Categories
architecture california ecology

Everything useful, two phone calls away

When the Whole Earth Cat­a­log (WEC) was pub­lished in late 60s and ear­ly 70s, the idea was to cre­ate a fine­ly curat­ed list of every­thing "use­ful, rel­e­vant to inde­pen­dent edu­ca­tion, high qual­i­ty or low cost, not already com­mon knowl­edge, and eas­i­ly avail­able by mail."

Whole Earth Catalog - J BaldwinThe Dymax­ion World of Buck­min­ster Fuller, Fall 1968. From Arts & Ecol­o­gy.

Steve Jobs once referred to the WEC as "the bible" of his gen­er­a­tion, and it's no won­der that he admired it: Each issue of the cat­a­log was sprawl­ing, ambi­tious, smart, lov­ing­ly craft­ed, and very much in keep­ing with the best of North­ern California's inno­v­a­tive spir­it — pro­gres­sive, irrev­er­ent, and (in its own way) ruthless.The title of this post refers to a (per­haps apoc­ryphal) account of the user expe­ri­ence con­sid­er­a­tions of the WEC. Report­ed­ly, the catalog's design edi­tor, J. Bald­win, said that the cat­a­log was an attempt to bring every­thing (of val­ue) in the world to with­in two1 phone calls for any read­er. Which was undoubt­ed­ly great at the time, but not quite good enough to escape the devel­op­ment of the one-call solu­tion — the dial-up modem. Doh! And the no-call solu­tion — broadband!And yet, when you com­pare the infi­nite vari­ety of the web to the refined encap­su­la­tion of the WEC, it's easy to see the val­ue of expert cura­tion. Doesn't it seem like the great oppor­tu­ni­ties for progress in web con­tent is to become more like the WEC — reli­able, read­able, smart? And even read­er-sup­port­ed? (After all, the WEC cost $5 in the 60s; $31.85 today. As one of the Whole Earth edi­tors wrote, peo­ple will pay for authen­tic­i­ty and find­abil­i­ty).1 For the record, I'm not exact­ly sure what the sig­nif­i­cance of "two" is, rather than "six" or "three." Would the first call would be the Whole Earth Cat­a­log, and the sec­ond would be to … the prod­uct cre­ator? Or the first would be to the prod­uct cre­ator, and the sec­ond would be to … some­one else?

Categories
basketball ideas lit tech web

The future of reading / A reading list

I love read­ing, and I've been think­ing a lot about how tech­nol­o­gy is affect­ing the way that we read now and in the future. I keep think­ing about some­thing Sven Birk­erts said in a 1998 inter­view with Harpers: "If you touch all parts of the globe, you can't do that and then turn around and look at your wife in the same way." [PDF] Of course, one could be turn around and look at one's wife in a more informed, more edu­cat­ed way, but that's not the way he sees it. I share this anx­i­ety: I love read­ing the New York Times on my phone, but I can't help but sense that some­thing will be lost if all print­ed mat­ter moves in this direc­tion.

My bookcaseThis is the top shelf on one of our book cas­es. It's com­fort­ing to have the books sit­ting there; they're like a ver­sion of myself, sit­ting on a shelf, dis­as­sem­bled and re-arrange­able.

In August 1995, Harpers Mag­a­zine con­duct­ed a round table dis­cus­sion with Wired's Kevin Kel­ly, author Sven Birk­erts, the Well's John Per­ry Bar­low, and Mark Slou­ka. The results were con­densed in the mag­a­zine [PDF], and the con­ver­sa­tion out­lines the two ide­olo­gies that con­tin­ue to con­verse today: Those who believe that the paper incar­na­tion of the book is an irre­place­able are­na for the deliv­ery of its con­tent, and those who don't. Birk­erts dis­cuss­es the for­mer in his 1995 book, The Guten­berg Ele­gies: The Fate of Read­ing in an Elec­tron­ic Age. In 2004, the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts sent a shot across the bow in a paper called "Read­ing at Risk," [PDF]. The researchers sur­veyed 17,000 peo­ple, and they con­clud­ed that the future of lit­er­ary read­ing is bleak: "Lit­er­ary read­ing in Amer­i­ca is not only declin­ing rapid­ly among all groups, but the rate of decline has accel­er­at­ed, espe­cial­ly among the young."Still, the total num­ber of books sold con­tin­ues to rise, so is the future real­ly that bleak? The NEA thinks so. It released a fol­low-on to Read­ing at Risk called "To Read or Not To Read." This study focus­es on young read­ers, and links the decline in read­ing to "civic, social and eco­nom­ic" risks.Last spring, Nicholas Carr dis­cussed Google's effect on lit­er­ary read­ing in the Atlantic, provoca­tive­ly titled "Is Google Mak­ing Us Stu­pid." [I dis­cussed this in a blog post at the Coop­er Jour­nal called "Dumb is the new smart"]. In it, he inter­views a blog­ger who con­fess­es the fol­low­ing:

"I can't read War and Peace anymore,†he admit­ted. "I've lost the abil­i­ty to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four para­graphs is too much to absorb. I skim it."

The arti­cle also sparked a dis­cus­sion on brittanica.com, col­lect­ed in a forum called "Your Brain Online." It's got a lot of inter­est­ing stuff from folks like Kevin Kel­ly, Dan­ny Hillis and Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Every­body, who thinks that the "unprece­dent­ed abun­dance" of the web will func­tion to break the vise-grip of the "lit­er­ary world" on cul­ture:

It's not just because of the web — no one reads War and Peace. It's too long, and not so inter­est­ing. This obser­va­tion is no less sac­ri­le­gious for being true. The read­ing pub­lic has increas­ing­ly decid­ed that Tolstoy's sacred work isn't actu­al­ly worth the time it takes to read it, but that process start­ed long before the inter­net became main­stream … The threat isn't that peo­ple will stop read­ing War and Peace. That day is long since past. The threat is that peo­ple will stop gen­u­flect­ing to the idea of read­ing War and Peace.

Ursu­la Le Guin dis­putes the notion that peo­ple have ever read War and Peace. (Well, maybe.)

Self-sat­is­fac­tion with the inabil­i­ty to remain con­scious when faced with print­ed mat­ter seems ques­tion­able. But I also want to ques­tion the assump­tion — whether gloomy or faint­ly gloat­ing — that books are on the way out. I think they're here to stay. It's just that not all that many peo­ple ever did read them. Why should we think every­body ought to now?

The title of her recent Harper's essay pret­ty well sums up her posi­tion: "Notes on the alleged decline of read­ing." It roars through the var­i­ous aspects of the state of read­ing and pub­lish­ing, quick­ly turn­ing into a ring­ing indict­ment of cor­po­rate pub­lish­ers:

The social qual­i­ty of lit­er­a­ture is still vis­i­ble in the pop­u­lar­i­ty of best­sellers. Pub­lish­ers get away with mak­ing bor­ing, baloney-mill nov­els into best­sellers via mere P.R. because peo­ple need best­sellers. It is not a lit­er­ary need. It is a social need. We want books every­body is read­ing (and nobody fin­ish­es) so we can talk about them.

On that social note

I was just look­ing at my beat-up copy of "The Dhar­ma Bums," and I felt a sort Chris Matthews-esque tin­gle. I bought it dur­ing high school at Rainy Day Books in Fair­way, Kansas, and it sparked my fas­ci­na­tion with the West Coast, years before I ever trav­eled here. Would I ever read it again? Prob­a­bly not. In fact, just now, I could bare­ly read even a cou­ple of pages with­out feel­ing like Ker­ouac was on auto-pilot. But I like the idea that my book­shelf is a kind of exter­nal­iza­tion of myself, a col­lec­tion of impor­tant influ­ences and expres­sions. The future of my books appears to be not so dif­fer­ent than the present: A com­bi­na­tion of tal­is­mans, objects of beau­ty, and points of reference.On the sub­ject of ref­er­ence, in (wait for it) a Harper's essay called ""A Defense of the Book," William Gass talks about the plea­sures of not hav­ing the world at your fin­ger­tips:

I have rarely paged through one of my dic­tio­nar­ies (a decent house­hold will have a dozen) with­out my eye light­ing, along the way, on words more beau­ti­ful than a found fall leaf, on def­i­n­i­tions odd­er than any uncle, on grotesques like gonadotropin-releas­ing hor­mone or, bare­ly, above it — what? — gombeen — which turns out to be Irish for usury.

And holy crap, there's a whole lot more Gass at Tun­nel­ing. Arti­cles, links, thoughts. I love the Inter­net.