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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Perversity of Things: review #5 of X: Amateurs vs. Corporations

Continuing with my review (#5 of X) of The Perversity of Things: Hugo Gernsback on Media, Tinkering, and Scientifiction, edited by Grant Wythoff (University of Minnesota Press, 2016). I'm now focusing on pages 28-36 of Wythoff's 59-page Introduction to the 359-page volume, with the proviso that these reviews reflect my not Wythoff's organization of his motherlode of research and analysis.

Wythoff begins this group of pages with a discussion of the important role that women played in creating Gernsback's magazines (recognized by Gernsback) and in the ideal public pressing forward with the technological revolution - a presence which runs contrary to the historical gloss of middle-class young men being the carriers of these ideas, which as Wythoff shows also ignored the role of the working class.  But this sociology of science fiction and technocracy soon gives way to a consideration of an issue which is in many ways more fundamental: the tension between talented amateurs and corporate scientists as the spearheads of technological evolution.

Gernsback was clearly a champion of the latter, though Wythoff points out that Gernsback was not allergic to corporate culture, and willing to accept it if it further technological progress.   But the most significant part of this section is Wythoff's study of the sheer speed with radio was transformed from an amateur to a corporate endeavor - literally in a handful of years.   Not to get too melodramatic about this, but it is almost as if radio's very success, so fervently desired by its first amateur practitioners (who both constructed and listened to radio), spelled the very end of those amateurs, who could not possibly service the millions of Americans who quickly came to love and rely on radio, once its genie of entertainment and news was let out of the bottle.

I'd add here, however, that it's important to note that the amateur impulse, and the great things it engenders, was not extinguished with the corporate co-option of radio in the 1920s.  After all, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and the founders of Twitter were none other than amateurs in our own time, and although their revolutionizing inventions have now, too, become corporatized, there is no reason to think the amateur will not spring forth yet again in the future - or right now, though we don't yet quite know about it.

It's too bad that Gernsback didn't live long enough to see the digital revolution which his tinkering in the early days of electronic media presaged.  Like McLuhan, Gernsback died a little before the digital age which both foresaw, in different, complementary ways.   But their ideas and visions live on, and fortunately in the case of Gernsback, we have Wythoff's The Perversity of Things to carry it forward.

And I'll be back here soon with my next review of this book.

See alsoThe Perversity of Things: review #1 of X: Gernsback as Philosopher of Technology ... #2 of X: Learning by Doing ... #3 of X: The Evolution of Media ... #4 of X: Gernsback and the The First Amendment ... #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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