Is Facebook Replacing Older Ways?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 19, 2017

A few years ago an older version of our web site devoted to the Classics of Science Fiction would get hundreds of hits a day, some days going over a thousand. Now it’s lucky to get two dozen. Searching Google for “classics of science fiction” usually places the site on the first page of returns, which would suggest it’s still valid.

Why the decline in hits? It’s doubtful that science fiction has fallen out of favor. I’ve been wondering if how people use the internet has changed. I know our site is boring and statistical but it did have some fans. Now it doesn’t. I’m wondering if folks have stopped using the web in the same way they used it before. Are most people going to big sites and ignoring the small sites?

Or is everyone hanging out on Facebook instead?


Pages and groups devoted to science fiction on Facebook often have thousands of followers. Are people spending more time socializing on Facebook than surfing the web? Facebook has over 2 billion members. Many of my friends and family use Facebook daily. Has Facebook reached a critical mass of users meaning it can’t be ignored?

I know many people who loathe Facebook. As online forums and Yahoo! Groups die from inactivity will those holdouts be forced to become a Facebook pod person?

The internet existed for years before the World Wide Web. It wasn’t until the invention of the web browser that people began surfing the internet purely for entertainment. Users jumped from link to link, going wherever inspiration led them to click.

Then came search engines. Instead of surfing, you keyword searched. Of course, search results could take you to unknown and surprising places.

The way we use the internet has changed again with smartphone apps. Whereas before I’d start with Google, I now tap Wikipedia, IMDB or other icons instead. There are times when I have to fall back to Google, but it’s usually when I’m doing writing research.

For years my online socializing happened on blogs, Yahoo! Groups, or forums at web sites. All those virtual meeting places are becoming depopulated. After the internet became universal I assumed it would always be the same. Now I’m thinking the underlying technology will always be there, but how we use it will constantly mutate.

Has Facebook become an alternative to web surfing, blogging, home pages, personal web sites, etc? Even more, is Facebook replacing family get-togethers, scrapbooks, printed photos, letters, postcards, greeting cards, telephone calls, and email? Many people now prefer texting to a phone call because it is less time-consuming. Has Facebook become the quick replacement for visiting online friends, or even some real life friends?




200 Years After Jane Austen

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 18, 2017

[To commemorate the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death Book Riot devoted today to all Jane Austen essays, my contribution was “Who Jane Read, Who Read Jane.”]

Isn’t Jane Austen a writer for ladies who love romance stories? What kind of appeal can she have for a 65-year-old male with no interest in young women finding Mr. Right? This past week I watched films based on all six of Jane Austen novels with combinations of four different female friends. I thoroughly enjoyed them, but I’m not sure I enjoyed them for the same reasons my lady friends did. I have read four of her novels, and parts of several biographies.

NPG 3630; Jane Austen by Cassandra AustenI wished I had read Jane Austen when I was a boy because I would have been much less clueless about girls as a teen if I had. However, I’m not sure I could have liked her novels for the same reasons I do now. And I’m not sure I was a savvy enough teenage boy to decode their characters to understand how the opposite sex thinks. I didn’t discover Jane Austen until 13 years ago when I was 52 and read Pride and Prejudice because a lady friend at work praised it so highly.

I’ve been attracted to Jane ever since. Jane died in 1817, at age 41, having never married. She is sexy to me now because of her writing skills. We know very little about Jane except for what comes through in six novels, about 160 letters that were heavily censored by her surviving sister Cassandra, and three scrapbook volumes of unpublished work now called her juvenilia. All of this has been collected in a $1.99 Kindle edition called The Complete Works of Jane Austen – a handy way to carry Jane around in your smartphone.

Jane Austen imaginedPeople still argue over what Jane Austen even looked like. The drawing above was made by her sister Cassandra, with some relatives claiming after Jane’s death that it wasn’t a particularly good likeness. The drawing on the left was found in recent years and was assumed to be an imagined version of what she looked like, but many fans hope because it’s old enough, to be a drawing of Jane while she lived.

Which brings us back to why I love to read Jane. I’m driven by the mystery of figuring out who she was. She wrote six books that after two centuries is still growing her fan base, already in tens of millions, maybe hundreds. Any writer should envy that. I say she’s tied with Charles Dickens as the most remembered English novelist of the nineteenth century. Understanding why their work survives when so many others haven’t, fascinates me.

I figure less than 100 novels from any country are still popularly read and remembered today from the nineteenth-century. That begs the question: Why? In Jane’s day, Sir Walter Scott was the Stephen King/J. K. Rowling/James Patterson best selling author. Who reads Scott today? Why do we see stories on Masterpiece by Austen and Dickens reproduced over and over again? If we knew could today’s writers apply that knowledge to write books that would be popularly loved in 2317?

The films of Jane Austen seemed aimed at Regency romance fans, but I’m not sure that’s the kind of audience Austen expected. After her death, her family worked hard to censor the memory of Aunt Jane. Some conjecture has claimed she wrote over 3,000 letters. I wished we had them because I believe we’d have the real Jane. It’s a shame WordPress didn’t exist back then. I get the feeling from some of the clues that Jane was a funny sharp-tongued woman that might have had a lot to say about her world, but was held back by family, church, and publishing propriety. Her juvenilia hints at a more zany, even vicious Jane. In some ways, she reminds me of Louisa May Alcott who loved blood and thunder stories as a girl.

What we do get in the novels is a keen observer of people and society, and Jane would have been an excellent psychologist or sociologist. My mental map of nineteenth-century England comes from novelists, not historians. And I believe the everyday history included in their novels is a major trait of Austen’s and Dickens’ success. I have no interest in reading about the Napoleonic Wars which was concurrent with Jane’s stories. Some critics shame Jane for not being interested too, but I find her peripheral view of soldiers and sailors at home more interesting.

In the past two weeks, The New York Times has run two articles on textual analysis of Jane Austen and her word usage: “Charting Literary Greatness with Jane Austen,” and “The Word Choices Explain Why Jane Austen Endures.” Austen’s six novels stood out in their graph, away from all the other novels charted. (Strangely, they left out Dickens – I wonder why?)

Because of the anniversary of her death, there’s much being written about Jane. Just look at this Google search limited to the recent week. I’m sure this Jane Austen mania is invisible to most people, but for her fans, it only validates why she’s worthy of being remembered.

When I read Jane I delight in comparing then and now. Of course, Jane’s upper middle-class characters peeking inside manor houses totally ignores how ninety-five percent of England lived back then. Dickens trounced Jane at covering the full socio-economic spectrum. However, Jane covers a preindustrial time before Dickens. Jane was born the year before America declared independence and died the year before Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, A Modern Prometheus. Her novels have almost exclusive rights to that specific period of literary history. Whereas Dickens is working the same territory as the Brontës, Thackery, Trollope, Collins, and others. There were plenty of English novelists during the Regency period, but we don’t read them today.

Anyone who is a fan of Downton Abbey should be a fan of Jane Austen because that TV show chronicles the death of a lifestyle that Austen wrote about. The reason why the Crawley family had to leave their estate to a distant cousin is the same reason why the Bennets had to leave their home to Mr. Collins. Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham is pretty much a Mr. Darcy a century later who had to marry a rich American woman instead of a local Elizabeth Bennet.

I’m not an Anglophile, but to enjoy reading English novels means learning English history. Austen and Dickens anchor me in nineteenth-century England in the same way Twain and Alcott put me in nineteenth-century America, or Tolstoy lets me see nineteenth-century Russia. Their novels help me understand nineteenth-century art and art history, the time of my favorite paintings. Jane’s novels help me to appreciate on a deeper level historical novels like The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Yet, there’s another reason why I love Jane Austen novels. In the 1960s I grew up reading 1950s writers and stories. Over time I realized my favorite writers had favorite writers, and those writers had writers who inspired them. Many writers today can trace their literary genealogy back to Jane Austen. Over a lifetime of reading, I’ve been slowly studying a family tree of fiction. That gives me a great deal of pleasure.

Finally, reading Jane gives me Elizabeth Bennet, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, Fanny Price, Emma Woodhouse, Catherine Morland and Anne Elliot. Fictional females are extremely important to understanding the history of women and the evolution of feminist thought in our culture. By reading novels, we can see how free women were in their times, from Elizabeth Bennet to Caroline Meeber to Lady Brett Ashley to Janie Crawford to Esther Greenwood to Isodore Wing to Ifemelu to Offred/June.


Books To Read To Save The World

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 15, 2015

  • We will destroy civilization before the end of the century.
  • Denying science is denying reality.
  • Denying evidence for personal gain is treason to our species
  • Greed is destroying all the species on this planet including our own.
  • Self-interest is leading to species suicide.
  • We have the knowledge and technology to solve our problems.
  • We must change the way we live to save the planet.
  • Human nature is too stupid to survive free market capitalism.
  • We will not save the world just by buying LED light bulbs and driving electric cars.
  • Reading books will not save the Earth, but it will help understand the complexity of the problems we face.
  • Reading these books can be depressing.
  • Not reading these books only makes our problems worse.
  • Read and recommend books that help us understand the reality of your actions.
  • We can only divert the collapse of civilization if we find a new sustainable way to live.
  • Read ten books before deciding if I’m wrong.
  • Read another ten to begin to find hope.

If you know of other good books, recommend them in the comment section.

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? by Alan Weisman

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene by Roy Scranton

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty

The Rise and Fall of American Growth by Robert J. Gordon

Energy and Civilization: A History by Vaclav Smil

How Will Capitalism End? by Wolfgang Streeck

EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet by The Worldwatch Institute

Climate of Hope by Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope

The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea by Jack E. Davis

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan

Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild

White Trash: The 400-Year Untol History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisis Coaste

Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein

Sex Object by Jessica Valenti

Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few by Robert B. Reich

Dark Money by Jane Mayer

Getting to Green: Saving Nature – A Bipartisan Solution by Frederic C. Rich

The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World by Paul Gilding

Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean

Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life by David R. Montgomery

The Carbon Farming Solution by Eric Toensmeier

Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans De Waal

Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life by Edward O. Wilson

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

No Is Not Enough by Naomi Klein

The Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea by Callum Roberts

Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization by Steven Solomon

Climate Change and the Health of Nations by Anthony J. McMichael

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by by Jared Diamond


Sparrows and Prayers

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, July 14, 2017

Even as an atheist I’ve always loved the sentiment that God knows every sparrow that falls from a tree. It’s a comforting feeling to know that we’re watched by someone who loves us. A 2008 poll showed 60% of Americans believe in a personal God. But according to one estimate, there are ten times as many stars in the universe than all the grains of sand on Earth. The next time you’re at the beach, contemplate the sand and imagine that each grain contains as many humans as Earth, and then imagine what it would be like to hear all their prayers, and then remember you’d need to listen to all the beings on all the other grains of sand too. Can any mind no matter how vast discern so many voices?

There are over 7 billion humans on this planet and between 200-400 billion birds. How can God know every sparrow that falls from the sky or listens to every prayer we make? Now imagine multiplying 407 billion times every planet in the universe. Now multiply that times every universe in the multiverse.

sparrows and prayers

The only person that hears our prayers are ourselves, and maybe a few people who love us if we tell them. The idea that there’s a loving being that listens to all our wants, desires, and fears is a story primitive people told themselves. How can we believe it when we know so much more? Our reality is even larger than what we can see with the Hubble telescope. There’s no reason not to assume it’s infinite.

We need to individually listen to our own prayers and answer them ourselves. We need to collectively listen to each other’s prayers and work together to answer them as species. Humans need to note each sparrow that falls from the trees and care for them.

We should all want universal health care, we all get sick. Why should the rich get their prayers answered, and not the poor? Why should the rich be the sparrows that get noticed?


Taking Life Slower

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Back in May, I watched a segment on CBS Sunday Morning about Norway’s slow TV movement. You can watch the video here. Slow TV is watching ordinary events for hours at a time, like watching the view out the window of a train. It’s a step up from watching paint dry or grass grow – but not by much. I turned to my wife and told her she was already a slow TV fan. She’s been watching a live webcam of two eagles raising a baby for weeks – hours every day.

Slow Snail Life Animal Slime Small

Yesterday, I found “The Case for Taking Forever to Finish Reading Books.” I’ve always known I read too fast, even when I’m intentionally trying to read slowly. That’s why I love audiobooks – they go very slow. My friend Mike has given up audio books because he wants to read even slower.

For years I’ve kept a pace of reading one book a week – or 52 in a year. This year I’ve slowed down. In the first half of 2017, I’ve only read 16 books instead of 26. Still, that’s speed reading compared to the author of the article above, who has spent five years reading In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, and is only two-thirds finished.

My TV buddy Janis and I have rushed through ten episodes of Glow in about a week. We took about as long to finish Season 3 of Fargo. I’m not a slow TV watcher, but I’m wondering if I should be. Tonight my friends and I will be watching Emma, the fifth of six Jane Austen films we’ve watched in five nights. Tomorrow night is Persuasion. Already, I struggle to remember the plot and characters of Northanger Abbey, the first we watched on Saturday night.

If I had watched these six films in six weeks instead of six days would it have improved the experience? This is my Jane Austen week. I’ve been gorging on her biographies. I wish I had time to read her books again. Like most of my study manias, I’ll feast on Austen for a week or two and then forget her for years. Instead of trying to consume all of her quickly, I wonder if I had taken one novel, read it slowly, and studied its history, would I know Jane Austen better?

Reading the biographies concurrent with the movies reveals why she developed her plots. Studying one novel intently for one month would be intensely revealing, both of Austen and of early nineteenth-century English history.

The trouble with reading slower is reading less. I read fast so I can read more. I’m starting to wonder if I need abandon my quest to read everything great. It was never a particularly practical ambition. Over and over again I anguish over the fact that I can’t remember what I read, and I always come to the same conclusion – reading is for the moment. It’s not about remembering. I cannot store facts in my brain like entering data into a computer.

Reading is about experiencing a moment. My guess is reading very slow makes that moment a fuller. (Can you imagine a fatter moment?)

This week is all about Jane Austen. Next Tuesday is the 200th anniversary of her death. I need to read her at the pace Norwegians watch the scenery from a riverboat traveling down a river. Maybe I can stretch my week into a month. I know no matter how hard I try I won’t remember 99.9% what I read.

Mansfield ParkBut if I can slow down, both in my contemplation of what I’m reading and in my need to finish the project, I can go deeper into Jane’s world. I have so many other books I want to read, so many authors I want to consume – but does that matter? Can I go slow enough to forget future ambitions that follow this ambition? If I could go slow enough I’d never leave Jane Austen. If I could go even slower I’d never leave Mansfield Park.



Is Facebook a Hive Mind?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, July 9, 2017

Science fiction has long predicted humans meeting alien races that belong to a hive mind. The most famous example is probably the Borg from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Currently Internet Live says there are 3.7 billion users on the internet, with over 2 billion on Facebook – that’s out of 7+ billion humans. What will it mean if humanity joins a singular bio-cyber-system that allows us to interconnect?


Some people think of the hive mind in negative terms, with everyone thinking in lockstep fashion. Other people believe the hive mind could be positive, a worldwide communion of souls. I’m somewhat in the middle. Technology can produce an iPhone or an A-bomb. Also, the term hive mind is currently defined in different ways, so we need to work out a common definition.

But let’s compare Facebook to the past. The earliest forms of mass communication were the newspaper and journal, but it wasn’t until radio and television that we started talking about the impact of mass communication. 530 million people watched the moon landing. That’s a lot of people for one shared memory, especially when we were only 3+ billion. It’s not uncommon now to see a silly sentimental video on Facebook shared by tens of millions.

The difference with Facebook and older media technology is the mass audience replies. Facebook allows people to respond to what’s being broadcast to the masses. That should be good, right? We get our say. Unfortunately, what’s heard sometime is ugly.


Humans aren’t like ants and bees. We don’t have rigid roles within our society. We don’t work together in unison for some common purpose. Humans are often in conflict. But that conflict can be anything from disagreement over a movie to starting another world war.

I’m not sure where Facebook will take us, but I have noticed one interesting trend. When I got my first modem back in the early 1980s I connected to services like CompuServe, Prodigy, GEnie, AOL and various Bulletin Board Systems (BBS). In each case, I joined forums to discuss books. When I got on the internet I discussed books on Usenet News. After the web took hold I discussed books on Yahoo! Groups. At each technology stage, I was able to discuss books with more people around the world.

Via blogging and Twitter, I guessed there were just a few hundreds of fans of old pulp magazine still around. After I got on Facebook I discovered many thousands.

Lately, Yahoo! Groups, my favorite method for online book clubbing, has been dying. In one book club, we formed a Facebook group to support our Yahoo! Group. Then my co-moderator left the Yahoo! Group to manage the Facebook. His group currently has 3,617 members, whereas the Yahoo! Group membership has dwindled down to less than 12 active participants. The other day I joined a Facebook group for Western movie fans, it has over 25,000 members. They answered a question in minutes I’d been Googling for days to find.

Technology that allows thousands of people with a shared interest to connect is not a hive mind, but it’s something new. Mass communication has always been a misnomer because the conversation was always one-way. Facebook is creating two-way communication – true communication. Right now we share our minds over funny cat videos, get-togethers with friends, family events, pop culture tidbits, and polarize over political views. The potential of the Facebook technology is still unknown.

What if Donald Trump used Facebook instead of Twitter? Twitter can be two-way communication, but usually, it’s not. Twitter is a favorite tool of cyber bullies. Facebook can be more like virtual get-togethers. Facebook is more inclusive because it is family friendly. That is more of your entire family probably uses Facebook than Twitter.

I doubt Trump would read replies to his posts on Facebook, but wouldn’t both sides of our political divide have to reply in the same place? That would probably the largest flame war ever. A riot in cyberspace. However, what if the Like icons became an instant poll so Trump would have immediate feedback on his ideas. (We’d also need a dislike button icon added to the array.) Wouldn’t that be kind of hive mind like? A president could know rather quickly what voters thought. That’s a sharing of minds.

If Facebook became real-time Gallup Poll for global opinions wouldn’t that produce science fictional results that change our future? Whether we call it a hive mind or not doesn’t really matter. But we want to call it something. Our own individual minds work through a cooperation of many subfunctions. If we create technology that allows billions of humans minds to create gestalt functions we need to name and study them.


Writing About Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 5, 2017

I have a new essay up at Book Riot, “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Science Fiction?” It’s always fun to see other sites publish something I’ve written. And it’s an essay I’m proud of and want people to read. However, I’m not sure it’s the essay I intended to write. I don’t know if you have ever written an essay but if you have, do the thoughts you want to write ever come out the in the words you type?

Book Riot

Inspiration is often a vague idea, or maybe just a feeling. When you start writing about that momentary impulse other ideas start flowing out too. Ideas you haven’t thought of before, or planned. Quite often an essay will take off in a new direction, even a better direction. When I first started writing “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Science Fiction?” I planned to list and categorize all the main topics of science fiction. I felt there were a finite set of topics we label as science fiction. The essay covered that somewhat, but not in the way I planned. It veered off into another thought, that science fictional ideas are descended from myths, religion and fantasy stories. I ended up saying when we talk about science fiction we’re talking about ideas that we’ve been talking about ever since we shared Europe with the Neanderthals. Science fiction has redefined some of those ancient desires. The few that have any kind of scientific possibility we call science fiction, the rest we call fantasy, religion, or myths.

Since I hang out in book clubs and forums devoted to science fiction I talk and write about science fiction a lot. More often than not we end up talking about stories, storytelling, plots, characters, authors, publishing, reviewing, cover art, and all the things that go into the making of the genre of science fiction, but not the actual philosophy of science fiction. It usually comes down to whether or not the story entertained us, rather than did the story have an original speculative idea.

I actually believe science fiction is a very limited area of discourse. I believe science fiction is the act of speculating about specific unknown aspects of reality. I believe reading a story that makes us think about life on alien worlds is science fictional, but I believe that’s different from enjoying an adventure story that’s set on another world with aliens.

I often wonder if the stories we’ve inherited from myths and religions are the entertainment versions of once serious speculations about reality. That one-day science fiction from the 20th century will be like us reading about Greek mythology. Will they ask, “Did they believe these stories were true?”

When Robert A. Heinlein wrote stories about people living on the Moon in the 1950s he thought his stories were speculating about the possibility of colonizing the Moon. He wanted his stories to inspire a generation that would actually go into space and build the high frontier. Now we read those stories for entertainment or nostalgia.

I’ve always believed the science fiction magazine was where the cutting edge of science fictional ideas first appeared. But few people read those magazines anymore. I’m out of touch with most of the popular SF novels. Few of them seem to be serious science fiction speculation. People want a thrill ride, not philosophy.

I’m not sure all the serious speculative ideas of science fiction haven’t become part of our everyday culture. Forbes, a magazine devoted to business regularly covers astronomy, cosmology, theoretical physics, and space travel at its website. Artificial intelligence and robots are now part of the corporate bottom line. Miracles of biotechnology and engineering are on the news every day.

So what are we talking about when we talk about science fiction? I worry science fiction is a dying area of philosophy that’s being transformed into entertainment category. For Example, why is a sequel to Blade Runner coming out soon, and not an honest version of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? PKD was a weird-ass philosopher, not a writer of action hero adventure stories. In many ways, movie and television science fiction is stuck in the era of Planet Stories and never reached what was going on in Galaxy, F&SF and IF in the 1950s, much less what came out in the 1960s and 1970s.


I used the essay as a post of the Facebook group Space Opera Pulp and some of the people also said that movie science fiction wasn’t like what we used to read. So maybe I’m not alone in thinking science fiction is changing.