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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 sometime 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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The Secret Origin of Canada

John Ralston Saul’s A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada is a beautiful book, and it makes an appealing argument which I would really like to be true. Canada, Saul argues, is not a British nation or a French nation but a Métis nation, profoundly if unconsciously shaped by Aboriginal ideas. Almost everything that is distinctive or admirable about Canadian society–modesty, pragmatism, respect for diversity, negotiation and compromise, a comfort with constant tension between individuals and groups–comes, he says, from Aboriginal roots.

Some raised their eyebrows at this argument. Some did considerably more than that. Not long after A Fair Country came out, I was at a fancy sort of dinner where I mentioned the book to a gravelly-voiced veteran reporter from one of Canada’s major newspapers. He was totally excellent–gruff, profane, and hilarious, my Platonic ideal of a gravelly-voiced veteran reporter. I said, “I don’t know that Saul proves his thesis, but it’s a really appealing argument.” He said, “If you can find six other Canadians that believe it, I’ll [eat my hat].” Except he didn’t say “eat”, “my”, or “hat”, and I did a laughing spit take that sprayed daikon sprouts and golden beet soup all over the assembled dignitaries.

The way I prefer to interpret this book is that Saul is engaged in conscious myth-building. His alternate history of Canada–a secret origin story, if you will–might not be provable or true, but it could offer a kind of usable past, a national mythology that would be more invigorating and not a lot less plausible than the one we’ve currently stitched together around hockey, Tim Horton’s, and miscellaneous insecurities. If embracing our mythic Métissage helped us to throw off some postcolonial baggage, to know and appreciate our Native communities, and to celebrate rather than lament our penchant for negotiation and compromise, well, what’s a secret origin without a little retconning?

My only personal beef with the book involves Saul’s treatment of the United States, or lack thereof. He sees the United States as the child and fullest expression of Enlightenment Europe, and lumps the U.S. and Europe together throughout the book, always contrasting the grim spectre of monolithic “Euro-U.S.”-style nationalism with Canada’s Métis grooviness. There’s no exploration of how the United States might differ from Europe, how Canada might be influenced by America, or how Canadian and American histories might in fact be intertwined.

The most egregious example of this blind spot appears while Saul is discussing the Canadian mantra, “peace, order, and good government.” This phrase, he says, was a late ninteenth-century corruption of our true (Aboriginal) ideals: “peace, welfare, and good government.” Saul quotes approvingly in this section from William Lyon Mackenzie’s manifesto for the Upper and Lower Canada Rebellions of 1837-1838. But look what he does here:

Mackenzie produced a draft constitution on November 15, 1837–the result of meetings among “Farmers, Mechanics, Labourers and other Inhabitants of Toronto.” They denounced Britain’s breaking of its “covenant with the people of Upper and Lower Canada” and proposed a new covenant in order “to make choice of our form of Government and in order to establish justice [i.e., good government], ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence [i.e., two aspects of peace], promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of civil and religious liberty…”

Those square brackets and italics are Saul’s, not mine. And they are working very hard to shoehorn the phrase “peace, welfare, and good government” into Mackenzie’s constitution. Anyone who’s ever seen a book blurb or movie poster is familiar with selective quotation through subtraction, but I didn’t know you could just add things you want quotations to say. “MacDougall’s book is tedious and unoriginal [i.e., it is awesome!].”

Besides that, if you take out Saul’s hard-working brackets, Mackenzie’s constitution reads like this: “in order to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of civil and religious liberty…” My stars. Wherever could the rebels of Upper and Lower Canada have gotten that language? Hint: If you are about the same vintage as I am, you might be humming it right now. I read this section multiple times, just to make sure Saul wasn’t having me on. He makes no reference to the U.S. Constitution whatsoever. What was he thinking, to use that particular quotation (in a book not overly burdened with direct quotations or citations of any kind), as evidence against “Euro-U.S.” influence on Canadian political culture? I’ll be [eating] that [hat] now.

Anti-Americanism is such a bedrock position of the Canadian left–indeed, I think anti-Americanism often stands in for actual left ideas in Canada–that it is hard to convince lefty Canadians of the once-radical potential of American political thought, much less argue that progressive politics in Canada owe any debt to U.S. inspirations or ideas. It’s more comfortable for us to believe we got all our good ideas from enlightened British aristocrats, or, if you are John Ralston Saul, from the Mi’kmaq and the Iroquois.

But as American historians have rediscovered the radicalism of the American revolution, Canadians ought to acknowledge the influence of American civic republicanism on reformers and agitators like Mackenzie and Papineau, or the later links between American and Canadian prairie populism. This story need not only be of interest to Canadians. What if we stopped defining Canadian identity as simply whatever makes us different from Americans, and tried instead to view Canadian and U.S. history as alternate versions of each other, diverging iterations of an experiment for which the other nation’s history provides the control? How many Canadian reforms grew out of radical traditions imported from, yet thwarted in, the United States? What if we saw Canada’s social welfare state as the continuation and fulfillment of the American Revolution, rather than its abnegation?

Now if you can find six Canadians (or Americans) that believe that

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Old News: Guinness is Good for You

Another blast from my blogging past, this one from a long time ago in a Livejournal far, far away: Alec Guinness on Star Wars, The Simpsons, syphilis, and Marlene Dietrich’s alien lover.

[Edited to add: Hey, Carrie Fisher has a blog!]

Guinness is Good for You

(Originally published December 6, 2002.)

I had some time to kill on campus the other day, so I parked myself in a comfy chair in Lamont Library and read A Positively Final Appearance, by Alec Guinness. It’s Guinness’ journal for the last few years of his life. I recommend it; like him, it was funny and wise and occasionally laser-sharp and only a little bit sad. The 80-something Guinness was, as we all know, weary of his unshakeable association with Obi-Wan Kenobi, but still plugged in to the popular culture: he was addicted to The Simpsons and had good things to say about the Leo diCaprio / Claire Danes version of Romeo and Juliet. There are lots of funny stories in there, in the Peter O’Toole-esque raconteur vein. In fact O’Toole and Guinness were buddies, from the same generation of gin-soaked British actors up to absolutely no good. Highlights include:

  • The story of a scandalous stage production of Peter Pan in the 1930s in which Nana contracted syphilis from an affair with Smee. (NB: Nana was the dog.)
  • The fact that Marlene Dietrich used to drive out into the California desert every New Year’s Eve for a date with “a well set up gentleman from outer space”—when Guinness asked Dietrich what the spaceman looked like, she said, “Handsome, darling, and dressed all in silver.”
  • Some nice, unfashionable fondness for the Royal Family, and impatience with the beatification of Princess Diana.
  • And, of course, the following oft-told tale:

A refurbished Star Wars in on somewhere or everywhere. I have no intention of revisiting any galaxy. I shrivel inside each time it is mentioned. Twenty years ago, when the film was first shown, it had a freshness, also a sense of moral good and fun. Then I began to be uneasy at the influence it might be having. The bad penny dropped in San Francisco when a sweet-faced boy of twelve told me that he had seen Star Wars over a hundred times. His elegant mother nodded with approval. Looking into the boy’s eyes I thought I detected little star-shells of madness beginning to form and I guessed that one day they would explode.

‘I would like you to do something for me,’ I said.

‘Anything! Anything!’ the boy said rapturously.

‘You won’t like what I’m going to ask you to do,’ I said.

‘Anything, sir, anything!’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘do you think you could promise never to see Star Wars again?’

He burst into tears. His mother drew herself up to an immense height. ‘What a dreadful thing to say to a child!’ she barked, and dragged the poor child away. Maybe she was right, but I just hope the lad, now in his thirties, is not living in a fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities.

“A fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities.” That ought to be the tag line for my website!

I love that story. I’m going to start telling it, and end with the punch line, “… and that boy grew up to be … me.”

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Old News: Philo Philes

Last night in my Media History seminar, I started to make a rhetorical point about how we (think we) know who invented the telegraph, the telephone, and so on, but nobody can really name the inventor of television. The point of the story was going to be that the invention of all those devices is much murkier than we believe, that the lone inventor is often a fiction of patent law and corporate PR. But as soon as I said, “But nobody can really name the inventor of television,” the class shouted in unison: “Philo!”

One thing I do not love about the blog format is its itchy, relentless now-ness. It doesn’t matter how nicely you organize your archives, once a post rolls off the front page it is basically lost to the world. RSS readers, handy as they are, only exacerbate this. People read the piffle you wrote this morning, not the deathless piffle genius of your glory days.

Which is why I’ve never been ashamed to recycle. I’ve been at this a while, and even though I know some of you reading this have been around for the long haul, you can’t all have been. As a particularly feeble slogan for TV reruns put it a few years ago, “if you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you!” So here is a post from way back in Ought-Two, if you can believe it, about Utah’s own Philo Farnsworth, inventor of television.

(I’m trying to keep Old is the New New focused on whatever it is Old is the New New is focused on, but if you’re craving new content from me, I’ve been blogging up a storm lately at the Frontiers of New Media site, I keep meaning to post more about gaming at Claw Claw Peck, and I’ve dusted off my old personal blog to record tales of our excellent Utah adventure. Now, back to our rerun.)

Philo Philes

(Slightly abridged; originally published November 17, 2002.)

I’m reading and enjoying Glen Gold’s novel Carter Beats The Devil. It’s about the adventures of a Houdini-style illusionist in the 1910s and 1920s, who gets mixed up with the mysterious death of Warren Harding, Yale’s Skull and Bones society, and the fight for control of television. It’s in the same vein as Michael Chabon’s Kavalier & Clay, and if it’s not quite as highbrow, that’s hardly a stinging criticism.

The book gets extra points from me because one of the key supporting characters is Philo T. Farnsworth. Philo Farnsworth was an earnest, gawky farm boy born in an honest-to-gosh log cabin near Beaver City, Utah in 1906. He grew up on a potato farm in Idaho, rode to high school on horseback, and never went to college. When he was nineteen, he pretty much invented electronic television.

The invention of television is a messy, complicated story, and it’s almost impossible to pick one single “Inventor of Television” out of the melee of mad Scots and visionary Russians and guys in basements in Cleveland who all had a hand in TV’s birth, but Philo is a definite contender. He was the first to use a scanning electron beam to create a picture. All previous efforts were mechanical, and usually involved spinning giant wooden disks. (Lovers of outre steampunk technology take note.)

Philo’s story is great—he was just this “aw shucks” milk-drinking Mormon kid who got the idea for the parallel scanning lines of the electronic picture tube while tilling the furrows of his family’s potato farm. He married his high school sweetheart at age 19 and said to her on their wedding night, “Pemmie, I have to tell you. There’s another woman in my life. Her name is Television.”

The whole thing sounds like a made up Boy Inventor story—Tom Swift and His Electronic Picto-Vision! In fact, I often think it should have been one. It could have been serialized in Chum Magazine, or made into a Disney double feature with Davy Crockett, called “The Boy Who Invented Television.” Young Philo would have made a great 1950s TV character. He could have worked for the Pinkertons maybe, having wild adventures across the West with his best girl Pemmie at his side, doing battle with his ingenious electrical inventions against the top-hatted fat cats of the evil Radio Trust.

About five years ago, I wrote the script for a comic book called “Channel Ocho,” about two crypto-TV-archaeologists that searched for mythical “lost” TV shows. Sort of a Planetary meets Nick-at-Nite kinda thing. The hero and his nemesis were named Farnsworth and Zworykin, after Philo and his main rival. Maybe I should dig that puppy out of mothballs.

Alas, in real life, the top-hatted fat cats of the evil Radio Trust (aka David Sarnoff and RCA) worked Philo over pretty darn good. He never got the recognition he deserved, and though RCA eventually paid him off for the patents they squeezed out of him, he spent much of his life bitter and unhappy about how he and his great invention had been misused.

There’s a couple of books about Philo out now: The Last Lone Inventor, by Evan Schwartz, and The Boy Genius and the Mogul, by Daniel Stashower. There’s also this tribute site with the excellent URL farnovision.com. All of them basically follow the romantic “noble-lone-inventor-versus-greedy-fat-cats” model. But Malcolm Gladwell wrote an interesting New Yorker column about Philo’s story, turning the model on his head. Gladwell says the story exposes the value of big corporations, and points out how much happier Philo’s life would have been if he’d only worked with RCA rather than tried to go it alone. I don’t know. It’s one thing to say Philo was naïve and stubborn and that he paid dearly for trying to fight the big boys. It’s another thing to say that this is therefore how things ought to be.