Tag: History

Ed Pilkington’s excoriation of the ways in which “America’s deep and brutal fault lines […] rendered the country ill-prepared to meet the challenges of this disease” easily can be read by the light cast by Venkatesh Rao’s exploration of how the Black Death “brought a bunch of strong historical forces, which had been building up pressure, to a crisis point”.

Riffing off an observation on Twitter that coronavirus is no longer the story but the setting, Venkatesh Rao explores the idea, noting, for example, that “social distancing is an element in protests”. Rao goes on to try to “unpack what it means to for a big, all-subsuming condition to evolve from story to setting” by revisiting the Black Death, exploring the phases of our own pandemic so far, and suggesting bleak comparisons between our present circumstances and how the Black Death “brought a bunch of strong historical forces, which had been building up pressure, to a crisis point”.

Now here’s the thing about the Phase 2 of the Black Death: it’s clear that everything basically broke at a very deep level, which is a very strong statement coming from me. I don’t like to call complex systems broken very often. Usually when people say that, they are just complaining that the system is working for somebody else rather than for them. But when the system doesn’t work for any of its human individual or institutional parts, or even to preserve and perpetuate itself, I think it is safe to say it is actually broken.

Having just watched Jimmy Carter’s staff fire Bella Abzug on the finale of Mrs. America, I had to pause and go check the historical record. Sure enough, it was a mess.

The President apparently did not tell Mrs. Abzug at the meeting that he was going to dismiss her but, rather, told the committee as a whole that he had been disappointed with the relations between it and the Administration. The group was formed in the wake of the stormy National Women’s Conference in Houston in November 1977 to advise the President on women’s issues.

Mr. Carter was reported to have told the members that he recognized the importance of the group and wanted to work more closely with it, but added that its confrontational politics sapped the strength of the Administration’s efforts on behalf of women.

And, yes: there were mass resignations from committee members in response to her firing.

As of late this afternoon, 23 of the remaining 39 members of the advisory committee had announced that they had resigned to protest the dismissal of Mrs. Abzug, the former Representative from Manhattan.

Take Off, Eh?

“As a child,” my About page says of me, “he drew pictures of wanting to be an outer space moving van driver. As a middle-aged adult, he is not one.” This was, to some extent, inspired by the Orion III Spaceplane headed to the giant, revolving Space Station V in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I’d seen at five- or six-years old during a theatrical re-release.

The explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger was the first “where were you when” event of my life; I have no memory of the bus trip home from school, or getting from the bus into my home.

For several different Mars rover missions, I spent landing watching the NASA feed at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry instead of alone at home.

Back in 2011, I got to attend a NASA social media event at Kennedy Space Center for the final flight of Endeavor, although I didn’t get to stay through all the scrubs in order to actually witness the launch, or even visit the pad.

I hate Elon Musk. For better or for worse, that can’t keep me from watching today’s historic launch of Crew Dragon, the first time astronauts have launched into orbit from the United States since 2011, as Bob and Doug McKenzie Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley travel to the International Space Station.

And while findings from past epidemics can give researchers like him a good place to start, they’re not exact parallels. In general, studies specifically on the long-term, society-wide impacts of pandemics are limited, according to Taylor. It was only in the last 20 years that academics began looking at the psychological aftermath of the 1918 Spanish Flu — one of the deadliest pandemics in modern history and one that often gets compared to the current crisis — and even then, he says, its similar timing to World War I complicates the findings.

From What Our Post-Pandemic Behavior Might Look Like by Linda Poon

One thing Lizzie O’Shea might be misconstruing is that back in the web’s crude, ugly days, one’s own presence on the internet tended to be more personal — whether through one’s own homepage or “just” through profiles you needed to fill out on early social networks (as opposed to later social media platforms, which are different) like Friendster. One tended to have some sort of “home” through which you described and defined your persona or personality. While there was no mythical “single collective experience” what we did have — and this is significantly what Joanne McNeil’s book was about — was an internet of people rather than an internet of users. So, I wonder if O’Shea isn’t mistaking being able to look back at the past internet and see people for being able to look back and see public space in the way in which she conceives of it. It was never public space in that sense, but it was a peopled space. In a very real sense, and one that runs against the grain of O’Shea’s argument, the move toward mass platforms — closer to, not farther away from, the “single collective experience” O’Shea mythologizes — in fact depersonalized cyberspace.

What ‘Single Collective Experience’?

Lizzie O’Shea, in Future Histories, just said something that I had to re-read a few times to make sure I was reading it right. About two-thirds of the way through the second chapter, “An Internet Built around Consumption Is a Bad Place to Live”, she remarks upon a changing internet.

In other words, shared public space begins to vanish; increasingly there is no single collective experience online.

“In general arc if not always specific sites and services,” I observed about Joanne McNeil’s recent book, “Lurking is the story of my internet, too. For her, it was AOL and Geocities; for me: gopherspace, MindVox, IRC, and Usenet.” I’m reminded of that statement because it serves to contradict O’Shea’s allegation, in that there never has been a “single collective experience” on (or of) the internet — there might have been places within all that ethereal expanse which this or that group of people might have shared, but not some overall “shared public space” in the sense O’Shea seems to mean.

People who got online around the same time often, as I suggested, have similar arcs to their onboarding and initial experiences, but the specifics will have been more or less unique.

O’Shea doubles-down on what I feel is a fundamental misconception in her next paragraph.

If we think about the Internet as a place rather than a service, this process of abstract identification is not empowering — it causes fragmentation and distance between people. It creates a world where the population is subject to different framing effects, making for increasingly insurmountable political and social divisions, worlds that stand apart from each other despite nominally existing in a communal space.

What I find weird here is that in many ways, the modern internet has more widely-spread and shared communal spaces (if not places) than it has since the heyday of Usenet — which arguably doesn’t count as a true “public space” due to the comparatively small population of the internet at the time — due to platforms like Instagram and Twitter, where anyone and everyone mostly can access anyone and everyone else almost at whim.

(Whether or not that lack of friction itself actually precludes the idea of such platforms being usable as any kind of true “public space” is another thing altogether.)

The usefulness, to me, of the early metaphor of “cyberspace” precisely lay in its amorphousness, but it’s weakness lay in conveying the idea that there was a there there — instead of communicating simply that there was room for any number of places to arise. It suggested, perhaps, that there was a sort of virtual firmament and if everyone was going there it must be “public space”.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t be trying to find better ways for us all to be online than the current ways so dominated by marketing companies abstracting our collected and collated behavior into just so many lobotomized versions of Max Headroom (“people translated as data” indeed, Bryce).

It’s just to say that, given O’Shea’s exhortations early in the book to properly characterize, and take a kind of ownership of, our past in order to inform how in the present we conceive of possible futures, it sticks out to me that she seems to get such a basic idea about how the internet has or has not changed so wrong.

Back in February, I threatened to do a re-read of some books that were formative of my experience of the early web, but then didn’t get around to it, in part because I didn’t get to move quickly enough when several of them for some reason were on sale. Today, though, I noticed that the ebook of We’ve Got Blog had dropped to $3.99, so expect some thoughts on beginning to look back at these early books, once I’m done with Future Histories.


  1. I ended up going ahead and grabbing The Weblog Handbook now as well, as it’s only $8.99.
  2. While getting the latter book, I stumbled into The Personal Weblog: A Linguistic History, a $90 textbook from 2016 which I will not be rushing out to get, although I might try to learn a bit more about it.

‘Crude, Ugly, But Heartfelt’

Setting aside that the “early internet” had no hyperlinks (this is the problem with everyone having grown to conflate “internet” and “web”, and I’m always really picky about linguistic specificity), Rebeccah Toh has a nice look back at the early days of the web and its “feeling of childish excitement and this sense that really interesting things were waiting to be discovered just around the corner, a hyperlink or two away” — back before play gave way to monetization.

I know we can never time travel back to the days before we lost our internet innocence, but we can remind ourselves that we always have the permission to be hobbyists and amateurs, whether on the internet or not, and that we never need to feel guilty spending ungodly amounts of time playing and tinkering and being immersed in whatever we’re interested in. In fact I cannot think of a better way to live, to be always curious and having fun.

Link Log Roundup for May 17, 2020

In this edition: Obama and leadership, Oregon aid money debate, early-opening drive-ins, and the context of history.

Link Log Roundup for May 14, 2020

In this edition: autism and actual masking, dining with mannequins, genetic drift, ousting Burr, cats and coronavirus, a new giraffe, black churches, reopening Oregon, COVID-19 and the brain, Oregon restaurants, the post-pandemic commute, bicycles, disability claims, the sage grouse, lockdowns and history, “Obamagate”, walking a trail, test failures, the privilege of escape, Multnomah County, the last Blockbuster, public shaming, and an invasion of goats.

Unbeknownst to me, over a decade ago there apparently was a short-lived school of web design thinking called, per CJ Chilvers, HTMinimaLism, the idea that web design should “embrace the simplicity, utility and beauty of the web’s most basic elements”. For all intents and purposes, this is what in the early 2000s I was referring to as spartaneity, the idea “that web design should simply serve the content”.