How Will We Remember the 1960s?

by James Wallace Harris, 5/16/21

Anyone who knows me, or reads my blog, knows I’m obsessed with memory. Even before my memory access speeds began declining I’ve always felt a desperation to hang onto what I learned even though I know most of it slips naturally away. I guess all those tests in school gave me a complex about poor recall.

Memory has many fascinating aspects, especially all the ways our memories fool us. We believe things are true because our memories tell us they’re true. Even when confronted with conclusive evidence, we often prefer what our memories tell us to external facts. All through my sixties I’ve been examining what I thought I remembered from growing up in the 1960s. Too often, the impressions I’ve maintained have proved wrong.

Because of an online discussion about science fiction in the 1960s my instant recall told me there must have been several hundred great science fiction novels published during that decade. However, as the discussion progressed my memory had trouble dredging up all those great titles.

My memory gave me the illusion there were enough wonderful science fiction novels published in the 1960s to fill a huge bookcase. Where did that impression come from? I assumed because my memories told me I read hundreds of science fiction novels I loved while growing up. Were those memories true? Thinking about it now I realized there are a number of ways to double check my brain’s records:

  • Look up the actual number of successful SF books published in the 1960s
  • Recall and list all the books I remember reading in the 1960s
  • Recall and list all the SF books from the 1960s I read in later decades
  • Research the memories of my contemporizes about what they read
  • Find out what books young science fiction fans read today from the 1960s
  • Read what literary scholars studying the 1960s consider the best SF books

I realized that my initial reaction to the online discussion was I wanted young people to replicated what I found great in the 1960s. That’s a typical old person hope, but it’s completely unrealistic. Newer generations are busy consuming all the books coming out in their own decade. What they read from past decades is always very minimal.

In other words, younger generations and scholars get a distillation of the past. Not only that, but they are going to interpret the past by current day mindsets. The chances of them experiencing what I remember is very small. So why do geezers want their cherished past persevered? Is it to validate their own memories? Is it the hope of keeping the things they loved alive across time?

For whatever reason, I want the essential aspects of the 1960s remembered accurately by history. The trouble is I’m not sure I correctly remember the 1960s myself. I’m probably not. Maybe what I’m doing is trying to write my own correct history now that I’m older and working on my wisdom skills.

For the purpose of this essay I’m using science fiction novels as one tiny test case of remembering the 1960s. I have a model in my head built from memories of what the 1960s were like. I’m interested in the mental models people are constructing today about that decade. Even focusing on this one microscopic piece of pop culture leaves many problems regarding memory to consider.

Is my white male American viewpoint of the 1960s science fiction too limiting? Do my contemporaries who were women and minorities remember 1960s science fiction differently? Bookworms growing up in Russia, China, Brazil, Vietnam, etc. will have experienced a much different decade than I did. For the purpose of this essay, I’ll focus on the U.S., however Great Britain plays a large role in my memory too. I also read fanzines back then where readers from around the world, including countries where English wasn’t the standard language, reviewed books. But this only provided hints of what science fiction was being published in foreign countries.

The online discussion I mentioned above got started because we read a link to “An Uneven Showcase of 1960s SF,” a 2019 review from The Los Angeles Review of Books covering The Library of America’s two volume set American Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s, which remembers these eight novels:

  • Poul Anderson, The High Crusade (1960)
  • Clifford D. Simak, Way Station (1963)
  • Roger Zelazny, … And Call Me Conrad (This Immortal) (1965)
  • Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon (1966)
  • R. A. Lafferty, Past Master (1968)
  • Joanna Russ, Picnic on Paradise (1968)
  • Samuel R. Delany, Nova (1968)
  • Jack Vance, Emphyrio (1969)

Our group was asking: Are these books really how literary history will remember 1960s science fiction? Personally, I don’t believe any of them will make it to the long term pop culture memory of 2050. However, Library of America does give us a clue with their other published science fiction books. That’s because their famous uniform volumes focus on authors and not works. So far they have published sets on these SF writers:

PKD also produced significant work in the 1950s and 1970s, but it seems his 1960s novels are the most remembered. Le Guin’s career covered decades but her most famous science fiction came out in the 1960s and 1970s. Vonnegut is also mostly remembered for his 1960s novels. Bradbury was mainly famous for his work in the 1950s, and Butler for work in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Library of America will not be the sole arbiter of who remembers science fiction from the 1960s, but I do believe they have made good guesses so far, at least for American Sci-Fi. But using Library of America and the SF authors they favor, are these then the science fiction novels future readers will remember 1960s science fiction by:

  • The Man in the High Castle (1962) by Philip K. Dick
  • A Wrinkle in Time (1962) Madeleine L’Engle
  • Cat’s Cradle (1963) by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Martian Time-Slip (1964) by Philip K. Dick
  • Rocannon’s World (1966) Ursula K. Le Guin
  • The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) by Philip K. Dick
  • Planet of Exile (1966) by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • City of Illusions (1967) by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) by Philip K. Dick
  • The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Ubik (1969) by Philip K. Dick

Of course this leaves out works by the most famous science fiction writers working in the 1960s, the so called Big Three of SF:

  • A Fall of Moondust (1961) by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Fantastic Voyage (1966) by Isaac Asimov
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) by Robert A. Heinlein
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by Arthur C. Clarke

Actually, The Big Three of SF writers were more famous for their work in the 1950s. Probably the single most remembered work of science fiction from the 1960s is Dune by Frank Herbert, and that’s because of all the movie versions. But growing up in the 1960s the two most famous new writers were Delany and Zelazny. Will any of their most famous novels be remembered? They each got an entry in the LoA set, but what about their other 1960s novels?

  • The Dream Master (1966) by Roger Zelazny
  • Empire Star (1966) by Samuel R. Delany
  • Babel-17 (1966) by Samuel R. Delany
  • The Einstein Intersection (1967) by Samuel R. Delany
  • Lord of Light (1967) by Roger Zelazny
  • Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny

There were many novels I loved or remember reading great reviews from back in the 1960s that were missed by the Library of America set. I’m not sure how famous they are today, or if they are still worthy of reading:

  • A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) by Walter M. Miller Jr.
  • Flesh (1960) by Philip Jose Farmer
  • Rogue Moon (1960) by Algis Budrys
  • Venus Plus X (1960) by Theodore Sturgeon
  • Catseye (1961) by Andre Norton
  • Dark Universe (1961) by Daniel F. Galouye
  • Time is the Simplest Thing (1961) by Clifford Simak
  • Little Fuzzy (1962) by H. Beam Piper
  • The Dragon Masters (1963) by Jack Vance
  • Lords of the Psychon (1963) by Daniel F. Galouye
  • The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963) by Walter Tevis
  • Davy (1964) by Edgar Pangborn
  • Simulacron-3 (1964) by Daniel F. Galouye
  • The Wanderer (1964) by Fritz Leiber
  • All Flesh is Grass (1965) by Clifford Simak
  • Bill, the Galactic Hero (1965) by Harry Harrison
  • Destination: Void (1965) by Frank Herbert
  • The Genocides (1965) by Thomas M. Disch
  • The Age of the Pussyfoot (1966) by Frederik Pohl
  • Earthblood (1966) by Keith Laumer and Rosel George Brown
  • Make Room, Make Room (1966) by Harry Harrison
  • Mindswap (1966) by Robert Sheckley
  • The Witches of Karres (1966) by James H. Schmitz
  • The World of the Ptavvs (1966) by Larry Niven
  • The Butterfly Kid (1967) by Chester Anderson
  • Camp Concentration (1967) by Thomas M. Disch
  • Chthon (1967) by Piers Anthony
  • Lords of the Starship (1967) by Mark S. Geston
  • Restoree (1967) by Anne McCaffrey
  • Soldier, Ask Not (1967) by Gordon R. Dickson
  • Those Who Watch (1967) by Robert Silverberg
  • Why Call Them Back From Heaven? (1967) by Clifford Simak
  • Dimension of Miracles (1968) by Robert Sheckley
  • Dragonflight (1968) by Anne McCaffrey
  • Hawksbill Station (1968) by Robert Silverberg
  • The Last Starship From Earth (1968) by John Boyd
  • The Masks of Time (1968) by Robert Silverberg
  • Of Men and Monsters (1968) by William Tenn
  • Past Master (1968) by R. A. Lafferty
  • Rite of Passage (1968) by Alexei Panshin
  • The Andromeda Strain (1969) by Michael Crichton
  • Bug Jack Barron (1969) by Norman Spinrad
  • Fourth Mansions (1969) by R. A. Lafferty
  • Macroscope (1969) by Piers Anthony
  • The Pollinators of Eden (1969) by John Boyd
  • The Ship Who Sang (1969) by Anne McCaffrey
  • A Specter is Haunting Texas (1969) by Fritz Leiber
  • Up the Line (1969) by Robert Silverberg

And what about British invasion SF writers who made such a big impact on the genre in the 1960s:

  • The Trouble with Lichen (1960) by John Wyndham
  • The Wind from Nowhere (1961) by J. G. Ballard
  • A Clockwork Orange (1962) by Anthony Burgess
  • The Drowned World (1962) by J. G. Ballard
  • Hothouse (1962) by Brian Aldiss
  • Greybeard (1964) by Brian Aldiss
  • The Dark Light Years (1964) by Brian Aldiss
  • The Whole Man (1964) by John Brunner
  • The Squares of the City (1965) by John Brunner
  • Colossus (1966) D. F. Jones
  • The Crystal World (1966) by J. G. Ballard
  • Earthworks (1966) by Brian Aldiss
  • The Watch Below (1966) by James White
  • Chocky (1968) by John Wyndham
  • The Final Programme (1968) by Michael Moorcock
  • Pavane (1968) by Keith Roberts
  • Report on Probability A (1968) by Brian Aldiss
  • Stand on Zanzibar (1968) by John Brunner
  • Barefoot in the Head (1969) by Brian Aldiss
  • Behold the Man (1969) Michael Morecock
  • The Jagged Orbit (1969) by John Brunner

Or from the rest of the world

  • Solaris (1961) by Stanislaw Lem
  • Planet of the Apes (1963) by Pierre Boulle
  • Hard to Be a God (1964) by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
  • The Second Invasion from Mars (1967) by Arkady and Boris Strgatsky
  • His Master’s Voice (1968) by Stanislaw Lem

If you were born after the 1960s, especially after the year 2000, how many of these novels have you read, or have even heard about? Years ago, I wrote an essay about what I thought might be the defining science fiction novels of the 1960s. At the time I guessed these dozen would be remembered:

  1. Solaris by Stanislaw Lem (1961)
  2. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein (1961)
  3. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)
  4. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962)
  5. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1963)
  6. Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)
  7. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (1966)
  8. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein (1966)
  9. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1968)
  10. Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner (1968)
  11. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1969)
  12. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)

I stand by these twelve for now, but I believe in the long run, only a few, if any, will be remembered by the reading public in the 2060s. Dune has the best chance of being remembered, but will it really go the distance? It was #35 on PBS’s The Great American Read, the only 1960s SF novel on the list, so that’s one indicator.

Do we remember the pop culture of the past because of the artists or their works? We remember books by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen from the 1800s, but did their stories stick to us first, or was it something about Dickens and Austen that make us read their work? I believe “Eleanor Rigby” survives because we can’t forget The Beatles. That Baby Boomers love of The Beatles was passed on to their children and grand children.

Even with one hit wonders like Little Women (#8 on the PBS list), I believe Louisa May Alcott is why we remember her book. Somehow her powerful personality anchored her in time. Ditto for literature of the 1920s. Don’t we really remember the novels of the 1920s because of our fascination with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Lawrence, and Joyce? Or do their biographical reputations grow as more readers consume their books?

My guess is the current public’s sense of 1960s science fiction comes down to Philip K. Dick and all the biographical attention he’s getting, and because so many of his stories have been filmed. Back in the 1960s, Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke were the Big Three of SF, mainly because of their successes in the 1950s. Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress are still remembered today, getting special editions and new readers, but my hunch is Heinlein’s appeal is fading, and as a teenager in the 1960s he was my J. K. Rowling. In other words, my cherish memories will not be how literary historians remembers science fiction the 1960s.

I just don’t see modern bookworms hanging onto to most 1960s SF writers today. In terms of literary cults, I’d say Ray Bradbury might be next after PKD, and possibly Ursula K. Le Guin. Dune is the major SF novel from the 1960s, but there seems to be little interest in Frank Herbert. Look how Tolkien has become legendary as a figure of literary interest. I consider that a clue to future literary remembrances. If the public doesn’t also take an interest in an author, I think it’s less likely their books will be remembered.

At the last World Con a Hugo award was given to a speech that’s erasing John W. Campbell’s reputation. Will Heinlein and Asimov be next? As much as my memories tell me that Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke were great, I’m not sure the collective pop culture memory feels the same way. This makes me sad, but I’ve got to come to terms with it.

When I take the time to think about what I actually remember, and compare those memories to external data, I realized I did read hundreds of SF during the 1960s, but the vast majority of them were first published in the 1950s. I joined the Science Fiction Book Club in March of 1967 and often got its two main selections. At best that could have been 60 new titles, but sometimes the main selections were 1950s reprints, so I figure the number was smaller, and I didn’t read every book. Thinking about things, I read many 1960s SF novels after the 1960s, in fact I’m still reading for the first time SF books from the 1960s. But even with all them, I could not assemble a list of hundreds of great SF books from the 1960s.

My memory was mostly wrong. I was able to find just under a hundred titles for this essay. I’d bet that between 1,000-2,000 SF novels were published during the 1960s, which sounds like an impossible lot, but it takes only two years nowadays to publish that many SF titles.

Memory has always been a distillation process. Each night we forget most of what happened the previous day. I don’t think the Library of America picked the most memorable eight SF novels to remember the 1960s. But then every science fiction fan who lived through the sixties will recall a different eight titles. And it would be unfair for me to want my eight favorites to be the ones remembered. However, I’d really love to know what eight SF novels from the 1960s will be remembered and read in the 2060s. Who will be the Jules Verne and H. G. Wells of the 20th century?

Update: 5/25/21

Because of a comment below by my old friend Jim Connell I realized asking a 15-year-old SF fan today about 1960s is like asking me back in 1965 what I thought about science fiction from the 1910s. At the time I had not even read A Princess of Mars or Tarzan of the Apes, or even The Skylark of Space. Over the next fifty-five years I would eventually read several novels, both literary and science fiction from the 1910s, but I can’t say I’m intimate with the pop culture of that decade. I’ve read 9 of the 70 books listed here for the 1910s, and know of several more from movies and reading about them.

Thus my memory of science fiction from the 1910s gives me roughly an idea of what younger people might know about science fiction from the 1960s.

JWH

Lessons Learn from Lightning Killing My Computer, TV, and Internet Box

by James Wallace Harris, 4/1/21

Around 4:30 am last Friday lightning struck near my house. I was up peeing when a tremendous flash and boom occurred just outside the bathroom window, stunning my eyes and ears. I didn’t think much about it and went back to bed. When I got up I turned on my computer to check my email it wouldn’t come on. It was as dead as a dried up cockroach. Oddly, my nice APC UPS was still functioning. And my monitor worked. Huh, wondered what all that meant? I was heartsick my computer died but not too worried, I believe I had everything on Dropbox.

I went around the house checking things and discovered my 18-month old 65” Sony TV was dead as the computer. That was a shocker, but then I thought about all the folks in Alabama who had their houses blown to bits by tornadoes. R.I.P. my Sony, but I can buy another.

Finally, I realized I was getting no WiFi in the house, and discovered the internet router was a goner too. Now I was worried, feeling the growing anxiety I feel when I’m not connected. Dang, I hate that feeling.

The TV was on a brand new surge protector that seemed to be in fine working order too. My current theory is lightning zapped everything through the Ethernet cabling. So much for trusting UPS boxes and surge protectors. I did some research and lightning can be destructive in mysterious ways. It doesn’t have to make a direct strike, or come through the house wiring. My neighbor to the north lost his cable TV box and my neighbor to the south had to reset all the breakers in his house.

So my first lesson is to unplug electronic devices from both power, Ethernet, and outside antennas when I get a severe storm warning. But that was only the beginning of my education from this event. We’ve been without the internet and WiFi for almost six days now. That’s taught Susan and I just how addicted we’ve become to the global net. It’s also shown us just how many of our daily activities depend on WiFi and networking.

Without the internet some of the things I missed were:

  • Streaming TV
  • Streaming music
  • Streaming audiobooks
  • Streaming Kindle books
  • Talking to Alexa
  • House phone
  • WordPress blogging
  • Groups.io clubs
  • Social Media
  • Zooming
  • Browsing the web
  • YouTube

Our smartphones were working, but we only get one bar of AT&T service in the house. That meant we weren’t totally cut off. We had our little handheld lifeboats. Our weak broadband was good enough for email, light Facebook use, reading simple web pages, or watching short video clips. Just enough to keep us connected with people and information, but no massive multimedia consumption.

You’d think it would be no big deal to go without the internet because most of our lives we didn’t have it. But I realized now I’ve been using the internet daily for more than a quarter century and wasn’t aware of just how integrated it’s become to my daily routines. And I’m not even one of those guys who’s automated their house with intelligent control and security features. Think about the direction society is heading by connecting everything.

At first I only missed little things, but they added up. For example, I needed to fill out registration forms for an upcoming surgery, but filling in the forms were impractical on the phone. I had to go to a neighbor’s house and borrow their computer to complete that task.

We gave up cable years ago, so all our TV comes to us via streaming. Susan made do by watching over-the-air TV, and I got by with Gunsmoke season 2 DVDs. Using that old tech has an old timey feel. That should have been retro trendy, but it wasn’t cool, reminding us it obvious why everyone prefers streaming.

I stream all my music, newspapers, and magazines too, and about half my books. While we were off the net I read physical books. It seemed very quiet. I’ve always been a bookworm, and I have enough printed books to keep me in reading for the rest of my life, so why did I feel anxious about not having my digital books and magazines? Was it just new habits are comfortable and old lost habits are odd?

Staying home for over a year because of the pandemic has made me very depended on the internet for socializing. Since retiring in 2013 many of my hobbies have become internet related. During the last power outage some people in my groups even wondered if something had happened to me. (It’s not uncommon on listserv book clubs for someone to die and leave folks wondering about those people who never post again.)

Internet friends aren’t the same as real life friends, but I’ve come to value them in my daily digital life in a big way. Are we slowly becoming adapted to hive socializing? I do feel sorry for people who aren’t internet savvy. More and more, daily business is conducted over the internet, from getting vaccine appointments to replying to jury summons. When my doctors come into the exam room they bring their laptops and they expect me to join their portals. I haven’t written a letter or sent a postcard in years. I keep up with family and friends on Facebook. Most of my shopping is online. I have several friends that I talk with on the phone and we each use the speakerphone so we can look up stuff we can’t remember on Google and Wikipedia while we chat. Increasingly, I have running texting sessions with friends I used to visit because we no longer want to use up all that real time getting together in person. The interest is my auxiliary memory, my second brain.

You’d think one thing I learned this week is to value analog living, but I was too anxious to get back to the digital world. Once the router came in this afternoon I jumped back on the net. Susan immediately cranked up the streaming TV, and I started researching how to avoid an internet outage again.

My first idea is to switch to using WiFi all around the house. I have Ethernet cables running everywhere because I want Ethernet speeds and hate putting in WiFi passwords. I started researching buying a WiFi mesh system but realized I’d have to tinker a fair amount with my AT&T router’s setting. So I ordered one WiFi range extender that AT&T pushes. If it works, I’ll get another. It will be much cheaper than buying a mesh system. If the AT&T extender works I can give up several cables stretches, a switch, many patch cables to devices, and two Ethernet over 110 wiring hubs. I’m also going to research what it takes to get a broadband WiFi hotspot. At minimum I could get a tablet with broadband and a keyboard.

On the other hand I feel guilty. I feel I should be visiting friends (this goddamn Covid), watching television as God and Philo Farnsworth intended via over-the-air broadcasts, and reading books in the Gutenberg form factor. Have you tried local television lately? Susan found four stations that ran old television shows we watched growing up until cable TV and the internet intervened. It was like time traveling all day long.

This week we were reminded of the old reality. Given a few weeks I believe I could have overcome the withdrawal symptoms of internet addiction. Thomas Wolfe said we can’t go home again, and maybe that’s true, and maybe it’s not. Did he try hard enough?

I could use the internet less, but I couldn’t do without computers. I’d never want to return to the typewriter after knowing the wonders of the word processor. I could give up Facebook but not email. I could even learn to shop in stores again, but will we? We’re all rushing into the future and do we ever consider slowing down that stampede, or even turning around?

JWH

Hopes, Dreams, and Bullshit

by James Wallace Harris, 2/2/21

Rereading the 1984 book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy unearthed long suppressed feelings and ambitions that first emerged in my personality back in the 1960s and 1970s. When I first read Hackers in 1985 it rekindled those formative emotions and desires then as well. I’ll start my seventies this year and I have to wonder when do hopes that I formed in my teens finally fade away? When can I just give up and be here now? When do I stop trying to constantly be who I was? Why don’t hopes have expirations dates? Why are these books so exciting after all these years?

I remember four years ago triggering these same emotions and ambitions when I reread The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. I tried to write about what I felt, but those words don’t capture what I’m trying to say now. One thing about growing older, at least for me, is seeking clarity about my time in reality. Before I die, or my mind fades away, I want eliminate all the bullshit barnacles that encrusts my soul.

My current theory is we acquire our personal dreams and desires from pop culture and subcultures. During my lifetime I’ve belonged to many subcultures, but the two I loved most are science fiction and computers. Both current forms of those subcultures have long past me by, but their initial seduction have left subprograms running within my mind that never stop. Why was I able to deprogram myself of childhood religious programming, but I’ve never been able to escape that cultural programming acquired from age 12-22?

You’d think we’d forget old beliefs as we acquired new insights. Of course, I’m generalizing, assuming all people are the same. Maybe other people do that, but I don’t. Why can’t we emotionally be like historians who rewrite history with new discovers. For example, after rereading Hackers I read A People’s History of Computing in the United States (2018) by Joy Lisi Rankin. Basically, Rankin is saying, hold on there Steven Levy, your history of computer pioneers from MIT and Silicon Valley leave out a lot of middle America computer pioneers. Her book is reshaping my sense of computer history I got from Hackers. Why don’t I do the same things with my personal history?

This is not the book review I sat down to write. I might try again, but let’s go with the flow. These books hit the bullseye of my old computer ambitions. Over the past year I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos about 8-bit computers, especially those from The 8-Bit Guy. David Murray essentially has traveled back in time to work on computers at the point where Hackers ends in 1984. Many other YouTubers have done this too. I’ve wondered if the solution to my problem with all these old hopes and desires is to return to a past point in time and start over. I realize at this moment, that’s exactly what I’ve done with science fiction. I’m reading and collecting what I loved best from 1965-1975. That’s kind of weird when you think about it. But maybe it’s a natural aspect of aging too.

However, I also tell myself I should jettison my past like they were my first and second rocket stages and seek orbit for what I could be in 2021. But could that be me bullshitting myself that I’m not too old to learn new tricks. Of course, maybe one way not to stir up old emotions and desires is to stop consuming old pop culture. Does my library of old books, magazines, movies, and TV shows keep those old subprograms going? Actually, yes.

I have a friend, Anne, who lives so in the present that she hates the past, and even throws away old photographs and mementos when she finds them. I also live in the present by reading books published in 2020 and magazines that are February 2021 current. If I tossed out my old library and read only new books and magazines I would become a different person. I could become a fast nimble speedboat. But because I loved old pop culture, and can’t let go of old ambitions, magazines, and books, I feel the past I carry around has grown to the size of the Titanic. (I wish I had a photo of a guy in a rowboat towing the Titanic on a rope to put right here.)

The current nonfiction books and science fiction magazines I’m reading are about politics, climate change, and all the other dark clouds the horizon of this century. (No wonder I want to return to last century.) If I only read new books and magazines I’d completely reshape my present personality. Reading these three computer histories rekindles the futures I wanted back in the 1970s and 1980s, and they were tremendously more appealing than the futures I envision now. The people profiled in those books had such wonderful dreams about what computers would bring to the 21st century. And their dreams came true beyond anything they imagined or hoped. Yet, I wonder if they could see the downside of their creations, would they have done anything different? And isn’t that what I’m doing now by rereading these old books, second guessing my past decisions?

One of the reasons I can’t let the past go is it feels unfinished. I didn’t get to consume all the pop culture I wanted back then, satisfy all my wants, or achieve all my ambitions. But having lived in the future, it also feels like we took so many wrong turns. I can’t help but want to go back and finish what I started and even try different paths.

There is a whole lot more I want to say about Hackers, but this essay has already gotten too long for chiseling on this stone. Hopefully to be continued on another rock.

JWH

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, December 4, 2020

I have never been to San Francisco but over my lifetime I’ve read many books about social movements that city produced. They include the Beats (1950s), Rock (1960s), Gay Liberation (1970s), and Silicon Valley (1970s, 1980s). Anna Wiener’s 2020 book Uncanny Valley is about San Francisco of the 2010s, although I’d say mainly about from 2013 to 2016 when Trump is elected president with a bit of updating to 2018. Anna Wiener was on the peripheral of several interesting news events of the decade, so even though this is a personal memoir, she had a stadium seat to some significant social upheavals that affected more than just San Francisco. This is probably why The New York Times chose Uncanny Valley as one of the “Ten Best Books of 2020.” It was also on these best of the year lists from Esquire, NPR, and Parade. Bookmarks which tracks links to reviews found mostly rave reviews.

Describing what Uncanny Valley is about will be hard. Wiener, graduated from college in 2009 and went to work for publishers in New York, and then at age 25 moved to San Francisco to work at a succession of three internet startups, the most famous of which was GitHub. I’m a computer guy who loves books about the history of computers and computing. I was hoping Uncanny Valley would be another The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. It wasn’t. Anna Wiener wasn’t a programmer or computer engineer, and her memoir is not really about computers even though it focuses on people who passionately are.

Wiener’s role in her story was much like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, as a commentator on the main characters, or like Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Wiener was an observer of a social revolution, not a revolutionary herself. Wiener gets to know the revolutionaries, their causes, their ambitions, their faults, their crimes, their successes and anguishes. Wiener tries to understand the philosophical implications of this revolution but it’s too complex.

The young millenials who become millionaires and billionaires creating tech startups in San Francisco have a lot of overlap with the counterculture revolutionaries of the 1960s. They imagine reshaping society with similar utopian ideals, justifying their hubris with similar sounding pop philosophies, they indulge in drugs, alternative lifestyles, leftover New Age faiths, wild conspiracy theories, and silly science fictional schemes that have echos in previous cultural revolutions. They even contemplate engineering cities from scratch like hippies use to dream about communes. But this time around they are capitalists and they all want to get mega rich.

Silicon Valley and San Francisco are not everyday America, but they impact it in a way we can’t escape. Most of us live at least part-time on the net, joining the hivemind subculture Silicon Valley created. Anna Wiener lived in the eye of the hurricane collecting data readings she hoped would reveal meaning. I’m not sure anyone can make sense of that era. She felt bad and blamed herself for failing, but that’s silly. What she has done is taken excellent notes about her experiences and impressions.

Uncanny Valley could be a textbook supplement for a graduate course on current issues in business and business ethics. It could also be a meditation guide for young people who contemplate their own participation in society. Like the Beats in the 1950s, and the Hippies in the 1960s, and the New Agers in the 1970s, the millenials are struggling to make sense of life and find a righteous path for living in a corrupt world of commerce. Like every generation, they’re looking for meaning in a meaningless reality. In some ways, Uncanny Valley reminds me of The Making of a Counter Culture by Theodore Roszaks – but who remembers that 1969 book?

Throughout this memoir I kept feeling the people Wiener described were going through many of the same psychological struggles I did in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s a chronicle of typical youth angst. Of course, that left me wondering if we can ever solve the problems we all rail against early in life, but which we eventually forget when we co-opt ordinariness.

The only thing unique about Wiener’s generation is how some of them got so damn rich. Part of Uncanny Valley deals with the problems of chasing those billions, and soul changing of catching mountains of money, or the agony of failing to become wealthy.

Even though this is a short book, there’s a great deal to it, really too much to digest, including many ethical issues created by the business models of these new tech industries. Often Wiener would be working on software that got into the news for its evil side effects. Or that same software would empower legions of formerly powerless people to do evil. She often worried about the degree of guilt that belong to her.

Ultimately, Uncanny Valley becomes a must read book because Anna Wiener just happened to be in the right place at the right time to glimpse at generation changing events. Nearly everything she writes about has been well documented in news stories over the last decade. If you’ve been paying attention, a lot of it will be familiar. Weiner got closer than most reporters. However, she obscures the names of everything. I found this very annoying, but finally accepted it as a quirky writing affectation. In one review I read, it was suggested she Wiener had to sign so many non-disclosure agreements she’s become shy of using real names for anything. Of course, Wiener might have thought it funny to make us guess.

I don’t know how often I convince blog readers here to read what I review. Uncanny Valley could bore the crap out of most of my friends, or it could dazzle them. If you like nonfiction and memoirs, and interested in issues dealing with current events, profiles of younger generations, sexism, privilege, technological change, politics, economic equality, ecology, homelessness, gentrification, capitalism, and contemporary ethical issues, then this book might be for you. If reality overwhelms you, you should avoid it like the Covid.

Additional Reading:

JWH

Simplifying My Stereo

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 11, 2019

Does anyone ever call their music player a stereo anymore? A long time ago we’d call it a phonograph, a record player, later on, a Hi-Fi, stereo, or receiver. I guess people call them audio systems now? Actually, I don’t know what people call machines that play music in these modern times. Researching this article meant constantly changing the terms in my Google requests to find what I think I needed.

What I want is to hear my music at its maximum fidelity with the least equipment for the smallest price. I just want to own less crap. A long time ago I imagined the perfect music delivery system while I was stoned. What if we could just think of a song and then hear as if we were a character in a movie who could hear the soundtrack? Wouldn’t that be far-out! No equipment, just music, like having a stereo system integrated into our heads.

With Spotify and my iPhone, I come close to achieving that dream. However, I don’t want to always wear headphones. Basically, what I want is to tap my iPhone and hear the music fill the room.

What I believe I need is called a music streamer (sometimes called a network amplifier). But neither is precise or accepted. I appear to want an amplified music streamer. There are other music streamers that connect to an existing stereo amplifier. I’m currently thinking about buying is the Yamaha WXA-50, but I’m also wondering if it’s worth spending almost three times as much to get the new Denon PMA-150H. The Yamaha came out in 2016 and the Denon was just released. (I do think the Yamaha would serve all my needs but I am worried about buying technology that came out 4 years ago.)

 

I guess I should explain what these gadgets do. That will require a bit of backtracking. Right now my home office stereo is a two-channel receiver connected to a pair of Bose speakers. They are connected to my computer and CD player. Music sounds pretty good, especially when I crank it up. But this system is probably 25-30 years old. I can play Spotify, CDs, or MP3 files. I have a turntable, but that’s packed away, but if I wanted, I could play LPs.

I want to be able to control all my music from my iPhone. First, this means I don’t have to worry about another remote. Second, it means if I want to hear music that’s not on Spotify it has to be ripped. I don’t want to mess with CDs or LPs anymore. It also means I don’t want to depend on my computer. Right now I can use my iPhone with Spotify Connect to play music through the computer via the receiver, but I want to eliminate the middleman, the computer. Which then means I can put the music streamer and speakers anywhere.

I’d love to do away with speaker wire too, and wireless speakers are starting to catch on, but I’m not sure they are ready for prime time just yet. Probably if I waited for another year or two that will be the big selling point to new music streamers. If you know of a great solution now, post a comment.

Speakers are a big problem with creating my dream music system. Placement is critical, and I don’t have any good places to put them in my home office. Every inch of wall spaced is currently being used. I’d like a pair of Klipsch RP 600M speakers, but they have a rear-facing port meaning they need to be set away from the wall. I might have to settle for the Elac Debut B6.2 speakers that are not as exciting but have a front-facing port. I could put them and the Yamaha WXA-50 up on top of my bookshelves. They’d barely be seen, and that would free up deskspace too.

However,  would this solve all my problems? Can I use the WXA-50 to play audio from my computer remotely? Right now all audio/music comes through my computer. If I get this new seti[, music will come from one system, and computer audio from another. I’ll need two sets of speakers. I’ll be able to remove the large Pioneer receiver and Bose speakers from my computer desk, but I might have to put back my powered computer speakers. I’d rather not.

And if I rip my CDs to FLAC I could pack away my CDs, get rid of their shelving, and put away the CD player too. I’m almost to the point of using Spotify for all my music, but unfortunately, there are a few albums they don’t have in their library.

Having two sets of speakers in one room ruins my goal of finding a simpler way to live with less. I know I’ll never have an integrated music system in my head. Going digital means eliminating a lot of physical objects and technology, but it can’t eliminate everything. I absolutely have to have a monitor, keyboard, mouse, speakers, and a box to run them. If an all-in-one computer like an iMac had perfect internal speakers I could simplify my tech needs to a monitor/keyboard/mouse.

I could also achieve music simplicity if I accepted always listening to music while wearing headphones. But the half-ass audiophile in me feels over-the-air music sounds better. Also, I believe music sounds better not coming from a computer, but from a separate DAC/amplifier. Sure, high-end audiophiles believe in a whole array of separate components to get the best sound, but luckily I’m not that driven. If I’m not playing music through the computer, I can accept a very modest level of audio quality. That means I should consider music and computers as two different systems to simplify.

A music streamer and speakers could be the lowest level of tech simplicity for listening to music, especially if they eliminate wires. I guess its possible futures designs could build the DAC/amp into a pair of speakers for even more simplification. And, all-in-one computer (monitor/mouse/keyboard) will be the lowest level of tech simplicity for a desktop computer.

JWH