Monday, January 2, 2017

The Perversity of Things: review #3 of X: The Evolution of Media

Continuing with my review (#3 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 18-27 of Wythoff's 59-page Introduction to the 359-page volume:

Reading Wythoff's Introduction, as I've already said, is to encounter a wealth of information on every page, and occasionally a treasure-trove at that.  On page 25, for example, Wythoff tells and shows us how Gernsback thought about media in ways a lot like Marshall McLuhan, and understood them and their impact on our lives in similar ways.  Then, on the same page, we find that Gernsback had a special interest in the evolution of media, in particular how old and new media compete for survival. Wythoff observes that, in "Is Radio At a Standstill?" (1926), "Gernsback makes a striking media-historical analogy between the supposed threat that the rise of radio posed to established phonograph manufacturers and the impact of 'battery eliminator' radio sets" on "conventional battery manufacturers,"  concluding that "competing formats do not replace but rather force one another to find their own unique attributes, simply as a matter of survival."

As fate would have it, this was exactly one of the main points I made in my PhD dissertation, "Human Replay: A Theory of the Evolution of Media," which I sent up to Marshall McLuhan in the summer of 1978, before I gave it my dissertation adviser at New York University, Neil Postman. (Here is a recording of McLuhan's initial response, in a voice-mail he sent me, shortly later, after he had read "the first 100 pages".)  The way I put it in my dissertation - and in subsequent works, such as The Soft Edge: A Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution - was that the media we invent compete for a place in the satisfaction of our human needs, or a "human/media ecological niche".  They often achieve this in surprising ways.  Radio not only survived but thrived in the aftermath of television, because it worked in our ecological niche of hearing without seeing (we can easily close our eyes, it grows dark every night, etc).  But silent movies did not survive the advent of talkies, because we rarely see without hearing (we have no earlids, etc).

Now, when I wrote that dissertation in the late 1970s (which will soon appear in translation by Wu Jianzhong in China), I of course knew about Gernsback, but as the founding editor of Amazing Stories and one of the founding parents of science fiction.   One of the values of Wythoff's extraordinary work is precisely that it calls attention to other, equally important and interrelated, contributions of Gernsback.  (I did manage to quote from Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone, 1914, by the pseudonymous Victor Appleton, in my dissertation - but only because I picked up a copy of that book at used book store.)

As a parting point for this review/musing, this section of the book also highlights Gernsback's sponsorship of illustrations in his magazines to the tell science fiction stories - in some ways, more effectively than the words,  In age in which cinema was just getting started, and television was a few years off, the illustration was the prime vehicle for our imaginative vision, and all that it could convey.  Gernsback, in that sense, was also a founder of the great and continuing tradition science fiction we see so prominetly on the screen.

And I'll be continuing these reviews soon.

See alsoThe Perversity of Things: review #1 of X: Gernsback as Philosopher of Technology ... #2 of X: Learning by Doing ... #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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