Saturday, August 27, 2011

Living the Incandescent Life


I enjoy the march of technology as much as the next person.  That doesn't mean, however, that when some treasured object is obsoleted, I don’t experience a pang of regret or nostalgia.

For example, I love my scheduling software, but I also miss the New Year’s Day ritual of sitting down with my old Day-Timer and manually moving lists, birthdays and important phone numbers from the old beat-up book to the pristine new.  It was a right-of-passage into the new year.  Now, everything I do follows me magically, whether I ask it to or not.

I love my iPhone, too, but that doesn’t mean I don’t miss the clunky, black rotary phone from Ma Bell that was a fixture of my youth.  Maybe it was because it never dropped a call, or because it only took five numbers to reach a friend.  (You could skip the “Pennsylvania” and just dial the “six five oh oh oh.”)  Maybe, too, it helped build community, the old-fashioned kind where we family members had to negotiate for its use—a single point of electronic entry into our home--and certainly not tie-up the line if my sister’s boyfriend was trying to call.  (It was also possible for younger  brothers to eavesdrop from the upstairs phone in my parent’s room, which we never, ever did, of course.)

In fact, the very presence of a traditional black Bell phone—Model 500, placed in virtually every North American home from 1949 to 1984--is one way to positively date movies and old TV shows.  Another is the existence of a computer on a desk, or the click-clack of a typing pool.  And, to the extent a hat is technology, if gents are wearing those in movies or on TV ("Just the facts, m'am"), that’s a quick dating technique as well.

All of these items are immediately and powerfully evocative of the past if you are, as they say, of a certain age.

I’ve been reminded recently that one of the cherished technologies of the last 130 years, the incandescent bulb, is on the way out.  New regulations governing lightbulb efficiency take effect in the United State this January.  100-watt bulbs are effectively banned in 2012, with lesser lights to follow.  LED lighting appears to have the pole position in the race to replace incandescence.  

This, my friends, is the untimely death of one of the great technologies of all time.  To this day—remembering Edison invented it in 1879--there are still people at my work (and yours) who bring incandescent lamps for their desks, just so they never have to suffer under florescent lights.

Have you seen a home decorated at Christmas with LEDs?  Ouch.

I know scientists are working on LED replacement lights designed to look the same as incandescents, but I already know I’m going to be able to tell the difference.  A world that has been framed in a particular light for five generations, and certainly all of my life, will soon disappear. 

Like the black rotary Bell, we will be able to immediately place a movie or TV show by the quality of light that’s cast over an actor's face.  There will never be anything like the incandescent bulb. 

You might be able to get a fish to swim in lemonade for a while, but don’t add insult to injury by telling him it’s the same as a mountain stream.

Effective this weekend, then, I’m becoming a hoarder.  I’ve cleaned out a spot in the basement. The guy at the TrueValue hardware story is going to get to know me as Mr.-buys-four-packs-of-100-watt-bulbs-every-time-he-visits.

I may be able to adapt to the way I schedule my calendar and “dial” my phone, but I’m not losing my sense of the way the world looks.   You’ll be feeling the same way, too, when you’re searching for a real 100-watt bulb in 2019.  I’ll be the guy on ebay selling them. Think Fisk and Gould and the gold market.  De Beers and diamonds.  The Hunt brothers and silver.

But, since I like you, I’ll give you a deal.  Promise.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Machine in the Garden, 2011


Over vacation I read Leo Marx’s 1964 The Machine in the Garden.  It’s not exactly light reading but I needed it for a project I’m working on, and I accidentally missed the reading assignment for this specific book (something about a party after a Brown football game) in 1978 so knew I would one day have to pay penance.

Marx is a professor emeritus at MIT and this is a wonderfully researched, profound book.  His narrative is, at least my version: Beginning in the 1840s, our best American storytellers began describing the same scene over and over again.  Hawthorne experienced it on a July morning in 1844 when he sat in the woods to write and suddenly heard the “long shriek, harsh, above all other harshness” of a steam engine rumbling through nearby Concord, Massachusetts.  It happened to Melville, or more specifically, Ishmael, in Moby-Dick when he was exploring a beached whale and the skeleton suddenly morphed into a New England textile mill.  It happened to Huck and Jim in a dire moment as they floated along peacefully in Huckleberry Finn, only to have their raft smashed by the sudden appearance of a steamboat.

The ominous sounds of machines, of the Industrial Revolution, bore down on life again and again in American literature—in The Great Gatsby, Grapes of Wrath, William Faulkner and Henry Adams, Walt Whitman and Robert Frost.  More often than not it was the steam locomotive crashing the party, the symbol of a sudden, shocking intrusion into a pastoral way of life.  “It is difficult,” Marx says, “to think of a major American writer upon whom the image of the machine’s sudden appearance in the landscape has not exercised its fascination.”

The single phrase that came to be used most often about the steam locomotive and its kin--the steamboat, clock, turnpike, telegraph, canal, and textile mill—was that Americans were undertaking the “annihilation of space and time.” 

The annihilation of space and time.

In other words, people believed that the entire relationship between man and nature was changing, unlike anything in human history.  Among the hoi polloi, railroads became the favorite symbol of progress and a national obsession by the 1840s.  Technology was coined as a term in 1829, and belief that its progress  was important to mankind soon followed.  “Inventors were the intellectual heroes of the age,” Marx says.

But, as the author makes so very clear, the very earliest signs of the machine disrupting life in the garden were coming from America’s favorite storytellers. Hawthorne.  Melville.  Thoreau.  These were the folks, I suppose, who were able to sit and think about change while the rest of us were trying not to get run over by it.

Today, our favorite storytellers don’t sit in the woods contemplating nature, they sit on a backlot in Hollywood directing multimillion dollar budgets, or manipulating code in an animation studio.  Our favorite machine and symbol of progress has become the Internet. 

Are we still annihilating space and time?  Not hardly.  Been there, done that.

I believe, if we listen to our storytellers, what they are telling us is that we are now annihilating reality.  It sounds funny to write that, but not so funny, I suppose, as it must have been for a farmer (and most of us were) in 1850 hearing that something called technology was annihilating space and time.  (Mark Andreesen told us just last weekend that Software is Eating the World.   It’s as striking a notion as the machine in the garden, for sure.)

1999.  The Matrix (with a tip of the hat to Neuromancer).  Morpheus: “The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you're inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.”

The Captain in WALL-E: “Well, good morning, everybody, and welcome to day 255,642 aboard the Axiom. As always, the weather is a balmy 72 degrees and sunny, and, uh... Oh, I see the ship's log is showing that today is the 700th anniversary of our five year cruise. Well, I'm sure our forefathers would be proud to know that 700 years later we'd be... doing the exact same thing they were doing. So, be sure next mealtime to ask for your free sep-tua-centennial cupcake in a cup.”

Avatar.  (“A recon gyrene in an Avatar body... that's a potent mix! Gives me the goosebumps!”) Inception.  (“Dreams feel real while we're in them. It's only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.”)  In Harry Potter, there’s another powerful reality going on all around our muggle existence, just as there is in Men in Black (including that last really weird scene in the movie).

Professor Marx’s conclusion about the machine in the garden, I believe, is that the storytellers got it right.  They were the first to really hear the machine, and they were the first to recognize it as an overwhelming, unstoppable force that would change humanity’s relationship with the land, with nature, and with each other forever.  There would be no more uninterrupted walks in the woods, no more floating lazily down the Mississippi.

If our best storytellers have it right in 2011, then they are telling us that reality as we know it is on a slippery slope, and that it’s going to change.  We already have on-line avatars, identities and communities that only exist on server farms.  We know that there are implants and technologies that are rapidly marrying human and machine functions.  We believe that machines will be building machines, if they are not already.  Technology is beginning to hint at the concept of resleeving, a notion that superb storyteller Richard K. Morgan suggested in Altered Carbon.  Heck, software really might be eating the world.

I already sleep with my iPad on the bedside table.  That’s a new and strange reality for me, not to mention my AM/FM clock radio.

As Morpheus told Neo “If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”

I believe I could speak with an American from 1811 and, with a little time and a cold compress or two, explain our world to them.  I might even have them grow comfortable in it.  The machine in the garden was earth-shattering but, at least from the shattered end, something of flesh and blood and not entirely inexplicable.

I am wondering if someone from 2211 will feel the same about us.  I’m betting William Gibson and the Wachowskis, some of our most entertaining storytellers, would guess probably not.

Friday, August 19, 2011

No More Complaining

It's easy to complain about our lot in corporate life.  The noisy, stuffy cubes.  The computer eyestrain.  The silly office rules.  The long, 8-hour days.  We are so on the short end of the dialectic.  Dilbert is our patron saint of business idiocy, Tim Ferris our beacon of the four-hour work week.

The Information Revolution is killing us, just as the Industrial Revolution killed our ancestors.

As proof, I offer the business rules of a Boston firm, circa 1872.  Enjoy.
1. Office employees each day will fill lamps, clean chimneys and trim wicks.  Wash windows once a week. 
2. Each clerk will bring in a bucket of water and scuttle of coal for the day's business.  
3. Make your pens carefully.  You may whittle nibs to your individual taste. 
4. Men employees will be given an evening off each week for courting purposes, or two evenings a week if they go regularly to church. 
5. Every employee should lay aside from each pay day a goodly sum of his earnings for his benefit during his declining years so that he will not become a burden on society. 
6. Any employee who smokes Spanish cigars, uses liquor in any form, or frequents pool and public halls, or gets shaved in a barber shop, will give good reason to suspect his worth, intentions, integrity and honesty. 
7. The employee who has performed his labor faithfully and without fault for five years, will be given an increase of five cents per day in his pay, providing profits from business permit it.
There you have it.  Put aside those Spanish cigars.  Go look up "scuttle" and "nib."  And don't let us catch you in a barber shop.

Life isn't so tough after all.  Happy weekend!


Monday, August 8, 2011

All Guns (No Ballast)

I've sometimes heard the term "all sail, no ballast" when applied to a certain type of business executive.  It's the same thing a cowboy means when he says someone is "all hat, no cattle."

Today in Stockholm I was fortunate to visit the Vasa, a Swedish warship that launched in August 1628, sailed about a mile, sunk and lay at the bottom of Stockholm Harbor for over three centuries.  Needless to say, this was not a story of great success.  To the king's credit, however, no heads were lost, and to the Swedes' credit they managed to salvage the vessel in one piece and have turned an embarrassment into a national treasure.

The best theory on the sinking is that there were too many cannons on board for the ballast, meaning the ship was top-heavy and fated to tip over, no matter who sailed it or under what conditions.

"All guns, no ballast," so to speak.  Different from "all sails, no ballast," but the identical result.

I suspect you and I have met a few business executives of both types.