When you hear the phrase “lost technology”, you tend to think of something mysterious from millennia ago.
However, as I discovered from “Einstein’s clocks, Poincaré’s maps”, even just a century ago, there were systems both surprising and sophisticated.
This is a sort of precursor to NTP, within a very locally constrained area, with this pneumatic control of the precision of everyone’s clocks in the city.
It must’ve been magic for most people in the world then — well, it’s still magic now, people just don’t care as much how anything around them works — and I wouldn’t even believe they existed if I didn’t see strong evidence.
Is there a takeaway from this, other than a mild curiosity? Maybe that anything is possible, because anything was possible in the past.
This is far more useful and concise than all the op-eds and shallow news you might have come across in the past few weeks.
A very “1914” feel to these events.
I’m hoping things pull back from the brink and, while not going back to normal, at least avoid the “worse outcomes” ahead.
This video should be considered required viewing to be able to have a balanced historical context (which is completely missing from the coverage that makes it look like this is some random land-grab that just magically happened out of the blue).
I came across the old footage of the 1939 World’s Fair, which was promoted, at the time as “the world of tomorrow“, talking about the magnificent world of twenty years from now, of 1960!
Ironically, this fair co-incided with the outbreak of World War II, but in my opinion, the optimism within did prevail longer, probably up until the 1970s (there was a follow-up fair in the mid-1960s!).
There is an immensely positive message here, of how the future had to be better.
When people talk about how “it’s time to build” again, I think this — recapturing this lost optimism — is the only way to mean it in an unambiguously good way.
I dug up this interesting Op-Ed in the NYTimes archive (from 1995, so 26 years old today!) which descibes the “pivot” between the 60s and the 70s (a sort of “good to bad” that is referenced elsewhere too), and posits Johnson’s decision to hide the cost of the war from the public as the origin of everything that followed.
Johnson’s policy set the stage for and began the inflation of the 1970‘s, which was made worse by the irrational economic policies of President Nixon and the unsound ones of Jimmy Carter. The dollar lost nearly half its purchasing power in the 1970’s. This resulted in massive shifts of wealth toward upper-income groups, who are the owners of businesses and property. The real income of the lowest 20 percent income class declined substantially, while before 1967, income distribution among classes had been very stable.
HUXLEY: Well another force which I think is very strongly operative in this country is the force of what may be called of overorganization. Er…As technology becomes more and more complicated, it becomes necessary to have more and more elaborate organizations, more hierarchical organizations, and incidentally the advance of technology is being accompanied by an advance in the science of organization. It’s now possible to make organizations on a larger scale than it was ever possible before, and so that you have more and more people living their lives out as subordinates in these hierarchical systems controlled by bureaucracy, either the bureaucracies of big businesses or the bureaucracies of big government.
Here, the television can be a proxy for other digital media not conceived of at the time
HUXLEY: Well, at the present the television, I think, is being used quite harmlessly; it’s being used, I think, I would feel, it’s being used too much to distract everybody all the time. But, I mean, imagine which must be the situation in all communist countries where the television, where it exists, is always saying the same things the whole time; it’s always driving along. It’s not creating a wide front of distraction it’s creating a one-pointed, er…drumming in of a single idea, all the time. It’s obviously an immensely powerful instrument.
And here the key difference between Brave New World and 1984:
Well, this book was written at the height of the Stalinist regime, and just after the Hitler regime, and there he foresaw a dictatorship using entirely the methods of terror, the methods of physical violence. Now, I think what is going to happen in the future is that dictators will find, as the old saying goes, that you can do everything with bayonets except sit on them!
HUXLEY: But, if you want to preserve your power indefinitely, you have to get the consent of the ruled, and this they will do partly by drugs as I foresaw in “Brave New World,” partly by these new techniques of propaganda. They will do it by bypassing the sort of rational side of man and appealing to his subconscious and his deeper emotions, and his physiology even, and so, making him actually love his slavery. I mean, I think, this is the danger that actually people may be, in some ways, happy under the new regime, but that they will be happy in situations where they oughtn’t to be happy.
On political personalities
This is something taken for granted now (!) but it seemed to elicit an “oh, really? huh …” response.
WALLACE: You write in Enemies of Freedom, you write specifically about the United States. You say this, writing about American political campaigns you say, “All that is needed is money and a candidate who can be coached to look sincere; political principles and plans for specific action have come to lose most of their importance. The personality of the candidate, the way he is projected by the advertising experts, are the things that really matter.”
HUXLEY: Well, this is the…during the last campaign, there was a great deal of this kind of statement by the advertising managers of the campaign parties. This idea that the candidates had to be merchandised as though they were soap and toothpaste and that you had to depend entirely on the personality.
WALLACE: In regard to advertising, which you mentioned just a little ago, in your writing, particularly in “Enemies of Freedom,” you attack Madison Avenue, which controls most of our television and radio advertising, newspaper advertising and so forth. Why do you consistently attack the advertising agencies…
HUXLEY: Well, no I…I think that, er…advertisement plays a very necessary role, but the danger it seems to me in a democracy is this…I mean what does a democracy depend on? A democracy depends on the individual voter making an intelligent and rational choice for what he regards as his enlightened self-interest, in any given circumstance. But what these people are doing, I mean what both, for their particular purposes, for selling goods and the dictatorial propagandists are for doing, is to try to bypass the rational side of man and to appeal directly to these unconscious forces below the surfaces so that you are, in a way, making nonsense of the whole democratic procedure, which is based on conscious choice on rational ground.
WALLACE: You said something to the effect in your essay that the children of Europe used to be called ‘cannon fodder’ and here in the United States they are ‘television and radio fodder.’
HUXLEY: Well, after all, you can read in the trade journals the most lyrical accounts of how necessary it is, to get hold of the children because then they will be loyal brand buyers later on. But I mean, again you just translate this into political terms, the dictator says they all will be ideology buyers when they are grown up.
On technology and power
HUXLEY: Well, I think one of the reasons is that these are all instruments for obtaining power, and obviously the passion for power is one of the most moving passions that exists in man; and after all, all democracies are based on the proposition that power is very dangerous and that it is extremely important not to let any one man or any one small group have too much power for too long a time.
After all what are the British and American Constitution except devices for limiting power, and all these new devices are extremely efficient instruments for the imposition of power by small groups over larger masses.
On individuals and groups
WALLACE: Well, you ask this question yourself in “Enemies of Freedom.” I’ll put your own question back to you. You ask this, “In an age of accelerating overpopulation, of accelerating overorganization, and ever more efficient means of mass communication, how can we preserve the integrity and reassert the value of the human individual?” You put the question, now here’s your chance to answer it Mr. Huxley.
HUXLEY: Well, this is obviously…first of all, it is a question of education. Er…I think it’s terribly important to insist on individual values, I mean, what is a…there is a tendency as a…you probably read a book by Whyte, “The Organization Man”, a very interesting, valuable book I think, where he speaks about the new type of group morality, group ethic, which speaks about the group as though the group were somehow more important than the individual.
And I think it’s extremely important for us to stress this in all our educational life, and I would say it’s also very important to teach people to be on their guard against the sort of verbal booby traps into which they are always being led, to analyze the kind of things that are said to them.
A national comparison
(we don’t have the Soviet Union any more, but … still …)
WALLACE: Well, Mr. Huxley, take a look again at the country which is in the stance of our opponent anyway, it would seem, anyway it would seem to be there, Soviet Russia. It is strong, and getting stronger, economically, militarily, at the same time it’s developing its art forms pretty well, er…it seems not unnecessarily to squelch the creative urge among its people. And yet it is not a free society.
HUXLEY: It’s not a free society, but here is something very interesting that those members of the society, like the scientists, who are doing the creative work, are given far more freedom than anybody else. I mean, it is a privileged aristocratic society in which, provided they don’t poke their noses into political affairs, these people are given a great deal of prestige, a considerable amount of freedom, and a lot money.
I mean, this is a very interesting fact about the new Soviet regime, and I think what we are going to see is er…a people on the whole with very little freedom but with an oligarchy on top enjoying a considerable measure of freedom and a very high standard of living.
WALLACE: Mr. Huxley, let me ask you this, quite seriously, is freedom necessary?
HUXLEY: As far as I am concerned it is.
WALLACE: Why? Is it necessary for a productive society?
HUXLEY: Yes, I should say it is. I mean, a genuinely productive society. I mean you could produce plenty of goods without much freedom, but I think the whole sort of creative life of man is ultimately impossible without a considerable measure of individual freedom, of initiative, creation, all these things which we value, and I think value properly, are impossible without a large measure of freedom.
I first encountered computers in books. Glossy books these were, the kind you would expect to find twenty years ago in the “reference books” section of a library. Which was how I came across them; my mother was a teacher and was able to get me books though I wasn’t in the same school.
These books were dated, of course, and so my initial impression was anachronistic to begin with. The story ended at these magical microprocessors, though at the time the first modern pipelined processors were coming into existence.
The first glimpse
The very first computer I saw was probably an 80486 with a color display, sometime around 1994 or so. It was some guy I knew at school, whose father had bought this for his elder brother, and at his birthday party all the assembled guests crowded around this curious device, as he let some sort of demo program run, showing images, wireframes, and so on, as people oohed and ached.
The very first computer I had was an 80386 my father bought in 1995. I remember it very clearly, having waited in eager anticipation of it for weeks since I came to know it was coming. I read the MS-DOS 6.22 manual cover to cover (yes, I know, sick) before it arrived.
My fitness tracker has more memory than …
Its specs were formidable. It had a 14” black and white monitor, a 256gb hard disk and 4mb of memory (yes, that’s four megabytes). All it had was Ms-Dos and QBasic.
Now it’s fair to say I probably picked up bad programming habits that I’m not even aware of; or at least that’s the standard impression people have about Basic. Either way, it was a blast. Because I did on that machine was programming!
The lonely prompt
Hang on, I don’t want to skip ahead. Let it sink in for a while. The only program I used was QBasic. No phones, no internet, no Windows either! You booted up the computer, and you stared at a “C:>” prompt! and you typed “qbasic” or whatever, and you were in this notepad like environment where you wrote stuff line by line, and your program was interpreted.
This state of affairs lasted about a year, after which it was supplemented by a few rudimentary rasterized graphics games, and then the trio of “Lotus 1-2-3”, “Wordstar” and “Dbase 4”. But more on that later …