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Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Perversity of Things: review #2 of X: Learning by Doing

Continuing with my review (#2 of X) of The Perversity of Things: Hugo Gernsback on Media, Tinkering, and Scientifiction, edited by Grant Wythoff (University of Minnesota Press, 2016), having now read pages 9-17 of Wythoff's 59-page rich (an understatement) Introduction to the 359-page volume: Wythoff tells us that Gernsback advocated what current media studies calls "critical making" - or "a material engagement with technology as a means of understanding it".

This is a key concept, which was actually promulgated at some length and depth by the pragmatic philosopher John Dewey, a contemporary of Gernsback, and author of Experience and Nature (1925), which argued not only that real experience with the world (in today's parlance, hands-on experience) was a good way of understanding it - in contrast to just thinking about it - but the best way of knowing it, and the only likely way to get reliable and reliably testable knowledge.  And, indeed, that's precisely the approach I took with my New New Media (2009) - studying what are now much more widely known as social media by using them, adopting them fully into my professional pursuits and life.   My Facebook and Twitter accounts, and this very blog, were started in that pursuit.

This anthropological approach to studying our own technologies was the reason gadgetry lived alongside science fiction in Gernsback's publications and work - the two were co-essential, mutually catalytic parts of Gernsback's same project: getting us, more of us, and better informed, into the future.

Wythoff's Introduction at this point commences a more traditional biography of Gernsback, though there's almost nothing traditional in his life's work or the way Wythoff presents it.  I was interested in such tidbits as Gernbach's father in Luxembourg made his money as a wine wholesaler. This provides another instance of the connection I've noticed between wine and the evolution of media, the most outstanding example of which is Gutenberg's use of the wine press and its interchangeable grape crushers in his development of the printing press and its interchangeable type, a crucial step beyond the static printing block technology invented in China.

I also didn't know - though maybe that's just me - that Lewis Mumford, ultimately a caustic critic not only of technological progress but many other things I hold dear, ranging from McLuhan's ideas to the need of our species to get beyond this planet into space, was first published, at 15 years of age, in Gernsbach's Modern Electrics, in the very same issue that carried the first part of Gernsbach's celebrated "Ralph 124C 41+".  (That issue was published in 1911.  Mumford was still at least even-handed about technology when his important Technics and Civilization was published in 1934, where I first got to know his work.  By the time of his publication in the two-part Myth of the Machine at end of the 1960s - Technics and Human Development and The Pentagon of Power - Mumford had become an implacable critic of the modern technological enterprise. He thought he had seen the light, but I always thought he had gone over to the Dark Side of thinking about technology.)

And I'll conclude this second review, with a promise for more, by noting that Wythoff offers us these spark plugs for thought by employing the possibilities of the printed page in a way that McLuhan would have admired, given his War and Peace in the Global Village, The Medium is the Massage, and other books in the late 1960s, where the image and the photograph were always in surprising relationships with the words on the page.  On page 17, for example, we find a part of a page from Modern Electrics intruding on the top of the page, with a newspaper clipping from the time intruding on the Modern Electrics page, all because the copy of Modern Electrics which Wythoff perused at the Princeton University Library actually had this clipping attached.  The Perversity of Things, in other words, not only has soaring and in-depth writing, but a layout to match it.

See also: The Perversity of Things: review #1 of X: Gernsback as Philosopher of Technology ... #3 of X: The Evolution of Media ...  #4 of X: Gernsback and the First Amendment ... #5 of X: Amateurs vs. Corporations ... #6 of X: Thought Experiments and Toys ... #7 of X: The Invention of Invention, and the Advent of Science Fiction ... #8 of X: Definitions and Fake News


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