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The best kottke.org posts and links of 2017

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 02, 2018

[ As a tease for the first issue of the just-announced Noticing newsletter coming up on Friday, here is last week’s newsletter that we previewed for kottke.org members. It’s a review of the best kottke.org posts and links from 2017. You can sign up for Noticing if you find this kind of thing appealing. Ok, I’ll let Tim take it from here. -jason ]

 
2017 Through the Lens of Kottke.org

If 2016 was chaos, then 2017 was catastrophe. In the middle of an ongoing disaster, the world reckoned with bills long overdue. Kottke.org has never been a terribly political blog, but it’s always been one that’s grappled with history, the problems of art and media, self-reflection, and the long trajectory into the future. The site couldn’t help but reflect that catastrophe back to its readers. At the same time, it continued to offer some small oasis by selecting and presenting the best of the World Wide Web.

 
Messages in Bottles

One of the most exciting weeks of 2017 for me was when I asked Kottke.org readers to help me build a time capsule for the World Wide Web. It felt particularly important this year to try to save the best parts of the things we loved. We had to have something to show the future, despite all this destruction and heartache, that we were still capable of making things that surprised and delighted.

The entire “best of the web” series paid homage to the 20th century technologies that have defined so much of the 21st. It also showcased the deep knowledge and generosity of Kottke readers, who contributed and helped curate all of the entries. If you missed it, or are looking to refresh yourself, the web’s best hidden gems and the web’s funniest stories are good places to start.

Jason on Halt and Catch Fire

Jason as gas station patron on Halt and Catch Fire. Photo courtesy of AMC.

One of the most exciting weeks of 2017 for me on Jason’s behalf was his appearance on Halt and Catch Fire. Jason wrote this wonderful love letter to the show and the moment it tries to capture:

When I was a kid, there was nothing I was more interested in than computers. My dad bought one of the first available IBM PC-compatibles on the market. I’ve read and watched a ton about the PC revolution. I used online services like Prodigy. And the web, well, I’ve gotten to experience that up close and personal. One of the reasons I love Halt and Catch Fire so much is that it so lovingly and accurately depicts this world that I’ve been keenly interested in for the past 35 years of my life. Someone made a TV show about my thing and it was great, a successor to Mad Men great. Getting to be a microscopically tiny part of that? Hell yeah, it was worth it.

Recently, I saw The Farthest, a wonderful documentary about the Voyager missions. In it, Timothy Ferris, producer of the famous Golden Record, laments the fact that so much wonderful music was left off, but says something like, “who would want to live in a civilization that only ever produced 90 minutes of great music?” It made me feel better about leaving off so many wonderful parts of the web in my time capsule; who would want to honor a technology whose entire set of great achievements could be documented in a week of blog posts?

 
In Search of Deep Time

In 2014, it was easier to believe in the future. For The Future Library, an art project by Katie Paterson, a thousand trees were planted. In a century, the trees will become part of an anthology of books, written by Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell, among others.

Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unpublished, until the year 2114. Tending the forest and ensuring its preservation for the one hundred year duration of the artwork finds a conceptual counterpoint in the invitation extended to each writer: to conceive and produce a work in the hopes of finding a receptive reader in an unknown future.

Deep Time, conceptualized in the eighteenth century but coined in the twentieth by John McPhee, is bigger than centuries; it’s really about time on the geologic scale. Even the time of human civilizations (Stone, Bronze, Iron, etc.) is too small. Deep time is deep.

Something like “The Earth’s five energy revolutions” gets us closer to it: all life on earth begins with geochemical energy, then augmented by sunlight, and finally, oxygen, flesh, and fire. The life and death of entire forests of trees, of entire species and kingdoms, is dwarfed by the history of an entire planet and all the life that’s ever been on it. This point of view has always been a powerful perspective, but in 2017, the cosmic telescope of time was almost a comfort. Even if nations fall and species fail, this too will pass.

Coleman's Cafe in Greensboro, Ala.

Coleman’s Cafe in Greensboro, Ala., in 1971. By William Christenberry

But deep time has its own human counterparts. Consider Teju Cole’s essay “The Image of Time,” on photographer William Christenberry. Christenberry photographed buildings in small towns in the American south over time: seemingly the same photograph, of the same object, from the same distance, with the same framing, shows the object’s subtle or radical transformations, its non-identity.

Time is photography’s illusion. Almost every photograph appears instantaneous. But of course, there’s no such thing as “instantaneous”: All fragments of time have a length. In a photograph, the time during which the light is refracted by the lens, enters the aperture and is allowed to rest on the photosensitive surface could be 1/125th of a second, one-eighth of a second, half a second, a whole minute, much more or much less. What is intriguing about a practice like Christenberry’s is that it employs time elsewhere in the photograph too: as a source of narrative.

Or look at Jon Bois’s magnificent “17776: What Football Will Look Like in the Future,” which dives right into the familiar — maps, calendars, printer readouts — and estranges it, exactly to make the reader experience time. (I can’t even blockquote or screenshot it. It’s one piece you have to read for yourself.)

 
Time Collapsed

In 17776, the angel of history is a far-flung space probe that’s absorbed all of human culture, emotions, and sports statistics through radio transmissions. For Walter Benjamin in 1940, the Angel of History was a thought-experiment to try to understand all of history as an ongoing catastrophe.

These are chaotic times. But to the angel of history, it’s not a sudden eruption of chaos, but a manifestation of an ongoing vortex of chaos that stretches back indefinitely, without any unique origin. When we’re thrust into danger, in a flash we get a more truthful glimpse of history than the simple narratives that suffice in moments of safety. As Benjamin puts it, “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”

For James Baldwin, there were no angels, and no robots; only fallen, imperfect beings who’d likewise absorbed the surrounding culture, but hadn’t necessarily been humanized by it. “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction,” writes Baldwin, “and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”

Baldwin and Benjamin were the two writers that best helped me understand this year, because they’d already seen how fascism and Jim Crow could fold time over on itself. Had he not been murdered, Emmett Till would have turned 76 in 2017; instead, a new book revealed what was long known, that he died because of a lie.

And in 2017, in a different sort of lie, Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who self-identifies as black, changed her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo. When Baldwin wrote “the world is white no longer, and it will never be white again,” I don’t think this is what he was talking about.

It was not the first time that the curiously stagnant nature of time made me wonder if we were all dead and in Hell. It would not be the last.

 
The New Callousness

In 2017, knowing how to apologize properly is an essential skill. (You might even call it a new kind of liberal art.) The essential components of a genuine apology, according to Beth Polin:

1. An expression of regret — this, usually, is the actual “I’m sorry.”
2. An explanation (but, importantly, not a justification).
3. An acknowledgment of responsibility.
4. A declaration of repentance.
5. An offer of repair.
6. A request for forgiveness.

Most of 2017’s public apologies whiffed on one or more of these. It was a year filled with soul-searching, but also much rejection of any real contrition. We might remember individual acts of selflessness, but the year was fueled by selfishness.

This photo by Kristi McCluer of wildfires in the Pacific Northwest became a metaphor for the summer, and the whole year.

Summer 2017 Fire

A man golfs with a wildfire raging behind him. One of the defining images of 2017.

The New Callousness, swept into power in the United States and elsewhere, led to widespread physical and political fatigue: Kayla Chadwick’s “I Don’t Know How to Explain to You That You Should Care About Other People” reflects the prevailing mood of exhausted incredulity.

It is probably fair to say that in every direction, 2017 involved a lot of human beings writing off other human beings. But pushing back against this were great technologist-humanists like the legendary Ellen Ullman, explaining why hackers need the humanities:

Algorithms surround us, determining how we get mortgages or apartment rentals, or whether we get hired. It is crucial that we open up those algorithms and take them apart, and then either put them back together or scrap and rewrite them. Algorithms may run our lives, but I really believe people make the future.

 
Sharp as Possible

Trying to figure out how to live through this year, I often thought about Thelonious Monk’s advice on how to play a gig:

Just because you’re not a drummer, doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep time.

Don’t play the piano part. I’m playing that.

Don’t play everything (or every time). Let some things go by.

Some music just imagined. What you don’t play can be more important than what you do play.

Whatever you think can’t be done, somebody will come along and do it. A genius is the one most like himself.

What should we wear tonight? Sharp as possible!

I also tried to remember Richard Feynman’s advice that if you can’t explain something simply, you probably don’t really understand it. I admire complexity, but whenever it’s possible, simplicity is better.

The best of all things may be to be able to ratchet the explanation’s complexity up or down depending on who your audience is: neuroscientist Bobby Kashturi explaining a connectome to a five-year-old, teenager, college student, grad student, and scholarly peer is a great example of that.

It all builds from the foundation. As Richard Hamming observed, knowledge and productivity are like compound interest. You grow from work you put in over time, simple things repeated until they become (or appear to become) complex. Learning effects, network effects, path dependence — over time, they all roll up, and who you’re becoming overtakes who you are.

 
The Great Eclipse

In August, after a jab step into Nebraska, Jason drove to Rayville, Missouri to witness and photograph the solar eclipse.

As totality approached, the sky got darker, our shadows sharpened, insects started making noise, and disoriented birds quieted. The air cooled and it even started to get a little foggy because of the rapid temperature change.

We saw the Baily’s beads and the diamond ring effect… When the Moon finally slipped completely in front of the Sun and the sky went dark, I don’t even know how to describe it. The world stopped and time with it. During totality, Mouser took the photo at the top of the page. I’d seen photos like that before but had assumed that the beautifully wispy corona had been enhanced with filters in Photoshop. But no…that is actually what it looks like in the sky when viewing it with the naked eye (albeit smaller). Hands down, it was the most incredible natural event I’ve ever seen.

Eclipse 2017 by Mouser

A view of the eclipse from Rayville, MO. Photo by Mouser.

Jason also collected the best photos and videos of the eclipse, this NASA map showing the eclipse’s path across the continental United States. and eclipse maps of the United States from 2000 BC until 2117 AD. Even for those of us who just sat under a tree and watched the shadows turn into scallops, it was a special experience this year.

 
Did Someone Say Maps?

Talk about visualizing deep time! Here we go:

A Tapestry of Time and Terrain shows the ages of rock in different parts of the continental US.

Another map shows the hometown of nearly all of the warriors from Homer’s The Iliad.

This map of the Roman Empire c. 125 AD shows the major Roman roads as if they were London’s tube.

A collection of miniature metro maps shows world cities with smaller systems, from Bangalore to Tblisi.

There’s a timeline map of US immigration since 1820, a set of hand-drawn infographics made by W.E.B. Du Bois and his students at Atlanta University, auto-generated maps of fantasy worlds, a topographical map of Venus (with geographic features named for historical and mythological women), and even an interactive map of personal debt.

There’s also The Atlas for the End of the World, which looks at critically endangered bioregions worldwide, and NASA’s striking nighttime map of the world, complete with a patch of void separating China from South Korea; the one nation, that, light-wise, may as well be open ocean.

 
So What Was Good?

There were so many essays and features and pop-up op-eds and shameless resistance grifters and rust belt whisperers that all tried to explain what was really happening in 2017. Almost always reporting either from a small red-state town or the comforts of one’s own imagination. And almost always thoroughly ignoring what was happening in the wider world in favor of warmed-over anecdotes and armchair realpolitik. All that noise nearly drowned out a few moments genuine insight. That’s always the case, but it all felt sharper this year.

I’ve already listed a lot of what I loved about this year — and everything I’ve mentioned appeared as a blog post or a Quick Link on Kottke.org. But two pieces of documentary art stand out for having a different set of ambitions, in search of a different kind of truth about 2017.

Flamingos in Planet Earth II

A flock of flamingos in Planet Earth II.

The first is Planet Earth 2. We already know that when the BBC breaks out Sir David Attenborough, they deliver the goods: a respite from our overweening humanity, with cutting-edge photography and cogent commentary. But PE2 went further, because it was just so goddamned beautiful.

The tracking shot of a lemur jumping from tree to tree is one of the first things you see in the first episode and it put my jaw right on the floor. It’s so close and fluid, how did they do that? Going into the series, I thought it was going to be more of the same — Planet Earth but with new stories, different animals, etc. - but this is really some next-level shit.

The second is Whitman, Alabama. Jennifer Crandall’s serial documentary benefits enormously from the fact that it didn’t set out to explain what happened politically in 2016 or 2017. The filmmaking began much earlier as a meditation on the longstanding problems of democracy and diversity in America.

It’s a very different kind of film from Planet Earth 2. It’s not state of the art. It’s relentlessly human. It manifests the spirit of Walt Whitman: his generosity, his capaciousness, his gentle but insistent concern on the public and private lives of his fellow Americans.

The first time Crandall read “Song of Myself,” it was 1990, and she was sixteen, standing in a bookstore in McLean, Virginia, having just moved back to the United States. Because of her father’s job, with U.S.A.I.D., she had spent most of her childhood in Bangladesh, Haiti, and Pakistan. “My mom is Chinese, from Vietnam, and my dad’s a white dude from Denver, and at that moment I just felt that I did not understand America,” she said. She pulled a paperback anthology of poetry off the shelf, and Whitman stuck out right away. “Though I wouldn’t have articulated it then, what I responded to was this idea that everyone embodies diversity, not just the country. That many people are negotiating multiple social contracts, the way I’d been doing since I was born.”

Somewhere between those two, between the whole planet and just one town, between the deep time of the age of fire and the quickfire moments of the post-web internet, between the human and the indifference to humans, is where we are. It’s where we’ve been in 2017 and will be again in 2018, no matter what comes. It’s where we’ve always been, careening between catastrophe and epiphany, callousness and generosity, the divine and the mundane. With luck, we will not destroy ourselves. With luck, and grace, and hope, and because we have no choice, we will find a way to make it through.