A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Flinging Monkeys & Linearity Bites The Dust
Friday, January 02, 2009

Warning. A good measure of pontification follows.

The last days between Christmas and New Year's have always been lazy days of introspection and reflection. At this time, time, more than ever before in my life, I have been thinking about how our changing times are not ordinary changing times.

In the 50s and 60s American cars thrived on the idea that one year's model would be completely different from a previous year's. Inside, most of these cars were all the same. The technology was simple, almost crude. Newness was associated with the shape of grills and the height of a tail fin. I read ads about the "all new" 2009 Audi A-4 and noted that the outside is not all that different from our own two year old Audi A-4. Chances are, that mechanically our car and the new one are very different under that pretty Germanic skin of steel.

At one time cars were vehicles that took one and perhaps a few more from point A to point B. Versions of it were used for killing as was the WWI tank or a WWII Jeep with a mounted .50 caliber machine gun. I remember so well a copy of a 1943 Life Magazine that featured an ad for Buick that read, "Our Sherman tank features a Buick Dynaflow transmission."

During this time telephones were for communication between considerable distances or from one side of a city to another. Typewriters were for typing novels, personal letters, job applications, recording births and deaths or sending you to jail for an eventual and terminal execution (if you happened to be a murderer).

That period of our world (slowly breaking up now) had been determined really by one man, Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century. His bible and the printed books that followed established an order of things related to a beginning and an end. This linearity brought into being the preface, the index, the bibliography and footnotes. To this day some Spanish (who have their own idea of linearity) books have the índice at the end!

This linearity has also imposed a logic that things have a purpose and one purpose only. The hammer you see here might be used for hammering nails, for removing them and in a pinch (if carefully wrapped in a rag) to firm up a rickety chair. The screwdriver on the right is a pretty modern version of it as inside the handle are all kinds of variations on the original one used for tightening and loosening screws. But it doesn't take too much imagination to think that the screwdriver could be used for making holes in a spring garden and to drop seeds in them.

It took precocious teen agers (as soon as they could borrow dad's) that cars could be used for the privacy of illicit sex. It didn't take long for bank robbers to realize that a car was a far better method of getting away from the bank than a horse.

For me the two most important events of the 20th century were the contraceptive pill and the photograph of our earth hovering on the horizon of the moon taken by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders in 1968. At last we could point down and say, "We are from there." And the former, the pill, more than the "death of God" did away with most of the morality and the imposed shackling of women in their quarters which is central to just about every religion.

Perhaps in this century the breaking up of linearity will be the most important event. An inkling of this came with Argentine author Julio Cort√°zar's 1963 novel Rayuela (Hopscotch) which could be read logically from beginning to end but the author also had some non linear suggestions that involved skipping chapters randomly. I would predict here without any doubt that in an extremely near future the Amazon Kindle will feature not only an on line dictionary but also hypertext. This means that a Scheherazade of the future will be able to keep her Persian king interested far more than those one thousand and one nights. In a soon-to-be released science fiction version of this book by Chip Gibson, the story will never end and will only be able to be published by Borges's infinite library.

All the above blabber came to mind today after going to a new year's day at home at a friend's house. My friend does undisclosed work (not secret simply way over my head) at Sun Microsystems. Many of his guests were software engineers. One of them, Philip, had been a physicist before until he (a very smart man) saw were things were going to. "Physics and most of the sciences need funding," and it was obvious Philip was not going to wait or depend on that to promote his career.

He asked me if I remembered the old and primitive word processors. I told him I still had one although Word and my PC have replaced my Smith Corona PWP 40. "The problem with that device, is that its creators were still stuck on the idea of a typewriter and the little screen (about 3 inches wide). Phillip then ended the conversation with the buzz expression, "The end product has to be optimized."

Another of the cyber engineers told me that he no longer considered himself a programmer as he found it frustrating that most programs required more than one thousand words to work. "I am looking for an under 1000 word solution." Then while he was talking to someone else I heard him say, "A cathedral."

Most of those Gothic cathedrals were built before Gutenberg. The secret as to how they were built was not written down but lay in the minds of the masons who built them. The secrets were passed from one generation of masons to the next. As soon as engineering, architecture, law and medicine became a science the secrets could only be seen and understood in colleges and universities. Along with musicians who could read music these arts and professions became understandable only by those with the intellect to study. The rest of us were left out. The Masonic order now includes those cyber engineers that enable us to live our life, or not, with programs that they alone understand but programs we must absolutely must have.

Many of these programs are applications, a new buzzword that is now shortened to apps. Consider that since July Apple has posted more than 10,000 programs to its App Store. The most popular of them (it costs $0.99) lets the phone simulate the sound of flatulence.

While I believe that the real inventor of multitasking is old-fashioned Man, I can see that idea that a screwdriver could be used to plant seeds is about as primitive and idea as telling Alexander Graham Bell that his invention would enable people to talk to each other, nothing less and nothing more. If I told them that there is also an app called Sapus Tongue in which the user swings the phone to see how far he can fling an animated monkey on the screen he would probably change the subject to, "Who's that gorgeous woman at the Smith Corona PWP 40?"

My Audiovox Model CDM-8100PPP phone will not fling monkeys nor produce artificial flatulence. It is capable of getting and sending email but I have never bothered to use that feature. I use my Audiovox to talk to people.


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