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Where Bat Ideas Come From

At the Bat-Computer

I’m enjoying Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, and already thinking about which chunks I will cannibalize for my history of science and technology class next semester. Good Ideas brings together themes that Johnson has been developing for years: the networked nature of innovation, the ingenuity of cities, the power of thinking across disciplines and scales. It’s a great read, as ingenious and beautifully written as all his stuff, although its wider scope makes it, to my mind, a little breezier and more lightweight than, say, The Ghost Map, which remains my favorite of Johnson’s books. I want to say this gently, because I think Johnson is terrific, but there is a whiff of the airport bookstore, if you know what I mean, around this business of “good ideas” and how to have more of them. Good Ideas shifts from the descriptive to the prescriptive in a way Ghost Map or Emergence or Invention of Air do not: you too can harness Charles Darwin’s seven secrets of info-lution! That’s probably a plus for some readers, but it’s not really what I came for. Still. I’m only part way into the book, and I trust Johnson to take me someplace smart and unexpected and cool.

I like to read related things in tandem (that’s one of the seven secrets, sort of), so as a bit of a counterweight I’m also reading John Durham Peters’ 2004 essay “The ‘Marketplace of Ideas’: A History of the Concept,” published in a collection called Toward a Political Economy of Culture. Johnson’s metaphors are more biological than economic–not a “marketplace” of ideas but a “coral reef”–but otherwise, Peters could have been talking about Johnson here:

Words are conceptual mausoleums, haunts at which the spirits of the dead continue their debates and threaten to possess the bodies of the unwary. Intellectual history can provide a selective exorcism … Taking the ‘marketplace’ as the central metaphor for public communication, as we will see, has divergent effects. It packs hefty semantic freight, suggesting that communication and economics are not only analogous but flourish when unregulated, that diversity is essential, and that exchange occurs in a “place” where people congregate and circulate, enter and exit at will. The term often wears the halo of what one might call the libertarian theodicy–the faith that ideas, if they are left to shift for themselves, will be diverse and truth will conquer error in the long run. It implies a rather disembodied vision of public communication, as if the politics of culture were governed by entities so Platonic as “ideas.”

Are all ideas good ones? Do The Origin of Species, a sexy new way to market music, and predicting the 9-11 attacks beforehand all come from the same place? Did Social Darwinism, CD packaging, and the 9-11 attacks themselves come from some different process?

All that aside, the real catalyst for this post was a throwaway reference in Good Ideas. Talking about Charles Babbage and the Difference Engine, Johnson writes:

For all its complexity, however, the Difference Engine was well within the adjacent possible of Victorian technology. The second half of the nineteenth century saw a steady stream of improvements to mechanical calculation, many of them building on Babbage’s architecture. … In 1884, an American inventor named William S. Burroughs founded the American Arithmometer Company to sell mass-produced calculators to businesses around the country. (The fortune generated by those machines would help fund his namesake grandson’s writing career, not to mention his drug habit, almost a century later.)

Did everybody else know about this? Digging into my old Suppressed Transmissions, I see Ken Hite mentioned Burroughs the elder back in 2002, damn his eyes. But there’s still crazy untapped hashpunk potential in the idea of “William S. Burroughs’ Difference Engine.” And get this: Wikipedia tells me that a Burroughs Corporation computer console appeared in the old Batman series as the Bat-Computer. Holy Dreamachine. I don’t know what’s weirder there: the Burroughs-Batman connection or that the Bat-Computer was a real computer. So. Conflate or combine the two William Burroughses and mix them up with William Gibson too. Posit a drug-fuelled information revolution in the late 19th century. Giant beetly arithmometers talking out of unpleasant looking orifices. Phallic zeppelins of Interzone. Predatory mugwumps stalking the back streets of Tangiers. And some time in the surreal century that follows, the scion of the Burroughs family (along with youthful ward Allen Ginsberg) dons a cape and mask to rid his city of crime. To the Beatmobile!

See? Darwin’s seven secrets of evo-vation are working already.

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Who Would Win?

Let’s try a demonstration, before this series on history at play gets any more high-falutin’ and theoretical than it already is.

Here is an exercise in playful historical thinking, based on years of professional training and SSHRC-funded research. You can do it yourself, right now, although like most forms of play it will be more fun and rewarding if you involve a friend or two. Ready?

Viking Warrior
Here we have a viking and a samurai. Let’s say they had a fight. Who would win? Why?

And here’s the multiplayer version: Find someone who disagrees with you. Try to convince them, while they try to convince you. Find evidence that supports your answer.

Impressive, no? Your tax dollars at work, Canadians.

But seriously, that right there is one of the basic building blocks of playful historical thinking.

Take a counterfactual question–as far as I know, vikings never fought samurai–and have at it. You can enter this debate with any level of starting knowledge, arguing solely from the evidence in the pictures (that samurai looks pretty fierce, but the viking has his buddies with him). Yet there is no bottom to the amount of evidence you could gather or the complexity of the arguments you could marshal on either side. You could talk about military tactics or metalworking technology. You could research the agricultural potential of Scandinavia or the codification of Bushido. You could spin out a whole saga in which a Nihonese armada devastates the Vinlander entrepots at “Perleshavn” and vengeful Norsemen go a-viking into the Inland Sea.

Here’s another version of the counterfactual game, with some anachronism thrown in for good measure:

You are a Justice on the United States Supreme Court. Cases come before you involving matters that the framers of the Constitution did not and could not have foreseen. Make decisions on these cases based on your interpretation of what the framers, and later legislators, would have wanted. Explain your reasoning.

Notice that the question “what would happen” is often a more open, engaging conversation starter than “what did happen” or even “why did this happen.” The practice, so natural to historians, of arguing about what really did happen can seem foreign or nonsensical to students and other non-professionals. It takes considerable training and acculturation to learn how historians argue about the actual past, or why anyone would want to do so.

The standard objections to counterfactual history don’t faze me much. I’m not arguing for professional monographs on alternate history, I’m just saying that counterfactual thinking is a potentially fruitful kind of historical play that people already enjoy and engage in all the time. (Some  arguments for counterfactual history don’t impress me much either, but that’s a different post.) It is not true that there is no way to judge or scrutinize counterfactual arguments. A teacher posing a counterfactual question to a class of students can still demand that they produce real-life evidence for their arguments, make analogies to actual history, and offer logical warrants for their claims. Plus we all have a highly developed sense of what is “realistic” or “plausible,” even when discussing outright fiction (cf the vigor with which fans critique the “realism” of Star Trek or what have you). The fact that we might disagree on what is “realistic,” or that real history itself is “implausible” at times, only ensures that we will have lots to talk about.

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Discover Kymaerica

The Believer on the Kcymaerxthaere:

The Kcymaerxthaere is a vast alternate universe created by Eames Demetrios, a California-based artist and filmmaker who began installing the plaques in 2003. The premise of the project is that the Kcymaerxthaere exists as its own parallel world, but its remnants are often visible in our own, “linear” world—intersections that Demetrios endeavors to commemorate by physically marking their presence.He has already installed over sixty of these faux historical markers, and hopes to increase that number to seventy by the year’s end. Most are in the United States (that is, Kymaerica), while others dot the globe, materializing in Singapore, Spain, Dubai, and Australia. This August, Demetrios even lowered a plaque onto the ocean floor, under forty-five feet of water in the Garvellach Islands of Scotland. In addition to the plaques, there are lectures, websites, travel guides (including Discover Kymaerica), and bus tours. … Demetrios calls the project “three-dimensional storytelling,” and says that he hopes to mark some two thousand sites before he is through.

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