Touching History: Addendum

In a little essay in The Times (which you can read here or there) I muse about the differences between the artifacts of history—the tangible, venerable manuscripts and notebooks and other touchstones—and their new digital counterparts. I try to push back against what I see as a little bit of sentimentalizing.

But nothing I say—and nothing I’m pushing back against—is as eloquent as a comment almost thirty years ago, long before the digitization began, by the great historian and biographer Richard Holmes. So let me just quote it here. It’s from his classic book Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer.

The past does retain a physical presence for the biographer—in landscapes, buildings, photographs, and above all the actual trace of handwriting on original letters or journals. Anything a hand has touched is for some reason peculiarly charged with personality—Thomas Hardy’s simple steel-tipped pens, each carved with a novel’s name; Shelley’s guitar, presented to Jane Williams; Balzac’s blue china coffee-pot … It is as if the act of repeated touching, especially in the process of daily work or creation, imparts a personal “virtue” to an inanimate object, gives it a fetichistic power in the anthropological sense, which is peculiarly impervious to the passage of time….

And then Holmes adds this wise caveat:

But this physical presence is none the less extremely deceptive. The material surfaces of life are continually breaking down, sloughing off, changing almost as fast as human skin.

 

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When You Can’t Find the Perfect Quotation

I’m reading some Edgar Allan Poe tales in anticipation of an outdoor discussion tomorrow in Bryant Park, and I am charmed to discover (in the helpful endnotes) his habit of making up epigraphs. Or at least no one seems to be able to find his sources. Maybe they just didn’t have Google.

I’m a sucker for a good epigraph myself. Every chapter of The Information has one. But I always thought the point was discovering people whose aphoristic talents I can’t match. It seems Poe has no lack of self-confidence in this regard—in English or in Latin.

Here are some of the “quotations” he uses, along with his attributions. Are any of them real? You tell me.

What ho! what ho! this fellow is dancing mad!

He hath been bitten by the Tarantula. (All in the Wrong)

And the will therein lieth, which dieth not. Who knoweth the mysteries of the will, with its vigor? For God is but a great will pervading all things by nature of its intentness, Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will. (Granville)
Nothing is more hateful to wisdom than cleverness. (Seneca)

 

 

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Message in an Interstellar Bottle

The Voyager spacecraft have been in the news lately, because their thirty-year journey has now taken them to something very like the edge of the Solar System. Of course, that’s something of an arbitrary boundary. It’s partly a matter of human-centered definition; and it has varied, too, because the Voyagers keep making new discoveries.Voyager 1 is beaming back data about the solar wind; it has reached a strange place, the “heliosheath,” a sort of solar bubble, described by Ed Stone, the chief project scientist, as “a sluggish, turbulent ring.”

Stone and I were on Science Friday last week with Ira Flatow. Stone explained that the fairly weak transmitter on board, at its current distance of 11 billion miles, still manages to send information earthbound at a rate of 160 bits per second, which reminded Ira of his ancient 300-baud modem.

It happens that Voyager makes a cameo appearance in The Information. That’s not because of any of its scientific discoveries but because it is carrying an outbound message—information from us (earthlings) to any faraway creatures who should chance to encounter this contraption in years to come.

The information is stored in what is called the “Golden Record.” It is a 12-inch disk, a phonograph record, not vinyl but gold-plated copper. (The record can be seen affixed to the spacecraft in the photo above.) A committee led by Carl Sagan chose sounds of the earth: greetings in fifty-five languages, the voices of whales and crickets, the tapping of a telegraph operator, and music of the West and East including the first prelude of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier as played by Glenn Gould.

It is worth remembering that as of 1977, the phonograph was the most popular technology in existence for the preservation of sound.

The question arises—and this is why I discuss it in The Information—assuming the alien spacefarers manage to play the disk, how much will they understand? What sort of implicit knowledge is required—what sort of shared code book? One would like to think that the Bach prelude, if not the chatter of crickets, will convey some meaning.

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Gone Obsolete: Your Mother’s Maiden Name

Who’s there?

Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.

Long live the King.

The business of challenge-response authentication used to be easier. They had swords; we have cryptography. Who’s better off?

We have passwords, which must never be simple enough to remember and must not be written down on a slip of paper in our desk drawer. So we forget them and call tech support.

But they don’t want us to call tech support (expensive) so they give us a back door: a “security question.” If we can just tell them our mother’s maiden name …

But anyone can find out our mother’s maiden name, so the security questions are getting tougher. And now we arrive at the problem. They are too tough for me.

What was the name of your first pet?

Do you mean my first serious pet, a beagle called Gibbs? Or the lizard I sometimes called Chameley (spelling unknown)? According to official government guidelines for authentication by federal financial institutions, this is an example of “shared secret” authentication. “Shared secrets (something a person knows) are information elements that are known or shared by both the customer and the authenticating entity.” Here are a few more from the current list used by the Department of the Treasury:

You were born in what city?


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In an Appliance Store, 1960

We are today as far into the electric age as the Elizabethans had advanced into the typographic and mechanical age. And we are experiencing the same confusions and indecisions which they had felt when living simultaneously in two contrasted forms of experience.

Marshall McLuhan wrote that on the first page of his first great book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, printed in 1962. I quote these words in The Information because today, a half-century later, he seems to have been talking about our era, not his own. We are intensely self-conscious about the information age and feel ourselves to be experiencing confusions and indecisions.

But for McLuhan it was the electric age, which meant, mainly, TV. That comes into delightful focus in an eight-minute snippet of video that can be seen in the archives of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, an interview with McLuhan titled The Global Village.

It is 1960. We begin in an “appliance store.” The appliances appear to be mainly television sets and radios, but I can’t take my eyes off of the great black rotary-dial telephone, the size of a fire extinguisher, hanging prominently on the wall. The trappings of this segment are more fascinating than the interview itself. Our host, Alan Millar, a handsome, professorial announcer with a sonorous baritone, begins:

Well, there they are. Our new electronic media, or our new gadgets. You push a button—and the world’s yours.

For emphasis he thumbs an imaginary button. (Even though the button is invisible, it strikes me as very large.)

We are living in a “global village,” Alan tells us. The symbol of our new era is the appliance store. (Can you see why I’m loving this?)

What is the symbol of the era now past? “We used to have just one medium,” intones Alan,
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This Is Predation

I’m a fairly heavy customer of Amazon.com (among other booksellers), and I even provide links on this site for people who want to buy my books there (or elsewhere). So I have nothing against Amazon per se.

Last night an old half-forgotten book popped into my head, and I wanted to check its availability, so I fired up the Amazon app on my device, and this is what I saw:

 

 

A few thoughts flashed through my head, roughly in this order:

  • I could save myself ten or fifteen keystrokes by scanning the barcode.
  • I don’t have the barcode. If I had the barcode, I’d already have the book.
  • Q. Where would I be, if I were shopping for a book and found the barcode handy?
  • A. In a bookstore.

I am aware, because booksellers have told me, that people sometimes go into bookstores, browse, chat with the expert staff, handle the merchandise, and scan a barcode to buy the book online before they’ve even departed the premises.

This is not good. I don’t mean it’s immoral (I’ll leave that discussion for others). I mean
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Remind me: how dead is the Book again?

I’m meant to give a talk in Sydney called Perish the Thought, about the death (and/or resurrection) of the book, so I’ve been studying. Here’s a lovely eighty-year-old fragment of poetry on the subject, by one Bob Brown. It comes from his self-published book Words (1931). It’s a confident prediction of what lies ahead:
In the reading-machine future / Say by 1950 ...

Nineteen-fifty has come and gone. Have we arrived in the reading-machine future yet?

Always fun to consult the oracle regarding the future of the book. If you have favorite prophecies, I’d love to hear them.

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Glimpse of the Past

I just found this photograph on my hard drive. I don’t know where it came from; I have no memory of seeing it before. It is a low-resolution image, grainy and shadowed. Three men on a bench: one wearing a suit and tie (you can almost make out the time on his wristwatch); one slouching in a white T-shirt; one with a cigarette in his left hand. Looking at the picture makes my heart pound.

I never met any of them (they died in 1957, 1987, and 1984), but I recognize their faces. A Hungarian, an American, a Pole. They appear in at least three of my books (prominently or in passing). I don’t know who made the photograph or when (maybe a reader can tell me)—except that once you know who they are, you know exactly where they are and you know the date, or pretty close.

There’s something awesome about a random glimpse into history. It’s just a point in spacetime. I’d give a lot to be a fly on the wall.

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