Browsed by
Category: Book Review

Book Review: The Master Switch

Book Review: The Master Switch

My latest reading escapade has me perusing The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, by Tim Wu. He is a law professor who is currently an official in the Biden White House, specializing in technology and antitrust. He is also, in fact, the coiner of the term “net neutrality,” which is just the legal concept of a “common carrier,” as has been applied to telephone communications, but extended to the Internet.

In The Master Switch, Wu analyzes technological and industrial development in the fields of telephony, radio, film, television, and computer networking. He identifies what he calls “the Cycle,” in which monopolist companies consolidate control over particular information technology markets (the empires), only to be challenged when new technologies emerge in periods of “creative destruction,” borrowing a term from Joseph Schumpeter. But whoever comes out on top in the new technological era simply replaces the previous monopolist. A good example is the telephone overtaking the telegraph, with the once powerful Western Union (powerful enough to decide Presidential elections) taken down – if not out – only to be replaced by a new dominant monopoly, in the form of AT&T.

The cycle as Wu describes it reminds me of the technological waves from Debora Spar‘s book Ruling the Waves, which I have already reviewed in a series of blog posts. They are very similar concepts, although to my knowledge neither author has ever recognized the work of the other. Despite the similar concepts which are their subjects, the two books are different in structure. Spar focuses on one technology at a time, whereas Wu jumps around between the technological fields, sticking to an overall chronological narrative. Either way, both authors end up in the Internet era, though Wu arrives ten years later. I noted in my review of Spar’s work that it would be great to get her opinion on how the Internet wave looks now, seeing as she was writing at the end of the dot com era (just around Y2K), but I don’t think she pursued the subject any further. Wu has followed up with additional books, though I haven’t read any of them.

In addition to the Cycle, Wu identifies what he calls “the Kronos Effect”, wherein an established monopolist uses its power, and usually its close relationship with government, to suppress new technologies, just as Kronos in Greek myth devoured his own children for fear of being replaced by them. A good example is how the NBC/CBS duopoly of radio broadcasting networks successfully prevented the development of television until the technology was firmly under their own control. This is why TV started with the “Big Three” networks already established in radio (ABC split off from NBC in 1943), not because there was any natural reason TV couldn’t have developed differently. There were independent television companies throughout the 1930s, but they were unable to grow their markets, because of the anticompetitive actions of the established radio companies.

I didn’t know much about the early days of television until I read this book, and it gave me a good overview. The story is just one of the many things I learned about the history of technology and of the people who were intimately involved with the invention and development of so much that we take for granted today. Wu’s book is well written, and with short chapters is a quick and easy read. The jumping around between the stories of different technologies can be a little confusing, but it’s made up for by the overarching narrative of “the Cycle” and the efforts of powerful interests to suppress it.

Interestingly, Spar didn’t include the dawn of television in her history of technological waves. When I read her book, I found it odd that she skipped from radio in the early 1900s straight to satellite television in the late 1900s. But I speculate now that it this was because she couldn’t fit the early history of television into her wave pattern. Like Wu, she identifies the invention and entrepreneurship phases of new technologies. But unlike Wu, she doesn’t cover the scenario where entrepreneurship is suppressed by a powerful entity maintaining its information empire, destroying competitors before they can even arise. The mid-1900s, a staid and conformist social era, was precisely such a period in the history of information technology.

Concern for this pattern of anticompetitive economics imbues Wu’s book. It’s particularly concerning for information technology, because the corporations who dominate it control not just how we access information, but also what information we access. For instance, during the so-called “Golden Age of Hollywood,” private interests, via both the vertically integrated industry of the studio system and the privately conceived and enforced censorship of the Hays Code, controlled the nature of mass media content available to filmgoers for a solid two decades or more. Eventually both the industry and the social constraints were broken down, but conceivably much creative potential was stifled and lost forever in the interim. Conceivably, political orthodoxy was enforced; it is not a coincidence that the McCarthy era in politics occurred at the same time.

Similarly, the dominance of “Big Tech” in today’s Internet economy means a small number of corporations might end up becoming the gatekeepers of what news and opinion is available for consumption by Internet users, if they haven’t already. What is cancelling and deplatforming in today’s social media environment if not another version of a private sector censorship committee controlling what is considered acceptable free speech? Is a Twitter mob much better an arbiter of what is morally correct than was the National Legion of Decency? And if it is a better arbiter, because it represents a majoritarian viewpoint, then are we not living under mob rule, as Paris was during the French Revolution?

That raises the question of whether the impetus for controlling and shaping information is supply-side – driven by profit-seeking corporations and power-seeking governments – or demand-side – driven by a social need for consensus and conformity. I think it could be both. If there is a demand for order and regulation from below, it would only make it easier for those providing the supply from the top. And if the demand from below is for the loosening of regulation, it would be easier for the spirit of entrepreneurship to flourish. In other words, there might be a social cycle working in conjunction with an industrial cycle.

This is not something Wu addresses directly, being as he focuses on corporate actions and law, as befits his expertise. But he does hint at it in his narrative, recognizing how loosening social morality contributed to the decline in compliance with the Hays Code (compliance with which was always voluntary – as in not coerced by law). The idea of connecting the social cycle with the technological cycle or wave deeply interests me, and is what I have attempted to do in these series of posts looking first at Debora Spar’s book, and now at Tim Wu’s. Both authors recognized the same pattern, which must be deeply connected to human nature and human needs.

To conclude the book review, this is a very good read with a lot of fascinating tidbits about the development of information and communication technology, including biographical information about key players. You always get this human element in these narratives about the invention and commercialization of technology; personality is part of how technology empires are created. As already mentioned, patterns in economics and industry are connected to patterns in social mores and social needs, and in any social era there always seems to be someone poised to take advantage of social and technological change. A “man for his time and place,” so to speak.

In The Master Switch, Wu worries about the tendency for entities like corporations to arise and establish monopolistic control of new information technologies. Writing in 2011, he wonders if it will be different for the Internet, since by its nature it encourages openness and interoperability. From the vantage point of 2021, I think he would agree with me that the new monopolies have formed; we don’t have the term “Big Tech” for nothing. There may well be inexorable forces of history and human nature at work here, driving us collectively toward this state. This means a big challenge for Wu, in his official policy role, guiding the President on technology and competition, but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth the effort to mitigate against the downsides of information empires, or even try to stop them from forming altogether. I wish him the best.

Tibetan Buddhism Says: It’s All In The Mind

Tibetan Buddhism Says: It’s All In The Mind

It comes up infrequently on this blog, but I am broadly interested in spiritual perspectives and metaphysics, and have a modest collection of books on religion and spiritualism which has fed my knowledge over the years. Of all the spiritual traditions I’ve read about, the one that resonates the most with me is Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhist philosophy in general is scientific, in that it is based on contemplative study, and is non-dogmatic. Tibetan Buddhism also happens to be the system that most closely aligns with the “science within consciousness” theories of my favorite philosopher, Amit Goswami.

So I was delighted when my partner showed up at home one day with a copy of “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying,” which she had found at a thrift store. She’s always shopping at thrift stores and when she saw this book thought – correctly – that I would be interested in it. It was written by Sogyal Rinpoche, a Tibetan spiritual master who lived in exile in the West until his death in 2019. It’s essentially a layperson’s guide to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is an esoteric work that is difficult to understand (I know, I have a copy).

Here’s my review of the book on goodreads:

If you’ve ever tried to read “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” you know that it’s much too esoteric a work for the layperson. “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” makes the same teachings more accessible to the ordinary Western reader. The author is a Tibetan spiritual master who was living in exile in the West, and in his writing he adds a personal touch connecting the book to his autobiography and his experience as a spirtual practioner. At the heart of the Tibetan Buddhist teachings is recognition of impermanence and the need to prepare for death. This life is a transitionary stage only, a precious opportuntity to realize the true nature of reality, by encountering the true nature of the mind, the pure state of awareness called Rigpa. As the book puts it, “The View is the comprehension of the naked awareness, within which everything is contained.” (p. 156). This ties into the idea of primacy of consciousness, or monistic idealism, the metaphysical principle behind Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. The book goes into details of how to practice meditation and spiritual devotion, with emphasis on the power of compassion, but also the importance of finding a spiritual master. The book then goes into ways to help the dying. Western society does not connect death to spiritual growth, choosing instead to isolate the dying and prolong their suffering, which is a terrible approach (there is recognition in the book of how the hospice movement is changing this). There is also a detailed description, from the perspective of Tibetan Buddhism, of the process of dying, and of the experiences of the “bardos,” or transitionary states between death and rebirth. This is where the book ties into the more difficult to understand wisdom of the “Tibetan Book of the Dead”, which is poetic and ritualistic in format. This book explains the Tibetan beliefs and ritual practices in ordinary language. How much of it would be applicable to a Westerner in their life is another question, but certainly the overall philosophy and understanding of the meaning of life and death is valuable. The sincere and hopeful intention of the author, who was expelled from his suffering country at a young age, is heartwarming. This is a recommended work for anyone trying to decipher the “Tibetan Book of the Dead,” as well as for anyone looking for an insightful spiritual perspective on the nature and meaning of death.

Review of “The Tibetan Book of LIving and Dying” on goodreads.com.

What the Tibetan Book of the Dead is essentially doing is providing guidance on how to prepare for death, and on what to expect in the experience of dying. Part of this preparation is meditation, in order to train the mind to be still, to not grasp at thoughts and be troubled by turbulent emotion, so that you can experience awareness in its primal state. In that way, you will be prepared at death for encountering higher dimensions of the mind, and potentially becoming liberated. Buddhism focuses on the mind, because, as this post’s title suggests, the mind is the universal basis of experience, and all life and death occur within it.

Ideally you should be conscious and in a meditative state at the moment of death. If death is sudden and violent, or if you are in a troubled mental state while dying, these encounters with higher dimensions will pass by in a blip, and you will simply be propelled into a new incarnation. But if you are prepared, you will recognize these encounters, as described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

First, at the moment of death, you will encounter the Ground Luminosity, which is described by Sogyal Rinpoche as a self-originating clear light. It is the fundamenal inherent nature of everything, which underlies all existence. It might even make sense to call it “the Supreme Being” – that is, that which is and beyond which nothing else is. You can see what I am getting at here. Should you recognize this Supreme Being and become One with it, then your karmic journey is complete. You’re done with it.

If not, you will next encounter what The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying calls the Intrinsic Radiance, which is like the mind in its purest state. You’re basically in a dream realm now. Within this radiance, the Peaceful and Wrathful Gods manifest, of which there are a large number, and which are all named and correspond to different aspects of the psyche. You might think of them as like Angels and Demons. You actually have a chance of remaining in this realm as an enlightened, disembodied being, but if not – off you go to your next birth.

I make the comparisons to similar concepts in Christian theology because I believe that all religious traditions derive from the same fundamental truths about the nature of reality. That’s why they end up with similarities in their models. Sogyal Rinpoche recognizes this too, and makes an explicit comparison between Buddhism and Christianity, when discussing the different mental realms in Buddhist philosophy.

These realms are the kayas, a word which literally means “body” but which signifies a dimension or field, according to Sogyal Rinpoche. They are the realm of the absolute, the realm of fullness without limitation, and the realm of the finite and relative. The experience at death is like a sudden ascent to the highest realm, followed by a descent into the realm of finitude, and incarnation.

This trinity of realms has a correspondence with concepts in Christianity, as follows.

Dimension of the mindTibetan BuddhismChristianity
dimension of unconditioned truthDharmakayaFather
dimension of fullness, beyond duality, space and timeSambhogakayaHoly Ghost
dimension of ceaseless manifestationNirmanakayaSon (Christ)

Now to the parallels between what Sogyal Rinpoche writes and Amit Goswami’s science within consciousness. I hinted at them in the review with this statement:

As the book puts it, “The View is the comprehension of the naked awareness, within which everything is contained.” (p. 156). This ties into the idea of primacy of consciousness, or monistic idealism, the metaphysical principle behind Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.

What Goswami argues in his theories is that consciousness is the ground of being. Consciousness does not emerge from material interactions, as materialists would have you believe, but rather contains the material universe as a manifestation within it. As the Beatles put it, “it’s all within yourself.” This is similar to the Buddhist idea that all experience is within the mind.

Goswami’s argument for the primacy of consciousness is based on the measurement problem in quantum physics. The particle is not there unless it is observed, but if awareness were an epiphenomenon of material (i.e. particle) interactions, then how could observation manifest the particle? Awareness must be fundamental and the particles themselves the emergent phenomena.

In Goswami’s model, the ground of being is what he calls unitive consciousness – undifferentiated and universal. In the words of Erwin Schrödinger, “Consciousness is a singular of which the plural is unknown”. This unitive consciousness is like the Ground Luminosity, or the realm of Dharmakaya.

Consciousness must be unitive to avoid the “Wigner’s friend” paradox from quantum mechanics: how can two different observers collapse the same wave function? What if each observer collapsed it from its probabilistic wave form state into a different particle state? The Universe would be a mess!

Well, the answer is that there are not really two different observers. There is one field of awareness and one consciousness which chooses and manifests reality. The apparent separation of consciousness occurs because in the moment of observation, consciousness identifies with the measurement apparatus itself – that is, with the organism whose sensory systems are entangled in material reality. This creates a subject-object split – a subjective experience of an objective reality.

But really, both subject and object are aspects of the one field of consciousness, of the Absolute. The individuated self is a mirage. Everything, the experiencing self and all the objects it experiences, are encompassed in this one highest realm. As the Beatles put it, “life flows on within you and without you.” This is in concordance with the ideas of Tibetan Buddhism and other mystical traditions.

When unitive consciousness collapses the quantum wave function and manifests reality, there is at first an experience in “primary awareness.” This is akin to the experiences in the higher mental dimensions as described in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, and it is possible to directly access this experience though disciplined meditative practice. But ordinarily we experience reality in the “secondary awareness” of the ego, which gives us the familiar subjective sense of self and identity.

Goswami posits that, in addition to the material body which humans possess, we also possess subtle bodies whose forms determine our vital experiences and mental experiences – that is, our feelings and thoughts. The connection between our subtle bodies and our physical bodies is maintained through the entangled manifestation within consciousness. In the words of William Blake:

“Man has no Body distinct from his soul; for that called Body is a portion of a Soul discerned by the five senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.”

– William Blake, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

The physical and subtle bodies via which we experience reality are thus what we would call “Body and Soul,” and exist within the Sogyal Rinpoche’s dimension of Nirmanakaya, the realm of manifestation. But because our awareness emerges from a higher order, we are able to get a glimpse of higher realms. It is just difficult and not likely, especially if we allow ourselves to be distracted by all the goings on down here on Earth. That is precisely the point of mystical wisdom such as that of The Tibetan Book of the Dead: to teach us about this potential and remind us of its importance, given that our time in the world of manifestation must inevitably come to an end.

Sogyal Rinpoche doesn’t know about Goswami (The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying came out well before Goswami’s publications), but he does bring up one physicist whose theories connect to Tibetan Buddhism. That physicist is David Bohm, whose ontology of an implicate order and an explicate order to explain the mysteries of quantum physics can be likened to the different realms of mental experience which Sogyal Rinpoche describes. This correspondence is given in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, and I’ll just add to it here, from Goswami’s model.

RealmDavid BohmAmit Goswami
Dharmakayasuperimplicate orderThe bliss body of unitive consciousness
Samboghakayaimplicate, enfolded orderThe formless body in the archetypal realm
Nirmanakayaexplicate, unfolded orderThe limited body of experience in the realm of manifestation

I hope this introduction to spiritual science has been illuminating. It’s a subject which has intrigued me for a long time, though I tend to study it more from an intellectual perspective than as spiritual practitioner. I know I should meditate more, but the world of manifestation is always beguiling me with its fascinating goings on.

Here is the wisdom of the Beatles to close off this post. May you see beyond yourself and find peace of mind!

Ruling the Waves Reviewed, Part III

Ruling the Waves Reviewed, Part III

This is the last of three posts where I review the book Ruling the Waves, by Debora L. Spar. This actually took me nearly two years to do, which is not my usual pattern at all, but this was as much a research project as a good read.

The goal of the project was to relate the thesis of the book – that ground-breaking technology goes through four phases of development before becoming commonplace – to the cycles of four turnings in Strauss & Howe generational theory. In generational theory, alternating patterns of generational archetypes lead to a pattern of social eras with first decreasing, then increasing degrees of social order. And since Spar’s work describes a pattern of an unregulated market transforming into a well-regulated one, there might be some correlation.

Spar breaks her narrative up into the stories of different specific technological waves: the compass/age of navigation, the telegraph, radio, satellite/digital television, cryptography for the masses, PC operating systems, and finally digital music. What I found and related in the first post of this series is that the story of the telegraph actually lined up pretty well with the turnings of the Civil War saeculum. In the second post I related that the next waves – radio and television – had happened on more compressed timelines, and so didn’t line up with the roughly 80 year period of a saeculum. Instead, they sometimes fit entirely within one decade! Part of this reflects, I speculated, a greater sophistication on the part of corporations and government entities in responding to technological change.

Finally, looking at the personal computing/Internet related waves, we see similarly that they occur within a tighter timeframe. But here we must also face the fact that Spar’s book was published in 2001, and the whole issue of how these technologies would be regulated wasn’t necessarily fully resolved yet – in other words, the pattern isn’t complete. This is where Spar is using her thesis to provide guidance about what might be coming in the future (from a 2001 perspective).

What I will note about the last three technology waves is that the Boomer generation is predominant in their stories, in both the initial invention phase, and the subsequent entrepreneurship phase. Let’s start by looking at encryption. The inventors of public-private key encryption were all Boomers: Whitfield Diffie (b. 1944), Martin Hellman (b. 1945) and Ralph Merkle (b. 1952). So were the inventors of the RSA algorithm: Ron Rivest (b. 1947), Adi Shamir (b. 1952) and Len Adleman (b. 1945). And the guy who put these together to give us the popular PGP software used by the masses on the Internet is also a Boomer: Phil Zimmermann (b. 1957).

The invention phase of encryption started in the recent second turning (in the 1970s), and continued into the third turning (the 1980’s and 1990s). The entrepreneurship phase began in the third turning with the rise of the Internet, as Zimmermann developed PGP in the early 1990s. At the time of Spar’s book’s publication, the legal status of PGP was up in the air, but today it is accepted by government in the US and EU, and is widely used. It’s also open source, meaning that Zimmermann, though he’s the entrepreneur in this story, has not become obscenely wealthy because of it. I see this particular story as a great example of the Boomer generation’s role in computing technology’s transition from being used solely by big corporations to becoming a technology for the masses.

This is, of course, the story of the personal computer. The Boomers who are most associated with this tale of the empowerment of the common man are Steve Jobs (b. 1955) and Bill Gates (b. 1955). The latter figures prominently in the next wave of which Spar writes – the PC operating system. But it should be noted that the inventors in the first phase of this wave were other men. The first hobby PC was the Altair, invented by Ed Roberts (b. 1941 – Silent), and the OS which Bill Gates famously licensed to IBM was based on an earlier operating system called Q-DOS, invented by Tim Paterson (b. 1956 – Boomer). These inventions happened in the last second turning, in the 1970s.

Gates was the entrepreneur in this technology wave; you might even call him the chief entrepreneur. He did get to be one of the wealthiest men ever, after all. His famous arrangement with IBM, which made him wealthy, happened at the end of the second turning, in 1980. Throughout the third turning, his dominance of the marketplace only grew, to the point that his company, Microsoft, was being called “the evil empire.” At one point, it was challenged by another technological development, which Spar covers in the same chapter: the web browser, an alternative platform for information access that might have derailed Microsoft’s control over software applications on its system.

With the World Wide Web, the invention phase was very fast, occurring in just a couple of years in the early 1990s. The inventor was yet another Boomer, Tim Berners-Lee (b. 1955). The entrepreneur whom Spar singles out for her narrative is a Gen Xer, Marc Andreessen (b. 1971). He developed the first highly popular web browser, Mosaic, later Netscape Navigator. Depending on your age, you may or may not have used it. Microsoft tried to muscle Netscape out of the business by bundling their web browser with their operating system, precipitating a famous anti-trust lawsuit, U.S. v. Microsoft.

So this technology wave actually gets to the rule-making phase in the narrative. The rule-maker in this case is a judge, Thomas Penfield Jackson (b. 1937 – Silent). His ruling was that Microsoft was indeed practicing monopoly, and would have to break into two separate units, one to produce the operating system, and one to produce other software components. But in a settlement after appeal, this was rescinded. Spar’s book was published before this settlement, so her narrative misses this plot twist. And what was the final result of this attempt at regulation? I would say that Microsoft remains a powerful monopolist, but in a field where new monopolists have arisen, with the coming of yet another technology wave which this book could not predict: smartphones, which come with their own OS, and the application platforms on them, which completely circumvent the web.

The last technology wave discussed in Spar’s wonderful book is digital music, specifically the MP3 format. This was invented by committee in the late 1980s and 1990s, a committee of mostly European peers of the Boomer generation. The entrepreneurs of the next phase are Gen-Xers who, in the 1990s, leveraged MP3 technology to build music-sharing empires which made them money, but were of dubious legality and sparked legal wars with established music labels, and many of the music artists as well. These are Sean Parker (b. 1979) and Shawn Fanning (b. 1980) of Napster, and Mike Robertson (b. 1967) of MP3.com. Their companies didn’t survive the legal battles ultimately, though at the time of Spar’s book publication, the rule-making phase was only just underway, with the formation of the Secure Digital Music Initiative, which was attempting to come up with standards for digital music usage that would satisfy all stakeholders.

In the end the SDMI got nowhere, and other standards were developed for digital rights management. These are in use today in the age of streaming music and video, which gives consumers access to huge libraries of content for an affordable price. The old content owners, and the artists, probably, have lost out in this deal. But it’s the way the market ended up regulated: in a way that could meet the huge consumer demand which digital encoding inevitably wrought. I discussed this in a review of another book; the streaming model provides what people want, and allows them to get it in a way that is fair and legal.

It’s too bad that Ruling the Waves left off in 2001, and didn’t get into the smartphone and social media era, and the rise of the now dominant Big Tech companies. To my knowledge, the author has not continued this study approach with any other technology waves. But I think that if she did look at developments of the past twenty years, she would agree with this assessment of the dominant tech corporations today – Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and yes, still Microsoft: they are the winners of the once dynamic competition, during the early days of the Internet, among different information technologies and platforms.

The world standardized on Big Tech’s platforms and technologies because they provided the best experience, or because it was just easier for everyone. As with Western Union and the telegraph, they are the monopolists who emerged from the free wheeling creative anarchy phase to become the rule makers. As with the story of the telegraph, this happened during a saeculum’s fourth turning, which in the case of the current saeculum began in 2008. And as was the case with Western Union, the Big Tech companies are resented for their monopoly power.

Conclusion

Debora Spar’s Ruling the Waves is a remarkable book, with a brilliant insight about the history of technology and the patterns of technological change. The idea that technology comes in waves, with different phases of development, from a period of loose rules to a period of tight rules, reminded me of the similar idea with respect to social norms in Strauss & Howe generational theory. Both theories tie into the concept of enantiodromia, the principle of things or states tending to transform into their opposites. That is why I embarked on a review of Spar’s book through the lens of generations theory.

What I found is that, as is generally the case with these high level theories, the patterns are not perfectly there. But where they are there and do line up, it is striking that the periods of greatest technological innovation and development of markets for new technologies which Spar identifies match the social era from Strauss & Howe theory that has the greatest degree of individualism and tends to be focused on commercialization and free markets. This suggests a clear relationship between social eras and the degree of technological innovation, and means that some generations, by dint of their location in history, are more strongly associated than others with technological change.

I should note one caveat: half of Spar’s examples are from recent history; they are digital technologies developed at the end of the twentieth century. So of course they are all stories from the same social era, meaning there is sample bias in the survey. It would be wonderful if Spar’s principle were applied across a great many of the major technological developments of the past few centuries – would we find that technological innovation is clustered in particular social eras? It would also be wonderful to hear Spar’s take on the developments in digital technology over the past twenty years. How different the world of the Internet looks today than it would have to a professor of business writing at end of the “dot com” era!

To the best of my knowledge, however, this book is the only example of this line of research. It took me two years to read it, and nearly two decades after it was published to boot, but I still found it insightful and a great read.

The Last of Us Watch

The Last of Us Watch

When I was young man I played computer games. A lot. That was so long ago that being a computer gamer put me in a minority, part of the maligned “nerd” subclass of Generation X. Today’s Millennial gamers are much more of a mainstream group. Nowadays, being a young man who plays video games is pretty basic.

Now, when I was a young man (so very long ago) we would sometimes get groups of guys together for a computer game. We typically would play what is called a “hot seat” game – there is one personal computer (PC), and everyone takes separate turns in the game. When it’s your turn, you sit in the chair that is in front of the PC, hence “hot seat.”

Another way to do it way back when was a LAN party, where everyone brings their PC to a common location and you play multi-player on a local network. This was done because you couldn’t play a graphics intensive game over the Internet. No one had the bandwidth; people were still using modems to get online. Going to a LAN party was a bit cumbersome since you had to cart your PC to someone else’s house and set it all up, and I never got into the practice. But some people did, and LAN parties were a feature of Gen X computer nerd culture back in the 1990s.

One thing about these Gen X approaches to group gaming is that everyone gets to play. It was unusual for someone to be willing to come hang out where everyone was gaming, but not actually play in the game.

Around this time, console gaming was starting to pick up. That particular format had actually suffered a drought following the failure of the Atari console, which had come out in the youth of early-wave Gen Xers such as myself. But then came the rise of Nintendo, which accompanied the youth of late-wave Gen Xers and the childhood of Millennials. It’s all documented in this great book called “Game Over, Press Start to Continue: How Nintendo Conquered the World.”

With console gaming, you start to see this pattern of people gathering, and some people just sitting and watching while others play. After all, there are only so many controllers. It wasn’t something I was ever hugely into, and in fact I have never owned a video game console. But I went to a few parties where the console was the center of attention.

For the Millennial generation, watching others play video games has become a common practice. In fact, it’s a whole culture; there are live streaming sites like twitch that are dedicated to it. There are YouTubers who make a living sharing streams of their games with added commentary. As in, very popular YouTubers who have become wealthy doing so.

As a mid-life Gen Xer, my computer gaming has shifted over to games that simulate board games, rather than the more active and real-time type video games. I honestly was never heavily into first person shooter or arcade-style games; I prefer strategy games instead.

But what I have done is watched my Millennial stepsons play video games. Specifically, this really cool post-apocalyptic game called The Last of Us. They sit us old folks down around the TV, and then play the game on a Sony PlayStation 4 while we spectate. It works really well with this particlar title because the game is story-driven, with programming that railroads the player throught a plot (in contrast to “open world” games where you can just wander about and do whatever).

The visual design of the game is stunning, even though you can sometimes spot a video glitch which briefly interrupts the cinematic experience. These glitches don’t really matter because the setting is so artfully rendered, with contrasting visual landscapes of urban ruin and beautiful overgrown nature. The sound design is brilliant as well, with music that builds the tension as the characters get into dangerous situations.

It is a combat game, so there is graphic violence, as well as grotesque horror elements. But it’s in the context of a very well-written and poignant story, featuring complex characters and difficult moral dilemmas. Our sons see it as its own genre of cinemtic story-telling, even better than film or television. I can see why they do, and as computer graphics improve the genre could become even more immersive and emotionally intense.

As they play the game while we oldsters watch, our sons are essentially taking on a directing role. They have already played the game through before, so they know all the places to go in game, as well as actions to take, so that we get the complete story as efficiently as possible. They also take us on little “side quests” to see the less important but still interesting stuff. Since it is a game, there is some amount of collecting resources and spending them to upgrade the characters’ capabilities. This video game trope, while “unrealistic” in a sense, does not in any way detract from the story telling or aesthetics of the experience.

Watching the game all the way through took us many, many hours. We watched both the original game and Part II. It was the same as binge-watching multiple seasons of a good streaming TV series. Would it have been as much fun in TV format? I guess we may find out, as rumor has HBO is making a TV show based on the game.

I’d like to thank the boys for sharing this experience with us. It really is a new way of experiencing cinematic story telling. It shows how far the video game medium has evolved since the days I sat in my parents’ basement playing Tunnels of Doom on a TI-499/A (I’m not even kidding). For the new generation, it’s become much more immersive, and grown into a communal experience, and a part of everyday life.

Book Review: It’s Even Worse Than You Possibly Could Have Imagined

Book Review: It’s Even Worse Than You Possibly Could Have Imagined

I just finished this quick read – It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein. Here’s my review on goodreads:

The Boomer generation is one whose scholars and thinkers (and they are a thinking generation rather than a doing generation) tend towards pessimistic outlooks and dire prognostications. They are also the most politically destructive generation in living memory. The destructiveness the Boomers have wrought in American government is the subject of “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks”, a collaboration by two of their own chorts. While the book isn’t explicitly generational history, the story it tells, of government becoming increasingly partisan and conflict-oriented rather than coalitional and achievement-oriented, clearly coincides with the Boomers’ rise to political power.

The authors trace the beginnings of this trend all the way back to 1978, when Newt Gingrich first took office in the House of Representatives. Before reading this book, I had not realized how far back the inception of the Gingrich Revolution was, or how long it took to come to fruition. It was predicated on a strategy of confrontation and disruption, and of questioning the legitimacy of existing institutions: the Boomer modus operandi since the days of the student movements of the 1960s. By the time of the Obama administration, when this book was first published, the strategy enabled a Republican minority to hold the United States government hostage.

The fundamental problem which Mann and Ornstein diagnose is that parliamentary style political parties do not mesh well with a system of separate branches with checks and balances. A minority party can easily exploit one branch’s power to limit another’s and prevent any governing from happening at all. This suits the ideology of the Republican party, which holds that government is actually undesirable altogether, and their asymmetric use of this strategem against the Democratic party has defined politics in the United States in our time. Generation X politicians in the GOP, like the “Young Guns” of the 2008 election cycle, have been happy to take up the banner of obstructionism in the name of anti-government principles. This alliance between Boomer and Gen X conservatives has wielded considerable power, and clearly marks a generational shift in U.S. politics.

Again, the authors don’t explicitly make a generational point. What they do is break down the problem in terms of specific factors and offer some possible remedies. Foremost is improving voter participation and shifting away from winner-take-all electoral processes, which prevent moderate politicians from winning elections. Campaign finance reform is another possible remedy at the electoral level. At the institutional level, reducing the use of the filibuster to obstruct legislation and executive nominations is key. Finally, improving the culture overall is required, to restore public trust and recreate a sense of public space.

The authors released an edition in 2016 with the title updated to “It’s Even Worse Than It Was”; this is the edition I read. In the afterword, Mann and Ornstein acknowledge that nothing improved since 2011, that all the trends of hyperpartisanship and extremism and lack of compromise have worsened. And this was before Trump won the election; I can only guess that a third edition published now would be titled “It’s Even Worse Than You Possibly Could Have Imagined”. The disastrous inability of the government to address the Covid-19 pandemic clearly demonstrates the damage that the insurgent Republican party has done to our political system.

Overall this book is a quick and easy read, and an eye-opening work of political analysis. It explains the changes that have occurred in government since Boomers and Gen Xers have come to dominate in office, and how the confrontational style of parliamentary politics has rendered our constitutional system dysfunctional. It understands that restoring the functioning “normality” of the past, with parties that are adversarial but able to work together, will be difficult. Informed by generational theory, we must recognize that it will take future generations of politicians to get us there.

I’ll just add that, despite the pessimistic title I gave to this blog post, I feel like we might soon be over with this period of hyperpartisanship. I think the worst of the extremists are being discredited, and are being marginalized in the public sphere. Trump’s hopes of a coup of some sort are fading, and Trump supporters are heading for the shadows.

Obviously a lot is riding on the transition to the Biden administration and its first few months. Like all of us, I will watching intently to see if it finally starts getting better.

Book Review: Appetite for Self-Destruction

Book Review: Appetite for Self-Destruction

One would think, now that we are in lockdown, that I would be making better progress on my 2020 Reading Challenge than I am. I’m actually very busy at work, what with my info tech WFH privilege, and aside from that there are duties to household and family. Not to mention all the streaming video to keep up with. Nonetheless, I have been reading when I can, and generally reviewing every book that I do finish.

I recently finished Appetite for Self-Destruction by Steve Knopper, published in 2009, about the crash of the record industry. I thought I would reproduce my Goodreads review here, and add some thoughts. First the review:

It’s interesting to read a book about the music industry that was published just as the smartphone and subscription streaming services were taking off. Reading it after ten years have passed is like looking back at a distant era. There actually was a time in the misty past when music publishers made tons of money selling plastic discs to eager consumers, and there were even brick and mortar retail outlets dedicated to just that product. It was the most lucrative period in the music industry’s history, running from the mid-1980s through the 1990s. And then it all went up in smoke with the introduction of mp3s and the easy sharing capabilities provided by the Internet. But even the days of ripping CDs and building libraries of music files seem distant, when today we plug our earbuds into our phones to access vast musical archives for a low monthly fee.

Knopper’s book is full of personal stories from entrepreneurs and business leaders in both the music and technology industries, much of it gleaned from interviews. You get a nice history of both of those industries, focusing on the years from the death of disco in the early 1980s to the end of 2008. Some of the stories told are one-sided, because important players declined to be interviewed, and so their perspective is missing. There is some sensitivity regarding the decisions made and the issues at stake. But what you get is well written and informative; Knopper is a Rolling Stone editor and brings his journalistic talent to bear in telling the tale of the implosion of the music industry.

Knopper lists a number of mistakes the major labels made as digital online music took off, but marks the big one as instinctively going after Napster instead of making a deal with them, at the very end of the 1990s. Even worse, they went after consumers – their own customer base – suing individual filesharers for copyright infringement. There were other fumbles and missed opportunities, and the irrestible conclusion is that the generation of leadership at the labels just wasn’t ready to make the leap from the tried and true model of selling individual records in the millions at high profit margins, to the new models that the Internet and compressed digital music formats were making possible. They missed the boat, and it sailed on without them.

Some additional thoughts: I don’t think consumers as a whole wanted to play the role of renegade pirates during the decade or so that file sharing was a big thing. It was just too easy to do; and people saw how much more music they could have access to that would have cost a fortune to purchase in CD form. But once an option was provided that was both legal and affordable – subscription services like Spotify or Pandora – consumers flocked to that. People in general want to be honest and play by the rules.

I suppose you could even think of the transition from the the filesharing era of the early 2000s to the streaming era of the 2010s as part of the transition from the Gen-X driven pre-Crisis era to the Millennial driven Crisis era. It’s an early example of the formation of a new institution; we may not have the new order figured out completely, but at least we have the soundtrack ready. Something to listen to in our earbuds while the apocalypse is raging.

On a final note, I still buy CDs. I like owning the discs with the liner notes and the art, and like collecting particular artists. I dig up obscure singles available only in Japan and pay 30 bucks for them on Amazon. Drives my girlfriend up the wall. And then I rip them to my laptop and shelve them. You know, for looking at. But my .mp3 player sits in a drawer, along with my digital camera, because now the smartphone does everything. Times, they are always a changin’.

The Long Road to Freedom

The Long Road to Freedom

I’ve been struggling to write a blog post about the events of this past week. It’s been such a difficult time, and my heart is troubled and my mind scattered. So while I’m trying to get that together, I’m just going to share my goodreads review of a book I just finished reading. It’s Howard Fast’s Freedom Road, set in the Reconstruction South. I picked it up off my shelf of unread books mainly because it’s a small paperback suitable for carrying around at the office, so I could read it at lunch or on breaks. But of course I haven’t been at the office in months so I finished it at home.

Here is the review:

Howard Fast dedicates this novel to all those, of every race, who have died in the fight against fascism. It was written during the Second World War, when America was fighting fascism abroad. At once hopeful and harrowing, it tells a story of progress and setbacks for African-Americans living on a former plantation in South Carolina during Reconstruction. The fascism they fight is that of the white supremacist terrorists who erased the progress made in the immediate years after the Civil War, after the Union pulled their forces out of the South as part of the Tilden Compromise.

The writing is crisp and vibrant, the characters vivid and believable, and the plot dramatic, including action, romance, and political intrigue. As a good novel should, this one makes you feel like you are there in that place and time, living the characters’ lives along with them. The author does use dated language, including stereotypes and prolific use of a word forbidden to white people. This would probably get him canceled by today’s social justice warriors, which is ironic since he was blacklisted as a Communist in the McCarthy Era. I would hope that modern readers could look past that, since this story has so much say about the struggle for racial justice, and what the true stakes are in that ongoing conflict. It couldn’t be more relevant than it is right now.

Ruling the Waves Reviewed, Part II

Ruling the Waves Reviewed, Part II

This is a continuation of an earlier post where I started reviewing the book Ruling the Waves, by Debora L. Spar, specifically attempting to tie the author’s thesis in with saecular theory. In that post I only got as far as the first technological wave, the telegraph. In this post I’ll cover the next two waves – radio and the late twentieth-century advancements in television. First, let’s recap the thesis of Spar’s book, summarized in my first post.

The author has a premise that when a ground-breaking new technology is introduced, it goes through four phases of development before becoming a commonplace part of everyday life on which we depend. First there is the invention phase, involving just a few people, and then the entrepreneur phase, where risk-takers develop the new technology commercially. Next is what she calls a period of “creative anarchy,” when the most successful entrepreneurs battle for supremacy in the marketplace, and finally the rulemaking phase, where those who now dominate the technology application push for a fixed legal structure within which to operate.

Now, when looking at the telegraph, it was fairly easy to align the development of the technology with the turnings of the Civil War Saeculum. The invention phase happens at the end of the second turning, the entrepreneurial and market free-for-all phases during the third turning leading up to the Civil War, and then the rule-making period comes with the rise of Western Union during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.

The next two waves, as described by Spar, are a little more compressed in time. The story of radio comes in two halves. The first one is dominated by the best known figure in the history of radio, Guglielmo Marconi (b. 1874 – Missionary peer). He was not just an inventor, but also an entrepreneur, and managed not only to make radio a feasible technology, but also to completely control the market via his patents during the 1910s.

But Marconi’s dominance was undermined by two factors. The first was nation-state governments, which recognized the security implications of wireless communication and used their authority to constrain Marconi’s monopoly power. The second factor was the development of the next generation of radio technology. Marconi’s system used spark gaps to generatate pulses of electricity and transmit signals in Morse code – it was essentially wireless telegraphy. What was really wanted was a way to send signals on continuous waves. Then sound, even music, could be transmitted. It would transform radio into wireless phonography, which is how we experience it today.

This is the second half of the radio story, a sort of mini-wave of its own. The invention phase was primarily the work of an engineer named Reginald Fessenden (b. 1866 – Missionary), and occurred at the same time that Marconi’s creation was prominent. The entrepreneurial/creative anarchy phase took place in the first part of the 1920s. It was kicked off by an important development, the formation of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in 1919. This was an innovation of its own in the commercialization of communications – RCA was an organization that controlled radio stations without controlling the technology of radio. This was the beginning of the broadcasting industry. Marconi’s system became obsolete and his patents worthless, and his empire crumbled.

In the first half of the 1920s, radio was in a period that definitely matches Spar’s creative anarchy phase in technology develoment. Small stations operated by amateurs – “radioheads” – sprung up everywhere, broadcasting whatever music they could get their hands on. This became too chaotic to be tenable, since by their very nature broadcast signals interfere with one another. Order came with laws passed in the late 1920s to regulate bandwidth, and with the emergence of broadcasting corporations which controlled networks of radio stations and could operate them in a coordinated fashion. The first of these was the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC), and before long ABC and CBS came along – the Big Three which moved on to the world of television broadcasting and which are still prominent today.

So Spar’s entire cycle of four phases of technology development can actually fit into the space of one decade. The fact that radio’s story is ensconced within the third turning of the Great Power saeculum fits that era’s heady, fast-paced reputation. The subsequent development of television takes place in the next first turning, but Spar actually skips over that entirely. Her example from the history of television specifically relates to the rise of satellite and digital TV.

This is another fast cycle, and takes place within the third turning of the current Millennial saeculum – in the 1990s, the last decade before the publication of Spar’s book. It starts with the rise of SkyTV, powered by the relentless ambition of Rupert Murdoch (b. 1931 – Silent). The new techonology in question was satellite broadcasting, and the key to SkyTV’s takeover of the British market was the fact that Britain’s tight television regulations did not cover this particular type of broadcasting.

By taking advantage of this regulatory gap, Murdoch was able to penetrate the British television market with a unique brand, one that threatened Britain’s conservative and cultured self-image with trashy “American-style” content. SkyTV quickly got into financial trouble, which Murdoch handled by bringing in legendary executive Sam Chisholm (b. 1939 – Silent peer). But no sooner had Chisholm straightened things out, than SkyTV was hit by a new wave of techonological innnovation and forced to adjust to that.

This new wave was digital broadcasting, which basically reimplements signal encoding in such a way that far more channels can fit within the same bandwidth of electromagetic radiation. Consequently, providers can offer more content and choices, to presumably leverage for more profit-making. You may remember this transistion, which for consumers was disruptive since it meant their old analog systems were going to become obsolete. You may remember complaining and a sense of consumer powerlessness in the face of inexorable progress. It’s a done deal now, but at the time that Spar’s book was published was an ongoing process of negotiation and new rulemaking.

What’s interesting about these different techonological waves is that as they progress across the twentieth century, “ruling the wave” becomes as much a matter of navigating the regulatory environment as of pioneering a new techonological application. This comes with the growing sophistication of both corporate enterprise and government oversight. But even as the focus of the stories has shifted from individual inventors and entrepreneurs to giant corporations and milestone regulatory acts, there is still room for strong personalities to exert their influence.

The last part of the book covers computer and Internet technology. I will finish reading it and conclude these reviews in a future post.

A Book about a Crisis Era

A Book about a Crisis Era

Some time ago I started reading Citizens, by Simon Schama. I finally finished it and posted a review on Goodreads, as part of my reading challenge. Here is the review reproduced for this blog, as well as some additional thoughts on what lessons the French Revolution might have for our own time.

First, the review.

At 875 pages (not counting the bibliography and index), Simon Schama’s Citizens looks like a formidable work to tackle. But his eloquent prose and touching, personal approach to history make for an easy read. There is certainly enough to write about the French Revolution to fill 875 pages, covering the span of time from the Revolution’s origins in the Enlightenment Era, up to the dramatic events of Thermidor and the fall of Robespierre. I enjoyed it all; this book is, as they say, a real page-turner.

In his narrative, Schama focuses on the individuals whose stories comprise the overarching epic of France’s transformation from floundering Monarchy to militant Republic. These are his titular citizens, and theirs is a shared journey through the gates of history, in which their identities shift from that of their prescribed roles in the old regime, to that of free and equal members of a common fraternity, devoted to the fatherland. And woe to those whose devotion was found insufficient, as conflict and violence swept through French society like wildfire.

The brutality of the violence and the fervor of the mobs which challenged the authority of every French government of the period, monarchical and Republican alike, is the most startling aspect of the Revolution. Schama disavows the idea that this was class warfare brought about by the disaffection of France’s poor and underprivileged. Not that there were no disaffections; these were famously written down in the lists of grievances presented to the King at the fateful convening of the Estates-General. But the impetus for change came from all levels of society. Many aristocrats and episcopalians were pushing for reform; for a Constitutional Monarchy in line with the ideals of the Age of Reason and the Rights of Man, inspired by philosphers like Thomas Paine and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. They did not anticipate that in a few short years their King would be dead and they would be fleeing the Terror of the radical Republicans.

Schama’s narrative shows a society consumed by a kind of madness for a new political identity and national rebirth. The French Revolution wasn’t a mechanical process of adjustment to modernity, driven by material circumstances. It was a conscious, creative effort of the human spirit. Material circumstances merely limited the scope of the change that Revolution could effect, particularly in economic conditions. And it was the limits of the human psyche itself that prevented the rapid succession of governments from ever establishing political order, without ultimately resorting to totalitarianism and mass murder, in an awful premonition of the horrors to come in a later century.

In this fascinating story of a nation’s struggle to redefine itself, we can detect lessons for our own time. In particular, the saga of the French Revolution warns of the dangers of partisanship, extremism, and the demand for ideological purity – all of which can sweep through a people like a tidal force, and drag them toward an unavoidable fate. It’s a warning we should well heed today.

Now for some additional thoughts on parallels between the French Revolution and our times.

There are two obvious rhymes between our time and that distant time in French history. One is the effects of extreme partisanship – how it creates an unbridgeable gap between the two sides, limiting people’s thinking to conform with their particular partisan view (we call it the “echo chamber” today), and how it completely disempowers political moderates (good luck, Joe Biden). The other effect, related to the first, is how easily misinformation spreads. The rumors that spread through French society, causing massive fear and anxiety, way back in the late 1700s, are no different than the “fake news” of today. As they say, the first casualty of war is truth.

As for the terrifying levels of violence, mentioned in the review, I will say that it is my great hope that we are past that. It was a more violent time back then. Life was cheap. But certainly there are violent, extremist elements in our society today, lurking in the background like the spectre of dangers past. And we are in dangerous times.

We are in a Crisis Era, like the one that France was in during the Revolution. Our society will – indeed, must – transform, just as France’s did, though it will not be the same kind of transformation. We have a mature Republic, not one that is or has just been formed, and though it is straining, it is still intact. Now we are in a great test to see if our institutions can adapt to the challenges of the 21st century – if we can muster our own spirit to face the great difficulties ahead.

A common practice

A common practice

I’ve finished another book, a relatively quick read, taking me to 2 out of 20 books completed in my 2020 reading challenge. I just might get it done!

The book was Where Good Ideas Come From, by Steven Johnson, a brief treatise on innovation. I left a short review on Goodreads. but wanted to blog about something interesting I learned during my read.

A commonplace book from the mid 17th century

As part of the history of genius inventors, and of how information is organized and shared among them, Johnson covers the history of the commonplace book. This was a way for private individuals to compile knowledge, particularly popular in the early modern period. It was basically a loosely organized collection of notes. Typically it would be one volume, but it might take a lifetime to fill it, becoming a kind of jumbled encyclopedia with a personal touch.

There were even methods devised for the best way to organize the information, so that it could be found easily, but wasn’t too restrictively compartmentalized. The idea was that a freer arrangement could help reveal connections between different subject matters, allowing new concepts to emerge.

I realized that I have actually been following this practice my whole life. I’ve just been keeping smaller notebooks, to the point that I have piles of them now. Inside there are notes from reading books, as well as ideas for stories and games and world settings, all jumbled together. Sometimes I go back through them to revisit old ideas and ruminate more on them.

Some of my “commonplace” notebooks.

So that was a cool thing to get out of this read, the knowledge that I have been following a time-honored practice shared by scholarly types of centuries past. In fact, nowadays, most of us probably do, if only in the form of bookmarked web pages! So much to know about the world, and yet so much that remains undiscovered.

Inside one of my notebooks.