This began as a place to gather images and impressions in preparation for writing a book, Letter by Letter, about the history of the idea of writing; it continues to live as a kind of shoebox under the bed.
I'm Matthew Battles. I write about technology in natural history, culture, and our experience of the natural world. I'm a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, where I help out with metaLAB at Harvard, a collaborative investigating the roles of technology in the Arts and Humanities. On Twitter, I'm @matthewbattles.
When striving to re-form the pattern of our own way of life, we often invoke Nature as our great teacher, seeking to justify man’s actions by arguments based on what happens in nature. We strive after ‘organic creation’, ‘form production from within’, ‘functional forms’, all of them aims which man believes he can find realized in works of nature. Using such slogans, our spirit protests against the artificiality of outward show; it demands ‘essentials’ instead of ‘façades’, and thinks that the very observation of nature should make us proof against false appearances and superficiality.
But what do we see in natural objects which are said to be examples for us? The functional form pure and simple, so much extolled by some as befitting Nature, is a rare and special case. How much more often do we find in animal forms just what is not comprised in these concepts? And what about ‘form production from within’, which is supposed to be Nature’s way of salvation, which should be the aim of Art? The inside of an animal does remind us of really ingenious man-made apparatus, and a machine-like interpretation does explain some of its functions. But against this, the covering of such ‘apparatus’ always stimulates us to compare it with those kinds of human artistic creations which are farthest removed from any purposive conception. How often does it seem to us as if roving fancy had been at work; sportiveness, the capricious free play of creative force, comes to mind rather than a technical necessity.
Adolf Portman, Animal Forms and Patterns: a Study of the Appearance of Animals (Faber, 1952).
The Oblique Strategies card I turned over today tells me to “discard an axiom,” and of the day’s reading this comes the closest to meeting the obligation.
We want a ground to which people may easily go after their day’s work is done, and where they may stroll for an hour, seeing, hearing, and feeling nothing of the bustle and jar of the streets, where they shall, in effect, find the city put far away from them. We want the greatest possible contrast with the streets and the shops and the rooms of the town…. We want, especially, the greatest possible contrast with the restraining and confining conditions of the town, those conditions which compel us to walk circumspectly, watchfully, jealously, which compel us to look closely upon others without sympathy. Practically, what we most want is a simple, broad, open space of clean greensward, with sufficient play of surface and a sufficient number of trees about it to supply a variety of light and shade. This we want as a central feature. We want depth of wood enough about it not only for comfort in hot weather, but to completely shut out the city from our landscapes.
Technology comforts, surrounds, and confounds us. When we argue about MOOCs, hydraulic fracturing, NSA surveillance, or drone warfare, we’re arguing about technology. Unfortunately, the conversation is impoverished by the absence of a robust cadre of scholars who can engage with and critique the role of technology in society. Instead, we have the glib boosterism of tech intellectuals like the former Wired editor Chris Anderson, the media gadfly (and CUNY journalism professor) Jeff Jarvis, the British writer Andrew Keen, and the Google executive Eric Schmidt. A fairly homogenous group of white men with elite degrees inclined to champion innovation, disruption, and the free market, these tech intellectuals have usurped the role of explaining technology to policy makers, investors, and the public. Their arguments and advocacy are too often a tepid substitute for robust analysis and honest critique.
Montfort’s involuted, single-line programs give BASIC something of the tang of the Old English of Beowulf—sharp and shorn, barbed and battered by the harsh economies of its habitat. Perl, by contrast, might be the programmer’s version of Occitan, the language (a cousin to latter-day Catalan) of the medieval troubadors, whose poems chimed with the decadent elaborations that flavored courtly life in medieval southern Europe—a fanciful dichotomy, which manages to caricature both the software and the vernaculars in question. Programmers of philological bent will find the comparison to Occitan especially laughable, given Perl’s cobbled-together nature and its reputation for clunkiness; a better example might be the macaronic jargon of the later middle ages, of which Pig Latin is an impoverished descendant.
The Taiyi summit nears the seat of heaven;
linked mountains stretch to brink of sea.
Looking back, see white clouds combining;
Entering the green haze, it becomes nothing.
Seen from the middle peak, the sectioned fields change;
Shadowed and sun-splashed, the many gorges vary.
Looking for human lodging for the night—
Query the woodcutter over the water.
Wang Wei (699–759), “Zhongnan Mountain.” The original poem was composed in the lüshi verse style of the High Tang; the lines were strongly divided into two- and three-syllable feet with an implied caesura, running in couplets linked by rhyme, logic, and enjambment. I’m accessing the original via How to Read Chinese Poetry: a Guided Anthology, ed. by Zong-Qi Cai; my version is informed by his lovely and illuminating commentary.
The poem struck me forcibly a couple of years ago, after a weekend spent on Maine’s Mount Katahdin. In it I found echoes of the work the mountain did on me: the braided vistas merging, the gulfs and drops seducing, the patterns of forest succession merging and disappearing into one another. Wang Wei catches a patterning that is always at work in us and around us, but which a mountain often brings into focus: combination, nothingness, change, and variation. Zong-qi Cai points out that the two middle couplets in fact end in he, wu, bian, and shu—the words for these four concepts, which buttress Chinese Buddhist cosmology.
Our haze on Katahdin was different from Wang Wei’s, however: on an otherwise clear day frenzied by a warm wind„ apparent only once we were high of the mountain shoulder, a brown haze blown up from the cities to the south hung on the horizon.