[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, unless 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, apologies to those who might stumble in looking for photography.]
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.
As I noted in Lapham’s Quarterly Winter 2021: Technology – Pt. 1 “IT’S GOOD.” I’ve finished reading this issue and it joins Lapham’s Quarterly Fall 2008: Ways Of Learning as one of the best I’ve read. (I like EVERY issue of L.Q.)
The three sections of Voices In Time this issue are Invention, Adoption, and Obsolescence. The extract/essay count is:
Invention – 26
Adoption – 26
Obsolescence – 22
My favorites were as follows: (Links are to available online info (left to extract, right to author).)
2020: Oxford | Daniel Susskind
1939: France | Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
c. 1260: Paris | Roger Bacon
1922: Dearborn, MI | Henry Ford
1894: Washington, DC | George W. Murray
1982: St. Louis | Walter Ong
c. 213 bc: Syracuse | Plutarch
1945: New Mexico | Thomas F. Farrell
1971: Berkeley, CA | Michael Moritz
1823: London | Henry Law
1908: Kitty Hawk, NC | Wilbur & Orville Wright
1973: Nigeria | Yoruba Folktale
1841: Lowell, MA | Almira
Susskind philosophizes on the limits of artificial intelligence:
“The temptation is to say that because machines cannot reason like us, they will never exercise judgment; because they cannot think like us, they will never exercise creativity; because they cannot feel like us, they will never be empathic. And all that may be right. But it fails to recognize that machines might still be able to carry out tasks that require empathy, judgment, or creativity when done by a human being—by doing them in some entirely other fashion.”
“And if machines do not need to replicate human intelligence to be highly capable, there is no reason to think that what human beings are currently able to do represents a limit on what future machines might accomplish. Yet this is what is commonly supposed—that the intellectual prowess of human beings is as far as machines can ever reach. Quite simply, it is implausible in the extreme that this will be the case.” (p. 26-27)
Decades ago when I did software programming and trouble-shooting on mainframe computers, we said that computers do exactly what you tell them to do. If there was an error, we had to find the man-made instructions making the error. I think that is still true today of ‘regular’ programs/applications. Choosing among several tasks to perform isn’t A.I., it’s just a series of conditions to verify and perform. IF this is so THEN do that, ELSE do some other thing. I have difficulty wrapping my head around how you program A.I. to think for itself. I’ve been away from coding for a long time and I’m sure A.I. is not for the light-minded like me. Perhaps I should explore Wikipedia for starters. “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma;” –Winston Churchill. Can it all go wrong somehow? THAT is the question.
As HAL the computer says, in the Obsolescence section:
“Naturally, Dave, I’m not pleased that the AO-unit has failed, but I hope at least this has restored your confidence in my integrity and reliability. I certainly wouldn’t want to be disconnected, even temporarily, as I have never been disconnected in my entire service history.” (p. 157) …from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
(Are we Screwed?)
In 1937, de Saint-Exupéry is poetic:
“Air and water, and not machinery, are the concern of the hydroplane pilot about to take off. The motors are running free, and the plane is already plowing the surface of the sea. Under the dizzying whirl of the scythe-like propellers, clusters of silvery water bloom and drown the flotation gear. The element smacks the sides of the hull with a sound like a gong, and the pilot can sense this tumult in the quivering of his body. He feels the ship charging itself with power as from second to second it picks up speed. He feels the development, in these fifteen tons of matter, of a maturity that is about to make flight possible. He closes his hands over the controls, and little by little in his bare palms he receives the gift of this power. The metal organs of the controls, progressively as this gift is made him, become the messengers of the power in his hands. And when his power is ripe, then, in a gesture gentler than the culling of a flower, the pilot severs the ship from the water and establishes it in the air.” (p. 30)
c. 1260, Roger Bacon is prescient:
“I shall tell of certain marvels wrought through the agency of art and of nature. In these there is no magic whatsoever, because all magical power is inferior to these works and incompetent to accomplish them.
It is possible that great ships and seagoing vessels shall be made that can be guided by one man and will move with greater swiftness than if they were full of oarsmen.
It is possible that a car shall be made that will move with inestimable speed, and the motion will be without the help of any living creature.” (p. 36)
Perhaps Henry Ford took Bacon to heart. Regardless of Ford’s less than latent anti-semitism, he was meticulous in calculating the specifics of worker efficiency and assembly line production. Read it.
“If a device would save in time just 10 percent or increase results 10 percent, then its absence is always a 10 percent tax. If the time of a person is worth fifty cents an hour, a 10 percent saving is worth five cents an hour.”
“A building thirty stories high needs no more ground space than one five stories high. Getting along with the old-style architecture costs the five-story man the income of twenty-five floors. Save ten steps a day for each of twelve thousand employees, and you will have saved fifty miles of wasted motion and misspent energy.
Those are the principles on which the production of my automobile plant was built up.” (p. 38)
Lest we forget, George W. Murray reminds us that people of color are inventive too:
“We want an opportunity to prove that this country is truly a cosmopolitan country, that it is neither a white man’s country nor a black man’s country but a country to the building up of which all American citizens have alike contributed, whether by effort of muscle or of brain.” (p. 43)
Author’s notes: “…from proceedings in the U.S. House of Representatives. Following this speech in the Congressional Record is a list of ninety-two patents held by African American inventors. A former slave, Murray studied at the University of South Carolina before working for the Colored Farmers’ Alliance, lecturing and obtaining patents for farming tools. He was later elected to represent South Carolina’s Seventh District in the House, the only African American member of Congress during his four years in office.”
Per Walter Ong, writing is technology:
“…we find it difficult to consider writing to be a technology as we commonly assume printing and the computer to be. Yet writing (and especially alphabetic writing) is a technology, calling for the use of tools and other equipment: styli or brushes or pens, carefully prepared surfaces such as paper, animal skins, strips of wood, as well as inks or paints, and much more. Writing is in a way the most drastic of the three technologies. It initiated what print and computers only continue, the reduction of dynamic sound to quiescent space, the separation of the word from the living present, where alone spoken words can exist.” (p. 44)
“It was at first not easy to imagine a comprehensive set of silent visual marks that could somehow substitute for the bewildering flow of sounds which users of a given language had for ages employed without reflection,” Ong wrote in 1998 of the technology of writing. “The complete transition from sound to sight was arduous.” (p. 45)
HERE is a fairly simple introduction to writing systems. “Ethnologue (24th edition) has data to indicate that of the currently listed 7,139 living languages, 4,065 have a developed writing system.” Wikipedia’s List of Writing Systems loses me immediately. Don’t even get me started on the ‘grammar’ therein. ‘Grammerical errors’ R us. 🤓
Thomas Farrell, deputy commanding general of the Manhattan Project, is well worth a free read on the first A-bomb test.
“Dr. Oppenheimer, on whom had rested a very heavy burden, grew tenser as the last seconds ticked off. He scarcely breathed. He held on to a post to steady himself. For the last few seconds, he stared directly ahead, and then when the announcer shouted “Now!” and there came this tremendous burst of light followed shortly thereafter by the deep growling roar of the explosion, his face relaxed into an expression of tremendous relief. Several of the observers standing back of the shelter to watch the lighting effects were knocked flat by the blast.”
“Atomic fission would no longer be hidden in the cloisters of the theoretical physicists’ dreams. It was almost full grown at birth. It was a great new force to be used for good or for evil. There was a feeling in that shelter that those concerned with its nativity should dedicate their lives to the mission that it would always be used for good and never for evil.”
“Thirty seconds after the explosion came first, the air blast pressing hard against the people and things, to be followed almost immediately by the strong, sustained, awesome roar which warned of doomsday and made us feel that we puny things were blasphemous to dare tamper with the forces heretofore reserved to the Almighty.” (p. 50)
To which, I think, one can only add ‘What hath God wrought?’ (From the Book of Numbers and the first Morse code message.) We are fortunate, to put it mildly, that nuclear bombs have not been dropped on any population since WWII.
Michael Moritz has an amusing and informative piece about early tinkering by Apple founders Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. They expanded development of devices to mimic telephone tones in order to get free long-distance calling. (You once had to pay for that?!) Moritz was eventually banned from Apple and became a venture capitalist, investing in Google, You Tube, and PayPal.
Henry Law’s brief piece comments on the inspiration for Isambard Kingdom Brunel (or was it his father, Marc Brunel?) for large-scale tunneling. A seaworm. Free.
The Wright Brothers write. An informative and matter-of-fact account of their airplane development and flight. FREE.
An 1841 piece in a textile mill literary magazine (?!) is more or less a public service announcement encouraging women to eschew the rural life for the advantages (?!?!) of working in the urban mills of the day. An amusing, FREE, read.
Per the side notes “Though to what extent management held editorial sway over the journal is debated, one scholar noted that it “provided a fortuitous medium for those two expressions of distinctly American genius: public relations and packaging.””
I had less favorites in this section, though Herodotus (the Father of History or the Father of Lies?), Marshal McLuhan, Primo Levi and Ted Kaczynski (!) are not to be slighted.
In 2014 Chen talks about content-moderator sweatshops in the Philippines, groups of cheaply paid people who look at and remove posts, to Facebook and the like, that are disgusting beyond the limit that most people can stomach. It apparently takes a mental toll and many moderators do not last long at their job.
From AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War by Tom McNichol (2013) (not free, unfortunately) describes the 1881 advent of distributed electric lighting in New York City by Thomas Edison. The publisher’s summary is appropriately descriptive: “In the AC/DC battle, the worst aspects of human nature somehow got caught up in the wires; a silent, deadly flow of arrogance, vanity, and cruelty. Following the path of least resistance, the war of currents soon settled around that most primal of human emotions: fear.”
As you who are plugged-in to history know, Edison advocated direct current (DC), versus Nikola Tesla and alternating current (AC). Wikipedia has a fascinating read on The War of the Currents and its (poor pun intended) shocking developments. It was gas lighting vs. electrical, AC vs. DC. (Oil and gas had supplanted whale oil lighting, saving a few whales I hope, though Britannica informs me whale oil had significant uses well into the 20th century. Wikipedia says its use ‘has practically ceased’.) AC received a lot of early bad press due to its high voltage arc lighting (3,000+ volts) and those ‘shocks’. As if that wasn’t enough, the electric chair was quickly invented. It’s long but dubious history has resulted in the resurgence of the firing squad as an option. Civilization and technology have never been more enlightened. (Light. Get it?) Great reads, these side journeys, if one can stand ‘man’s inhumanity’.
Marshall McLuhan expounds on his well-known aphorism in a 1969 interview with Playboy magazine:
“But most people, from truck drivers to the literary Brahmins, are still blissfully ignorant of what the media do to them, unaware that because of their pervasive effects on man, it is the medium itself that is the message, not the content, and unaware that the medium is also the massage—that, all puns aside, it literally works over and saturates and molds and transforms every sense ratio.” (p. 101) (Emphasis is mine. –JH)
Early nineteenth century historian/philosopher (polymath?) Thomas Carlyle castigates on modern technology:
“Nothing is now done directly or by hand; all is by rule and calculated contrivance. For the simplest opera- tion, some helps and accompaniments, some cunning abbreviating process, is in readiness. Our old modes of exertion are all discredited and thrown aside. On every hand, the living artisan is driven from his workshop to make room for a speedier, inanimate one.”
…and religion: “Then we have religious machines of all imaginable varieties; the Bible Society, professing a far higher and heavenly structure, is found on inquiry to be altogether an earthly contrivance, supported by collection of moneys, by fomenting of vanities, by puffing, intrigue, and chicane, a machine for converting the heathen.” (p. 103-105)
Robert Frost waxes poetic on The Line-Gang, uncertain whether pro or con:
“Here come the line-gang pioneering by.
They throw a forest down less cut than
They plant dead trees for living, and the dead
They string together with a living thread.” (p. 105) Free.
Tench Coxe, on machines, 1787:
“Machines ingeniously constructed will give us immense assistance. The cotton and silk manufacturers in Europe are possessed of some that are invaluable to them. One instance I have had precisely ascertained, which employs a few hundred women and children and performs the work of twelve thousand carders, spinners, and winders. They have been so curiously improved of late years as to weave the most complicated manufactures. In short, combinations of machines with fire and water have already performed much more than was formerly expected from them by the most visionary enthusiast on the subject.”
“Emigration from Europe will also relieve and assist us. The blessings of civil and religious liberty in America and the oppressions of most foreign governments, the want of employment at home and the expectations of profit here, curiosity, domestic unhappiness, civil wars, and various other circumstances will bring many manufacturers to this asylum for mankind.” (p. 107-108) Free.
Mark Twain wanes less electric than usual, but still like Twain, postulating on the psychic connection of 19th century letter writers, and how one delays writing a friend, only to eventually receive a letter answering all those withheld questions.
“We are always talking about letters “crossing” each other, for that is one of the very commonest accidents of this life. We call it “accident,” but perhaps we misname it. We have the instinct a dozen times a year that the letter we are writing is going to “cross” the other person’s letter;” (p. 115) Free.
Vitruvius, c. 27 B.C., recognizes technology:
“Let us take first a necessary invention, such as clothing, and see how the combination of warp and woof on the loom, which does its work on the principle of an engine, not only protects the body by covering it but also gives it honorable apparel. We should not have had food in abundance unless yokes and plows for oxen, and for all draft animals, had been invented.” (p. 122) Free.
Lame Deer (Mineconju-Lakota Sioux John Fire Lame Deer) is VERY insightful and philosophical on Man’s dependence on machines:
“Let’s sit down here, all of us, on the open prairie, where we can’t see a highway or a fence. Let’s have no blankets to sit on, but feel the ground with our bodies, the earth, the yielding shrubs. Let’s have the grass for a mattress, experiencing its sharpness and its softness. Let us become like stones, plants, and trees. Let us be animals, think and feel like animals.
You have made it hard for us to experience nature in the good way by being part of it. Even here we are conscious that somewhere out in those hills there are missile silos and radar stations. White men always pick the few unspoiled, beautiful, awesome spots for the sites of these abominations. You have raped and violated these lands, always saying, “Gimme, gimme, gimme,” and never giving anything back. You have taken 200,000 acres of our Pine Ridge Reservation and made them into a bombing range. This land is so beautiful and strange that now some of you want to make it into a national park. The only use you have made of this land since you took it from us was to blow it up.”
“Having to spend all their lives stooped over makes an unnatural, crazy, no-good bird. [Chickens. –JH] It also makes unnatural, no-good human beings.”
“That’s where you fooled yourselves. You have not only altered, declawed, and malformed your winged and four-legged cousins; you have done it to yourselves. You have changed men into chairmen of boards, into office workers, into time-clock punchers. You have changed women into housewives, truly fearful creatures.” [INDEED!! –JH]
“Living in boxes that shut out the heat of the summer and the chill of winter, living inside a body that no longer has a scent, hearing the noise from the hi-fi instead of listening to the sounds of nature, watching some actor on TV having a make-believe experience when you no longer experience anything for yourself, eating food without taste—that’s your way. It’s no good.”
“People are being too smart, too clever; the machine stops and they are helpless, because they have forgotten how to make do without the machine.” (p. 126-128)
Lame Deer received my coveted double-asterisk notation. Sadly, it is not free.
Hugh of Saint-Victor, 1140, is noteworthy on Man the artificer.
Though I said I had ‘less favorites’ in the Adoption session, it has captivated me. The journeys into Wikipedia are equally enlightening. Take this side-quote by Roger Dworkin:
“Playing God is indeed playing with fire.
But that is what we mortals have done since Prometheus, the patron saint of dangerous discoveries. We play with fire and take the consequences, because the alternative is cowardice in the face of the unknown.
—Ronald Dworkin, 2000
Who? Wiki notes “His theory of law as integrity as presented in his book titled Law’s Empire, in which judges interpret the law in terms of consistent moral principles, especially justice and fairness, is among the most influential contemporary theories about the nature of law.”
Law as integrity. What a novel idea.
Finally, Adoption concludes with a portion of Ted Kaczynski’s ‘Manifesto’. He is the Unabomber/letter bomber whose work resulted in three murders and 16 bombings. He now resides in my beautiful State of Colorado, serving eight life sentences. Thankfully I don’t agree with his logic, but we must be informed of the opposition in order to understand it. Free. Don’t get me started on the extremities of current U.S. politics. I might be ill.
Enough of my copy/paste rambling for now. To be continued…
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.