Came upon this scene recently — well, no, I didn’t just come upon it, that would be creepy even by Youtube’s standards1 — I was suddenly reminded of the movie at night, and then (as often happens? insert sheepish grin) I wanted to watch this particular scene and then, thanks to Youtube (yes, it is possible to love it and hate it, why not?), found the precise 5-minute sequence I wanted.
Given that this movie is (checks Imdb) just over three decades old (the last of the trilogy, I would like to pretend the fourth one never got made), I don’t expect a lot of people to have seen it, let alone liked it, but for those who did, it captures a certain feeling2
Here is the next scene, in case you … like this sort of thing.
At least I didn’t see an ad3 at the beginning of these, which is good.
A long time ago, when I was busy trying to read everything by Enid Blyton1, I came across The Magic Faraway Tree. And. I. Loved. It.
This being the age before Amazon and not having a large library around, I never got around to reading the other books in this trilogy, which was … frustrating at the time, for several years.
So it’s a bit … exciting? … to have bought this as something to read along with my daughter. We read the first chapter today, and I feel that … as “children’s books”2 go, this one has definitely aged3 well.
Speaking of which, I’m surprised I don’t see books by her around today (even a search at a place like Barnes and Noble comes up nearly empty). Possibly because they’re dated, but still … ↩︎
genres are so fluid these days, where does children’s literature end and young adult begin? While we’re here, I’m also not certain where young adult ends, or whether (judging from what I see) if it ever ends! ↩︎
the first book in the series was written in 1939 (!), and the third in 1946↩︎
HUXLEY: Well another force which I think is very strongly operative in this country is the force of what may be called of overorganization. Er…As technology becomes more and more complicated, it becomes necessary to have more and more elaborate organizations, more hierarchical organizations, and incidentally the advance of technology is being accompanied by an advance in the science of organization. It’s now possible to make organizations on a larger scale than it was ever possible before, and so that you have more and more people living their lives out as subordinates in these hierarchical systems controlled by bureaucracy, either the bureaucracies of big businesses or the bureaucracies of big government.
Here, the television can be a proxy for other digital media not conceived of at the time
HUXLEY: Well, at the present the television, I think, is being used quite harmlessly; it’s being used, I think, I would feel, it’s being used too much to distract everybody all the time. But, I mean, imagine which must be the situation in all communist countries where the television, where it exists, is always saying the same things the whole time; it’s always driving along. It’s not creating a wide front of distraction it’s creating a one-pointed, er…drumming in of a single idea, all the time. It’s obviously an immensely powerful instrument.
And here the key difference between Brave New World and 1984:
Well, this book was written at the height of the Stalinist regime, and just after the Hitler regime, and there he foresaw a dictatorship using entirely the methods of terror, the methods of physical violence. Now, I think what is going to happen in the future is that dictators will find, as the old saying goes, that you can do everything with bayonets except sit on them!
HUXLEY: But, if you want to preserve your power indefinitely, you have to get the consent of the ruled, and this they will do partly by drugs as I foresaw in “Brave New World,” partly by these new techniques of propaganda. They will do it by bypassing the sort of rational side of man and appealing to his subconscious and his deeper emotions, and his physiology even, and so, making him actually love his slavery. I mean, I think, this is the danger that actually people may be, in some ways, happy under the new regime, but that they will be happy in situations where they oughtn’t to be happy.
On political personalities
This is something taken for granted now (!) but it seemed to elicit an “oh, really? huh …” response.
WALLACE: You write in Enemies of Freedom, you write specifically about the United States. You say this, writing about American political campaigns you say, “All that is needed is money and a candidate who can be coached to look sincere; political principles and plans for specific action have come to lose most of their importance. The personality of the candidate, the way he is projected by the advertising experts, are the things that really matter.”
HUXLEY: Well, this is the…during the last campaign, there was a great deal of this kind of statement by the advertising managers of the campaign parties. This idea that the candidates had to be merchandised as though they were soap and toothpaste and that you had to depend entirely on the personality.
WALLACE: In regard to advertising, which you mentioned just a little ago, in your writing, particularly in “Enemies of Freedom,” you attack Madison Avenue, which controls most of our television and radio advertising, newspaper advertising and so forth. Why do you consistently attack the advertising agencies…
HUXLEY: Well, no I…I think that, er…advertisement plays a very necessary role, but the danger it seems to me in a democracy is this…I mean what does a democracy depend on? A democracy depends on the individual voter making an intelligent and rational choice for what he regards as his enlightened self-interest, in any given circumstance. But what these people are doing, I mean what both, for their particular purposes, for selling goods and the dictatorial propagandists are for doing, is to try to bypass the rational side of man and to appeal directly to these unconscious forces below the surfaces so that you are, in a way, making nonsense of the whole democratic procedure, which is based on conscious choice on rational ground.
WALLACE: You said something to the effect in your essay that the children of Europe used to be called ‘cannon fodder’ and here in the United States they are ‘television and radio fodder.’
HUXLEY: Well, after all, you can read in the trade journals the most lyrical accounts of how necessary it is, to get hold of the children because then they will be loyal brand buyers later on. But I mean, again you just translate this into political terms, the dictator says they all will be ideology buyers when they are grown up.
On technology and power
HUXLEY: Well, I think one of the reasons is that these are all instruments for obtaining power, and obviously the passion for power is one of the most moving passions that exists in man; and after all, all democracies are based on the proposition that power is very dangerous and that it is extremely important not to let any one man or any one small group have too much power for too long a time.
After all what are the British and American Constitution except devices for limiting power, and all these new devices are extremely efficient instruments for the imposition of power by small groups over larger masses.
On individuals and groups
WALLACE: Well, you ask this question yourself in “Enemies of Freedom.” I’ll put your own question back to you. You ask this, “In an age of accelerating overpopulation, of accelerating overorganization, and ever more efficient means of mass communication, how can we preserve the integrity and reassert the value of the human individual?” You put the question, now here’s your chance to answer it Mr. Huxley.
HUXLEY: Well, this is obviously…first of all, it is a question of education. Er…I think it’s terribly important to insist on individual values, I mean, what is a…there is a tendency as a…you probably read a book by Whyte, “The Organization Man”, a very interesting, valuable book I think, where he speaks about the new type of group morality, group ethic, which speaks about the group as though the group were somehow more important than the individual.
And I think it’s extremely important for us to stress this in all our educational life, and I would say it’s also very important to teach people to be on their guard against the sort of verbal booby traps into which they are always being led, to analyze the kind of things that are said to them.
A national comparison
(we don’t have the Soviet Union any more, but … still …)
WALLACE: Well, Mr. Huxley, take a look again at the country which is in the stance of our opponent anyway, it would seem, anyway it would seem to be there, Soviet Russia. It is strong, and getting stronger, economically, militarily, at the same time it’s developing its art forms pretty well, er…it seems not unnecessarily to squelch the creative urge among its people. And yet it is not a free society.
HUXLEY: It’s not a free society, but here is something very interesting that those members of the society, like the scientists, who are doing the creative work, are given far more freedom than anybody else. I mean, it is a privileged aristocratic society in which, provided they don’t poke their noses into political affairs, these people are given a great deal of prestige, a considerable amount of freedom, and a lot money.
I mean, this is a very interesting fact about the new Soviet regime, and I think what we are going to see is er…a people on the whole with very little freedom but with an oligarchy on top enjoying a considerable measure of freedom and a very high standard of living.
WALLACE: Mr. Huxley, let me ask you this, quite seriously, is freedom necessary?
HUXLEY: As far as I am concerned it is.
WALLACE: Why? Is it necessary for a productive society?
HUXLEY: Yes, I should say it is. I mean, a genuinely productive society. I mean you could produce plenty of goods without much freedom, but I think the whole sort of creative life of man is ultimately impossible without a considerable measure of individual freedom, of initiative, creation, all these things which we value, and I think value properly, are impossible without a large measure of freedom.
Old computers sometimes had a “Turbo” or “Boost” button to manually switch to a higher clock speed. Toggling this on and off could count as a valid game-playing strategy, if you needed to “speed past” obstacles, etc. Yes, it’s just as bizarre as it sounds.
In the last decade (and half, roughly) people have gotten used to a lot of niceties in our operating systems, smooth integration between different devices, nifty apps, wonderful cameras, and more — but not increases in speed.
It is hard to convey how different this aspect was in the 90s. Every year, sometimes twice a year, there were glossy magazine advertisements about faster computers.
A new computer
So around 1998, it was possible to buy a new computer, with a CPU rated at 233Mhz. Two hundred thirty-three megahertz. It also had a fancy new operating system, the just-released Microsoft Windows 98 (ooh 😐).
There was an actual sound card (something that isn’t thought of as a “pluggable thing” any more), which meant it was possible to get speakers to play actual sound (today if you buy speakers, it’s as a part of your room, not as a part of your computer).
The display (or “monitor”; heh, no one uses that word any more) had color, and there was a mouse that could be plugged in, and this computer didn’t just have a floppy drive, but a new optical media, the CD-ROM.
Aside: relative speed evolution
The first computer at our home, mentioned in the earlier post (late 1994), had a CPU with a clock speed of 33 Mhz. Thirty three megahertz (btw this seemed huge to me at the time: “so many calculations in a single second!”)
My first ever personal desktop (mid-2002, more on this later), had a single-core CPU with a clock speed of 1Ghz. One thousand megahertz, or a 30x increase.
My first MacBook (mid-2008) had a dual-core CPU rated at 2.0Ghz. Two thousand megahertz, or a 2x increase.
My current MacBook Pro (mid-2019) has a 8-core CPU rated at 2.3Ghz. Two thousand three hundred megahertz.
My iPhone (early 2018), uses the “A11 Bionic” with a maximum clock rate of 2.39Ghz. Two thousand three hundred ninety megahertz.
You can imagine the graph in your head.
QBasic was gone, to be replaced with … Visual Basic. This allowed a lot of experimentation with simple forms, but I didn’t really have any ideas on what to do with it, so I let it lapse.
There was also Turbo C , which, despite the name, was a reasonably popular language environment (from Borland, which is not a name most would recognize today, but at the time, it was … like JetBrains plus Visual Studio, and more). There weren’t a lot of materials to learn from, though I remember at least being able to copy in a few examples, and so on.
Still later on, around 2000-ish, I got some game programming books, and really liked learning from them, since it was very straightforward to build something with DirectX (never mind) in C .
Nothing comparable to the vast tools and materials available to kids these days, but … good times.
There were a whole bunch of computer magazines that came with CDs, containing free trials of all sorts of stuff, and it was something to look forward to every month — to try out whatever was new that month: install it, fool around with it, then delete.
I wish I had pictures or notes or anything, but I don’t, so this vagueness will have to do.
Something else that stands out: Microsoft Encarta. It was the first digital encyclopedia and they did a really good job of it. There were audio and video clips, lots of articles to read and switch between.
The pros and cons with paper should’ve been apparent already: the content was beautiful, though I can’t imagine someone spending hours and hours interacting with Encarta they way I can imagine someone spending that time with a paper version (but maybe that’s just me).
Aside: the time of Microsoft
In case it isn’t obvious: yes, this was the decade of Microsoft domination, something that people have no gut feeling for anymore — but twenty years ago, before big-Google, big-Facebook, big-Amazon, big-Twitter, big-Netflix, big-Apple, there was only big-Microsoft.
This was the highlight of my time with the machine 🙂
First of all, I finally had something to play Quake with (the minimal RAM requirements were 8MB; our earlier computer had 4MB, while this one had 64MB. As a fun exercise, try to find out how much a single tab in your browser is using right now).
Quake was made by the same company (ID Software) that made Wolfenstein (which we had played so much of on our earlier computer), and Doom (which I missed out on for whatever reason). Again, this is something hard to convey now, but these were iconic first-person shooter games, the very first ones, in fact … which is probably why they were popular, since they seem quite boring by today’s standards.
Anyway, Quake was just the beginning, this machine was in a sweet spot to play most of whatever came out, and the free apps on the CDs in the monthly computer magazines were usually free games.
Aside: single-player gaming
Although much remains the same in games over the decades (apart from the massive improvement in their visual appearance), something that is very different is the experience “un-connected” solitary game.
Most games today either directly involve other players, or indirectly (through comparison in a leaderboard, etc). I think the only equivalents of “playing something alone, immersed in the world” are certain mobile games, like Monument Valley, etc. where you own the game, you play the game, and no one else really knows about how you played, the experience is yours alone.
Early on, everything was like this (although it was quite common for friends to sit along side you as you played, so there’s that).
Just as ID Software dominated gaming in the first-person shooter genre, in the first part of the decade, another company, Blizzard Entertainment (of the two, still going strong!) dominated role-playing games.
All that’s needed to convey this are a few names: Diablo, Starcraft, Warcraft, each of which I probably spent hundreds and hundreds of hours on.
It’s worth mentioning that there was a lot of competition early on, and the only reason these stand out is that they balanced a lot of factors in RPGs very well, designing the details very, very well.
Note 1: If I had to pick a favorite, it would be Starcraft.)
Note 2: But, more on all this some other time, especially an account of this one game that was insignificant but that I liked: Microsoft Urban Assault
Aside: storage media
Going from a floppy disk that stored 1.44MB to a CD-ROM that stored 650MB was a big change, one that really opened up a whole variety of new, rich content.
DVDs and Blu-Rays went an order of magnitude higher each, but have been used for richer and more detailed versions of existing content and not newer kinds of content (in my opinion).
There were other stops along the way, and not just for alternatives like HD-DVDs that no one remembers. For a while it was quite common to have a “Zip drive”, awkwardly between a floppy and a CD.
(Of course, a new laptop today has neither of these)
Aside: man and machine
I should point out something: I had a certain sort of … affection … for the first computer we had (I remember being upset and crying once (embarrassing, right) when it didn’t start and appeared to be broken), in a way that I didn’t have for the second one (which was “just a machine”), or any of the countless ones (laptops, desktops, tablets, phones, watches, appliances) since.
It might be a pets vs cattle thing, dunno.
I haven’t really thought through the episodic nature of this series, which means there isn’t any plan of having “equal chunks”. But yes, we’ll plod along steadily. Next time: the internet (!)
In a previous post1, I mentioned how my experience of Twitter is actually quite nice and I don’t encounter any of the craziness that other people report.
Is that still true? Well, yes and no.
The problem: “political” content
There isn’t really any escaping (hmm, what should I call it) “unexpected content” on Twitter, as long as the entity being followed is a Person and not a Topic2.
I had earlier decided to be “casual” in my use of Twitter, which led to me randomly following and liking posts and people in my stream.
The problem is, the “information ecosystem” for all “political facts”3 is extremely polarized. There are competing narratives4 for each “event”, and being neutral as a matter of principle, I end up seeing both sides.
This isn’t bad per se, and is … at least informative, but it puts me at odds with the (hmm, what should I call them) “reductionists”, who want to neatly classify profiles (people) based on who they follow and what they like.
So there really isn’t any more “casual use” on the platform, and there is much more that could be said about why that is, why the incentives turned out this way, “what could have been“ and so on, but either way, there is a need for a more guarded interaction.
Give up on Twitter?
For better or worse, I have found, and keep finding, really interesting stuff on Twitter. There are people who share interesting images, or links, or articles. There are people who provide expert opinions on topics I like.
For me, this is a supplement to Reddit, except without strong subreddit boundaries.
Which is to say: there is real utility for me on Twitter, and I don’t want to lose that.
A task for myself: I should try to figure out what I’m really following on Twitter anyway. What are some themes in what I like, etc. Again, I don’t actually have time to do this thoroughly, so maybe just broad impressions.
What I’ve decided to do for now, slowly, gradually, is filter out any profiles where I judge most tweets are political.
I don’t have time to sit down and do this at one go5
So instead, each time I find myself scrolling through my feed, and I see too much political content6, I’ll ask myself if there is any topically interesting tweets at all from this profile, and if not, simply un-follow.
I’ve done this a bit already, and I expect it’ll be a few months before I’ll (probabilistically) get close to examining all my follows, but that’s the plan for now.
Digression: what is the best way to “thread” posts?
Retro-actively go back and apply a common tag? Create a linked list of posts? Lazy right now so will do neither.
There are a bunch of non-linear textual tools I use locally for this, but what’s the online equivalent? Again, lazy right now, will stick to WordPress, with its linear post timeline. But later … maybe one of TheBrain, Roam, or Notion.
Some other options
Just to brainstorm alternatives (for my future self, in case he has more time and interest)
I could create multiple twitter accounts, for different “bundles of interest”, each me7, but a part of me.
I could create a pseudonymous account and allow that one to be the one where I resume casually browsing stuff8.
Though well-visualized in Twitter’s new conversation view, so good on that. ↩︎
The total number of profiles I’ve ended up following is surprisingly high, nearly 5000! It would take a couple hours, at least, to go through all of them. ↩︎
Sometime later, I should mention how my news consumption patterns changed for the better in general. ↩︎
Like namespaces within me, which is how I would really want profiles to be, dis-aggregated and reflecting our true sub-selves. ↩︎
The right way for this would have been a single “read-only” view that everyone could have, of the entire graph of tweets. Imagine if we had the contract “you can either be authenticated and share/comment, or be pseudonymous and like/follow, but not comment.” ↩︎