Against all odds, Gabriel Harvey’s obscure Latin verse work Gratulationes Valdinenses has become a sacred text of conspiracy theorists everywhere – namely, the uniformed mistaken into thinking Edware de Vere (the 17th Earl of Oxford, who often signed as “Oxenford(e)”) wrote the works of William Shakespeare (he did not). Grautlationes Valdineses contains insincere orations to noblemen – including Oxenforde and his father-in-law, Cecil Burghley (incidentally NOT the model for Polonius from Hamlet) – when they were visiting nearby Audley End in 1578, as members of Queen Elizabeth’s court.
They love this string of words in particular, in the poem for Oxenforde:
vultus tela vibrat
Their preferred translation: “thy countenance shakes spears.”
There’s no way that’s right or that it means what they want it to.
First, this is a wishful translation, both in a technical and a contextual sense. My Latin is worse than my Greek, but “tela” is more often translated “arrows” – Oxenforde’s biographer, Alan H. Nelson (who notably doesn’t believe Oxenforde was Shakespeare) has rendered it as “your glance shoots arrows.” It can refer to “weapons” generally, too. The “vibrat” is also a red herring since it’s tempting to read it narrowly with reference the English derivation “vibrate,” instead of considering its multiple possible meanings.
Moreover, Harvey was de facto translating from English into Latin, since English was his first lanugage. It’s worth trying to understand what English idiom Harvey was attempting to render in Latin. Luckily, we have examples from both Thomas Dekker and Shakespeare himself [emphasis added]:
Dekker: “And do thine eyes shoot daggers at that man…”
Shakespeare: “I will speak daggers”
Considering this Elizabethan idiom and Nelson’s translation, Harvey’s words likely have the thrust “your glance shoots daggers.”
This verse was written in 1578. Blank verse drama, in the form of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, was still a decade away. Even in the impossible scenario that the “shakes spears” traslation is accurate, there’s no playwright of the same name to refer to.
Harvey also thought very little of Oxenforde. Here’s what he wrote years later, in English, about him [emphasis added]:
No words but valorous, no works but womanish only,
For life Magnificos, not a beck but glorious in show,
In deed most frivolous, not a look but Tuscanish always
His cringing side neck, eyes glancing, physnomy smirking.
Notice the reference to “glancing,” riffing on “vultus” as a Latin rendering of “glance.”
In contrast, he made this testimony about Shakespeare in 1601:
“The younger sort takes much delight in Shakespeares Venus, & Adonis: but his Lucrece, & his tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke, haue it in them, to please the wiser sort.”
Harvey was contemporarenous with both Shakespeare and Oxenforde (and outlived both of them by many years, until 1631). It’s clear he knew they weren’t the same person.
Did Jonathan Swift really write Gulliver’s Travels? Sure, it says “by Jonathan Swift” right there on the spine, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that he lacked the life experience or learnedness we would expect from the creator of such a sophisticated work of fiction. For example, despite the novel’s elaborate descriptions of Japan and other locales far from Swift’s native Ireland, there’s no record of Swift having ever set foot in the Land of the Rising Sun. Moreover, what are we to make of the attribution to “Lemuel Gulliver” on the original title page? Who was this Gulliver and why did he have to keep his authorship hidden behind the allonym “Jonathan Swift”? His letter to his “Cousin Sympson” re: the 1735 edition also raises some troubling questions for proponents of the traditional Dubliner school that attributes the texts to Swift; the Nottinghamian school that recognizes Gulliver himself as the true author has no such issues and also accepts the harsh truth that no mere clergyman and pamphleteer like “Jonathan Swift” could produce these works of genius.
If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably confused. What I just ran through was a variant on the centuries-old “question” about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays and poems, only applied to another major English-language author (Jonathan Swift). The case for doubting that William Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him is no stronger than the same one for Swift. It is only a “question” insofar as why anyone bothers to keep asking it.
Starting in the 1800s, a quintessential constituency of reactionaries – i.e., amateur historians who hated democracy, National Review columnists, and grad students who faked large portions of their dissertations – has tried in vain to prove that anyone other than Shakespeare himself wrote the literature unambiguously bearing his distinctive name. The original “real Shakespeare” was Sir Francis Bacon, who was followed over the years by Christopher Marlowe and, most prominently, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.
All anti-Shakespearean conspiracy theorists – the Baconians, the Marlovians, and the Oxfordians – have an impossible task in front of them:
- Demonstrating that the historical Shakespeare – a writer, actor, and theater shareholder documented in numerous interconnected contemporaneous records – did not write the Shakespearean canon.
- Demonstrating that their candidate did write it, despite all these candidates (except Marlowe) having no proven ability as literary writers or even as people interested in the theater.
- Explaining why the individual works aren’t explicitly credited by anyone to their favored candidate.
On point 1 alone, there is no reason to dispute the accepted attribution. Shakespeare had access to everything he needed to be a successful Elizabethan and Jacobean playwright, including a grammar school education that would have included background in Latin and history as well as a career as an actor in the troupe that performed his plays. The Shakespearean canon doesn’t exhibit any advanced technical knowledge that would have been inaccessible to Shakespeare, nullifying a persistent claim by anti-Shakespeareans. Like the other playwrights of the era, he was a middle-class striver who relied heavily on sources to write plays for money. His lifespan would have allowed him the opportunity to bridge the divide between the very different Elizabethan and Jacobean theaters and work with a wide variety of collaborators from Marlowe to John Fletcher. The evidence for his authorship is overwhelming. Seriously. Take a look.
Point 2 is almost moot given the rock-solid point 1. Let’s look at it anyway for humor’s sake in regard to Oxford, the most popular alternative candidate. None of Shakespeare’s work is attributed to the Earl of Oxford. Oxford’s vast correspondence mentions no interest in theater or connection with any plays, let alone Shakespeare’s. His own poetry is in a dialect and in forms rarely – but usually never – used by Shakespeare, plus it’s no good. He died in 1604, before one-third of the canon was written; he would not have lived to see vital events such as the Gunpowder Plot that informed Macbeth, the Atlantic Hurricane that inspired a key source for The Tempest, or the rise of Fletcher, who wrote half of The Two Noble Kinsmen. While conspiracy theorists love to slander Shakespeare as an “unlettered wool and grain merchant,” there’s a strong case that Shakespeare was actually better educated than Oxford himself, who had merely honorary degrees, was dismissed by his tutors, and concerned himself extensively with the tin mining business. Oxfordians love to denigrate this caricature of “Shaksper” based on inconsistent spellings of his name, even though such variant spellings were routine across all classes and were used by their own candidate, who most frequently spelled his name “Oxenforde.” Oxfordianism is full of such projection.
Enough about Mr. Oxenforde. Regarding point 3, why would any of the plays be wrongly attributed to Shakespeare? There was no reason for aristocrats to keep their names hidden; Sir Thomas Sackville and others published under their own names.
The authorship “question” arose from an approach to literary criticism that doesn’t square with the nuances of Renaissance England: assuming that an author’s lived experience can be obviously extracted from his or her work. Writers from T.S. Eliot to John Keats have disputed this notion in one way or another, and it’s a poor fit for an era in which so much material was recycled. For instance: Hamlet, Long pointed to as some sort of autobiographical sketch of the various alternative candidates, is borrowed from many sources, although the nomenclature of “Hamlet” instead of “Amleth” is a distinctly Warwickshire (where Stratford-upon-Avon is located) phenomenon.
Anti-Shakespeareanism is also interconnected with anti-liberalism, and not just because the idea that a middle-class person cannot produce great art (but a rich person can) is odiously conservative. I mean, it’s no coincidence that Joseph Sobran was an Oxfordian conspiracy theorist. Eric Idle connected these dots in his own parody of the authorship “question” by quipping “What are liberals so afraid of?” The right answer is: nothing, since Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.
This year was the 50th anniversary of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Coincidentally, it was also the 20th anniversary of Radiohead’s “OK Computer.” These two albums were compared in a gushing retrospective review of the latter in Uproxx, by Steven Hyden. Here’s the key passage:
I don’t agree with this assessment, but first let me say: Notice how in the intro I specified that “OK Computer” was by Radiohead, but didn’t specify the artist of “Sgt. Pepper.” I think that that difference demonstrates the ongoing gap between the two albums and their respective places in the cultural lexicon: Virtually everyone knows what “Sgt. Pepper” is, but it’s possible that you’ve never even heard of “OK Computer.”
“OK Computer” was released in the summer of 1997 and quickly became one of the most acclaimed albums of the year, the decade, and eventually, of all-time, or at least as far as pop music criticism extends – to roughly the mid 1960s.
That’s a significant date. Most of the “greatest albums ever” lists have few if any entries before 1964. A recent list of the best albums by female artists used 1964 as its cutoff date. Why did “albums” become major events in the 1960s?
“Sgt. Pepper,” released in 1967, is a major reason why. Granted, it wasn’t the first album to be created by artists who were conscious of sequencing and flow, in such a way that they thought of their release as a coherent work rather than a collection of singles:
- In 1966, The Mothers of Invention had released “Freak Out!” which ended with a multipart suite that featured aural collages.
- At that time, Bob Dylan had also settled into the habit of closing his albums – “Blonde on Blonde” and “Highway 61 Revisted” are the best examples – with much longer songs than appeared on the rest of those records (a phenomenon I’ll call The Big Finish; it’s been widely imitated).
- The Beach Boys also released the thematic “Pet Sounds” in 1966, with a loose concept of teenage angst paired with a more sonically adventurous direction than they had previously explored.
However, “Sgt. Pepper” greatly accelerated these trends:
- The whole record was essentially a suite, with seamless transitions between songs (a ubiquitous feature in pop and especially rap albums ever since, but at that point something found largely only in jazz records such as John Coltrane’s “Meditations”).
- It had a theme song (the title track) that was reprised and which segued directly into a Big Finish (“A Day In The Life”). Its concept featured a fictional band performing a stylistically eclectic set of songs.
- It contained the Beatles’ most far-out instrumentation to date, with sitars, harpsichords, orchestras, clarinets, tape effects, sampled noises, and aggressive electric guitar (at a time when that was only starting to emerge with Jimi Hendrix).
There is no argument for “OK Computer” having anywher near the same influence on how “albums” were thought of. In fact, its first two songs – “Airbag” and Paranoid Android” blend into each other, in the vein of the title track and “With A Little Help From My Friends” on “Sgt. Pepper.” It also has a Big Finish with “The Tourist,” although the song is of comprable length to “Paranoid Android.” It is an album solidly in the “Sgt. Pepper” mold.
At this point, it’s possible to object and say something like: “Well, sure, “Sgt. Pepper” was a fancy hippie concept album about ‘meter maids and circus workers’ (as Hyden writes), but its music is overrated. It doesn’t have the feels and the depth of something like ‘OK Computer’ or [My Bloody Valentine’s] ‘Loveless.'”
If anything was an influential as the album’s concept, it was its music:
- Sgt. Pepper refined all the experiments from the previous two Beatles albums – “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver” – into consistently musical results. There’s hard guitar pop (title track, “Good Morning Good Morning”), Indian classical music that presaged trip-hop and electronica (“Within You Without You”), lush psychedelia that influenced Radiohead, Pink Floyd and many others (“Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” “A Day In The Life”), and melodic ballads (“When I’m Sixty-Four,” “She’s Leaving Home”).
- Songs are packed with modulations, hooks, and creative arrangements. The approach is different from one song to the next.
- Having already reinvented string arrangemetns in pop music with “Eleanor Rigby” the year before, they took them in a different direction with “A Day In The Life,” somehow ending the most famous album of all-time with sustained orchestral noise, followed by a thunderous piano E chord and chopped-up voice samples.
Up against the conceptual and musical influence of “Sgt. Pepper,” what does “OK Computer” bring to the table?
It starts well with the “Airbag”/”Paranoid Android” duo, incorporating some unusual influences such as the rapidly shifting hip-hop of DJ Shadow, which spill over into the multiple phases of “Paranoid Android.” The third song, “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” was apparenlty influenced by the electric pianos on Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew,” but its much more listenable than that album, even if I usually forget its melody if I don’t listen to it for a while.
The album gets weaker after that. “Exit Music For A Film” is long and tedious, with an endlessly repeated “Let you choke” that should prompt questions about what “OK Computer” is actually even about (at least we can tell that “Sgt. Pepper” is about a fake band). “Let Down” is a nice recovery with some Beatles/Byrds-esque chiming guitars.
But then there’s “Karma Police,” which rips its chords from The Beatles song “Sexy Sadie” and drags on into a noisy finish. “Fitter Happier” is two minutes of nonsense read through a Mac computer voice, concluding with “A pig in a cage on antibiotics,” a sentiment very similar to the “Despite all my rage I’m still just a rat in a cage” from The Smashing Pumpkins song “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” from two years earlier. “Electioneering” is like something off Radiohead’s usually ignored debut album, “Pablo Honey,” with loud guitars and incoherent lyrics (one line simplys states: “cattle prods and the IMF”).
“Climing Up The Walls” is better. It is heavily indebted to The Beatles in general and to “Sgt. Pepper” in particular, with its Lennon-esque vocal effects, harsh strings, and psychedelic atmosphere. “No Surprises” is a pleasant lullaby with lyrics that don’t make a lot of sense (“I’ll take a quiet life/A handshake of carbon monoxide.”) “Lucky” is a guitar-based song that the band had worked on a few years earlier, with a thrilling vocal and finish. “The Tourist” aims for a Big Finish but is a nondescript waltz.
I think “OK Computer” is a merely OK album with an inexplicable reputation for being a milestone. The New York Times observed that it seemed to be Radiohead’s attempt to engage with the legacy of The Beatles, and it is definitely indebted to them. I’m not sure how it outdoes “Sgt. Pepper” in any way, since it cannot replicate the circumstances that allowed “Sgt. Pepper” to define both the album as a form and pop rock as a genre. That’s just a fact for an album released in 1997, well after the heyday of rock.
I’m not sure why Hyden is confident that “OK Computer” will eclipse “Sgt. Pepper” as a conversation starter about “great albums.” Maybe he thinks that as the 1960s receded into memory and the Baby Boomers who came of age during the Summer of Love in 1967 grow older, “Sgt. Pepper” will diminish in stature. Maybe, but there are two major objections to consider:
- “OK Computer” is roughly to Generation X what “Sgt. Pepper” was to the Baby Boomers (although even then, it is nowhere near the representative statement that so completes encapsulates its era); however, Generation X is much, much smaller and less culturally influential than the Baby Boomer set. Quintessential Gen X milestones like the novels of Douglas Copeland – like Radiohead, obsessed with various vaguely corporate and technological demons – and Nirvana’s “Nevermind” have become obscure and less influential over time, respectively.
- It’s hard to compare different types of art. But predicting that “Sgt. Pepper” will give away to “OK Computer” sounds to me like saying the works of William Shakespeare will be replaced by the works of George Bernard Shaw or another playwright as the central reference point for English-language drama. It didn’t happen, even after 300+ years had passed. The fundamental idea of writing a play in English – the forms used and the gravity/importance intended – is inextricable from Shakespeare, just as the album form is from “Sgt. Pepper.” Shakespeare is essential the DNA of English drama, just as “Sgt. Pepper” is to the entire notion of “the album” as a statement.
Of course, one could prefer “OK Computer” to “Sgt. Pepper,” but that’s not realy the question at hand. The question is which one is the touchstone for debates about the album, and I think “Sgt. Pepper” has to prevail since its story is the story of the album, and “OK Computer” owes its entire format and ambition to the mold of “Sgt. Pepper.”
One last point I wanted to talk about: “technology.” A long time ago, I wrote an entry about tech writing and about “technology” as a category, saying:
“When I see “technology” in a sentence, I move pretty quickly past it and don’t think much about it. If I do, though, it’s like I rounded a corner and saw a forked roads leading into three turnabouts – the generality is crushing. Are we talking strictly about the actions of hardware, software, and networks? Are these actions autonomous? What if we just assigned all of these machinations to the category of “machinery and artisanal crafts” and spoke of the great, world-changing, liberating power of “powerful industrial machinery”? It doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?”
I bring it up now because critcism of “OK Computer” is often intertwined with commentary about technology (see Hyden’s remarks about “the prevalence of technology in our daily lives”), in that unique way that only music critics can do when they get bored talking about what’s actually happening in songs. But what is “OK Computer” even about?
Here are some lines from “Paranoid Android,” perhaps the album’s piece de resistance:
“Please could you stop the noise?
I’m trying to get some rest
From all the unborn chicken
Voices in my head
Rain down, rain down
Come on rain down on me
From a great height
From a great height
How is this about “technology” or really about anything that’s unique to the 1990s or to the internet era or the hyperconnected smartphone future (that is, in the future for people in 1997)? Ditto for the opening lines of “Climbing Up The Walls”: “I am the key to the lock in your house/That keeps the toy in your basement.”
If there’s any coherent concept to “OK Computer,” its anxiety about transportation. The first song is entitled “Airbag” and “Fitter Happier” and “Lucky” refer to worries about automobile and airplane transport, respectively. Is this theme about “technology”? If it is, then “Sgt. Pepper” is also an album about “technology,” with a very similar and similarly central fretting about transportation, as captured in “A Day In The Life” about not noticing the traffic lights at changed. Go figure.
The War On Drugs (TWOD) is an evocative name for a band. For anyone currently 30 or older, it likely dredges up memories of Nancy Reagan, D.A.R.E, and McGruff The Crime Dog. By extension, it’s also a powerful conveyor of the white rock musical ambience of the 1980s: Springsteen, Dire Straits, Tom Petty, and any band that liked booming drums and liberally sprinkled synths.
For music critics, TWOD is almost always assessed relative to their seemingly obvious influences. But despite the clear debts they owe to the commercial FM rock of 30+ years ago, TWOD is critically acclaimed; 2014’s “Lost In The Dream” was the most widely awarded of that year, and its followup – this year’s “A Deeper Understanding” – is off to a good start, according to Metacritic.
Music critics weren’t always so sanguine about such acts. NYC rockers Interpol were so frequently compared to Joy Division in the early 2000s that John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats made a list of 101 things to compare Interpol to instead of Joy Division. The rock music of the era was definitely characterized by references to the 1960s and 1970s, with The Strokes sounding a lot like The Velvet Underground (more so than Interpol sounded like Joy Division, which they really didn’t, despite the endless comparisons) and The Killers sounding like a melange of New Wave bands.
Re: The Killers, someone at the LA Times even wrote this about them after David Bowie died last year: “Good-looking guys doing disco-fied rock about outer space? Bowie basically invented that.” Moreover, The Killers were listed as one of 5 bands that “wouldn’t exist” without Bowie. I don’t know; I struggle with such. What if, instead, they would not have existed if they had actually given into their influences? That’s basically Oscar Wilde’s stance, in “Dorian Gray”:
“There is no such thing as a good influence. Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtures are not real to him. His sins, if there are such thing as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him.”
I always enjoyed TWOD more than Dire Straits, Interpol more than Joy Division, and Side A of The Killers’s “Hot Fuss” album more than Bowie’s work in the 1970s and later; “Mr. Brightside” seems to hold up better than any song from Bowie’s endless catalogue (which didn’t invent either space rock – a 1960s phenomenon originating with Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones, among others – or disco, a highly American phenomenon that emerged while Bowie was in Berlin twiddling with “atmospheric” knobs with Brian Eno).
Were any of these latter-day acts “influenced” by their predecessors, at least in the Wildean sense? TWOD was much more obsessive about production, Interpol a superior command of lead-rhythm guitar interplay, and The Killers a better ear for melody and harmony.
The difficult part of Wilde’s quote is the “natural passions” bit. What are these feelings? Or are they feelings at all, or something even more primal, like the cries of a baby or the freedoms conferred by athletic ability or physical appearance? Or maybe they come through it what distinguishes any artist from earlier ones. Otherwise, we would truly be in a “no new thing under the sun” situation.
Ironically, Wilde’s sentiment seems to lessen the importance placed on originality. So many writers, musicians, and painters are acclaimed for the fact that they were first and influenced many others – i.e., original. But what if their influence wasn’t actually positive, or if it led to subsequent artists actually outdoing – and in a sense, becoming independent of – the ones they were imitating?
I mean, I’ve always found the cult of praise around James Joyce unbearable since it feels like writers such as Salman Rushdie and William Faulkner took Joyce’s innovations in directions that were more readable (and re-readable) than Joyce’s endless references and word salads. Who cares that Joyce was first?
On the other hand, there are some artists, such as Jimi Hendrix, or William Shakespeare, whose pioneering works have proven remarkably resistent to any exact imitation, perhaps due to historical circumstances that cannot be reproduced. No one writes 5-act dramas in perfect blank verse for mass audiences anymore; likewise, no one can pick up an electric guitar today and have the same opportunity to “reinvent” it the way Hendrix did in 1966 and 1967.
Of course, Shakespeare himself has obvious influences, and even lifted entire plots from previous works. Obviously, he’s not remembered today as a copycat. I don’t have any lightbulb epiphany to end on here; the influence question seems hard to answer. Maybe we realize that a lot of what influences us is subconscious – unintentional, really – and the product of strange confluences of history, taste, and environment.
“Predictions are hard, especially about the future.” – Yogi Berra, but possibly apochryphal
Imagine living in Europe circa 1900. Someone asks you to predict the state of the world in 1950. Are you going to be able to tell them confidently that the continent at that time will be divided into two spheres of influence: One dominated by the United States of America and the other by a successor state to Tsarist Russia modeled on a militarized version of Karl Marx’s philosophy, all of this having taken shape after the second of two catastrophic wars, the most recent one having ended with the U.S.A. dropping a pair of radioactive bombs on Japan that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians?
If your prediction was way off in 1900, you would have been in good company. Conventional wisdom at the time maintained that the economies of Europe were too integrated to ever lead to war, much less a conflict that would first be deemed The Great War and then renamed after its successor was even worse. But there was one realm in which the catastrophe of World War I was foreseen with startling clarity: literature. H.G. Wells’ serialized 1907 novel “The War in the Air” contemplated the immense resources being poured into then-unprecedented war machines (emphasis added; note the prophecy of a decaying Russia and a militant Germany at the end, and the hints of the eventual end of the British Empire throughout):
“It is impossible now to estimate how much of the intellectual and physical energy of the world was wasted in military preparation and equipment, but it was an enormous proportion. Great Britain spent upon army and navy money and capacity, that directed into the channels of physical culture and education would have made the British the aristocracy of the world. Her rulers could have kept the whole population learning and exercising up to the age of eighteen and made a broad-chested and intelligent man of every Bert Smallways in the islands, had they given the resources they spent in war material to the making of men. Instead of which they waggled flags at him until he was fourteen, incited him to cheer, and then turned him out of school to begin that career of private enterprise we have compactly recorded. France achieved similar imbecilities; Germany was, if possible worse; Russia under the waste and stresses of militarism festered towards bankruptcy and decay. All Europe was producing big guns and countless swarms of little Smallways.”
Why did Wells predict the carnage of World War I so accurately – and in a work of fiction, no less – while his peers were distracted by what they wrongly deemed a dawning golden era of global cooperation?
The question brings me back to an old saw of mine: Google’s obsession with science fiction, a genre Wells was instrumental in modernizing. The company’s ambitious “moonshots” division once required that new projects have some sort of basis in or resemblance to sci-fi. Efforts such as flying cars, robots, you name it: all of it was a computer science exercise in catching up to the fantasies of pulp writers from decades ago. Hell, the dummy-piloted taxi cab from “Blade Runner” (a movie released in 1990) is still far out ahead of the billions upon billions of dollars being spent on self-driving cars today by Google and its peers.
Google is not alone; the tech industry often comes off as highly certain of what the future will look like. Predictions about the dominance of automated vehicles, “the rise of the robots,” and so much more are collectively the fuel upon which a thousand “influencer” conferences run. Such events and the companies that participiate in them are at the same time highly dismissive of the value of humanistic education, instead prizing “technical” knowledege above all else. Yet the irony of them fervently chasing ideas from storybooks persists.
At some level, we all seem to trust in the power of fiction to tell us what the future is, whether we trust the explicitly “futurist” visions of sci-fi, or the eschatology of books such as the Bible and the Koran. In regard to tech in paticular, I was startled a few months ago to read Rana Dasgupta’s “Tokyo Cancelled,” a 2005 novel that sort of retells the Arabian Nights – as well as various fairy tales, such as Bluebeard – for the 21st century.
In one of its discrete stories, a man accepts a new job as an editor of people’s memories. He curates thoughts that they have (which have been captured via surveillance) and puts together a retrospective to present to them on individualized CDs. However, he has to be careful to edit out bad memories:
“We have short-listed around a hundred thousand memories that you can work from. They’ve been selected on the basis of a number of parameters – facial grimacing, high decibel levels, obscene language – that are likely to be correlated with traumatic memories….Apply the logic of common sense: would someone want to remember this? Think of yourself like a film censor; if the family can’t sit together and watch it, it’s out.”
Now here’s a Facebook employee, in 2015, announcing the introduction of filters into its On This Day service, which sends you a notification each day linking you to your photos and status updates from past years:
“We know that people share a range of meaningful moments on Facebook. As a result, everyone has various kinds of memories that can be surfaced — good, bad, and everything in between. So for the millions of people who use ‘On This Day,’ we’ve added these filters to give them more control over the memories they see.”
So while Dasgupta was essentially predicting an advanced Facebook service at a time when Facebook itself didn’t even exist yet (“Tokyo Cancelled” was written well before 2005, and Facebook itself was launched in 2004), what were the leading lights of tech predicting? Um…
-Steve Jobs in 2003: music streaming services are terrible and will never work
-Reality: in 2016, streaming drove an 8.1 percent increase in music industry revenue, and virtually everyone has heard of or used Spotify and Apple Music
The gulf between Dasgupta’s futurism and these now-laugable prediction brings me back to the vitality of the often-maligned cultural studies fields. I am reminded again and again of how we have to think about culture as a whole – not just scientific advances, which are undoubtedly important to human improvement, but also the flow of literatures, social mores, art, etc. – to sense where we are going and where we are going to. For example: Max Weber once positioned the Protestant work ethic – a totally incidental characteristic associated with adherence to a specific religion – as a central cog in the growing success of capitalism, which was reshaping Europe in his time. Yes, the Industrial Revolution and the creation of the steam engine, electricity, coal-fired ships, etc. were all vital to the creation of global capitalism, but would it have coalesced into a coherent social system without the cultural glue of Protestantism?
Just as Weber saw religion as an essential way to make sense of and corral new modes of industrial production, Dasgupta saw, by writing speculatively about it, the struggle to deal with information at vast scale (imagine all the CDs needed to contain the memories of the characters in “Tokyo Cancelled”) as a defining issue of the busy yet personally isolating environment of the modern international airport, in which the book takes place. When we give up on studying the humanities (and all “the channels of physical culture” whose underinvestment Wells bemoaned in the passage above), we create huge blind spots for ourselves and miss futures like these that should have been apparent to us all along, whether they sprouted from an Edwardian sci-fi novel or a 21st century fairy tale.