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.


This Sentence Has Five Words

Gary Provost, quoted in Roy Peter Clark’s (terrific) Writing Tools:

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

It’s good advice, of course, but mostly I was impressed by the execution.


The Boarded-Up Mansion of Sacred Awe

Victoria Nelson, The Secret Life of Puppets:

Our culture’s post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment prohibition on the supernatural and exclusion of a transcendent, nonmaterialist level of reality from the allowable universe has created the ontological equivalent of a perversion caused by repression. … The displaced religious impulse surfaces … as an overvaluing of the object beyond its intrinsic function in our lives. Craving its holy objects, its temples, its roadside shrines and absolutions, we have let the transcendental in distorted form invade art, the sexual experience, psychotherapy, even the quasi-worship of celebrities living and dead. …

The contemporary realm of popular entertainment is our main subterranean entry, the grotto entry, to the boarded-up mansion of sacred awe, where we conduct our primitive discourse on religious subjects–a discourse whose crudeness would horrify our pious ancestors, but nonetheless a discourse–behind our own backs.

File under: “Did ya ever look at a dollar bill? There’s some spooky shit goin’ on.”

Shelve with: Milutis, Ether;  Wood, Edison’s Eve.

(Via my man Devon Elliott.) (I haven’t gotten to the puppets yet.)


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