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Google, mobile computing, and augmenting humanity
January 20, 2011 1:50 PM   Subscribe

Inside Google's Age of Augmented Humanity. Wade Roush of Xconomy interviews Google researchers working on speech recognition, machine translation, and computer vision. [CEO Eric] Schmidt talked about "the age of augmented humanity," a time when computers remember things for us, when they save us from getting lost, lonely, or bored, and when "you really do have all the world's information at your fingertips in any language"—finally fulfilling Bill Gates' famous 1990 forecast. This future, Schmidt says, will soon be accessible to everyone who can afford a smartphone—one billion people now, and as many as four billion by 2020.... It's not that phones themselves are all that powerful, at least compared to laptop or desktop machines. But more and more of them are backed up by broadband networks that, in turn, connect to massively distributed computing clouds (some of which, of course, are operated by Google). "It’s like having a supercomputer in your pocket," Schmidt said in Berlin. "When we do voice translation, when we do picture identification, all [the smartphone] does is send a request to the supercomputers that then do all the work."
posted by russilwvong (62 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
Don't you mean [ex-CEO Eric] ?
posted by koeselitz at 2:14 PM on January 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


'augmented humanity'? I'm reminded of the phrase 'whereever you are, there you are'. No matter our technology, we'll still be people and we'll never augment from that, until evolution has some time to do it's work. Google is great but it's amazing tech will be as commonplace as the telephone in a decade or two, and we'll still be dealing with the same pedestrian problems.

Google doesn't augment humanity, it makes a small subset of our tasks easier.
posted by chebucto at 2:14 PM on January 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


s/it's/its
posted by chebucto at 2:15 PM on January 20, 2011


> Don't you mean [ex-CEO Eric] ?

[Executive Chairman Eric] Schmidt.
posted by ardgedee at 2:21 PM on January 20, 2011


i thought Bill Gate's famous forecast was that the web wasnt going to amount to anything important
posted by liza at 2:21 PM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]



'augmented humanity'? I'm reminded of the phrase 'whereever you are, there you are'. No matter our technology, we'll still be people and we'll never augment from that, until evolution has some time to do it's work. Google is great but it's amazing tech will be as commonplace as the telephone in a decade or two, and we'll still be dealing with the same pedestrian problems.

Google doesn't augment humanity, it makes a small subset of our tasks easier.


All tools augment us and expand and extend our abilities. Google just augments our minds in the way that a lever augments our strength.
posted by empath at 2:24 PM on January 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


I'll be so psyched when we can pair this with ubiquitous discreet cameras and mics, with a real-time recording - searchable and continuously dumped to an offsite encrypted drive.

This would be mandatory for elected officials, and accessible by subpeona.
posted by leotrotsky at 2:25 PM on January 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Anyone remember thin clients?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:25 PM on January 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


one billion people now, and as many as four billion by 2020....

Billions of little dollar signs, in Google's vision itself.
posted by clockzero at 2:26 PM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Google is great but it's amazing tech will be as commonplace as the telephone in a decade or two, and we'll still be dealing with the same pedestrian problems.

Also, which pedestrian problems? I can think of about 1000 problems that google has solved that people wouldn't have imagined 30 years ago.
posted by empath at 2:26 PM on January 20, 2011


From a Cognitive Science perspective, Google is awe-inspiring. They make the Extended Mind thesis [pdf] spring to life. (more)
posted by stonepharisee at 2:39 PM on January 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


I agree with chebucto...I actually did a class presentation on my Nexus One as part of the "designed object" theme we looked at. I actually used the word augment and for now it does a lot of things that my old phone couldn't do...I'm in love with Google in many ways, but I'm sure it will seem stone age in another 10 years. I'll just enjoy the present for now though. Once you have been through so many techno-dreams, it's hard to keep living for that better, shinier future. The teletype in our basement is a constant reminder of that :-).
posted by Calzephyr at 2:40 PM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


What, no shoutout to Vannevar Bush who envisioned most of this almost a half century before Bill? Shame.

I still think it's a crying shame that we have swarms of networkable miracle machines, each with enough memory to store all the world's libraries of 1911, and the best we can think to do with it is keep them sucking on the teat of centralized monopolies.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:40 PM on January 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


KirkJobSluder:

I still think it's a crying shame that we have swarms of networkable miracle machines, each with enough memory to store all the world's libraries of 1911, and the best we can think to do with it is keep them sucking on the teat of centralized monopolies."

What alternative do you imagine?
posted by meadowlark lime at 3:11 PM on January 20, 2011


> the day isn’t far off when the two teams will be able to release a “speech in, speech out” application that combines speech recognition, machine translation, and speech synthesis for near-real-time translation between people speaking different languages.

Machine translation was a promise made in the 60's. Rashly. And it failed. And a ton of funding for linguistics went away. It was a science fiction pipe dream. And now this! The box-and-arrow speech models that try to sketch out what such a system might look like are redundant. This is not about the small service you get. That is important, but it is just an engine that drives this great self-analytical machine. Wherever the gradient of pleasure is (the wee service that makes life more convenient or comfortable for you) there is where Google gets data. They create a simple automated call answering service, and then think to record every call that is made on it. These are feedback loops that reveal whatever force lies behind the pleasure gradient.

Wow.
posted by stonepharisee at 3:17 PM on January 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


i thought Bill Gate's famous forecast was that the web wasnt going to amount to anything important
And that 640k should be enough for anyone.

But really... the problem with "sending this off to the supercomputer" is that all the requests get recorded and can be processed by other supercomputers. So as much as you get to know about the world, the profiling machines get to know about you.

What I'd really like to see is more people setup their own servers. You could even have "app stores" - simple ways to install services on those servers for personal use. Server administration is hard, but only because it's designed for sys-admins, not normal users.
posted by delmoi at 3:17 PM on January 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


That said I love the fact that all the "AI is impossible" people are getting shown what's up. We have a computer that can beat humans at Jeopardy now.
posted by delmoi at 3:19 PM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is there anything that clouds can't do?
posted by indubitable at 3:21 PM on January 20, 2011


> That said I love the fact that all the "AI is impossible" people are getting shown what's up

Amen. And I was one of them.
posted by stonepharisee at 3:32 PM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


SmartPhone PhartFone, I want my googleImplant, now.
posted by sammyo at 3:51 PM on January 20, 2011


What I'd really like to see is more people setup their own servers.

No, but what would be good, and is actually happening, is a bunch of 'googles'. Not one cloud but a bunch of independent but connected, with redundancies. Competing and collaborating. We need to get the cloud out to the moon and on asteroids.
posted by sammyo at 3:55 PM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm reminded of the phrase 'whereever you are, there you are'

Perhaps more like, "Wherever you are, there we are."
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:02 PM on January 20, 2011


augmented humanity

Hmm, let me Bing that.
posted by wcfields at 4:03 PM on January 20, 2011


What alternative do you imagine?

Well, if we're dreaming big about augmented reality, I want an intelligent adaptive agent in my pocket. Something with the interface to perform ubiquitous data capture and the intelligence to lock out security threats and filter out the crap. It also should be smart enough to do versioned backups to my larger server-based data store to make the most of limited bandwidth. And while we're at it, peer-to-peer data routing similar to bittorrent because laying physical pipe isn't going to keep up with data production or consumption, and a way to farm out low-priority computation peer-to-peer as well because throwing more blades in server farms isn't going to keep up with that need either.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:07 PM on January 20, 2011


I guess I fall into the "this is great, but" demographic. This is great. But. At some level, doesn't this break down to "newer, shinier toys to permit a vanishingly small percentage of the world's inhabitants to further vanish into their navels"?

Technological innovation is awesome. But I can't help feeling like maybe some of Google's enormous power and money and drive could help us more in finding, say, a way to get potable water to everyone, or get us off fossil fuels, or eliminating income inequality.

Increasingly, when I see announcements like this, I feel an undercurrent of fiddling while Rome burns. Yeah, this is great. But. If we don't solve more basic human problems, these kinds of gadgets are going to be the exclusive province of the stratospherically wealthy.

Of course, that may be the actual plan. The more I see of capitalism, the more I wonder whether we're all living in Steven Baxter's Flood/Ark world and just haven't realized it.
posted by scrump at 4:36 PM on January 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


I guess I fall into the "this is great, but" demographic. This is great. But. At some level, doesn't this break down to "newer, shinier toys to permit a vanishingly small percentage of the world's inhabitants to further vanish into their navels"?

Technological innovation is awesome. But I can't help feeling like maybe some of Google's enormous power and money and drive could help us more in finding, say, a way to get potable water to everyone, or get us off fossil fuels, or eliminating income inequality.


Do you think everyone is using google to download porn? The people that are working on these problems, how do you think they collaborate? How do they research?
posted by empath at 4:51 PM on January 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


The people that are working on these problems, how do you think they collaborate? How do they research?

Unless things have changed radically in the last 5 years, (they haven't with most Google Scholar stuff still behind paywalls), conferences with lots of booze, good old majordomo, and a fair amount of custom hardware and software.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:58 PM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sometimes, now, I type into a web form and hit submit, already having noticed a typo, because I expect it to know what I meant. And if it's not google or amazon, it often doesn't. There's a little pang of guilt when that happens. Like, have I become this weak? I can't even bother to check spelling when I hit submit? Is this the first step towards Idiocracy?

Then I imagine some caveman feeling the same way because he lost his flint and had to resort to rubbing sticks together, and I don't feel so bad. But still, I think it should be on that list of internet emotions.
posted by condour75 at 5:40 PM on January 20, 2011


I do have to say, voice recognition technology has freakin' exploded in the last ten years. The last time I was half-interested in voice rec it was Dragon Dictate or some shit and You. Had. Too. Talk. Like. This. and it was useless. The voice search almost (but not quite) makes Android smartphones truly hands-free devices, which is what their real aim is.

The fear I have with all this "augmented humanity" is that it's going to radically fuck our species up evolutionarily. What happens to muscles when you don't use them? They atrophy and waste away. What happens to your brain when you don't use it? Same shit.

The problem with having Wikipedia at your fingertips is that you can make the argument that there's no point in even bothering to memorize facts any more. "Oh sure, you can learn facts if you want on your own time," they'll say. Just like they said about math: "Look, we all know you can add, subtract, multiply and divide, so why don't you just use this calculator?" It's absolute insanity.

You need those facts in your head, not at the other end of some "cloud." Because it's when scattered facts are jumbled around in your head that you come up with amazing connections and combinations you never would have thought of otherwise. But if you don't have that shit in you head, you're out of luck. You can look up facts, but facts aren't insight. Computers are great at holding on to information but they're crap at thinking for themselves.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:31 PM on January 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


Technological innovation is awesome. But I can't help feeling like maybe some of Google's enormous power and money and drive could help us more in finding, say, a way to get potable water to everyone, or get us off fossil fuels, or eliminating income inequality.

Wait, what the fuck? I mean, Google already does give grants to people that are working on these kinds of projects (which may well be a gimmick but it's more than most other corporations do). But more broadly, how do you expect this kind of thing to be developed if it's not funded by self-interested actors who hope to make money using the technology? There's a reason computer history is so tightly bound up with corporate and military skunkworks.
posted by nasreddin at 7:10 PM on January 20, 2011


But. If we don't solve more basic human problems, these kinds of gadgets are going to be the exclusive province of the stratospherically wealthy.

Also, not every project that helps the Third World has to take the form of a beatific aid worker feeding enriched rice meal to helpless fly-covered infants. There are five billion mobile phones in use around the world right now, and Africa is the fastest-growing usage area. Once dumbphones become obsolete (and cheap smartphones have appeared that are likely to make them so very soon), what operating system do you think people in the Third World will be using? iOS?
posted by nasreddin at 7:19 PM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


That said I love the fact that all the "AI is impossible" people are getting shown what's up. We have a computer that can beat humans at Jeopardy now.

Something a little ways down the line of thought from this that I like to say:

Software is a rejection of the deficiencies that define humanity.
posted by Mikey-San at 7:37 PM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


The problem with having Wikipedia at your fingertips is that you can make the argument that there's no point in even bothering to memorize facts any more.
"In fact [writing] will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearence of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable the to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so."
—Socrates, quoted in Phaedrus. Plato. 275A-B. (Nehamas & Woodruff, trans.)
You can make the argument that there's no point in bothering to memorize facts anymore, but it doesn't mean that argument must be made, or even that it will be made.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:19 PM on January 20, 2011 [8 favorites]


I can think of about 1000 problems that google has solved that people wouldn't have imagined 30 years ago.

Ok, I'm waiting...
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:27 PM on January 20, 2011


That said I love the fact that all the "AI is impossible" people are getting shown what's up. We have a computer that can beat humans at Jeopardy now.

Ugh. This "sentiment," if you can call it that, is horribly ignorant of the incredibly complex problems that the AI field has wrestled with over the last 40 years to get as far as it has. AI has turned out to be much, much harder to accomplish than anyone expected and is still a shadow of what it was originally expected to have become by the 80s. Remember Terminator? heh.
posted by mek at 9:25 PM on January 20, 2011


"The fear I have with all this "augmented humanity" is that it's going to radically fuck our species up evolutionarily. What happens to muscles when you don't use them? They atrophy and waste away. What happens to your brain when you don't use it? Same shit."

It's human nature to use the smallest amount of effort to do anything. The problem with a lot of our modern conveniences is that they make it fairly easy to do things, so we use them to do lots of different things each day that we never would have attempted before. I mean, why not? Thanks to the phones and software it's easy. But if we're not careful we can use up the entire day with simple little tasks augmented by technology, and never spend any time on more difficult, time consuming things, even if those things are ultimately more rewarding. The intelligence is still there, but we're so busy with tweets and quick little web searches that we can't be bothered to use it.
posted by Kevin Street at 9:39 PM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Augmented maybe; segmented definitely. My bits are pleased. Don't want to go back, certainly looking forward. The more of "me" that is recoverable the better. Everyman is Leviathan, that I support. Let me be, let us be.
posted by yesster at 10:37 PM on January 20, 2011


In the first part of the article they make it sound like Google has used its massive collection of data to lick the problem of speech recognition, but if you try out YouTube's "transcribe audio" feature it's clear they still have a long way to go. Audio transcription is a pretty cool feature, though, and if they ever get it working it'll be amazing.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:51 AM on January 21, 2011


despite my love of search engines and how painfully the early web sucked without them, i do deeply regret not being able to experience KOL without them. it's sad (at least for me, sorta?) that i'm a cheater and that sometimes, the best things come too late.
posted by armisme at 1:26 AM on January 21, 2011


urg i mean the anti. its 90s subtle. sorta.
posted by armisme at 1:28 AM on January 21, 2011


"The fear I have with all this "augmented humanity" is that it's going to radically fuck our species up evolutionarily. What happens to muscles when you don't use them? They atrophy and waste away. What happens to your brain when you don't use it? Same shit."

This is why all fork lift drivers are completely emaciated.
posted by empath at 4:16 AM on January 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


They learned to lift spoons long ago.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:18 AM on January 21, 2011


You can make the argument that there's no point in bothering to memorize facts anymore, but it doesn't mean that argument must be made, or even that it will be made.

Kids can use calculators in math tests. It's a fact; there's no argument to be made. The argument has already been made, and humanity has lost.

And funny of you to bring up writing of all things! Just take a look at how our handwriting skills have slowly deteriorated since the typewriter (and rapidly deteriorated since the PC). But I suppose in your world that's just another one of them co-ink-i-dinks.

This is why all fork lift drivers are completely emaciated.

Because fork lift drivers only use fork lifts to lift everything in their day-to-day lives, and never use their arms for anything, including waving or eating.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:25 AM on January 21, 2011


Sometimes, now, I type into a web form and hit submit, already having noticed a typo, because I expect it to know what I meant.

This happens to me too, most of the typing I do is in outlook or visual studio. I also gave up doing math in my head though (if I don't have a calculator I will use google) so I have no problem delegating all of these mundane things to devices other than my brain. I focus on the big picture, google acts as huge dedicated staff I can make demands on, we are built as social creatures and to work collectively, makes no difference to me if it is a proofreader fixing my spelling or a predictive spelling algorithm in my browser. There is no real reason for me to be able to do math in my head, spell words or write legibly except as proof that I spent years in school.
posted by Ad hominem at 6:43 AM on January 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Civil_Disobedient: Kids can use calculators in math tests. It's a fact; there's no argument to be made. The argument has already been made, and humanity has lost.

Sure, and so do graduate students. That's because the arithmetic operations performed by a calculator (or abacus, slide rule, log and sine tables) are the shallowest understanding of mathematics. Memorizing multiplication tables doesn't help you understand what ax^2 + bx + c means.

The same holds true in geography where 1) the facts of political geography change on a yearly basis and 2) memorizing lists of world capitals doesn't say that much about geographic problems, like who is most likely to be affected by rising sea levels.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:45 AM on January 21, 2011


The fear I have with all this "augmented humanity" is that it's going to radically fuck our species up evolutionarily. What happens to muscles when you don't use them?

Well it's not like people who can't spell don't get laid. I think we are at a stand still in "human" evolution,we struggle to keep everyone alive, and we certainly don't cast 8year olds into the wilderness to weed out the weak. Our next step is to enter into symbiotic relationships with machines. We are just now leaving the early stages where we rely on somewhat artificial input methods and metaphors to interact with computers and entering the stage where we can interact in a way which is much more natural for humans, speech and gestures. Next step will be implants, count me in.
posted by Ad hominem at 7:05 AM on January 21, 2011


And really, the notion that the cognitive development of our species is going to be stunted if we don't continue to use a pedagogical method that's also a technological innovation, and one that a majority of humans never had access to, requires some pretty stupid blinders of class and history.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:18 AM on January 21, 2011


And really, the notion that the cognitive development of our species is going to be stunted if we don't continue to use a pedagogical method that's also a technological innovation, and one that a majority of humans never had access to, requires some pretty stupid blinders of class and history.

You mean like 'the book'?
posted by empath at 7:21 AM on January 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


Because fork lift drivers only use fork lifts to lift everything in their day-to-day lives, and never use their arms for anything, including waving or eating.

And people who use google never think? I'm really not sure I understand the argument.
posted by empath at 7:22 AM on January 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


empath: Not just the book. Rote-memory pedagogy, the art of memory, and related learning techniques are technologies that were limited to an elite few from antiquity to the industrial revolution, at which point, public education systems in their most common forms were another technological innovation that largely followed the industrial revolution out of England, America, and France via colonial economics.

And to put on the cognitive psychology hat for a moment. We didn't evolve for rote memory of random lists (or memorized multiplication), and we're generally pretty bad at it, unless we can trick the wetware into treating it as narrative or associative memory (hence the classical art of memory and mnemonics.)

Meanwhile, farmers, hunters, herders, gatherers, and trades rely on a asston of expertise and learned knowledge transmitted via oral history and apprenticeship. Civil_Disobedient's argument is that people who don't have socially-constructed pen-and-paper writing systems or multiplication tables are stupid. This assumption is deeply ethnocentric, and his argument that it will affect human evolution in bad ways is a silly Lamarckian premise.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:24 AM on January 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


There are five billion mobile phones in use around the world right now, and Africa is the fastest-growing usage area. Once dumbphones become obsolete (and cheap smartphones have appeared that are likely to make them so very soon), what operating system do you think people in the Third World will be using? iOS?

This.

Although I know ESR is not well-loved around these parts, an item on his blog brought a device called the BCM2157 to my attention. It's a 3G Android handset-on-a-chip.

It is to a current Android handset what one of those $50-100 embedded Linux devices is to a discrete-component traditional server. It seems pretty likely that it's going to blow the current smartphone pricepoint ($300-500+) out of the water ... and when you go from three bills down to under $100 or maybe even under $50 (not impossible if other components come down in price the same way), you've just opened the door to a whole lot of new customers.

For a lot of those customers, a smartphone is a whole lot more practical and useful than a computer. I don't think it's hard to imagine that, in some places, the Internet revolution might be driven by inexpensive smartphones.

So yeah, Google may be solving "first world problems" right now, but the way they're going about their business -- which is very differently from companies like Apple who pretty clearly don't give two squirts about anyone without a lot of disposable income to spend on teh shiney -- is going to mean the same technology is going to be available to bear on developing-world issues pretty quickly.

The fact that they can, and are in the apparent process, of doing this almost accidentally while making money hand over fist makes it all the more impressive in my mind.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:27 AM on January 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


Googgle- great search system
posted by chimik8 at 8:37 AM on January 21, 2011


In fact, we can be pretty certain from neuroscience that things like reading, writing, and rote memorization are hard to do because they require forcing neurological systems that evolved for narrative, oral, associative, and spacial understanding into processing different kinds of information. That's not to say that these things are bad, only that they're cultural and behavioral adaptations and not evolutionary ones.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:52 AM on January 21, 2011


What, no shoutout to Vannevar Bush who envisioned most of this almost a half century before Bill? Shame.

Indeed...that would be the memex, for those interested.
posted by foonly at 9:31 AM on January 21, 2011


The argument has already been made, and humanity has lost.

Eh. It isn't clear to me what humanity has "lost" here, but if something has been lost, it was lost long before either of us were ever born.
posted by octobersurprise at 10:26 AM on January 21, 2011


If you aren't counting on your fingers, you have lost your humanity to the machines, obviously.
posted by empath at 10:40 AM on January 21, 2011


There is some value in retaining information manipulation technologies that are inefficient, and some cost to society when more efficient alternatives become available. Once upon a time everybody (who was literate) read novels like Great Expectations and Moby-Dick because those were the only entertainment options available, and they wrote long, carefully composed letters to each other because the mail was slow and they couldn't keep in contact every day. The percentage of meaningful signal to fluffy noise was probably a lot higher then. Now both those activities are in decline because more efficient, easier to use alternative technologies are available, and there isn't any good argument that could really bring them back, except among enthusiasts.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:22 PM on January 21, 2011


Kevin Street: The percentage of meaningful signal to fluffy noise was probably a lot higher then.

Reading Pepys' diary, which dribbles out interesting trivia about his position in English government mixed with gossip about who and what he saw at the theater that day, his bowel movements, dinner, singing, and sex would suggest otherwise.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:28 PM on January 21, 2011


Sure, but I doubt he wrote about all that stuff in letters to other people. That's a really neat website, btw.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:39 PM on January 21, 2011


Once upon a time everybody (who was literate) read novels like Great Expectations and Moby-Dick because those were the only entertainment options available, and they wrote long, carefully composed letters to each other because the mail was slow and they couldn't keep in contact every day.

FWIW:

At the time, many different kinds of entertainment were available to literate people besides novels. Among the "truly cultured" novels were still regarded as frivolous and slightly vulgar compared to poetry or history or the Greek and Latin classics. Even novelists made fun of novels; Austen's Northanger Abbey, famously, satirizes a young woman who has filled her head with too many novels.

Great Expectations was enormously popular. Contemporary audiences encountered it in parts, as it was published. Readers often read it aloud to listeners and the effect the novel had on its readers was not too unlike a popular radio or television serial. Moby-Dick, OTOH, was never published in parts. As a novel, it was an "underground hit" but a popular failure and it marked the beginning of a decline in Melville's reputation from which he wouldn't recover until the twentieth century.

The long, carefully composed letters that characterize 19th century correspondence to us are mostly the exception rather than the rule. Authors of those kinds of letters were, consciously, practicing an art, not merely communicating. In the 19th century UK, the eastern coast of the US, and other urbanized and quasi-urbanized parts of Europe, postal services were pretty rapid given the transportation available; in the largest cities, throughout the 19th century, letters could be sent in the morning and replies received in the afternoon. The majority of 19th century correspondence was as ephemeral and as varied—as short, long, frivolous, revealing, incoherent—as the emails we send today (minus the multimedia attachments, of course). The "signal" we receive from that time is a trick of the historical filters we impose on the period. The noise was there; a different kind of noise (fewer billboards, more streetshouters; less auto exhaust, more horseshit) less of it, maybe, because there were fewer people, but it was there.

I think it's a mistake to look at the kind of techniques we've developed to store and communicate information over the last 2000 years or so as a product line where each successive technique makes all the previous ones obsolete. Better to see them as a kind of ecosystem where many different communicative "species" find niches to flourish in to greater or lesser degrees.
posted by octobersurprise at 9:28 AM on January 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


Once upon a time everybody (who was literate) read novels like Great Expectations and Moby-Dick because those were the only entertainment options available

I'm not sure that this was ever as true as we perceive it to be now, well after the fact. There was all sorts of "trash" literature, pretty much from the time printing became widespread onwards (and before that, there was lowbrow entertainment in other forms besides the written). A lot of it was not preserved, and as a result we end up seeing the past through the rose-colored glasses of whatever librarians decided was worth saving. And that was more often Melville than salacious libels and anonymous porn.

(Wasn't there an article on the Blue recently about trying to find and preserve more of these things? I think it was a NYTRB article but I can't find it now.)

The situation seems to be even more exaggerated with correspondence: the only stuff we have now are what was deemed worth preserving, by individuals who probably knew the author. Lot of room for image-burnishing there. Given that during much of the Victorian and Edwardian era, there were multiple mail deliveries per day to urban areas—I've heard as many as four or five a day in central London—a person could conduct a whole back-and-forth conversation via letters in the space of a day. I doubt these are the ones that survived, though; what we have are almost certainly the longer-form and more formal letters, not the equivalent of "what are you doing for lunch?"

I think the modern equivalent would be just looking at, say, email, but neglecting IMs, text messages, or phone calls. If you did that, a lot of people today might look fairly erudite too.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:11 AM on January 23, 2011


Great Expectations, similar to most of Dickins' novels, was initially a weekly serial, and there's plenty of analogies between the serialized novel and the weekly television drama that can be made.

Meanwhile, the Victorians certainly did have an an entire form of correspondence to say, "I have/want your attention."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:04 AM on January 24, 2011


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