JF Ptak Science Books Post 1339
Kindle and Co seem ready-made for a morality tale...except that it has been written, already, many times. Digital reading appendages like the Kindle seem to me a future history of magnificent semi-failures, another episode in a long series of stories on how machines have corrupted their users I’m not a Luddite by any stretch, but I can’t help but think of the weaknesses of these devices when compared to a simple book, or stack of books, or bookcase, or library–I think that the Kindle is perfectly fine used in conjunction with these other things, but what seems to be the case for me is that Kindle & Etc. are replacing them–the real nuts and bolts of learning---and that I think is an enormous error. Perhaps more important still is that the glorious possibilities of serendipitous discovery are being lost when you have such directed interaction as with a Kindle, compared to walking down an aisle of books in a library (or g_d help us, in a bookstore). What these digital tools can’t replicate is the incredibly varied sources for possible inspiration that you have when you walk yourself down between two walls of books. You might start out looking for X, see something Y out of the corner of your eye, it reminds you of Z, which takes you to another range of books where you stumble across the “A” that you didn’t know existed and that you needed it.
Bookstores are closing in droves, books in libraries are being replaced by stuff that enables social networking to occur while at the same time library hours/staff are being trimmed. (A big percentage of libraries are already closed or closing on Sundays, which is a day when working class people might actually have to themselves to get to the libby.) Magazines and newspapers are already abandoning print publications and settling in for their run exclusively online. The process of virtual replacement is already well underway.
Hans Andersen’s (1805-1875) The Nightingale (1844) comes close to the mark in telling the future of these devices. The Emperor of China has a perfectly lovely, living nightingale which is replaced over as short time by a mechanical one; the robot-nightingale fails after a bit, but by that time the real nightingale has taken flight, no longer I service, vanished. The Emperor is full of remorse, slipping into melancholia and depression, headed to death for the lack of the song of is nightingale–until the living one returns, restoring the Emperor to health. And sanity.
Other, older lit tells similar stories of inception, confusion and lost purpose–though without the redemption part of the Andersen: an automaton appears in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s (1766-1822) Night Pieces (1816 ) in the short story “The Sandman”, an ingenious mechanism which happens also to be lifeless and soulless. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) s another soulless creation, though it was of biological, human pieces rather than metal, crunching the recent work in the manipulation (like that of Galvani) into something not recognizable....another piece of the coming world of electricity which in its essence has gone totally awry.
Heinrich Heine’s On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany and Other Writings (1834) has a short story in which an accomplished mechanic/inventor decides to invent a man–and succeeds He builds himself an English gentleman, the description of which Heine uses to skewer the English1, the inventor building a machine like a man who behaved and like and had the emotional range of a British person, though who lacked anything to back it up–in short, the machine lacked a soul Heine takes more than just the Brits on this, exploiting the engineers soulless invention as a standard for the emptiness of some aspects of the Industrial revolution.
Then there’s Hadaly, a mechanical electric woman run found running around in Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's The Future Eve (1886) , with its high-Victorian nod to imaginary naughtiness with the no-tell robot. Talus, the “iron man” in Spenser’s Fairie Queen, the crystalline man in Goethe's Faust, the creation of “robotic” homunuclus in the philosophers eggs of many alchemists, plus a wide, encyclopedic assortment of other sorts of non-mechanical man-made-men.
And this of course is all before we get to the twentieth century.
I guess I’m just annoyed by the possible destructive nature of a supplemental tool becoming the primary object, a supplement to itself rather than something richer and fuller. The Kindle and its assorted lot might seem less Nightingale-y to me and more like the sub-title to Shelley's work, The Modern Prometheus.
1. “...a human feeling in that leather breast, which are not usually to be found in the English, and it could articulate tones about its feelings and impart them, even with an audible sound, and it gave these tones a real English pronunciation; in short, this robot was a complete gentleman, and for being true man, he lacked only a soul...”