I was at a conference called NewsFoo this past weekend. In sessions and in conversations throughout the event, folks shared a number of impressive or memorable cultural artifacts they'd encountered; I wrote down as many as I could. I often stupidly neglected to note who pointed out what. Where I've remembered the source, I've included her. Thanks to everyone who shared!
There are (at least) two different electronic editions of Paradise Lost on Project Gutenberg. The first, produced by Judy Boss and released in October 1991, was Project Gutenberg EBook #20. If you do an internet search for “project gutenberg paradise lost,” this is probably the edition you’ll find.
The second, Project Gutenberg EBook #26, was released in February 1992. This is a curiously short interval, particularly considering that there’d only been 25 ebooks encoded and released by Project Gutenberg in the 20+ years it had existed, and there are (when you stop to count them) many more books in the English language that were available. Even Milton fanatics would probably agree that this was a little early in a mass digitization project to start doubling up.
It turns out, though, that EBook #26 is special. In fact, it merits a special unsigned introduction by Project Gutenberg. By contrast, Boss’s 1991 edition doesn’t have an introduction. Instead, it has a totally charming disclaimer:
All persons concerned disclaim any and all reponsbility
that this etext is perfectly accurate. No pretenses in
any manner are made that this text should be thought of
as an authoritative edition in any respect.
This book was TYPED in by Judy Boss
firstname.lastname@example.org on Internet
eng003@unoma1 on Bitnet
(Judy now has a scanner)
Perfect, right? No authority, just a little signature of the scribe. “Judy made this.” Now she has a scanner.
Ebook #26 needs more context. Here’s the introduction:
This is the February 1992 Project Gutenberg release of:
Paradise Lost by John Milton
The oldest etext known to Project Gutenberg (ca. 1964-1965)
(If you know of any older ones, please let us know.)
Introduction (one page)
This etext was originally created in 1964-1965 according to Dr.
Joseph Raben of Queens College, NY, to whom it is attributed by
Project Gutenberg. We had heard of this etext for years but it
was not until 1991 that we actually managed to track it down to
a specific location, and then it took months to convince people
to let us have a copy, then more months for them actually to do
the copying and get it to us. Then another month to convert to
something we could massage with our favorite 486 in DOS. After
that is was only a matter of days to get it into this shape you
will see below. The original was, of course, in CAPS only, and
so were all the other etexts of the 60’s and early 70’s. Don’t
let anyone fool you into thinking any etext with both upper and
lower case is an original; all those original Project Gutenberg
etexts were also in upper case and were translated or rewritten
many times to get them into their current condition. They have
been worked on by many people throughout the world.
In the course of our searches for Professor Raben and his etext
we were never able to determine where copies were or which of a
variety of editions he may have used as a source. We did get a
little information here and there, but even after we received a
copy of the etext we were unwilling to release it without first
determining that it was in fact Public Domain and finding Raben
to verify this and get his permission. Interested enough, in a
totally unrelated action to our searches for him, the professor
subscribed to the Project Gutenberg listserver and we happened,
by accident, to notice his name. (We don’t really look at every
subscription request as the computers usually handle them.) The
etext was then properly identified, copyright analyzed, and the
current edition prepared.
To give you an estimation of the difference in the original and
what we have today: the original was probably entered on cards
commonly known at the time as “IBM cards” (Do Not Fold, Spindle
or Mutilate) and probably took in excess of 100,000 of them. A
single card could hold 80 characters (hence 80 characters is an
accepted standard for so many computer margins), and the entire
original edition we received in all caps was over 800,000 chars
in length, including line enumeration, symbols for caps and the
punctuation marks, etc., since they were not available keyboard
characters at the time (probably the keyboards operated at baud
rates of around 113, meaning the typists had to type slowly for
the keyboard to keep up).
This is the second version of Paradise Lost released by Project
Gutenberg. The first was released as our October, 1991 etext.
This is honest-to-goodness digital humanism, from start to finish. 113 baud keyboards. IBM punch cards. All caps and no punctuation — like a real Latin text! (In 1964, at least you had spaces between words and periods for the ends of sentences, I guess.) Tapping it out, in many hands, knowing that the number of people likely to even know what they’ve done is probably going to be limited to a handful.
Then in the early nineties, a new generation of digital humanists hears whispered rumors about this file and its editor. Then, after months of persuasion and conversion, “another month to convert to something we could massage with our favorite 486 in DOS.”
Meanwhile, the text itself has actually been recreated by a new editor/typist, working alone. But Project Gutenberg — probably Michael Hart himself — still recreates the text. To maintain that chain unbroken with the past.
When Michael Hart passed away in September, he was hailed as the “inventor of the ebook.” But Hart himself doubtlessly knew better.
He wasn’t the first to type a text into a computer. He didn’t even know who had been, if it was Joseph Raben and his typist(s) or someone else.
Hart didn’t invent the ebook. He invented something more: the place where these digital books and their editors’ names and stories could be preserved and shared. He invented a library; he invented an ark.
I was also pretty skeptical when I started running. I was no athlete. In high school, I thought the days we had to run a mile in gym class equated to corporal punishment.
At the time I started running, I was living in Fresno. I had nothing resembling an “exercise routine.” I would on occasion find myself in the tiny “gym” in my apartment complex, pushing some machine back and forth for half-an-hour until I felt I’d filled a quota. And I was perfectly satisfied with this.
What I wasn’t satisfied with was my iPod. Poynter had given it to me as a parting gift when I left the Institute for Fresno the previous summer. And as delighted as I was with the thing, I hadn’t found any good time to use it. My ride to work was too short; I needed my ears free for the workday; and I usually ate lunch with friends from the paper.
One beautiful fall afternoon, I happened to arrive home early from work to find my iPod staring at me, guilting me out over not enjoying the gorgeous weather. I decided to create an iTunes playlist including some of my favorite weather-appropriate songs, and load the playlist onto the iPod. I figured I’d go outside and walk, but the blocks immediately surrounding my North Fresno apartment complex weren’t the most soul-stirring things. A sudden impulse presented itself: why not jog for a spell? Moving faster, I’d see a bit more of the neighborhood, and possibly discover some previously unseen scenery. No obvious counterarguments presented themselves, so I strapped on the closest running-shoe equivalents I could find in my closet, booted up the iPod, and stepped out.
I made a few key promises to myself as I walked out of the gates of the complex. I recommend these to you:
1) Go slower than you think you should. I had no interest in setting speed records, and I wasn’t really even all that concerned about elevating my heart rate.
2) Turn back when you know you’ve got more than half your energy left. I figured I’d probably jog about 10-15 minutes, and that I could always walk if I overestimated my stamina.
So I started my trot. Nothing magical happened, but the music paired with the scenery was pretty nice. And when I got back home, I wasn’t all that tired. It was pleasant, in its way.
So I went back out, the morning after next – a tiny bit farther, a tiny bit faster. The early morning adrenaline was a treat, and I found myself starting to love the way the pace let you appreciate the scenery – more varied than a walk, more unhurried than a bike ride. And my music mix was the *best.* So I went out again.
Before I realized what was happening, I *loved* running. I craved it. I couldn’t do enough of it. There was always one gorgeous instant when I’d pass over railroad tracks and a grove of walnut trees, typically shrouded in an early-morning fog. (This was where the grove used to be; it’s since given way to development.)
By the time I got to Minneapolis – a runner’s paradise – there was little more miraculous to me than an early morning run around a beautiful lake. Soon, I was going on 6-mile runs, three times a week. I didn’t even need the music anymore. It’s impossible to describe how peaceful it is to run around a frozen lake before dawn, warmed by your own breath inside a balaclava, all the sound in the air absorbed by the snow around you, the white ground glowing beneath a dark sky.
My books are better thought about than read. They’re insanely dull and unreadable; I mean, do you really want to sit down and read a year’s worth of weather reports or a transcription of the 1010 WINS traffic reports “on the ones” (every ten minutes) over the course of a twenty-four-hour period? I don’t. But they’re wonderful to talk about and think about, to dip in and out of, to hold, to have on your shelf. In fact, I say that I don’t have a readership, I have a thinkership. I guess this is why what I do is called “conceptual writing.” The idea is much more important than the product…
My favorite books on my shelf are the ones that I can’t read, like Finnegans Wake, The Making of Americans, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, or The Arcades Project. I love the idea that these books exist. I love their size and scope; I adore their ambition; I love to pick them up, open them at random, and always be surprised; I love the fact that I will never know them. They’ll never go out of style; they’re timeless; they’re always new to me. I wanted to write books just like these. I think you hit it just right when you spoke of reference books. I never wanted my books to be mistaken for poetry or fiction books; I wanted to write reference books. But instead of referring to something, they refer to nothing. I think of them as ’pataphysical reference books.
For more on pataphysics (which I don’t think really needs that apostrophe), aka “the science of imaginary solutions,” read this.
I’ve made a move in the Luddite direction recently by trying to remove UbuWeb from Google. I want the site to be more underground, more word-of-mouth. The only way you’ll be able to find it is if someone links to it or tells you about it, just like music used to be before MTV. But you’ll still find UbuWeb on all the bad search engines that no one uses: AltaVista, Dogpile, and Yahoo! Again, everyone wants to rush toward the center: they even write books about how to get your Google ranking higher. We’re headed in the opposite direction. We want to get off Google.
But actually, even if you go back to that 2005 essay, it has this gorgeous coda, under the subhed “The New Radicalism”:
In concluding, I’m going to drop a real secret on you. Used to be that if you wanted to be subversive and radical, you’d publish on the web, bypassing all those arcane publishing structures at no cost. Everyone would know about your work at lightening speed; you’d be established and garner credibility in a flash, with an adoring worldwide readership.
Shhhh… the new radicalism is paper. Right. Publish it on a printed page and no one will ever know about it. It’s the perfect vehicle for terrorists, plagiarists, and for subversive thoughts in general. In closing, if you don’t want it to exist — and there are many reasons to want to keep things private — keep it off the web.
Something to think about, when you’re too busy not reading.
This guest post by writer, photographer, and Friend of the Snark Quinn Norton is part of Border Town Online, a digital complement to the Border Town Design Studio which will be on display in Detroit starting on September 21st. You can find the rest of the posts at dividedcities.com.
(Let’s just get the silly literary allusion stuff out of the way. Yes, in this Bordertown essay I’m talking about Gerlach and Burning Man, but they’re standing in for the interstitials of modern life and the internet, because we all live in that bordertown now, and frankly, we’re still kind of crap at dealing with it. But Gerlach/Burning Man and IRL/the intartubes are also sometimes synecdoches for the tension between physical need vs the life of the mind. You get deconstructionist bonus points for spotting when, but don’t ask me, because I probably don’t know that much better than you, and intend to lie anyway. HTH, HAND.)
Sometime in the 1970s either Leslie Nielsen, or someone that sounded remarkably like him, did the voiceover of a video about the tiny and worn-down mining town of Gerlach, Nevada. It began, intoned with the solemnity of biblical tragedy or spaghetti westerns, “The town of Gerlach, Nevada endures alone in the vast alkali flats of the Black Rock Desert.” The residents were poor, but hardy and proud. Even then it was already fighting impending death, sitting at the edge of a desert with none of the resources that make modern human lives possible, its little train station on the transcontinental cargo arterial rendered obsolete by the growth of the world around it and by technology. “It’s second best, if you like a rough life,” said one of the residents, the woman who ran the hotel. The video is grainy, low-res, and degraded, in a way that feels true to the subject.
But Gerlach survived, meeting the needs of its dusty people in the coming decades, with gypsum mining, dribbles of tourism, and fixed income retirees. Then, somewhere in the 1990s, Gerlach became a transit town, the last outpost before the edge of this world. Gerlach gave up its position as the last stop before the Black Rock Desert to an intruding municipality seven miles further down the road: Black Rock City.
The line between Gerlach and its neighbor isn’t merely one of land management. It’s one of the most tightly controlled borders in the world, with 24/7 monitoring of ground radar that can pick up a coke can bouncing in the wind, and interstitial agents can be dispatched to check it out within minutes. Access is tightly controlled, vehicles entering are searched. It is actively patrolled by three, sometime four agencies of the law, and even more agents and actors of the city itself. This is what happens at the edge of Black Rock City, home for one week a year to Burning Man. The perimeter of Burning Man is not just a border, it’s a kind of magical frame for the city, what modern man needs to hold the contours of inverted custom, a wellspring of creative madness. It keeps the bodies inside safe, and the minds outside sane.
What is custom in BRC is madness in Gerlach, and vice versa. But they must get along, or it’s likely both municipalities will die. There is animosity, interdependence, the need to be so close they can almost touch, but never risk mingling identities, because Gerlach and Black Rock City are meant to be dichotomous. One is permanent, the other ephemeral. One is an expression of mighty infrastructure, a daughter of commerce; the other, self-generated and money is against custom. The two are trapped in the high energy state of tense borders, conflicted and needful. If you are used to the Gerlachian world, nothing but going can really explain Black Rock City. But Burning Man becomes natural so quickly, because it’s a place of imagination, directly linked to our internal worlds. It is city and deep playa, man and temple, music, sex, and places to cry. Old naked men you’ve never met welcome you home. It is sparkly and glows at night, it has plenty of pain and meanness, and people fight. It is full of actual, non-metaphorical fire, and if you’re used to the safety rail culture of modern life, it dawns on you slowly that no one out here will stop you from stupidly killing yourself.
In the run up to Burning Man and the week you are there, you may, for the first time, put a value on your own life. Burning Man will look for ways to push you. It is full of secret gardens: some sublime, some comfortingly dull, some downright Boschian. You are responsible for your own moral development on the playa; you have no one to blame for your experience. Barring the occasional violence of all cities, you always had the option of walking away, going out from the city, into the darkness and safety of the deep playa. You didn’t have to take that pill, no one made you kiss that boy, and no one can ever take it away. If Gerlach is a place where the work of survival requires the books be balanced, the outer world placated in exchange for support, Black Rock City pushes its citizens into a state mental agility that exceeds their native frame of mind. Burners learn to cultivate serendipity; they come to harness it, and ride it towards the next distant light.
Somewhere, sometimes, in the deep playa you can find a place called the Dust City Diner. It is best found in a mild dust storm, by following the clinking of thick cheap china, and the sound of greasy spoon waitresses calls of “Order up!” Surrounded by nothing but the sterile, basic playa, you will find a small diner bar with red pleather stools. If you sit down on the stools a woman, sometimes chewing gum, will say, “What can I getcha?” All around is the corpse of a sea that died before the first human made a linguistic mark on a piece of bark, or clay, or in charcoal on a stone cave, before the first time imagination was snatched from ephemerality. Now this dream sits on it, ephemeral still but captured, mediated, contained for the outer world.
Not the actual Dust City Diner, but you've got the right idea.
You can order coffee at the Dust City Diner. You can get a very good grilled cheese sandwich. You can talk to the man seated next to you about the things you’ve done so far today. He might be naked, or if it’s a Tuesday, he might be wearing only a tutu. The sandwich will really be much better then it has any right to be, but everything will taste a bit of dust. You may hear dance music in the distance, but getting louder. Eventually you will work out this is a three masted wooden sailing ship, running so low on an old car it looks to be floating across the fine white playa. Dozens of people, sparkling and many in tutus, are on the deck, dancing. This is also normal.
Beyond the diner and the ship is the trash fence, the border of Black Rock City. Outside the fence is the perimeter, and beyond that, nothing. playa the stretches for a 100 miles, soundless and barren, a landscape of pure physical need, and without the trappings of civilization, absolute danger. In the other direction is Gerlach, Empire, Reno, and all of real life. This is the psychogeography of Black Rock City: trapped between mortality and reality.
Wednesday night we biked along Birthday, near 4, looking for something we never found. A man in a trench coat ran nearly in front of my bike, screaming in exasperation that we were both late. We glanced at each other in trepidation for a moment, and pulled off into his camp. “Wardrobe!” he yelled, in between admonishing out tardiness and expressing an extreme relief that we were there at all, “WARDROBE! Get them into costume!” Moments later we were both wearing fedoras, and I another trench coat. They pulled us into the set of a 1930s private detective’s office. I was seated behind the desk, surrounded by incandescent lights, scattered typed pages, books, cigarettes, matchboxes, and a full crew. I heard theme music, a lonely sax, which may not have been real. Everything was dusty, but it wasn’t playa anymore, now it was the dust of troubled neglect. The playa was ten feet away, but it could have been miles. A crew member ran in front of me with a giant pad of cue cards with our lines on them. Turned out I had pictures of my friend’s wife, cheating on him.
She’s just no good.
What can I tell you, Kid?
You’re right. When you’re
right, you’re right, and
I was Jack Nicholson at the beginning of Chinatown. Our scene continued only a couple of minutes, and the crew broke into applause and pats on the back. “You were great, you were perfect!” our director effused, still full of Hollywood. The matchbooks had the password to their speakeasy on the back. We returned later, to a dimly lit bar with more sax and piano, this time definitely real. They gave us excellent Manhattans, and we sat at a round cafe table, legs tucked under a floral tablecloth, munching at mixed nuts and watching the detectives wander by and chat.
Both BRC and Gerlach testify to a common quality; they are both expressions of human effort. These worlds are a lot of work. Gerlach and Burning Man share another tragedy; you will never really know either of them. Gerlach is hidden by your disinterest. You are trying to get through it, either to or from Burning Man. You suspect the locals hate burners. (You’re right.) Some sense of social propriety makes you think maybe trying to get to know Gerlach is impolite, because you’re a freak, and getting to know them is also thrusting yourself upon them. You can’t easily get the things you need most as you’re passing through, which are gas, and an Indian taco. You can’t even say “Indian taco” without feeling a little guilty, especially this close to the res. But by god, you do want one. You’re driving through the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Reservation, and you won’t know it, either. Thousands of years of history that make this country what it is, likely formed your character — the story of the genocide that made the world is here, but there’s no chance you’ll find it, because it’s underneath normal life and you need to get somewhere, either back to your life or out to BRC.
Conditions of life in Black Rock City, as found on the back of the ticket.
You will never see all of Burning Man. If you had a year, you’d never see all of it, and you only have a week. You can’t go to all the parties you’d enjoy the hell out of. Your soul mate is likely out there this year, and you almost certainly won’t run into them. You probably won’t fly in an airplane over the event, even if you know it’s not hard to get a ride at the airport. You not only won’t have all the experiences you could, you won’t even have all the ones you planned on. You will not find the friends you planned to see, and will miss even more friends than that. You will not see a fight at Thunderdome, despite promising yourself that this is the year, damn it. You will run over to climb up inside the Man too late, and it will already be blocked off as people are hauling explosives and accelerants into it. You will miss the artwork your friends made, and you will regret this. but when you tell them this, you will sound like a disingenuous asshole because you’re simply too overwhelmed by that point to sound like you care. You will miss events you really wanted to make, because you were at camp exclaiming that you were bored. You will fall in and out of love several times. You will do things you never imagined yourself doing, and miss other things because of that fact, while extricating yourself from a shade structure converted to a pleasure palace. You will not be able to bring yourself to regret it. You will miss precious things. You will cuss at the weather, and the fucking hippies, and the fucking sparkle ponies. You will know, finally, totally, that the best things and perfect moments are beyond the reach of your time, dribbling into the oblivion of the past, possibly while you were hunting around for your spork. There’s a term for this anxiety at Burning Man, this unease that arises from that which is unseen, from the ghosts of the future missed rather then the past dead. It’s FOMS — fear of missing something. The trick, and this is a very important trick indeed, is to learn that this is OK. This is how you make a life. You miss things, you reach into the river, grab what you can carry, and let the rest go. Instead of finding the best in the infinite out there, you craft an experience one moment chained to the next, made of choices, and appreciated as your own masterpiece, singular in all the world. You feel it all out there, in its tremendous bounty and wonder, and you trust your fellow burners to drink in what you can’t.
Ticket to IRL, the default world.
It is not easy to leave Black Rock City. The process is called Exodus, and it can involve a whole work day’s worth of waiting, ass in car seat, in the line to get back to the paved earth, back on the narrow two lane highway that took you here. People run out of gas, water, patience. You have to work Burning Man, and you’re working right up to the moment you make the left turn onto the highway. Once you’re back on that highway, you will find a plethora of shabby temporary stands have popped up along the side of the road to offer you everything from Indian tacos to trash dumping ($5 per bag, less for sorted recycling), drinks, bicycle rental returns for your dust covered bikes, and even blessed showers. All of it yours, now exchangeable for precious money. You’ll see trash dumped on the side of the road, something exceedingly rare at Burning Man, because of the banal indifference foreigners always have to the little towns, like Gerlach, they pass through. You will feel bad about this, or at least know you should.
Conditions of living in modern life.
The process of coming back out through Gerlach, Empire, and Reno and coming back to the “default world” has a name among burners: decompression. It can be rather like the bends in some ways. The customs are different out here, and you’ll have to remember them. You must remember to stay dressed, and in mostly normal clothes. There’s no dust; you’ll shower more, pick your nose less, and not start every meal with whisky. The next week will be hard. You won’t get enough done. The default world is not about how you feel, or even what you can build; it’s about where you are and what you’re supposed to be doing. There’s a kind of a relief in this; radical self-reliance and radical self-expression have a lot of self in them, and it’s good to not have the whole world you’re called upon to inhabit be about what you and you friends like. It is deeply unhealthy to have your main responsibility be making an experience that is only for you. Back in the real world, you’ll need to have something required of you by others. It’s good to not care so much about what’s in your own head. But nevertheless, you try to carry the mind of Black Rock City home with you. To be a full person this day and age, you have to live in both places at once, alternating, meshed, and distinct.
Justin, who barely spoke until he was 10, falls roughly in the middle of the spectrum of social impairments that characterize autism, which affects nearly one in 100 American children. He talks to himself in public, has had occasional angry outbursts, avoids eye contact and rarely deviates from his favorite subject, animation. His unabashed expression of emotion and quirky sense of humor endear him to teachers, therapists and relatives. Yet at 20, he had never made a true friend.
There’s a tremendous gap between stories of children on the autism spectrum and stories of adults. (There’s a great joke that goes something like: Something magical happens to the autistic when we turn 21; we disappear.)
Stories of problems affecting children always draw a bigger response than those affecting adults. Remember AIDS and Ryan White? Thinking about someone as a victim and thinking about them as a problem are equally, well, problematic. But it is usually better to be a victim, and to be as pure and sympathetic a victim as possible.
There is also an imagination gap. Most readers of newspapers and consumers of serious media are typical, healthy, middle-class adults. They sympathize best with fates that are either totally fantastic or resemble their own. Most people find it easier to imagine being the parent of an autistic child. They find it harder to imagine being autistic and struggling with the problems of autistic adults themselves.
For my part, I am the former, and I find the latter extremely easy. Partly because of my son, and partly because of me.
The family had been living in Europe, where Briant had a promising career in international business and Maria Teresa, the daughter of a Brazilian diplomat, had embraced an expatriate lifestyle.
It’s hard to talk about autism without talking about class. It’s a developmental disorder that appears to disproportionately fall in successful families with histories of Aspy-like behavior. But it’s also almost impossible to tell how much this indicates a certain kind of hereditability and how much class affects diagnosis.
Autistic children with rich/educated parents will often get an Asperger’s diagnosis even if their children don’t fall under the traditional (and compared to the overwhelmingly broad Autism Spectrum Disorder, fairly specific) diagnostic rubric of Asperger’s.
The CW says that if you’re going to have a diagnosis, it’s great to have Asperger’s. Bill Gates and the anthropologist on Bones might have Asperger’s. Asperger’s still gets you access to services, but doesn’t mean you’re staring down a much more crippling disorder. “Autism,” on the other hand, is still a scary word.
Meanwhile, if you’re broke or have less education, your child’s more likely to go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, and to be treated as slow or mentally retarded. And even if you get the “right” diagnosis, the kinds of therapies offered and your ability to take advantage of them will vary wildly depending on your resources. Maybe especially time.
This is all to say that just as autism stories overwhelmingly focus on children, not adults, they also overwhelmingly focus on the wealthy, not the poor or near-poor. And the link between autism and poverty is extraordinary once a child becomes an adult — what “independence” means in that context is very different.
This is also to say that while all these additional considerations are important, fuck that shit. Because autism does cut across class and race and gender and sexual identity and physical ability, etc. And because of that, it changes what we mean by diversity, what kinds of diversity count, what diversity we ought to care about, and how we think about all of these issues of identity and privilege taken all together.
Justin’s aide braced herself when he raised his hand one day in a class that had focused for several months on Africa. The students had just finished reading a book on apartheid.
“Mr. Moore,” Justin complained, “I’m tired of learning about sad black people.”
Aha! As part of the ongoing rehabilitation of my Google Reader, I have just done two thing:
Pruned my feeds significantly, dropping many (many!) that were long-dead. The RSS snake sheds its skin.
Essentially “reprogrammed” the star to save the image from a post to Dropbox. This is super-cool, because at least half of my a-ha moments in Google Reader come from great (or weird) images, but I find Google Reader itself a totally lame archival system. (Also, I just really like to browse images in the OS X Finder—it’s so fast and fluid.)
How did I do that second part? It’s thanks to ifttt—read: if this, then that—a site that my polymath colleague Isaac turned me on to this week. Think of it as Yahoo! Pipes with a much simpler, more declarative interface. Or, if that analogy is impenetrable, think of it as a way to wire up different tools on the web, so that (for instance) when you post a new photo to Instagram, ifttt can also archive it to Dropbox, or when Yahoo! Weather calls for rain, ifttt can send you a text message.
Bless the toolmakers… but I’m worried that everybody wants to be one.
You look at the celebration of Steve Jobs and his Apple Inc., and you see a celebration of tools. “One of the things that separates us from high primates,” Jobs said long ago, “is that we’re tool builders.” In the next breath he made his great analogy: a computer is “a bicycle for our minds.” Classic, and true.
A whole lot of incredibly smart young men who want to be the next Steve Jobs, and
a whole lot of tools.
This is the reigning model for startups: make a tool and scale it up. The tool’s potential users can be rich (e.g. Salesforce) or they can be numerous (e.g. YouTube) or they can be rich and numerous (e.g. the iPhone) but any way you go, you are always a step removed from the object of attention. You are not the deal, you are not the Lil’ Wayne video, you are not the flirty text message. You are the facilitator, you are the mediator, you are the vessel.
What’s the relationship between a toolmaker and a tool user? I wonder about this a lot. I mean, when I read about Steve Jobs’ illness, I think of him with care and gratitude, and I echo Dan Sinker:
Steve Jobs had a hand in every tool that made me who I am. Forever indebted and in awe.
But… I don’t think about Steve Jobs when I’m using my MacBook. I don’t think about Thomas Knoll when I’m using Photoshop. I don’t think about the sublime inventor of the kitchen table (her name lost to history) when I sit here at mine. (I don’t think about the Ikea designer who made this particular model, either.)
Now switch from tools to media.
When I read The Anthologist, I am not really thinking about Nicholson Baker, either. Sure, I think about him when I read the book review and when I flip to the title page, but after that, I’m in the story. But!—I’m going to argue that Nicholson Baker is there with me, in my head, in a much fuller and more direct way than Thomas Knoll is with me when I’m using Photoshop.
Certainly with music, the case is even clearer: the artist’s presence (often literally her voice) is fully and directly felt. Music, especially pop music, imposes itself. It says: I am here with you now!
Now, personally, that relationship is what I’m after. I imagine two scenarios—one where I write a story that 10,000 people read and another where I build a tool that 100,000 people use—and the first is infinitely more appealing.
I want, frankly, to impose myself.
So when it comes to toolmaking… I just don’t understand it. Of course, I understand that these markets exist—markets for sales CRM, markets for video-viewing, markets for personal communication and status-signaling gadgetry. I just can’t understand wanting to be the person who serves them.
“There is a great satisfaction in building good tools for other people to use,” Freeman Dyson said. I’m supremely glad he feels that satisfaction, and I’m glad so many other toolmakers do, too.
But, is there a chance… just a small one… that today, in the world of startups and internet technology, too many people are making too many tools?
Even as I type it, my fingers recoil, because it sounds like such heresy. The internet is nothing but tools, built and shared. Glory to Github! We need more of this stuff, not less! … Right?
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by… toolmaking?
It actually makes me think of the way that consulting used to be such a scourge on the undergraduate landscape, sucking up all of the ambitious, flexible minds because it was prestigious and remunerative and in a way easy. Maybe it’s absurd to think we lost novelists and musicians to McKinsey… but I think we did.
Today, if you’re a person with the toolmaking talent, you actually have a lot of options, of which making a web platform or a framework are just a couple. If you possess the skills to make powerful tools, you’ve got one up on Archimedes. “Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the earth,” he said. You, the toolmaker, can make your own place.
What do I mean?
Think of the electronic musician BT, who for years has enjoyed the advantage of a signature stuttering sound effect that he coded himself. This year, he finally decided to share his software, to put it up for sale—but you can bet he’s already working on the next great effect for his own music. It’s a competitive artistic advantage. (I mean, the dude knows Csound. Nobody knows Csound!)
Or think of Pixar, the Great Toolmaker’s side project. They sell movies, not tools, but the movies wouldn’t be possible without the tools that Pixar and Pixar alone possesses. Pixar is a place where brilliant toolmakers work for a tiny user-base: the artists across the hall. That partnership, and the feedback loop between tool and user that it permits, produces jaw-dropping results.
So I wish more people were making tools for a specific creative purpose rather than for general consumer adoption. I wish more people were making tools that very intentionally do not scale—tools with users by the dozen. Tools you experience not through a web signup form, but through pathbreaking creative work.
I guess I want fewer aspirational Apples and more Pixar wannabes.
Bless the toolmakers. I’m definitely not complaining here, just thinking out loud, and wondering about this kind of person, the way you might wonder about a world-class tennis player or a wandering ascetic: How can you do that? What makes you want to get out of bed in the morning? It is honestly inscrutable to me.
But I also wonder if there are some toolmakers out there right now who feel some of the same doubt. Carried along by the current of conventional (startup) wisdom and, of course, the promise of a great scalable payout, they are busy making a web-based tool for collaborative something-or-other. But in the back of their brains, something feels wrong. Some ambition is left unfulfilled.
Here’s what I say: Come on over. Come join the side that makes books and music and movies. There are great rewards here, too, but not enough toolmakers. We need you.
The other day on Twitter, I had a particularly silly/dorky Steve Jobs tweet become crazy popular, like a thousand retweets popular. So — being again, particularly silly and dorky myself — decided to pull some of my most popular tweets into a Storify to try to discern a pattern (if any).
BIG PATTERN: People love pop culture references. But my Twitter feed (and probably yours) regularly ABOUNDS in pop culture references. So that actually turns out not to have a ton of explanatory value on its own.
SMART PATTERN: What people really seem to love are oblique, unexpected pop culture references that hit a particular niche. They’re tweets that say: “this message was only for you; now share it with everyone you know.”
BIG PATTERN #2: People definitely respond in a big way to big news events. If something is going on that’s happening in real-time, the retweet button gets a workout.
SMART PATTERN #2: The problem with big events is that everybody’s tweeting and retweeting everything. Which is fine! It’s good! But at the same time, some sort of conceptual scoop that shines a light on something different about what’s happening adds more value.
BIG PATTERN #3: People love anything that reminds them of their childhood. SMART PATTERN #3: I love anything that reminds me of my childhood. And that Proustian love is a propulsive force that drives me to write better sentences.
He had never dwelled on memory’s delights. Impressions slid over him, vivid but ephemeral. A potter’s vermilion; the heavens laden with stars that were also gods; the moon, from which a lion had fallen; the slick feel of marble beneath slow sensitive fingertips; the taste of wild boar meat, eagerly torn by his white teeth; a Phoenician word; the black shadow a lance casts on yellow sand; the nearness of the sea or of a woman; a heavy wine, its roughness cut by honey–these could fill his soul completely…
Gradually now the beautiful universe was slipping away from him. A stubborn mist erased the outline of his hand, the night was no longer peopled by stars, the earth beneath his feet was unsure. Everything was growing distant and blurred. When he knew he was going blind he cried out; stoic modesty had not yet been invented and Hector could flee with impunity. I will not see again, he felt, either the sky filled with mythical dread, or this face that the years will transform. Over this desperation of his flesh passed days and nights. But one morning he awoke; he looked, no longer alarmed, at the dim things that surrounded him; and inexplicably he sensed, as one recognizes a tune or a voice, that now it was over and he had faced it, with fear but also with joy, hope, and curiosity. Then he descended into his memory, which seemed to him endless, and up from that vertigo he succeeded in bringing forth a forgotten recollection that shone like a coin under the rain, perhaps because he had never looked at it, unless in a dream.
In grave amazement he understood. In this night too, in this night of his mortal eyes into this he was now descending, love and danger were again waiting. Ares and Aphrodite, for already he divined (already it encircled him) a murmur of glory and hexameters, a murmur of men defending a temple the gods will not save, and of black vessels searching the sea for a beloved isle, the murmur of the Odysseys and Iliads it was his destiny to sing and leave echoing concavely in the memory of man. These things we know, but not those that he felt when he descended into the last shade of all.
From “El Hacedor (The Maker),” a story about the blindness and insight of Homer — both of which Borges shared.