Thursday, August 28, 2014

the keys of memory

Tom Hanks's I-Tunes-topping app that "replicates the aural and visual sensations of old-fashioned typing", written up in The Globe and Mail.  

Typerwriter fanatic Hanks, who's written screenplays on vintage machines, gives this account of the genesis of the project: “In the late 70s I bought a typewriter – portable enough for world travel and sturdy enough to survive decades of 10-fingered beatings. I’ve since acquired many more – each different in design, action and sound. Each one stamps into paper a permanent trail of imagination through keys, hammers, cloth and dye"

Whenever you type, the sounds the typewriter makes make you feel like you’re composing something special” says  Clinton Mills of Hitcents, the creative agency that developed the app, of its putative appeal

But as typewriter collector David Hayes notes, even with its clackety sound effects and visual simulations, the app cannot replicate the action of the machine - the tactility and resistance of the keys - the vibrations of a chunky, clunky mechanical device sitting imposingly upon your desk

Thursday, August 21, 2014

this was tomorrow #7839

"Most utopias are terribly boring. Why? Because nothing naughty happens in a utopia. And science fiction is always full of naughty things happening. You may think science fiction writers are for technology - and I think from the top of our heads, we're for technology - but underneath that, we fear it. So things are always going wrong in science fiction novels"

          Brian Aldiss, interviewed for this cool BBC 2 report on a 1979 science fiction convention in Brighton, for the series Time Out of Mind.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

eyes down

Further to the post about "space ennui"  - about how we no longer look up, with hope and excitement -- here's a piece on the decline of UFOlogy by Mark Jacobson.

Its starts with a conference that draws "adherents of an earlier future" - the annual meet-up of the Mutual Unidentified Flying Objects Network.  A dwindling tribe, with 400  attendees turning up to the symposium in Cherry Hill, New Jersey -  compared to the thousands who came to the first one in the late 1970s. 

Jacobson observes that: 

"Ufology has apparently lost its grip on the public imagination, and has been demoted to a neo-cult status. For the populace at large space is no longer the place. Not that this mattered to those gathered at Cherry Hill. Used to marginalization, they were resolved to keep watching the skies...."
But the cult is ageing out (one speaker at the symposium had to cancel because of a mild heart attack) and isn't being refilled with younger recruits. Other focuses for millenarian hope (and anti-government paranoia: part of the drive with UFOlogy was the belief that the authorities knew, had made contact with aliens, but were concealing it from the public) have come along. 
"The simple flying disc from far, far away has become a quaint, almost nostalgic specter. The saucer may have been the post-war generation’s signifier of the strange, but even versions of the unknown outlive their usefulness. The end of the era may have commenced with William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which located the drama of the unknown inside the claustrophobic cyberspace accessible to the common keyboardist. "
This piece by Jacobson (a believer himself, indelibly marked by a sighting he had) reminded me of  "They Didn't Come From Outer Space, an earlier article on this subject written by James Gray for the The Humanist.
Pointing out that how UFO magazine had closed in 2004,  the Ministry of Defence shut down its UFO hotline., and fewer and fewer sightings were getting reported, Gray pinpoints a kind of retro tendency that's developed within what's left of UFO-logy. Fascinatingly, UFOlogists these days mostly re-analyse much earlier sightings. Like music, like art, UFOlogy has become archival
Gray argued that this reflects the syndrome known as ‘cultural tracking’: basically, UFO sightings were at their height when popular culture was full of movies and stories about aliens and outer space. These have been replaced by post-apocalyptic movies and films about zombies, vampires, werewolves, witches. So there’s fewer and fewer sightings. 
But that begs the question: why have zombie vampire witch movies eclipsed science fiction and space fiction as popular fare? 
It also begs a further question: have sightings of zombies, vampires, werewolves and other supernatural beings gone up?!


Monday, August 18, 2014

"Science fiction has always built our culture powerful frameworks for thinking about the future. Computer sensors, “electronic paper,” digital newspapers, biological cloning, interactive television, robots, remote operation, and even the Walkman each appeared in fiction before they breached our physical reality." 
But lately not so much - s.f. movies and s.f. novels alike have been relentlessly dysphoric about the immediate future, imaging disaster or dictatorship of one kind or another:
"Certainly dystopia has appeared in science fiction from the genre’s inception, but the past decade has observed an unprecedented rise in its authorship. Once a literary niche within a niche, mankind is now destroyed with clockwork regularity by nuclear weapons, computers gone rogue, nanotechnology, and man-made viruses in the pages of what was once our true north; we have plague and we have zombies and we have zombie plague.
"Ever more disturbing than the critique of technology in these stories is the casual assault on the nature of Man himself...  We have thousands of authors prophesying our doom with attitude, as if they’re all alone out there in tinfoil hats shouting at the top of their lungs what nobody else will. Yet they are legion. In the Twenty-first Century, the most punk rock thing that you can be is happy, or—and this is really crazy—”happy ever after.”....
"Our dystopian obsession has grown up in our nightmares as a true monster, which can only be countered by something truly beautiful. Simply, we need a hero. Our fears are demons in our fiction placing our utopia at risk, but we must not run from them. We must stand up and defeat them. Artificial intelligence, longevity therapy, biotechnology, nuclear energy — it is in our power to create a brilliant world, but we must tell ourselves a story where our tools empower us to do it. To every young writer out there obsessed with genre, consider our slowly coalescing counterculture, and wonder what side of this you’re standing on. Luddites have challenged progress at every crux point in human history. The only thing new is now they’re in vogue, and all our icons are iconoclasts. So it follows here that optimism is the new subversion. It’s daring to care. The time is fit for us to dream again.
C.f Neal Stephenson's Project Hieroglyph 
"The idea is to get SF writers to contribute pieces to an anthology. These pieces would all be throwbacks, in a manner of speaking, to 1950′s-style SF, in that they would depict futures in which Big Stuff Got Done. We would avoid hackers, hyperspace, and holocausts. The ideal subject matter would be an innovation that a young, modern-day engineer could make substantial progress on during his or her career."
After the last week, or several weeks, it's hard to feel gung-ho about the way things are going, like rebooting Progress would just be just a matter of will and having the right sunny- side attitude.
Still -  going beyond the specfic surfeit of dystopian-future and apocalyptic-cataclysm entertainments on the big and small screen that Solana addresses -  in more general terms I for one am well past exhaustion  point with all the "darkness"-vibed, paranoid-visioned, relentlessly downbeat TV of the last several years (House of Cards, Homeland, Breaking Bad, True Detective, Rectify, Top of the Lake etc).  Regardless of how well-written, well-acted, well-filmed and otherwise aesthetically fully-realised/absorbing these shows  are,  it all adds up to a panorama of glum. (Even things that could be inspiring, like Masters of Sex, have been oddly morose this season). Can't be helpful to a sense of one' s agency or just simple ability to carry on to have these same points (powerlessness, malign and ruthless forces out of anyone's reach being in control, endless corruption, injustice and depravity etc etc ) so relentlessly banged away at...  Not that one necessarily wants a bunch of heart-warming entertainments about decent, good-hearted folk struggling to do something constructive.... but "dark = deep", give it a rest, chaps.... 

Friday, August 15, 2014

90stalgia versus 80stalgia

90stalgia wins this round, by a knockout.

avant-garde + retro-garde versus NOW!ism (aka conservatism)

"The real foes of conservatism are not socialism and liberalism, but the reactionary and innovating mentalities. Neither the reactionary nor the innovator share the joie de vivre of the conservative mindits natural inclination to rejoice in and savor what is. They are restless and tormented if things are not in a state of perpetual flux, if “progress” is not being made either backward toward an imagined age of innocence, or forward toward an imagined age of future liberation. If nothing is changing, then nothing is happening. Reactionaries and innovators eschew what Oakeshott calls the conservative mind’s “cool and critical” attitude toward change, advocating instead a radical overhaul of society and its refashioning in the image of a golden age which is either imagined to have existed in the past or lusted after as a possible future."
-- Aaron Taylor discussing Michael Oakeshott's almost-60 year old essay "On Being Conservative" (pdf)  - which defines conservatism “not a creed or a doctrine, but a disposition”. A temperament, a neurology almost.

Monday, August 11, 2014

digital fatigue and space ennui

Two interesting recent columns at Pitchfork - Mike Powell,  dissenting from the notion of "the new", and Lindsay Zoladz on "the strange fatigue of digital life"

Zoladz, in her final Ordinary Machines column, muses, disconsolately:

"Shouldn’t unfettered access to music mean we all have impeccable taste and an intimate familiarity with all records previously deemed Classic and/or Important? Maybe, but I have to admit that in the past few years I’ve noticed that the stream has had a counterintuitive effect on my listening habits. For some reason, it’s made me jaded about greatness and even a little less likely to seek out Important Records—having all of them splayed out before me has reduced them to inherited experiences, foregone conclusions, boxes to tick off on a checklist. Too often I feel paralyzed and overwhelmed by history, by all that I don’t know. Everything happened so much."

Citing en passant Alexis C. Madrigal's "melancholy to the infinite scroll" piece in The Atlantic last year, she strikes a chord with the admission "I'm sort of ashamed to admit that I have occasionally caught myself thinking, "I wish I could listen to more than one thing at the same time," but I know I'm not alone"

But  takes heart from the ardor-revivifying effects of  random encounters and less-punctual-and-dutiful engagements with the canon

Powell, in his latest Secondhands column, worries away at the notion of the "futuristic" in music and suggests "the New" is both over-rated and elusive:

"Now and then, my wife will squint at the speakers in the corner of the room where I am auditioning some promo or another and ask me a simple question: “Do you think this is doing anything new?” My answer is usually “no,” followed by some apology for why I don’t think that newness—in the sense of a chilly, confrontational encounter with something I’ve never encountered before—is that relevant.

Cueing off Telstar the satellite and "Telstar" the international smash-hit instrumental, Mike speaks also of an ennui with outer space:

"In 2014, the song still sounds like the future, or at least some quaint B-movie version of it. Hearing it reminds me that there was a time when space was something people got excited about. Having made it west, we hunkered down at IBM terminals and recalibrated Manifest Destiny for the stars. Mysticism crossed with science; people of reason brushed against the infinite unknown. The song itself sounds like an extra-terrestrial alarm clock, whirring and buzzing to let us know we’ve finally arrived. 
"Now when I think about space, I mostly think about how much time and energy we wasted getting there. Missions failed, people died, and the benefits to those on earth remain cloudy. It seems foolish and embarrassing—a huckster’s dream, the 100-percent certifiable hair tonic that will bring men back from baldness." 

This retro-active disillusion, or more accurately of a state of never have been illusioned in the first place, of being always already immune to the romance and heroism of the moon missions  -- strikes me as a generational condition.  A real divide, although the break actually occurs somewhere in the middle of Generation X, with the first half of that age-span aligning with the babyboomers. 

It's an authentic feeling  that nonetheless speaks to a certain obscure desire to do away with the achievements of the past  - cut them down to size. In that sense not unlike the revisionist impulses underlying poptimism, the not-so-secret desire to write off the Sixties as rockist. Be rid of that burdensome heritage, these useless monuments.  

Interestingly, slightly contradicting the idea that the young generation feels no excitement about the idea of outer space, there's been a slight uptick in movie-making about space travel recently. But interestingly, the overall impressions conveyed by Gravity is the sheer difficulty of space exploration, the constant proximity of disaster. It’s notable also that Gravity’s locus is just outside the Earth’s atmosphere, implying that the immediate future for space travel will involve not giant steps further forward but the repetition of achievements of the 1970s (see also China’s recent lunar rover mission).

But perhaps Christopher Nolan's Interstellar will be more gung-ho: