through the traditions of Futurism, Bauhaus, modernism, and conceptual art, finding ways to link art and technology as never before.

A visual tour of this dynamic era, Inside the Machine traces advances and practical revolutions in automation, bionics, computer language, and even cybernetics. Nestled alongside are surprising glimpses into the inner workings of corporations that shaped the modern world: AT&T, General Electric, Lockheed Martin.

While electronics may have indelibly changed our age, Inside the Machinereveals a little-known explosion of creativity in the history of electronics and the minds behind it.


Continue reading “Inside the Machine (Book acquired 6.25.2015)”

A Riff on the Kindle Fire


1. I got a Kindle Fire for Christmas this year, and have been using it for about a month now. I’m not sure how to go about “reviewing” this product, so I’m going to riff a bit.

2. Let’s get the whole Amazon-as-Evil-Empire thing out of the way up front: Yes, Amazon’s business practices are unsavory; yes, attempting to decimate the publishing industry as it currently exists is Not Good; yes, their practices threaten brick-and-mortar stores (the kind that actually pay local and state taxes!); yes their practices work to undermine key figures in the publishing industry—y’know, people like editors.

3. Picking up on that last clause: self-publishing (and the self-publishing “revolution” that e-readers like the Kindle Fire entail) may seem fine and dandy cotton candy, but there’s a reason that editors (and publishers and publicists, etc.) exist. These people make books better. These people make books. (And no, by the way, I’m not interested in reading your self-published ebook, so quit sending me email blasts).

4. Seems like I’m riffing out a lot of context, so let’s keep going: Perhaps you read whinypants Jonathan Franzen decrying the impending moral failures/societal breakdown that will result from ebooks replacing print editions. Franzen’s position is, of course, reactionary and conservative, and deeply rooted in the fear that the perfect Platonic permanence of books will be subverted or decimated.

5. Franzen’s reaction is rooted in part against a (common, teleological, utopian) misconception about the longevity and stability of digital content. Simply put, many people are operating under a dramatic misunderstanding of just how unstable digital content is. Where will all these books be stored, and in what format? Who will be responsible for archiving these materials?

6. A simple thought experiment, germane to item 5 above: Think back on all the obsolete media that you have used in your lifetime. I am in my thirties; my list would include cassette tapes, VHS tapes, laser disks, floppy disks, minidiscs, CDRs . . . (I don’t include vinyl records in this list. I still own hundreds of them and play them regularly).

7. To recontextualize: Printed books are a far more stable format than ebooks.

8. To wit: Ursula LeGuin in her essay “Staying Awake” from a 2008 issue of Harper’s:

The book itself is a curious artifact, not showy in its technology but complex and extremely efficient: a really neat little device, compact, often very pleasant to look at and handle, that can last decades, even centuries. It doesn’t have to be plugged in, activated, or performed by a machine; all it needs is light, a human eye, and a human mind. It is not one of a kind, and it is not ephemeral. It lasts. It is reliable. If a book told you something when you were fifteen, it will tell it to you again when you are fifty, though you may understand it so differently that it seems you’re reading a whole new book.

9. Points 2-8 seem like so much hemming and hawing, so much reticence to discuss what I seemed to promise at the outset: Some sense of what reading on the Kindle Fire is like.

10. Some things I like very much about reading on the Kindle Fire:

It creates its own light for night reading.

It’s easy to highlight and annotate passages (and then open up a new screen to look at just those highlights and annotations, isolated from the text proper).

It’s lightweight and ergonomic and, when I read with it over my head, my wrists don’t constrict and go tingly.

It holds a lot of books.


11. Some things I like about the Kindle Fire that I would think I wouldn’t like about the Kindle Fire, were I to read such a list from another person:

I can determine how far I have read into a book as a percentage.

I can stop and browse the internet in the middle of reading.

I can look up words or even wikis as I go by simply hovering a finger over a word or phrase.

12. My daughter loves the thing. Loves loves loves it. She is probably the primary user. She is four and a half. I think the interactive books she adores are marvelous.

13. Some things I don’t like about the Kindle Fire:

No book smell.

One texture for all books: This is probably the biggest problem I can see with the Kindle Fire.

It requires a battery charge, so there’s a built in level of accessibility; a sense that one must needs “prepare” ahead of time to read, perhaps (unlike our old friend the print book, which only requires a light source).

No bath time reading.

I can’t read it around my daughter, because she will attempt to take it, or, at minimum, curl up in my lap.

It is not possible to have like three or four books open at once.

Can’t read .cbr files. Why? Why?

I had to buy a USB micro B cable to connect the Kindle to the computer that I use to store digital content. Why not include this cable, Amazon? (It’s almost as if the company wants consumers to be solely reliant on Amazon’s services as a content provider . . .)

14. I’ve found it nearly impossible to read an electronic book on the Kindle that I started as a print book. For example, I’m about half-way through Teju Cole’s novel Open City; the kind publicist who sent it to me also sent me an electronic version of the text. I began the print copy in earnest, but the other night, after reading a bit of Hawthorne on the Kindle, I found myself wanting to sink back into Cole’s Sebaldian orbit. When I found my place in the text though, I felt alienated, bleak even, as if I were not reading the definitive version of Cole’s book but instead its cheap ghost. There is no intellectual or objective justification for this feeling. Call it a vibe or a habit.


15. Books that I enjoy reading on the Kindle Fire:

David Markson’s The Last Novel, which perhaps begs to be read on such a device.

Anything by Nietzsche, but his aphoristic works especially.

A .pdf version of Luigi Serafini’s rare and expensive book The Codex Seraphinianus (one of many verboten tomes on my Kindle, but remember the name of this site if you please . . .)

Anything by Whitman, especially letters and other non-essentials that I would not normally pursue.

Ditto Hawthorne.

Ditto Dickinson.

Ditto Melville.

Oh, and beyond the overlooked and underfamous works of certain American Renaissance faves: Moby-Dick too, which seems looser, freer, more aphoristic on the Kindle. (Why?)

Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash, which seems simultaneously dated and futuristic. Like William Gibson with a strong streak of Pynchonian sillies.

And Gibson: Rereading Burning Chrome. Had forgotten how good some of these shorts are.

Houellebecq’s Whatever: its brevity, its succinctness gels with my nascent Kindle habits, or perhaps instructs my Kindle habits, or more likely creates my Kindle habits.

16. To return to a point in #13 above: The Kindle Fire necessarily imposes a uniform texture on every book that one reads on it; this would be true of any e-reader. Sure, you can change the background (white, black, or a sepia color, which is what I prefer), fonts, sizes, spacing, etc. — but there is no sense of physicality, of individual identity, of, dare I say it, specialness, to the texts. I am aware that these are terribly subjective and overtly Romantic terms, but hell, I like physical books. I like their covers and their smells and their discolorations. I like leaving bookmarks in every book that I finish or abandon—I almost always find a new bookmark for every book that I read (the autobookmark on the Kindle is useful, but how can it compare with a photograph of my son or drawing by my daughter or a postcard from a stranger or a scrap of poetry from a discontinued textbook or an old grocery list of my wife’s from years before we were married?).

17. I titled this post “A Riff on the Kindle Fire,” but that’s a bit ambiguous I suppose: I did not compose the post on the Kindle Fire, which I find awkward re: blogging/wordprocessing. I used a laptop (with some help from an iPhone). Maybe the preposition “about” would be more suitable.

18. By way of closing, after four weeks with the thing:

It’s light.

It’s convenient for night reading, but you probably shouldn’t take it in the bath.

No book smell.

The Lost Art of Reading — David L. Ulin

“One evening not long ago, my fifteen-year-old son, Noah, told me that literature was dead,” begins David L. Ulin’s new book-length essay, The Lost Art of Reading. Noah is not enjoying The Great Gatsby; or, perhaps more accurately, he’s not enjoying how his English teacher is having him analyze the book. Noah’s experience with Gatsby is probably not too different from many young readers who are told that they must appreciate a book, break it down, reckon and account for all of its subtleties — all in the context of a classroom, for a grade. Reading literature is just a means to an end then, a way to pass a class; unlike Ulin, who “frame[s] the world through books,” Noah’s “inner-life is entwined within the circuits of his laptop.” Noah’s pronouncement that literature is dead is fraught with cultural and technological significance. And while such declarations are hardly new, the idea that books — literary works in particular — not only do not hold the place they once did in our society, but now cannot hold a place of significance seems to hold more water than it did even ten years ago. Books are no longer the dominant media. Discourse is frenetic, fractured, shallow. Accordingly, Ulin subtitles his book Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time.

Gatsby — and Ulin’s conversations with his son about it — become organizing touchstones throughout the essay, along with Frank Conroy’s memoir Stop-Time, Faulkner’s obsession with time, and Thomas Paine’s Common Sense — a tract that Ulin points out might be “the most important book ever published in America.” It’s this consideration of Common Sense, along with his son’s declaration that lit is dead, that prompts Ulin to ask, “Could a book, any book, have this kind of impact in contemporary society? What about a movie or a website?” The questions continue–

How do things stick to us in a culture where information and ideas flare up so quickly that we have no time to assess one before another takes place? How does reading maintain its hold on our imagination, or is that question even worth asking anymore?

Ulin sets out to address these questions, drawing examples and analyses from a dizzying pool of books, websites, movies, and other media to do so. One of the highlights of The Lost Art of Reading is its confidence in defining reading as a meaningful art. Ulin tells us that–

Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves.

And a few pages later–

This is what literature, at its best and most unrelenting, offers: a slicing through of all the noise and the ephemera, a cutting to the chase. There is something thrilling about it, this unburdening, the idea of getting at a truth so profound that, for a moment anyway, we become transcendent in the fullest sense. I’m not talking here about posterity, which is its own kind of fantasy, in which we regard books as tombstones instead of souls. No, I’m thinking more of literature as a voice of pure expression, a cry in the dark.

And yet Ulin admits to becoming, increasingly, a distracted reader, a reader who too quickly puts down his book to pick up his laptop or smart phone. This distraction seems endemic, environmental, even professionally necessary — and admittedly very, very familiar. The costs are also familiar–

. . . to read, we need a certain kind of silence, an ability to filter out the noise. That seems increasingly elusive in our overnetworked society, where every buzz and rumor is instantly blogged and tweeted, and it is not contemplation we desire but an odd sort of distraction, distraction masquerading as being in the know. In such a landscape, knowledge can’t help but fall prey to illusion, albeit an illusion that is deeply seductive, with its promise that speed can lead us to more illumination, that it is more important to react than to think deeply, that something must be attached to every bit of time. Here, we have my reading problem in a nutshell, for books insist we take the opposite position, that we immerse, slow down.

It’s key to note that Ulin is hardly a Luddite or a reactionary; when he writes “my reading problem” this is not a generalization — he is referring to his first-person experience as a reader. He is also open to the ways in which new media enhances literature. He writes, for example, of the ways in which Facebook and other websites create virtual platforms in which to honestly engage literature. He also discusses times when one habit of distraction — stopping to reference what he’s reading on YouTube or elsewhere on the net (a habit I fully identify with) — genuinely enriches his reading. However, Ulin’s greater fear is not so much his own personal distraction, but the costs of a permanently distracted populace–

This is how we interact now, by mouthing off, steering every conversation back to our agendas, skimming the surface of each subject looking for an opportunity to spew. We see it on blogs and in e-mails, on television talk shows, in public meetings and community forums; we are a culture that seems unable to concentrate, to pursue a line of thought or tolerate a conflicting point of view.

Wallowing through the comments section of any politicized news story is pretty much a recipe for depression, or at least a loss of faith in Americans’ ability, as Fitzgerald says ” to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

I should admit my bias — Ulin had little work to do to convince me that a decline in “deep” reading — and meaningful, reflective discussion about that reading — can only further contribute to an increasingly shallow, trivial, and openly anti-intellectual society. So what is at stake here?–

Stories, after all — whether aesthetic or political — require sustained concentration; we need to approach them as one side of a conversation in which we play a part. If we don’t, we end up susceptible to manipulation, emotional or otherwise. In February 1946, Hermann Goering told the judges of the Nuremberg tribunal, ‘Naturally the common people don’t war . . . But, after all, it is the leaders of a country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or parliament, or a communist dictatorship. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.’ Such a statement is chilling on all sorts of levels, but nowhere more than in its recognition of the fact that we are complicit in our fate.

One solution for Ulin (and I’m apt to agree) is reading, “an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction, a matter of engagement in a society that seems to want nothing more than for us to disengage.” Best of all, Ulin’s book is the act of criticism — both cultural and literary — that makes one want to read. He reminds us that the currency of ideas is always open to us if we put in the effort, and that the moments of enlightenment, of transcendence that we might gain from literature are part of what makes a life worth living. Recommended.

The Lost Art of Reading is available now from Sasquatch Books.

“Books in the Age of the iPad” — Craig Mod

In his recent essay, “Books in the Age of the iPad,” Craig Mod distinguishes between “Formless” and “Definite” content:

Formless Content is is unaware of the container. Definite Content embraces the container as a canvas. Formless content is usually only text. Definite content usually has some visual elements along with text. Much of what we consume happens to be Formless. The bulk of printed matter — novels and non-fiction — is Formless.

Mod argues that the rise of e-readers like the Kindle and (presumably) the iPad are harbingers of a new age in reading, where both formless and, now, definite content might be readily (and easily) displayed. He makes a brash judgment:

The convenience of digital text — on demand, lightweight (in file size and physicality), searchable — already far trumps that of traditional printed matter.

Really? On demand? For whom? “On demand” here presupposes a number of conditions, first and foremost, that each person who wishes to enjoy this new medium has the economic means to do so. The projected retail cost of the iPad is currently $500, a price that does not include monthly ISP fees, let alone the prices of e-books and other e-texts. The Kindle retails now for about half the price of the iPad. Although these prices will certainly fall over time, it is difficult to imagine that the “convenience of digital text” will trump equitable access to “traditional printed matter” — particularly for families with multiple children (at least any time soon).

Mod makes some good points about the future of printed, physical books in the age of e-readers (or, the iPad, a device he seems to think will normalize the medium):

I propose the following to be considered whenever we think of printing a book:

  • The Books We Make embrace their physicality — working in concert with the content to illuminate the narrative.
  • The Books We Make are confident in form and usage of material.
  • The Books We Make exploit the advantages of print.
  • The Books We Make are built to last.

The result of this is:

  • The Books We Make will feel whole and solid in the hands.
  • The Books We Make will smell like now forgotten, far away libraries.
  • The Books We Make will be something of which even our children — who have fully embraced all things digital — will understand the worth.
  • The Books We Make will always remind people that the printed book can be a sculpture for thoughts and ideas.

Anything less than this will be stepped over and promptly forgotten in the digital march forward.

Goodbye disposable books.

Hello new canvases.

Books as aesthetic, durable objects — great idea. But books as relics, as things to recall the smell of “now forgotten, far away libraries”? Really? Libraries function as an important space in communities that transcend the mediums of information in those libraries. It’s almost downright scary to posit some kind of project-utopia where a library becomes “digitized.” Also — and again, much of what Mod suggests here is great — but also, who are “our children” who “have fully embraced all things digital”? In the current geopolitical climate, Mod’s line of thinking can only realistically apply to “First World” countries. Even in our own beloved United States, first among the “First World,” we have difficulty feeding all of our children or funding their educations. E-readers like the iPad or Kindle could presumably do much to ameliorate the burgeoning education gap, but recent efforts haven’t gained much momentum or praise.

It’s not that I disagree with (what I perceive to be) Mod’s overall thesis — that the iPad and successive e-readers will revolutionize how we read, access, and store information. I do, however, think that his rosy-toned enthusiasm has led to a number of blind spots in his article. Why should e-readers eliminate libraries? What, exactly, are “disposable books”? Who will have access to these “new canvases,” and in what capacity? Why the implicit presumption that digital storage of media is fail safe, easier than current methods, and more permanent?

Finally, my biggest problem with the piece is the simple assumption that any e-reader could be more comfortable than a paperback book. Mod addresses arguments like mine:

When people lament the loss of the printed book, this — comfort — is usually what they’re talking about. My eyes tire more easily, they say. The batteries run out, the screen is tough to read in sunlight. It doesn’t like bath tubs.

Mod responds to these arguments:

Important to note is that these aren’t complaints about the text losing meaning. Books don’t become harder to understand, or confusing just because they’re digital. It’s mainly issues concerning quality. One inevitable property of the quality argument is that technology is closing the gap (through advancements in screens and batteries) and because of additional features (note taking, bookmarking, searching), will inevitably surpass the comfort level of reading on paper.

While Mod’s point of meaning vs. quality (what I’d refer to as readability) is certainly right, his assumption that technology “will inevitably surpass the comfort level of reading on paper” is wholly unfounded and unsupported. It’s exactly the kind of teleological claim we see too often about technology — that technology always progresses to an inevitable, good, and superior end point. Still, Apple can feel free to send me an iPad and I’ll be sure to test my own assumptions on the issue, and redress them here if need be.

In Defense of Pressed Vegetation

Our pal Bobby Tomorrowland recently posted a blog that lamented the passing of a time “when brainy little monographs flew off the shelves at independent bookstores, when information was shared and consumed en masse via organic materials, pressed vegetation, before we turned our economy over to the pixel and set fire to the past.” I know that Bob is a bibliophile: we’ve swapped (and stolen) books from each other for years (Bob lately moved north with my unread copy of The Wind-up Bird Chronicles, exchanging a book of anthropo-mythological film criticism in its place). Still, I was nonetheless a little perturbed by Tomorrowguy’s use of the past-tense verb “was.” Bob clarified his point in the comments thread, writing that “there’s a bittersweet realization that the ledgers, tracts and statements of the future will likely emerge in virtual — not vegetable — form.” Now, sure, “will likely” is still conditional, but it also translates to “probably.” Does Bob really believe that paper books are to be consumed by the “fire of the past”? And where does he locate the sweetness ratio of of this “bittersweet realization”?

Websites and blogs give people the ability to communicate a message to a wide audience without the annoying mediation of an editor or the complications of distributing a physical product. Just as 7″ records, once the currency of underground music, have been displaced by mp3s, zines and “little magazines” are giving way to blogs. American newspapers, in competition with both TV and the internet, increasingly find themselves in economic trouble. Writers of every stripe scramble to praise Amazon’s new e-book reader, the Kindle. Clearly, a new type of literacy based on interfacing with screen media, will certainly be a necessary skill for those seeking “professional” or “white collar” jobs in the West, in the now, and in the future (Greg Ulmer, one of my former professors at the University of Florida has dubbed this skill “electracy“). I will grant Tom Orrowland this much. But his line of logic is specifically teleological, presuming a technologically progressive future, a future shared by everyone. What are the limits of this kind of tomorrowland? Does its horizon extend indefinitely into a promised land, where everyone–that is to say, all members of all cultures, of any imposed tier or hierarchy–share access to this future? Is it not possible to imagine a future of social and technological collapse, where hand-cranked presses must serve where pixels have failed? Or, to be less dramatically eschatological–and to return to Bobby’s original vegetation metaphor –are not handbills and fliers and pamphlets the vital stuff of grassroots movements? To be sure, the internet exists as a profoundly important coeval to the print medium, but is access and exposure to such movements to be only available to those with screen media?Is it so inconceivable people without access to machines could exist fifty or a hundred or two hundred years from now? A thousand? Is electracy in fact an evolutionary threat to literacy? Will hypertext cannibalize pressed vegetation?

Maybe I react this way because I truly love books–not just their contents, but the physical objects themselves, and the thought of a future without books is ugly to me. I love my local independent book store, and I visit it at least twice a month. I love the dizzying smell of a library, the sweet slow-rot of millions of pages. I also have a fondness for several independent presses out there today, publishers who understand that their audiences are genuine bibliophiles. Earlier this month, I gave props to Ursula LeGuin for her insightful recent essay “Staying Awake” in Harper’s. She wrote, and I quoted, and here requote:

The book itself is a curious artifact, not showy in its technology but complex and extremely efficient: a really neat little device, compact, often very pleasant to look at and handle, that can last decades, even centuries. It doesn’t have to be plugged in, activated, or performed by a machine; all it needs is light, a human eye, and a human mind. It is not one of a kind, and it is not ephemeral. It lasts. It is reliable. If a book told you something when you were fifteen, it will tell it to you again when you are fifty, though you may understand it so differently that it seems you’re reading a whole new book.

I couldn’t agree more. Her argument is both simple and profound. To underscore its simplicity, would you be willing to take your laptop or Kindle into the bath with you? How about a sandy beach? Could you imagine poring over a digital version of your favorite Eric Carle book with your young child? What about all the brilliant annotations and ephemeral marginalia doodlers such as myself impose on the text? Again, I’m not presuming that there won’t be water-resistant, beach-friendly, child-friendly, doodler-savvy media interfaces in the future. I can conceive of such a thing. Only I’m dubious. With any number of futuristic fibers available, people still wear organic materials like cotton and leather. We still frame our homes with wood. Many of us prefer to eat real food instead of the edible food-like substances that abound in grocery stores and convenience marts. In short, I think that humans have an affinity and comfort with “naturalistic” products, and I’m not sure if an e-book reader or computer screen will ever be able to replicate the feeling of curling up the couch with a well-loved book stolen from a friend.

Maybe I’m just a Luddite (for the record, I still think my Sony Walkman sounds ten times better than my portable mp3 player). Maybe I’ll be proven wrong, maybe even in just a few short months. Who knows? But I’d rather be cranky and old-fashioned than accept a future without books.