The many nostalgias of Harry Potter

I had pre-ordered the illustrated version of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which arrived this week (more on that later!) and made me think about the layers of feelings related to this … world.

First, there is the nostalgia of just being a series of books but one has read 20 years ago. That is, of a world that is different from the regular world, and which one has inhabited in detail through the books. The “wizarding world” is something familiar … and something left behind.

Second, there is the nostalgia of having the “normal“ word in the book be one that has itself been lost — in the sense of not being at all recognizable amid the world today. The way people act and relate to each other is … very much a “90s world”.

Third, there is the nostalgia of this world not only being “a long time ago“, but also being separated from the present by the huge gap in technology in human lives.

The magical people can be chuckled at for saying “fellytones” when they mean “telephones”, but wtf is a telephone today?

It isn’t just that the technology used is different, but that the modern current world is

a fundamental transformation office into a sort of cyborg individual call Ma which has changed utterly how we act, how we behave, but also what we believe in or aspire to.

Fourth, it is further nostalgic and that there is no point in imagining a separate parallel world of magic anymore, or at least not in the way of a group of people existing alongside us, as the book describes. Ubiquitous surveillance cameras would spot them, amateurs would find Hogwarts Castle on a map. And wait till the magical kids discover the legalized brain drugs of social media.

Finally, fifth, the forms of allusion and manipulation alluded to sound trivial or ridiculous, when compared to even “cheap consumer technology” in the present day. Moving pictures? Yawn.

So, what of it? Is there anything that could count as an equivalent today? Dunno yet.

There is no lack of yearning for a different world, just the inability to imagine one, which lends our current dystopia a desperate “there is no alternative“ tinge to it.

Yet, the “magical“ people in Rowling’s world are able to display a sense of camaraderie and ethics and just basic goodness. This essential human-ness is likely what still allowschildren to relate to the characters today, and … this might be a quality to aspire to when thinking of a similar counter-world, in the present day.

Resisting the virtual life

A book from the 1990s on “resisting the virtual life”.

An endorsement of sorts:

“At last, a defiant radical critique of the information millenium. . .. A burning barricade across the highway to the total surveillance society.”

A review from the turn of the millenium gleefully putting the book down as a party-pooper.

But this is the best (IMO) part: an article about it from two years further on, written (twenty years ago!) in 2002 (still in publication), excerpts below, with my remarks in parentheses.

No one can deny that our lives have been changed in just a few, short years. Only seven years after this book was published, the Internet has become commonplace in industrialized countries, and is making inroads into developing countries as well

(This is almost cute in its naïveté … “our lives” were going to change far, far more)

This book is an interesting snapshot of the way people thought in 1995. Some of what the authors discuss and predict has come true, and some has not. 

(and these articles are interesting snapshots of how people thought they were “done changing” back then, that the “impact of the internet had been absorbed”, and so on)

Technologies engender new values, and lead to shifts in existing value systems, causing instability and a risk of societal implosion. The oft-cited example of the Luddites, English weavers who destroyed the machines that would replace them, is used as a metaphor for those who question these new values. But the Luddites acted out of corporatist, economic fears – they saw a technology that was going to cut them out of the system of production, and eliminate their gainful employment. Today’s Luddites are different – they try to raise awareness of the hypocrisy and complications that may arise from these new technologies.  

(twenty years later, “today’s luddites” would be right once again to worry about being “cut out of the system of production”)

… sometimes, the authors are way off the mark. Herbert I. Schiller equates the NII with a system designed for “none other than transnational corporations.” But, while the Internet has become a marketplace, at least in part, its greatest influence has been on individuals. E-mail remains the killer app of the Internet, peer-to-peer has usurped traditional distribution models, and instant messaging (and its cell-phone sibling, SMS) have surprised even those companies who have developed these applications. 

(Written before e-mail had centralized providers, messaging had centralized providers, and the quality of the “marketplace” is less of a charming bazaar and more of … something else)

Well, so what?

If nothing else, it shows how cyclical these trends can be, and how it can take time, sometimes a good deal of time, before the full implications of a given technological change are known.

Quick rules for personal technology

(Edit: found this while cleaning old posts, must be about 2-3 years ago, but seems very relevant still 😀)

Bunch of suggestions from me, take it or leave it:

  • get off social media
  • no more free games on your phone
  • no news apps
  • no notifications (as much as possible)
  • use “do not disturb” aggressively
  • turn off ads everywhere
  • make something instead of “swiping away”: doodle, write gibberish, whatever
  • write a small journal everyday

Smart TV adventures

We have an Android TV at home. Turned it on tonight to watch some Netflix in the background, get informed that “the network needs to be set up”.

Okie dokie … wait, the router isn’t scanned? We’ll enter it manually (already suspicious) … now I have to guess whether it has WEP or WPA or WPA2. Enter password. Sorry, “router not found”.

After a few rounds of this, I googled this error, found a rant by some guy who’d paid for “geek squad support”, only to be informed, when he had them on the line, that he should go buy a new router. After swearing a bit, he said, he’d calmed down and just turned the damn thing off and on again.

So I turned it off and on again. It worked.

On the space dog

From an article in the New Yorker reminiscing about Laika:

But the story of Laika had a dark lie at its core. In 2002, forty-five years after the fact, Russian scientists revealed that she had died, probably in agony, after only a few hours in orbit. In the rush to put another satellite into space, the Soviet engineers had not had time to test Sputnik 2’s cooling system properly; the capsule had overheated. It remained in orbit for five months with Laika inside, then plunged into the atmosphere and burned up over the Caribbean, a space coffin turned shooting star. Turkina quotes one of the scientists assigned to Laika’s program: “The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.”

Brainstorming digital tool chaos

I used to think that I alone struggled with various tools and apps to manage, track and digest all the things I want to keep track of, but I now suspect this is a pretty common source of discontent.

Every few years I go through a phase of ‘churn where I signup for something new, with the hope that now, at long last, my cognitive load will lessen, ideas will be remembered, snippets and quotes will be stored and retrieved, and so on. Yet inevitably, after some initial enthusiasm, the experiment ends in deadlock and decay.

In the best case, the tool or app becomes inconvenient and sluggish, while in the worst case everything laboriously entered in is los forever. So after about a decade and half of this ridiculous waste of time, I thought I’d try to think through to figure out what exactly it is that I’m looking for.

There’s no point pretending that the one true, great tool out there will solve these problems. So this post isn’t about finding solutions, but just listing problems.

  • I need away to remind me to do something on a one-off basis
  • I need to be able to track a small group of related tasks
  • I need to be able to make lists of things, sometimes collaboratively
  • I need to be able to write medium size posts, like this one, with minimum fuss
  • I want to be able to save bookmarks (lots of them!) and find them later, by date and ‘tag’
  • I want to be able to save quotes or extracts from web pages
  • I want to be able to save pdfs and later search within them
  • I need an easy way to make short notes without making an official ‘doc’ about something with a title, etc.
  • I want to be able to quickly snap a photo of something, annotate it, and file it away, sometimes with a reminder
  • I need to make notes about a certain topic as I go along, sometimes sigh snippets of text or code, and retrieve his later by date or by ‘tag’
  • Sometimes emails have to be be turned into tasks
  • I have to be able to quickly capture thoughts and ideas for future retrieval
  • I don’t want to be locked in to proprietary formats or hidden libraries, as far as possible
  • It should be possible to ‘sync’ between devices
  • I don’t necessarily want to keep everything ‘in the cloud’
  • I want a lot of photos around, forever, accessible from everywhere
  • I need to be able to search across text, images, pdfs, but without always doing a huge amount of tagging up front
  • I want to be able to create small ‘projects’ with tasks, but without having to fight some rigid ‘true way’ of defining them (fluid due dates, deferred dates, priorities, easy capture and editing)
  • I need recurring reminders too (sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly, sometimes quarterly, sometimes biannually, etc)
  • I don’t want to think too much about where to file a given snippet, all I care about is being able to look for it later as if I had filed it correctly to begin with
  • I want to avoid the risk of some one going out of business and taking my data with them (stick to regular files and plain text as far as possible)

Yeah, a lot to ask for, but also … it’s not all that much, there has to be a way to get all this to work somehow.