In his piece on Back to the Future trilogy, Tim Carmody focuses not on the 2015 future of the movies (hoverboards, self-drying jackets, Mr. Fusion) but on what the movies can tell us about technology in the 1980s. This riff on Back to the Future's cassette tape method of time travel is quite clever:
I sometimes call this "the cassette era," and sure enough, cassettes are everywhere. Marty has a Walkman, a camcorder, and an audition tape for his band; the Pinheads have recorded a demo even though they've never played in front of an audience.
As a material support for a medium, the cassette has certain advantages and disadvantages. It's more portable and sturdy than reels or records, and it requires less user interaction or expertise. It requires very fine interactions of miniaturized technology, both mechanical and electronic, in the form of transistors, reading heads, and so forth. Magnetic tape can actually record information as digital or analog, so it's curiously agnostic in that respect.
Cassettes can also be easily rewound or fast forward. It's easy to synchronize and dub the contents of one cassette onto another. And users can easily erase or rerecord information over the same tape.
This has clear implications for how we think - and especially, how our predecessors thirty years ago thought-about time travel. It is no accident that many important time travel films, including the Terminator franchise, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, and yes, the Back to the Future movies, appear at this time. In all three cases, time travel is accomplished with a technological mechanism that allows its users precise control of where they arrive in the timestream. (In earlier time travel stories, travellers slide down a river or awake from a dream, but in the 1980s, the H.G. Wells/Doctor Who conception of time travel through a technological device pretty definitively wins out.) And in all three cases, the goal of time travel is to save and/or rewrite events within a specific person's lifetime, without which a future timeline will cease to exist.
The Kottke post I probably think about most often is 2009's "One-handed computing with the iPhone." It just has all these perfectly rounded sentences in it, like this one:
A portable networked computing and gaming device that can be easily operated with one hand can be used in a surprising variety of situations.
Try to take the adjectives and adverbs out of that sentence. (Strunk and White say to "write with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs. Strunk and White are often surprisingly stupid.)
But also try adding any more adjectives or adverbs in. Try adding in or taking away any of the clauses. Try writing a better sentence that describes the same thing. (This is also known as "the Mohammed Test.") Try to misunderstand what the sentence means. I'm a professional writer. So is Jason. I appreciate this stuff.
There's also a lot of structural and emotional variety in this post. The author gets mad. He makes jokes. But mostly, he observes. He studies. He empathizes.
People carry things. Coffee, shopping bags, books, bags, babies, small dogs, hot dogs, water bottles, coats, etc. It's nice to be able to not put all that crap down just to quickly Google for the closest public restroom (aka Starbucks).
It is very occasionally necessary to use the iPhone while driving. No, not for checking your stock portfolio, you asshole. For directions. Glance quickly and keep your thoughts on the road ahead.
My wife spends about five hours a day breastfeeding our daughter and has only one hand available for non-feeding activities. That hand is frequently occupied by her iPhone; it helps her keep abreast (hey'o!) of current events, stay connected with pals through Twitter & email, track feeding/sleeping/diaper changing times, keep notes (she plans meals and grocery "shops" at 3am), and alert her layabout husband via SMS to come and get the damned baby already.
I liked "layabout husband" so much when I read it, I started referring to Jason as "noted layabout Jason Kottke." At a certain point, I forgot where the phrase came from.
But read that last paragraph again. You can't read that description of Meg and not think of it every time you either are or aren't doing any of the things she does in that sentence, every time you have to have to carry a bag and use your phone, every time you have to open a door and use your phone, every time you don't have to use your phone while walking down the street but you do it anyways, because you can, and the fact that you can now means that you have to.
I think about it every time I cover a new gadget and companies start touting its hands-free features, how it's added a new voice interface, how its new keyboard algorithm makes it easier to correct for typos. People didn't use to market that sort of thing. But companies started to notice it was one of the things their customers liked best.
I also thought about it when I read these tweets Meg wrote, just yesterday and this morning, about how the newer iPhone's longer screen borks its one-handed functionality.
I have enormous man-hands, and I still think that the trend toward enormous screen sizes on smartphones stinks. Not only is it harder to use a phone with one hand, it's harder to fit a phone in a pants pocket, and a long, thin phone is more likely to tip over and get knocked off a table or shelf.
Markets are gonna market, and specs are gonna spec, but it often feels like companies are forgetting that computers are for people, first. And people have bodies, those bodies have limitations, and all of us have limitations in specific situations.
We're all disabled sometimes. If I turn off the lights in your room, you can't see. If I fill the room with enough noise, you can't hear. If your hands are full, you can't use them to do anything else.
But as Sara Hendren writes, "all technology is assistive technology." When it's working right, technology helps people of every ability overcome these limitations. It doesn't throw us back into the world of assumptions that expects us all to be fully capable all of the time.
That's not what good technology does. That's not what good design does. That's what assholes do.
I think often about Jason's post on one-handed computing because I'm in the story. He wrote it for his wife, and he wrote it for me. I'd badly broken my right arm in an accident, snapping my radius in half and shooting it out of my body. Emergency room doctors stabilized my arm, then surgeons took the fibula from the left leg and used it to create a graft to replace my missing arm bone.
I'd broken my right leg, too, and sustained a concussion. With both legs unstable, I was stuck in a bed most days, and even when I could start putting weight on my left leg again, I couldn't climb in or out of bed to get into a wheelchair without help. I'm over six feet tall and I weigh about 300 pounds, so most nurses and orderlies were out of luck helping me. I couldn't type. I couldn't use the bathroom. I had hallucinations from the pain medicine. I was extremely fucked up.
Another victim of the accident was my Blackberry, my first-ever smartphone, which I bought just before I finally got my PhD. (I revealed this once in a 2010 post for Wired. Commenters called for my head, saying anyone whose first smartphone was bought in 2009 had no business writing for a gadget blog. "I'm sorry," I told them. "I spent my twenties learning things, not buying things.")
After I was discharged from the hospital, I spent money I didn't have to get an iPhone 3G, which was my phone for the next three years. It was mailed to me at the rehab institute where I learned how to walk again. And it changed everything for me. Even with my left hand, I could tweet, send emails, browse the web. I could even read books again -- even print books weren't as easy as the iPhone.
And then I read Jason's post about one-handed computing. And I thought and thought and thought.
I started blogging again. I even started my own community blog about the future of reading. The next year, that led to some articles for Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic.
I was back home by then. My injuries had cost me my postdoctoral fellowship and a second crack at the academic job market. But I was able to audition for and win an entry-level job writing for Wired the same week that I did my first stint guest-hosting for Kottke.
And I swore to myself that I would never forget: technology is for people.
Anyways, the accident that broke my arm in half was four years ago today.
It was on Jason's birthday. He was 36 then; I was 29. His son was two, almost exactly the same age as my son, his brand new baby daughter less than a week old.
It was all so very long ago. It was the beginning of the rest of my life.
If you ask me why Jason Kottke is important to me, it's because in 2005, he found my little Blogspot blog when it only had a couple dozen readers and started linking to it. It's because his idea of "Liberal Arts 2.0" led to a book I made with friends, some of whom went off to make extraordinary things of their own. (We offered to let Jason write the forward; characteristically, he declined.)
Then Jason became my friend. Every so often, he gives me the keys to this place he's built -- home to the best audience on the internet -- and lets me write about things I care about. And because of all of that, I got a second chance -- me, with all of my flaws and frailties, my misdeeds and mistakes.
But really Jason is important to me because Jason is always writing about how technology is for human beings. He doesn't bang gavels and rattle sabres and shout "TECHNOLOGY IS FOR HUMAN BEINGS!" That's partly because Jason is not a gavel-banging, sabre-rattling sort of person. But it's mostly because it wouldn't occur to him to talk about it in any other way. It's so obvious.
The thing that tech companies forget -- that journalists forget, that Wall Street never knew, that commenters who root for tech companies like sports fans for their teams could never formulate -- that technology is for people -- is obvious to Jason. Technology is for us. All of us. People who carry things.
People. Us. These stupid, stubborn, spectacular machines made of meat and electricity, friends and laughter, genes and dreams.
Happy birthday, Jason. Here's to the next forty years of Kottke.org.
They look better, are way cheaper, and, well, let's just say that Amazon puts themselves in a very good position with these increasingly impressive portable media stores. From Tim Carmody:
The advantage traditional paper-based media has always had over electronic media is that the consumer doesn't have to bear the cost of the technology up front. If you buy a book or a magazine, the technology that enables its production and transmission is already built in.
The cost of the device can turn an electronic media gadget into a prestige device, like Apple's iPod or iPad. But it's nevertheless a hurdle for customers. $500 for an iPad or $400 for the first-generation Kindle is a lot of cash to drop for folks who want to read. It's also a levee bottling up a torrent of content that can be sold and delivered over those devices.
With Amazon's new $79 Kindle, $99 Kindle Touch, $149 Kindle Touch 3G, and $199 Kindle Fire, Amazon dynamites that levee. The devices aren't free, but they're so much cheaper than comparable products on the market that they will likely sell millions of copies and many more millions of books, television shows, movies, music and apps.
And more from Steven Levy.
Tim Carmody gives props to Radiohead for their rare combination of longevity and relevance.
Still, I think music fans and cultural observers need to grapple with this a little: Radiohead's first album, Pablo Honey, came out 18 years ago. Here's another way to think about it: when that album came out, I was 13; now I'm 31. And from at least The Bends to the present, they've commanded the attention of the musical press and the rock audience as one of the top ten -- or higher -- bands at any given moment. You might have loved Radiohead, you might have been bored by them, you might have wished they'd gone back to an earlier style you liked better, but you always had to pay attention to them, and know where you stood. For 18 years. That's an astonishing achievement.
As Anil has his hands busy with a new baby, I'll wade in here and point out that Tim's examples don't include any pop, rap, R&B, or hip hop. Jay-Z hasn't been around as long as Radiohead, but he's getting there. The Beastie Boys had at least 15 years. Madonna and Michael Jackson each had 20 culturally relevant years, more or less. I'm probably forgetting a few, but yeah, that's still not a long list.
Wired published a story on the web today called The Web Is Dead. The most appropriate response to such a claim is something close to Tim Carmody's series of tweets demonstrating the parallels between the growth of the web and Brett Favre's professional football career. The web isn't dead yet, says Carmody, because Brett Favre hasn't retired. It's our culture's most significant symbiotic relationship since E.T. and Gertie's flower.
The web became publicly available on August 6, 1991. Brett Favre was a rookie in the Falcons' camp, having signed a contract July 19.
1993 saw the introduction of Mosaic's graphical browser, Favre's first full year as a starter, and the Packers' first playoffs since 1982.
In 1995, Favre wins the MVP, the Packers get to the NFC Championships, and Windows 95 brings the internet & graphic interface to the masses.
Brett Favre's first Super Bowl win coincided precisely (almost to the day) of Steve Jobs's return to Apple.
And so on. Carmody's bottom line:
What this means: like Favre, the open web has been with us for a long time, in good times & bad. Never count it out. Never believe the hype.
Even concussed, full of painkillers, with a dead dad and a wiped-out house, I'll let that 20-year-old vet lead me down the field. Anytime.
Come on, web, just one more year! HTML5'll make you feel young again!
Man oh man, thanks to Tim Carmody for more than holding down the fort around here. I liked the part where he tied almost everything in the universe together. Paging James Burke.
And how nice of you to ask, here's what I did on my vacation: beach almost every day for two weeks, sweet corn, teaching the boy wiffle ball, fishing without a hook, foggy waves, Red Sox game at Fenway, seven Mercurial commits, whiskey sours, [redacted], building sand castles, teaching the girl how to share, etc. Ready to get back at it.
I'm off for another week -- the summer sun is just too tempting, as is another project I'm working on -- so I've asked Tim Carmody to fill the editor's seat for me. Tim is one leg of the Snarkmarket tripod; he was a frequent commenter on the site and the two founding members, instead of saying jeez, guy, shuddup already with the comments, invited Tim to join them full-time. Tim is also an academic with a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory, which is a lot more book learnin' than I've ever had. Things are probably going to be a lot more grammatically correct around here this week. Welcome, Tim.
And a big thanks to Aaron Cohen for helming the site last week (and through the weekend even, a rare occurrence around these parts). I don't know where this ranks on Aaron's list of life accomplishments, but my 11-yo self would be super impressed that Who's the Boss's Samantha Micelli retweeted not one but two Cohen-penned kottke.org posts from the past week (after explaining the definitions of "post" and "retweet" to tweener Kottke).
At The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal has an interesting post about Apple as a religion and uses that lens to look at the so-called Antennagate** brouhaha. For example, Apple was built on four key myths:
1. a creation myth highlighting the counter-cultural origin and emergence of the Apple Mac as a transformative moment;
2. a hero myth presenting the Mac and its founder Jobs as saving its users from the corporate domination of the PC world;
3. a satanic myth that presents Bill Gates as the enemy of Mac loyalists;
4. and, finally, a resurrection myth of Jobs returning to save the failing company...
On Twitter, Tim Carmody adds that Apple's problems are increasingly theological in nature -- "Free will, problem of evil, Satanic rebellion" -- which is a really interesting way to look at the whole thing. (John Gruber the Baptist?)
** The Antennagate being, of course, the hotel where Apple Inc. is headquartered.