Lapham’s Quarterly Winter 2021: Technology – Pt. 1

[CATEGORIES: Literature, Lapham’s Quarterly, Reading, Book Review]
[Click HERE to see my previous posts referencing Lapham’s Quarterly.]
[Some of LQ’s contents are available free.]
[L.Q. cover, quotes, and images are from Lapham’s Quarterly Winter 2021: Technology, except where noted.]
[Click or right-click on a photo may give the option to open it separately.]
[NEW to Lapham’s Quarterly? See the standard notes at the end of this review. After 50+ LQ summaries I jump right in.]

[This is a READING section, for those who might stumble in looking for photography. My edits/summaries of the L.Q. historical journal continue. SPOILER ALERT: Opinions are expressed.]

Technology is here!

Print and digital copies have arrived.


That’s the sound of democracy blowing up on 6 January 2021, “a date that will live in infamy”. (–FDR)

At least that is what I said in my comments on Fall 2020 – Democracy – Pt. 1 .

That sound might have been appropriate again had this issue been about Weapons, Guns, or Gun Violence. As timely as L.Q. is, I’m sure this issue went to press long before the random killing of 10 people at a Boulder, Colorado grocery store on 22 March 2021, or the somewhat random killing of eight people associated with massage parlors in the Atlanta, Georgia area on 16 March. Since then there have been a couple of shootings of 8-10 people, but only a couple died in each one, so they haven’t received as much publicity. Hundreds and hundreds die by shooting every year in Chicago, Illinois. Thousands there are ‘merely’ shot. The Wild West had nothing on the ‘modern civilization’ of today.

Don’t you wish someone would DO something?! I was asked by a friend ‘what could we do’ to make a difference. Join protests? They would have to be PEACEFUL. I’m getting old and I damage easily these days. Write your U.S. congressmen and senators? Write them all? That would be a start. You could say you did SOME-thing. Following are places to find their addresses. (It’s not easy to write them. Do they not REALLY want to hear from us?)

In late-summer 2018 Lapham’s Quarterly did print a Special Issue on The History of Gun Violence. Education is always a first step and a good idea.

I digress. Soapboxes are very small these days.

“TECHNOLOGY, the Winter 2021 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, explores mankind’s relation to the machine—best friend or worst enemy, saving grace or engine of doom?” (L.Q. email.)

As long as the link is available, the Table of Contents can be found.

A sampling of extracts can be found at Voices In Time online.

What’s in a browse?

The three sections of Voices In Time this issue are Invention, Adoption, and Obsolescence. Things become obsolete so rapidly now. Hmm.

Side-quotes are food for thought:

One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.
—Elbert Hubbard, 1911

When man wanted to make a machine that would walk, he created the wheel, which does not resemble a leg.  —Guillaume Apollinaire, 1917

The civilized man has built a coach but has lost the use of his feet.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1841

The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do.
—B.F. Skinner, 1969

As usual, what we call “progress” is the exchange of one nuisance for another nuisance.
—Havelock Ellis, 1914

Is it a fact—or have I dreamed it—that by means of electricity the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time?
—Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1851

A Buick radiator grille is as much a political statement as a Rolls-Royce radiator grille, one enshrining a machine aesthetic driven by a populist optimism, the other enshrining a hierarchical and exclusive social order.
—J.G. Ballard, 2004

It is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being. They have enabled a greater population to live the same life of drudgery and imprisonment, and an increased number of manufacturers and others to make fortunes.
—John Stuart Mill, 1848

Where there is the necessary technical skill to move mountains, there is no need for the faith that moves mountains.
—Eric Hoffer, 1955

…and more.

It seems that as many of the quotes I perused are as anti-technology as they are pro. Perhaps the Obsolescence section will enlighten.

The back cover names some of the authors within:

(L.Q. email.)

Ted Kaczyński, the Unabomber? That should be choice. Violence in technology. We never stray far from the tree, or however that goes. (‘The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.’ “The first recorded use in the USA was by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1839.
…Versions of this proverb can also be found earlier in works written in German and Russian; with some sources saying the expression originates in Asia.” (Ref.)

The Preamble is available free (FREE!) online. It is authored by prolific writer Simon Winchester, not founder/editor Lewis Lapham, who appears to continue to step back from directly wielding the pen. Other esteemed, literate members of the L.Q. Editorial Board are Brenda Wineapple, Emily Allen-Hornblower, and Annie Dillard, to name a few.

He centers his discussion on primary points of technology change. The Preamble begins:

GREEKS BEARING GIFTS by Simon Winchester

[Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes is a Latin phrase from Aeneid (II, 49), written by Virgil between 29 and 19 BC. It has been paraphrased in English as the proverb “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts“. Its literal meaning is “I fear the Danaans [Greeks], even those bearing gifts” or “even when they bear gifts”. Wiki. —JH]

“All of our exalted technological progress, civilization for that matter, is comparable to an ax in the hand of a pathological criminal.” —Albert Einstein, 1917

“This issue of Lapham’s Quarterly prompts the questions of mankind’s relation to the machine—best friend or worst enemy, saving grace or engine of doom? Such questions have been with us since James Watt’s introduction of the first efficient steam engine in the same year that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence.

But lately they have been fortified with the not entirely fanciful notion that machine-made intelligence, now freed like a genie from its bottle, and still writhing and squirming through its birth pangs, will soon begin to grow phenomenally, will assume the role of some fiendish Rex Imperator, and will ultimately come to rule us all, for always, and with no evident existential benefit to the sorry and vulnerable weakness that is humankind.” (p. 13)

The primary turning points of modern technology:

“…technology as a concept traces back to classical times, when it described the systematic treatment of knowledge in its broadest sense, its more contemporary usage relates almost wholly either to the mechanical, the electronic, or the atomic. And though the consequences of all three have been broad, ubiquitous, and profound, we have really had little enough time to consider them thoroughly.”

“Technology proper arrived in a three-step process, with further steps certainly still to come. The first step, the notion that some mechanical arrangement might be persuaded to perform useful physical work rather than mere astronomical cogi- tation, was born of one demonstrable and inalienable fact: water heated to its boiling point transmutes into a gaseous state, steam, which occupies a volume fully 1,700 times greater than its liquid origin.” (p. 15)

“The invention of the first working transistor marked the moment when technology’s primal driving power switched from Newtonian mechanics to Einsteinian theoretics—unarguably the most profound development in the technological universe and the second of the three steps, or leaps, that have come to define this aspect of the modern human era.” (p. 19)

“Mention of atomic-level interference brings to mind the third great leap that has been made by technology: the practical fissioning of an atom and the release of the energy that Albert Einstein had long before calculated resided within it.” (p. 20)

He concludes:

“Technology has its place, and knows it. Which is perhaps just as it ought to be.

If only this were truly so. As Daniel Susskind so dismayingly notes (Oxford, page 23), our computational muscle has now reached a point where we can create machines—devices variously mechanical, electronic, or atomic—that can think for themselves. And outthink us, to boot. And write coherent editorials in the Guardian (San Francisco, page 180). Which is why, though our trains may run safely and our clocks keep good time and our houses may remain at equable temperatures, and though not all is lost to science since in certain places our ability to perform archaic crafts remains intact, still there is an ominous note sounding not too far offstage. A new kind of algorithmic intelligence is teaching itself the miracle of Immaculate Conception. And with it comes an unsettling prospect of which one can only say: The future is a foreign country. They will do things differently there.” (p. 21)

To be continued…

[I am two-thirds through reading this issue now. IT’S GOOD.]

The standard notes:
1. Since L.Q.’s inception with the Winter 2008 issue its size is always 7″ x 10″ x 1/2-17/32″. It is white-covered, printed on high quality paper throughout, with richly printed reproductions of fine art from time immemorial, and 221 pages up to a page or two of addenda at the back.
2. Each issue contains extracts about the title topic from great authors and thinkers spanning all recorded history. It begins with an eloquent, to a fault, preamble/introduction by editor Lewis Lapham. The main body is called Voices In Time and contains 3 or 4 subcategories of the topic with about 25 extracts per section. Noteworthy sidebars, side quotes, and depictions of appropriate art from the ages are liberally distributed throughout. Several extended contemporary essays bring up the rear. There are several other small sections every issue (Among the Contributors, Conversations, Miscellany, ‘The Graphic’).
3. Per the L.Q. website:
“Lapham’s Quarterly embodies the belief that history is the root of all education, scientific and literary as well as political and economic. Each issue addresses a topic of current interest and concern—war, religion, money, medicine, nature, crime—by bringing up to the microphone of the present the advice and counsel of the past.”
4. I encourage all to subscribe to this fine publication. It is a rich supplement to anyone’s reading.

8 thoughts on “Lapham’s Quarterly Winter 2021: Technology – Pt. 1

  1. Two thoughts John: The dissolution of democracy will occur when people force through simple solutions [“For every problem, there is a solution which is simple, neat and wrong.” H.L. Mencken]; and A.I. can compute and learn, but it still can’t really “think” as well as child’s brain.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is all very intriguing. I loved reading Lewis Lapham’s column when he edited Harper’s Magazine. Was sorry to see him leave. I’ve never read the quarterly but I guess I should check it out 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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