Blame It On Gutenberg!


If you live long enough, you find yourself out of the loop.  You lose touch with your own society.  You don’t understand the language anymore, fashions look scandalous, music is noise, young people are stupid and technology is a battle, not a convenience.  This is why, for the most part, old people are grumpy.  They simply don’t understand the world they live in.  This is the natural order of things, and we all do it.  It’s been going on since Zeus replaced Horus as the god of choice along the Nile.  In essence, we remain brand loyal to the years that made sense to us and we never leave them, regardless of what the rest of the world is doing.  So we fondly remember the 60s or the 20s (or whenever we thought we were cool) and naturally wonder, loud and long what the hell happened to that time.

However, in recent history, this generational disconnection has become more than just a side effect of the trudge to the grave; it’s now happening to young people.  Thirty-somethings are looking back at the 80s like it was a Golden Age.  Forty-somethings are wrapping themselves in fashions clearly unsuitable for a widening waistline, and if you’re creeping up on fifty — forget it – you just might as well have been born during Prohibition.  The problem is we live in an age when the layers of knowledge are getting thinner and thinner, and if you miss one, you can never catch up.  Here’s how it works.

For the thousand years or so between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, nothing much changed in our world.  Certainly, there were scientific and social advances during that time, but progress was slow.  To your average peasant, one century looked pretty much like the last one: a bit more plague, a little less heretic burning, but no decided differences.  People were born, lived and died in a world dominated by the church, impending famine and war.  Generations of people worked the land, built cathedrals and occasionally bashed each other over the head — for a millennium — with the tools and weapons their ancestors used.  Innovation, when it came, travelled slowly and new ideas were not readily accepted.  The layers of knowledge were thick.

This all changed when a German named Gutenberg built a printing press sometime around 1436.  Suddenly, ideas didn’t have to travel by word of mouth anymore (getting totally screwed up along the way.)  They could be written down and printed in large numbers.  So, if Wolfgang, a Bavarian smart guy, figured out a better way to grind wheat that knowledge was both easily assessable and, more importantly, widely distributed (with no embellishments.)  With this rapid exchange of information, the layers of knowledge got remarkably thinner.  By the time Pope Urban VIII was threatening to cut off Galileo’s protruding parts for saying the Earth revolved around the sun — not the other way around — in 1633, there was no stopping it.  Galileo may have recanted his discoveries to save his appendages, but his book remained out there for anybody to read.

Thus it was that invention no longer had to rely on the genius of one person to initiate change, nor the local gossipmonger to spread the word about it.  Books changed all that; ideas became permanently available.  Philosophers and scientists could build on each others’ knowledge just by reading each others’ books.  And each innovation was also written about, in turn, thus spawning dozens of refinements that continued the cycle.  The world of ideas expanded exponentially.  The layers of knowledge became thinner and thinner.

Skip forward two centuries and these days the layers of knowledge are so thin they don’t last more than a couple of years.  Some are added to our world and expanded upon before people are even acquainted with them.  For example, for 99% of history, people looked at a map if they wanted to know where they were going.  In the late 1990s, the GPS system revolutionized that.  However, before anybody could really cash in on a stand-alone GPS device, it became an accessory (App?) on our Smart phones.  The same thing is now happening with digital cameras and MP3 players.  These devices were born, lived and died in less time than it takes an average person to get a PhD in Sociology.

There is no longer a generation gap in our society.  There is only an information gap.  As the world spins ever faster all around us, we long for the security blanket of the objects we’re familiar with – whether they’re electronic devices or social interaction.  Nobody fully understands the world we live in (not that anybody ever did) but in the 21st century, more and more of us are falling further and further behind.  People are uploading and downloading information at such a furious rate no one can really process it properly.  (For example, that last sentence wouldn’t have made sense a generation ago.)   The result is we look with nostalgia on what we remember as a simpler time.  So the next time you see some kid with droopy drawers, talking to what is clearly a teenage prostitute, in a language akin to gibberish, while techno-noise booms in the background — blame it on Gutenberg: he started it all.

I originally wrote this is 2012 – ironically not much has changed since then.

Stuff I’ve Learned From Literature


People don’t read much anymore.  The once glorious novel has been left to gather dust while we play videogames and watch Netflix.  I’m as guilty as the next person so I’m not pointing fingers, but I still think it’s a shame.  After all, most of what I know about the world comes from reading fiction.  Here is just some of the stuff I’ve learned from literature.

Never, under any circumstances, give pigs any power.
Animal Farm

Never volunteer for anything.
The Hunger Games

If you think your lover has committed suicide get a qualified second opinion before you proceed.
Romeo and Juliet

If you’re going to invade Russia make sure you bring back-up.
War and Peace

Don’t be fooled by contemporary propaganda, children are savages.
Lord of the Flies

Contrary to popular belief, family isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.

If you live in Wessex, England you’re pretty much screwed.
Anything by Thomas Hardy

It’s not a good idea to party with aristocrats from Transylvania – especially after dark.

Be nice to the French.  They tend to hold a grudge.
The Count of Monte Cristo

Don’t drink and drive.
The Great Gatsby

Whatever you do, stay away from Southwest Texas.
No Country for Old Men

Female teachers with Scottish accents are dangerous.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Sometimes, finding Nemo is not necessarily a good thing.
20,000 Leagues under the Sea

Expect the unexpected.
The Collected Works of O. Henry

On closer examination the meat packing industry is not as glamorous as one would think.
The Jungle

Never hunt whales.  It will always end badly.
Moby Dick

If you find yourself in the woods with a talking rabbit … go home, you’re stoned.
Alice in Wonderland

And finally:

Make digital copies of your books just in case we all go crazy in the next couple of years.
Fahrenheit 451

Test Driving Our Instinct for Connections

faceOne of the cool things about being a writer is, aside from the occasional drink-‘til-ya-drop tequila binge, you generally go to sleep smarter than when you woke up.  You’re constantly finding and filing away facts, like an information squirrel worried about winter.  For example, I know that Birmingham, England has a larger canal system than Venice, Italy, there are actually five different versions of David’s painting, Bonaparte Crossing the Alps and China is scheduled to take over the world sometime in 2028.  This kinda stuff doesn’t come up all that often in casual conversation, but it definitely keeps most conversations casual.  After all, when you’re the Wyatt Earp of useless information, you don’t get a lot of people calling you out on it.  That’s the other reason why writing is such a lonely profession.  People tend to think you’re a pompous ass.  But I digress.  The cool part of having tons of off-the-top-of-your-head trivia at your disposal is that you get a leg up on analysis that most people don’t have.  You can see the connections between ideas before other folks even get their Google warmed up.  Let me show you how it works.

Remember when you were a kid and, face up to the sky, you actually spent some time looking at the clouds?  You didn’t see nimbus or cumulus (unless you were terminally nerdy) you saw sheep and surfers and an old guy with a pipe.  This is because our minds are hardwired into detecting images (especially faces) long before our conscious brains have accumulated enough information to make a judgement call.  Essentially, we see things before we actually see them by instantly reducing any image to it basic components.  This phenomenon comes from a time before time when humans were not even close to the top of the food chain.  As a species, we needed to recognize the things that were going to eat us — with enough time left over to run like hell for the trees.  In evolutionary terms, our ancestors who were good at this became our ancestors; everybody else ended up digested on the savannah floor.

Move the calendar forward half a million years, we still see faces in inanimate objects, but the only time we actually use this instinctual skill is to face2generate religious revivals from tortillas or buy into paranormal swindles.  After all, it’s been a lot of years since our species was threatened by hairy beasts.  However, in the 21st century, the predator of choice is information.  In order to thrive, if not survive, we need to recognize essential information out of the info-flood we’re soaking up every minute of every day.  Since no one has the waking hours to analyze every piece of data that arrives, hat in hand, to our conscious mind, we do this by connecting new information to the knowledge we already have.  A very simple example is when we see a truck drive up and park in front of our house, we immediately determine what kind of a truck it is (fire, garbage, FedEx) and take appropriate action.  If we don’t recognize it, we file it and get on.  Thus, the more information we have, the greater our ability to test drive the new stuff when it arrives.

As a writer, I get to test drive tons more information that most people — it comes with the territory.  And the thing that’s really cool is, like cloud watching, it’s a never ending process.  One shape morphs into another and another and another.  Think of it this way: what started off as an Internet search for “pareidolia” (you need to Google this, BTW) ended up, somewhere after midnight, at a YouTube video on how to fold t-shirts.  Now, how cool is that?