The term "Web Engineer" intrigues. "Engineer" implies: Scientific method, creation, invention, systems, social apps, design, visualization.
— molly (@mholzschlag) May 1, 2016
George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, was based on the mistaken notion that high tech would always be so expensive that it would be controlled by the government. Modern smart phones are simply the latest and greatest innovation that make it increasingly hard for totalitarian governments to continue to fool their people.
1984 contained the foremost prophecy of the cold war era, the message that Stalinism was unstoppable, and all individual liberty would be lost. The year 1984 became a symbol of future anxiety, and many feared its arrival with the same dread that people of the dark ages felt as they approached the end of the first millennium, when the world was predicted to end. I’m old enough that I read 1984 in 1960; I recall the slow approach of the year 1984 and the concern that was strongly felt at that time.
Orwell’s error was remarkably simple and easily identifiable: he assumed that advanced technology would always be expensive, and therefore affordable only to the state. It was an assumption shared by virtually every prophet and science-fiction writer, but it has proven to be wrong. A surprisingly large fraction of high technology has become cheap. As late as the 1970s, the driving force for electronic technology was the military; now the military has difficulty getting the electronics industry to pay attention to their needs, since they are small compared to the consumer market. The cheapness of photography and printers have made them an alternative to the printing-press; most of the books I read on my Kindle. Few of us can even count the number of computers we own, because we don’t know how many are hidden in our microwave ovens and our automobiles. But it is the technology of information and communications that has really made tyranny unworkable, and may soon make it obsolete. This is the true technology of liberation.
To be sure, technology has introduced problems. Like anything else that is out of control, it does not always lead us where we want to go. But at a time that technology is frequently under attack, it is worthwhile to think about its role in spreading truth. It has proven to be too cheap to be directed by governments. It was not Stalinism, but the spread of information that proved to be unstoppable. If, in fact, democracy does spread across the world, let us not forget to notice this contributing force, led (I predict) by the smart phone and its progeny.
Note: this essay draws heavily from one I wrote in 1991 (I own the copyright, so I freely take paragraphs from it) which still appears on my personal website,. It continues to be relevant today.
Online publication explaining complex discourse through heavy dataviz over longform prose. Cool site.
Bots are a kind of manifestation of Walter Ong’s secondary orality—text that works like spoken language, even though it’s written, made ever more strange by being filtered through the uncanny valley of a bot’s impression of that language.
Maybe this is a tertiary orality, even—an orality removed first by text, then by bots.
The mobile phone industry has had two waves – first voice and SMS and then the smartphone. The voice wave has taken it from zero to 5 billion people on earth with a mobile phone, and now close to 2 billion mobile phones are sold every year.
In parallel, starting 9 years ago, the smartphone wave converted a larger and larger percentage of those phone sales to smartphones.
All of this is now reaching an end – the wave is almost over.
On one level this is just classic saturation – no industry can grow forever. But what happens next?
At the level of the consumer internet, it’s been clear for some time that Apple and Google won the platform war and that the important questions have moved up the stack – how far can Google and Facebook capture attention and intent, what other interaction models will emerge, how far Android and iOS can shape interaction and consumer behaviour, and so on.
For the hardware companies themselves, though (and that includes Apple), when you’re selling to everyone on earth (something the tech industry has never really done before), what do you do next? TV, once thought of as the next phase after PCs, turned to be an accessory to smartphones, and so are watches and (to some extent) even tablets. VR and AR are some time away with unclear market size, though I think AR could in principle be the next ecosystem after the smartphone.
This is all rather like the PC clone market of the 1980s – hundreds of undifferentiated companies fighting it out to sell commodity computers built with commodity components running a commodity operating system (though those companies mainly made the PCs themselves, where many phone brands do not). That world in due course led to companies like Dell – people who embraced the volume, low-margin commodity model and found an angle of their own. We’re starting to see equivalent model-creation now.
Craiglist has something wonderful on it: a vast collection of more than 600 vintage Smith-Corona typewriters, including accessories and marketing literature.
“My collection consists of over 600 typewriter items including the company’s first typewriter in the 1880’s to one of the company’s last typewriters in 2000’s and all models in between, along with all types of items that correspond to the typewriters, including ads, accessories, displays, documents, manuals, photos, shipping crates, etc. Smith Corona’s products are beautiful, interesting, unique, colorful, and when displayed, fun to look at.
I collected the typewriters and related items from 44 of the 50 United States, Washington DC, four Canadian provinces and three foreign countries. I only purchased museum quality items, so the collection would make an instant museum. The collection includes many rare and valuable items.
I have decided it is time to sell the collection.
The collection is a nice financial investment that consistently increases in value over time due to a large international typewriter collectors market. The collection will only increase in value over time.”
The fashionability of Pelicans, which lasted at least into the 70s, was connected to this breaking open of radical new ideas to public understanding – not in academic jargon but in clearly expressed prose. But it was also because they looked so good. The first Pelicans were, like the Penguins, beneficiaries of the 30s passion for design. They had the iconic triband covers conceived by Edward Young – in Lane’s words, “a bright splash of fat colour” with a white band running horizontally across the centre for displaying author and title in Gill Sans. A pelican appeared flying on the cover and standing on the spine. After the war, Lane employed as a designer the incomparable Jan Tschichold, a one-time associate of the Bauhaus and known for his Weimar film posters. His Pelicans had a central white panel framed by a blue border containing the name of the imprint on each side.
In the 60s the books changed again, to the illustrative covers designed by Germano Facetti, art director from 1961 to 72. Facetti, a survivor of Mauthausen labour camp who had worked in Milan as a typographer and in Paris as an interior designer, transformed the Penguin image, as John Walsh has written, “from linear severity and puritanical simplicity into a series of pictorial coups”. The 60s covers by Facetti (eg The Stagnant Society by Michael Shanks), and by the designers he took on – Jock Kennier (eg Alex Comfort’s Sex in Society), Derek Birdsall (eg The Naked Society) – are ingenious, arresting invitations to a world of new thinking.
Jenny Diski has written of subscribing in the 60s to “the unofficial University of Pelican Books course”, which was all about “gathering information and ideas about the world. Month by month, titles came out by Laing and Esterson, Willmott and Young, JK Galbraith, Maynard Smith, Martin Gardner, Richard Leakey, Margaret Mead; psychoanalysts, sociologists, economists, mathematicians, historians, physicists, biologists and literary critics, each offering their latest thinking for an unspecialised public, and the blue spines on the pile of books on the floor of the bedsit increased.”
“If you weren’t at university studying a particular discipline (and even if you were),” she goes on, “Pelican books were the way to get the gist of things, and education seemed like a capacious bag into which all manner of information was thrown, without the slightest concern about where it belonged in the taxonomy of knowledge. Anti-psychiatry, social welfare, economics, politics, the sexual behaviour of young Melanesians, the history of science, the anatomy of this, that and the other, the affluent, naked and stagnant society in which we found ourselves.”
Owen Hatherley has described the Pelicans of the late 60s as “human emancipation through mass production … hot-off-the-press accounts of the ‘new French revolution’ would go alongside texts on scientific management, with Herbert Marcuse next to Fanon, next to AJP Taylor, and all of this conflicting and intoxicating information in a pocket-sized form, on cheap paper and with impeccably elegant modernist covers.”