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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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Superman Returns

Tags: Saucer-Men from Saturn, death of a parallelogram, everybody loves robots, The WPA Guide to Smallville, Kludgeons & Klagons, Freakonomics, Superman Democrats, no good can come of criticizing The Dark Knight Returns.

Now he's just showing off.

I. It’s Superman!

When I wrote about Superman’s secret origins back in Smarch, I mentioned I’d just read two surprisingly non-terrible books about him. I talked at length about Gerard Jones’ Men of Tomorrow. The other book was Tom De Haven’s novel It’s Superman! I assume there are any number of Superman “novelizations” out there, not to mention “graphic novels” (which are neither novels nor, in Superman’s case, particularly graphic–discuss). But It’s Superman! is meant to be an actual novel for grown-ups, or at least Gen-X men. It has a real live author, a loose regard for continuity*, a snappy Chris Ware cover, and no Charles Atlas ads in sight. Read more

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Metaphysical Graffiti

Tags: gilded age memetics, intellectual history as improv jazz, the secret of the sphinx revealed.

I’m a little stunned by how many nights back in September I stayed awake to the small hours reading Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club. You might not expect the intellectual biography of four Gilded Age pragmatists to be a compulsive page turner, but for me it really was.
Read more

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Eventually Let Me Go

Somewhere on the hard drive of my old laptop is an unfinished blog post praising the Kazuo Ishiguro novel The Remains of the Day, which I read over Canadian Thanksgiving or maybe Christmas two or three years ago. It was brilliant and heartbreaking. I never actually posted about it, though.

Somewhere in one of my old notebooks is a page or so of scribbled thoughts about Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans, which I read over American Thanksgiving or maybe Christmas last year. When We Were Orphans hit me even harder than Remains of the Day, which is saying something. I powered through the book in two flights and a layover, then walked around in a daze for most of the next week. But I never did get around to typing those scribbles into my computer.

So this year I’m going to get this down before I forget to do it: We went up to my parents for Thanksgiving this weekend, and in between the big dinner and the hike up Foley Mountain and the all-camp Cranium championship, I was lost to the world in Ishiguro’s latest novel, Never Let Me Go. There must be something about his tragically deluded narrators and slow sickening reveals that goes with turkey dinner like cranberry and stuffing. Which is not to say that the big reveal to the reader is the point—in all three books, it’s the moment when the narrator figures everything out that kills you. And what’s worse is the subsequent realization that they’ve probably always known.

There are lots of other things I could be posting about on this Thanksgiving Monday. Lots of bigger things to be thankful for. But my little shoutout to Ishiguro’s sparse little masterpieces of delusion and grief has been postponed long enough.

Edit: How topical am I? The Booker Prize for 2005 was announced today, and Never Let Me Go was on the shortlist. OK, it didn’t win, but Ishiguro already has a Booker—and my little blog post will no doubt mean just as much to him as Britain’s most influential literary award.