Monday, March 2, 2009

My Weekend in Silicon Valley

Delightful, energizing weekends like the one I just had at Potlatch in Sunnyvale, California, sometimes make me question whether I'm truly the introvert I know myself to be. The panel I moderated, "The Many Roads of Narrative" was stimulating and interesting and scintillated with several lightning moments, when the panelists (Jeanne Gomoll, Howard Hendrix, Ursula Le Guin, Vylar Kaftan, and Naamen Tilahun) sparked off audience comments or questions and left me with that so-desirable sense that if we'd had another hour, the discussion might well have explored lands we could, by the end of the panel, glimpse beckoning in the distance. My writing workshop proved to be a pleasure, likely because we collectively achieved the degree of focus that for me, at least, makes workshops interesting and valuable. On the personal side: spending time with friends I don't often get to see, renewing acquaintances, and making new acquaintances warmed and cheered me. I even got a little bit of Aqueduct business done, too, which is so much easier (not to mention more fun) doing in person than via email. Face to face may not always make for superior communication, but it often feels better, no?

Before our flight, Tom and I had time to visit the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, where we watched Charles Babbage's Difference Engine calculate the table of values for a polynomial. The Difference Engine, as you may recall, was designed by Babbage in the middle of the 19th Century. Babbage was never able to afford to build it in his lifetime, but one was actually completed in London in 2002. The construction of the one on exhibit in Mountain View was commissioned by Nathan Myhrvold, formerly chief technology officer and Group VP at Microsoft. It's an elegant piece of work, as one would expect of steam-punk technology. Photos of the Difference Engine are available here. The museum's website offers this description:

Its 8,000 parts are equally split between the calculating section and the output apparatus. It weighs five tons and measures seven feet high, eleven feet long and is eighteen inches deep at its narrowest. As a static object it is a sight to behold - a sumptuous piece of engineering sculpture. In operation it is an arresting spectacle.

It is surprisingly sleek and shiny. Why do I say surprisingly? I suppose it's because of the contrasting impression made on me by more recent outdated computer technology on display in the museum's "Visible Storage" room. A stroll through aisle after aisle of old computer technology from the 1950s on left me oddly nonplused. I recognized quite a few pieces there, which of course made it more interesting. But with each moment of recognition came also the disconcerting thought of how Shiny and Sleek and Fast and Modern all these objects once appeared to my eyes, when now they appeared so dusty, clunky-, and even cheesy-looking. (Sort of the way the tech in Star Trek OS and 1950s & 1960s sf movies look improbable and silly.) I hasten to note that of course they weren't literally dusty: I only felt as if they would be dusty to the touch. I suppose what disconcerted me was my experiencing a sort of affective disconnect between memory and artifact. Once the patina of infatuation has worn off, once exciting and highly desirable objects become, simply, curious old things made of glass, metal, and plastic. I knew all this intellectually, but it's not a comfortable thing to experience in the moment.

Aesthetically, none of our recent technological objects can begin to compare with the Difference Engine. In a sense, the Difference Engine has the same sort of enduring beauty one often finds in musical instruments. I can think of several reasons for why it is that 20th- and 21st-century technology is largely indifferent to creating objects of enduring aesthetic beauty. Perhaps we need a panel on this at WisCon. (It's too late to propose for WisCon 33, but maybe next year?)

1 comment:

Rachel E. Holmen said...

I loved the Difference Engine, and posted some photos on my blog along with a link to a video of the engine in motion. I also wrote a thankyou letter to the man who loaned it to the museum. See, entries for Jan. 30, 2009 and Feb. 1, 2009.
-- Rachel Holmen