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Wednesday, 6 May 2015

A question of collaboration

Anybody who knows much about the books I write could be excused for sniffing and saying "Ah, yes, Macinnis—always got his nose stuck in the 19th century!"  Well. it's true—I do find the middle of the 19th century fascinating, but only as a nice place to visit.  I wouldn't want to live there, not unless I can have a time machine to send back antibiotics, good cheese and a decent bicycle.

It was a simple era, and somebody from our time can understand even the fastest of the changes in science and technology happening back then.  Later, it all became too complex.  Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee could go back in time to King Arthur's court and reproduce 19th century technology, but could you make a transistor, a computer, or a motor car?

This belongs to somebody, If it's yours, give me a shout!
I don't long for the old times, but I find them interesting, and I like finding things that belong more in the realm of alternative-future fiction or steam punk.  I lap up clockwork fly traps, steam-powered, wing-flapping flying machines, balloons powered by tanks of compressed hydrogen driving engines that turn the propellers or even balloons hauled by eagles.

It's hard not to feel smugly superior, reading their predictions of the future.  Let me lie back on the couch, doctor, and I'll tell you about it.

It all began when I was a teenager, still in short pants, reading the words of Egon Larsen, a mid-20th century science writer, praising the virtues of atomic energy:

"Within a few years isotopes will turn up in many more expected or unexpected places — perhaps the slogan 'Gamma Washes Whiter', will become quite familiar to us when our ultra-sonic washing machines are equipped with some gamma source to sterilize shirts and socks and napkins." [1]
A little earlier, he'd explained nuclear waste disposal like this:

"Even highly radio-active solid wastes can be disposed of safely in the sea provided all relevant factors are kept in mind: movement of the surface water, the breeding and migratory habits of fish, and the possible hazard to seaweed where it is harvested for food, fertilization, or industrial use." [2]

Perhaps, doctor, you can see why I grew alarmed.  I knew little of food chains and concentrations and nothing of the effects of ionising radiation on tissues.  I'd barely heard of the concept of half-life, but these predictions just felt wrong. They seemed like a bad future.

Being a compulsive book gatherer, I started collecting old books which offered visions of the future.  I found they always warned us to make way for the bright new future, to plan, to prepare, and to act now.  I also noticed that the future always included flying cars and a world where we had swapped eating for the efficiency and superior nutritional value of food pills.

What's that, doctor?  No, I don't want to take two fish and chips pills and call you in the morning. May I continue?  Thank you.

Popular Science, 1930s.
Popular Science, 1930s.
Another common early 20th century theme was the modern airliner. This had all the frills of a 1920s luxury ocean liner, but slung beneath the gas bag of a motorised balloon.  These Zeppelins on the grand scale each had a ballroom, a dining room seating 129 fashionably attired gentlemen and ladies, with space for dozens of servants and individual cabins, each fitted with a bath and a shower. Modern cattle class, eat your heart out!

And one more definite, absolutely certain future: the pneumatic telegraph.  This did in fact happen in a small way.  It was still around when I was old enough to be aware of it at a local clothing shop, where money and sales dockets were carried through tubes to a cashier on another floor, and the change and a receipt were returned similarly.  It was scaled-down, but still clearly the pneumatic telegraph.
From Scientific American, 1860s.

The money and paperwork travelled in a small cylinder, just the right size for the tubes.  It was neat and effective, but a mere shadow of the projected pneumatic telegraph, which 19th century seers thought would replace messenger boys and telegraphy, carrying messages and parcels unerringly to their destinations though tubes, using high pressure behind or low pressure in front—or both.
Readers were assured that these innovations would revolutionise their lives.  Capitalists were admonished in the early 1860s to put money into these schemes, ignoring all others.

Now imagine a world where farmers had walked off the land, because, let's face it, food pills would soon do them out of the job.  Think of a world where the roads had been dug up and sold off to developers, because flying cars need no roads.

Contemplate a world where the cables have all been torn down or dug up and sold for scrap, because the pneumatic telegraph was coming.  Ponder a world where the airports have been sold off to robber barons and covered with towering future slums, intended to house the otherwise unemployed farmers, road-makers and cable layers, because modern airships don't need long runways.

Nobody would plan on that basis, would they, doctor?  I mean, it's ludicrous, isn't it?  What sort of idiot would plan for the future, based on half-baked notions, pipe-dreams?  Who would base decisions on special pleading from interested parties, all eager to hack out an empire for themselves?
So, why do people happily embrace the prospect of a world without libraries, based on the prediction that we don't need books or libraries any more, because we can get everything we need from the internet?

Those who make sweeping assertions like this don't know what books are, have no sense of what libraries do, and absolutely no idea of what the internet is—or offers.  Most importantly, these rigid descendants of Wackford Squeers lack the wit to see that institutions evolve.  Change is attained through finesse, using scalpels, files and sandpaper, not bulldozers, flamethrowers and explosives!

OK, doctor, so I'm probably biased, being a book collector and writer who likes hanging out with librarians, but at least I've studied change and how it happens.  Perhaps that doesn't qualify me to predict the future, but it gives me a clear insight into what doesn't work.

One profound and simple change to our society came when a bright spark had the idea of combining the mouse and the graphic user interface to make it easier for people to access their computers.  Most people credit Alan Kay with this idea, and he was certainly involved in creating our mouse and windows world.  That's why I like his comment:

"Don't worry about what anybody else is going to do… The best way to predict the future is to invent it." [3]

He said that in 1971, forty years ago, probably before the mouse and GUI came up.  But then he did the necessary work.  The people like that who do things are the ones that make change happen.  Some may make better mousetraps or a brighter light, others just nudge the system. These are small moves that by themselves do little.  Together, they make a Brave New World.

One emerging cause of change is collaboration.  For all the problems caused by mischievous people, Wikipedia is an amazing resource of ideas, notes and reminders.  As more and more people offer their expertise, adding original sources and detail, it continues to outgrow the silly games of the vandals.
You can see one of my contributions in the entry on the Flint Piano or lithophone.  I made it after I came across some original material, looked at Wikipedia for more detail, found the account deficient, and rewrote the article, using what I'd found.

Another time, I added the text (and a pointer to the source) of a first-hand account of an 1811 earthquake on the New Madrid fault in America.  That tremor made the Mississippi River run backwards, and it rang church bells in Boston.  I tripped over the account while seeking the origins of the word 'diggings', and thought it interesting.  At some time in the not-too-distant future, that fault will move again.  When it does, my contributions will be there, waiting and accessible.

The grand planners and self-promoters want to scrap everything, so only their vision of the future can be enacted.  Sounds a bit like China's Cultural Revolution, doesn't it?  I'd rather see cultural evolution, where we get to keep all the best bits, and preserve the spare bits for a while at least, in a box in the garage.

In 1990, two mathematicians, Philip Davis and Reuben Hersh, offered a refreshing view of computer art. They thought its future lay in 

"… the dynamic, the animated, the interactive.  It should look not towards Rembrandt, but towards Verdi's 'Aïda'.  Not just the classical 'Aïda', but an 'Aïda' with the audience singing along and scrambling onto the backs of the elephants on stage.  Chaos?  No.  Total theatre." [4]

This is the way our society is quietly heading.  Invisibly, it's happening, all around us.  The National Library of Australia (who are, let me confess, sometimes my publisher) have a remarkable resource called Trove.  This is a massive collection of digitised newspapers, linked to computer-generated text which registered users can correct.

More than that, they can add generic tags like "bushrangers", "39th Battalion", or one of my favourites, "early use of language", the tag I hang on the earliest instances I find of words like 'squatter', 'billy', 'bludger', 'swag' and 'fossick'—among others.  Those tags are there for all time.
Equally, I was researching two London conmen called Tripe and Montague, who in 1852, fleeced would-be emigrants who were headed for Australia's goldfields.

I found their trial transcript at the Old Bailey, but until I found a record of their pardon, I believed they had been transported to Australia.  I grinned at their probable reception here, if they met any of those they had robbed.

Curious, I burrowed and found an 1856 classified ad in the Sydney Morning Herald where 'W.W.' was advertising for friends who'd been caught up in the swindle. Trawling along, I found another ad in the same paper in 1865, where William Waterford was mentioned. I went back to the first ad, and attached a comment, drawing any later reader's attention to the second ad and the likelihood that the mysterious W. W. was in fact William Waterford.

Slowly, the resource is growing, and the prospects for future researchers are being quietly enhanced, not by hewing and slashing behemoths, but by nibbling and gnawing mice.

One day, I hope, people will turn around, raise their eyebrows and ask "Where did all that come from?" That day isn't here yet, but we can hope for it, and work towards it. If I'm wrong, no harm will've been done, because nothing is scrapped as these small additions drop into place.

But we're not there yet. The other day, I was looking at an old Times Literary Supplement in the State Library of New South Wales' online collections, when another article on the same page caught my eye.  It mentioned Sir Horace Mann appearing in a painting in Florence.  I soon found Zoffany's The Tribuna of the Uffizi and with some effort, tracked down a key to the people in the painting.

I wanted to annotate the TLS article so others could find the same resource, but I couldn't.  One day, that'll be a given, because every system will have that sort of flexibility worked into it.  As a stopgap, I edited the relevant entry in Wikipedia, and added a link there.

That's the future I look forward to.  The difference between my vision and that of the people who'd sack the librarians, pulp the books and demolish the shelves, all to make room for soft lounges, a couple of computers and a gleaming great coffee machine is this: my vision offers hope, and doesn't prescribe world-crashing and irreversible destruction.  We build on what we have, knowing that some of the old stuff—and some of the new—will be discarded, once we're in a position to decide.

As the twig bends, so the tree bends.  A future built on collaboration relies on people who gain a quiet joy from contributing gems, nuggets and crumbs to future generations, whimsical folk who amuse themselves by committing acts of anonymous scholarship.

You see, doctor, this is the way the world bends—not with a bang, but with a whimsy.

[1] Egon Larsen, Atomic Energy, Pan Books, 1958, p. 136-7.
[2] Egon Larsen, Atomic Energy, Pan Books, 1958, p. 136.
[4] Philip J. Davis and Reuben Hersh, Descartes' Dream, Penguin, 1990, p. 53.

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