The Atlantic Technology Canon
I’m not going to go all Sex Pistols, shouting No Future! – I’m suggesting that we’re becoming more like Europeans, who have always retrofitted their ruins, who’ve always known that everyone lives in someone else’s future and someone else’s past.
William Gibson. The Atlantic
Items 31 to 50 of the Canon Alexis Madrigal has compiled for The Atlantic’s Technology section have been revealed as I write this. I own dogeared and much quoted copies of many of the books he mentions: Stewart Brand’s Media Lab, Steven Levy’s Hackers, Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine, Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things. They were much consulted reference works when I was a technology writer. I consulted them for facts and they make me think of fogs of mathematical formulae, bit of materials science arcana, notes to myself in the margins to look up something about fibre optic cables.
Looking at this list I now see the social history of technology, that these books chronicle great human moments when technology shifted society, from the perspective of the people who were driving these changes. This is most particularly brought alive to me in the paragraph descriptions of the books. Duchamp saying to Brancusi: “Painting’s washed up. Who’ll do anything better than that propeller?” from the Futurist Manifesto. And I learned – I’m astonished I didn’t know this – that H G Wells coined the term ‘atomic bombs’ in his book The World Set Free, which had inspired atomic scientist Leo Szilard.
It’s easy to stand back and reflect upon technology in Australia. It’s a secondary market and products and services arrive late so being interested in the shiny new things is pointless, eternal unrequited desire. I can trace the exact moment of my weariness with technology’s forward march to reading the Wired cover story about the Next Industrial Revolution and feeling that it was utterly wrong that we’d all rush into a Kinko’s-like rapid prototyping store to model the product of our dreams and then make direct contact with factories in China to make our own products. I was thinking about the decline of factories.
In 2009, when I went to the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival on Cockatoo Island in Sydney, which had been a brutal convict prison and a shipyards, I realised I had little practical knowledge of pre-transistor technology. A rusted box cover for a transformer looked more like a Donald Judd table to me, and a winch reminded me of an Alexander Calder stabile. After that I spent time at the Powerhouse Museum gaining practical working knowledge of steam engines with their interactive displays. And I began to read the Arnold Toynbee book included in the Canon alongside Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist.
The stories that interest me now are in the limits and disappointments of technology, and the anomalies. That the search engines and algorithms that are increasingly controlling our choices may malfunction. Is the reader Google sent to my blog really looking for “Michael Graves Cattle”? Is it a misspelling, a Google error or are there really cows with baby blue horns wearing bright red bird-bells round their necks?
At the other extreme, my carefully hand-tended Twitter stream is a complete delight: with posters expressing, sharp ideas, irony, and wit in less than a 140 characters, qualities an algorithm can’t ape. It seems like a new artform. Alexandra Lange’s design criticism of patiently accumulated small, ordinary details reminding me of Edith Wharton’s critiques of turn of the 20th century New York, and Rosanne Cash’s tweets being wry social commentary, again compiled from granular details, reminiscent of Jane Austen’s perspective.