Forgetting to Fall Has Become Harder: On Writing in Pandemia World

“There is an art, or, rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss” begins a memorable passage by Douglas Adams, the witty, absurdist spirit who wrote the radio plays and books of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. (It has five parts).

Adams, a contemporary and companion of Monty Python who combined that style of irreverent comedy with a penchant for science fiction, died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 2001 at the age of 49, but by then had already managed to make an indelible mark on popular culture.

He was a famously procrastinatory writer. His publisher Sonny Mehta in 1984 all but locked Adams in a hotel room for a week to finish a manuscript, an incident so steeped in myth that it has even been turned into a play. Journalist Rod Stewart, writing in The Bookseller, called his piece about the event “The Berkeley Hotel Hostage, though it becomes clear from context that Douglas went willingly, more guestage than hostage, carting along a typewriter and a guitar. He would use the former to hammer out pages that overwhelmingly ended up in the paper bin, and the latter to play Dire Straits songs to himself and what I have to assume was an only marginally enthused Mehta.

Typewriter. Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

I own neither a typewriter nor a guitar, and save for occasional trips aboard helicopters and airplanes, have never attempted to fly. But when I read the lines about flying (placed among the first couple of pages of Adams’s So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, the book he finished in that hotel room), they spoke to me. A few more:

The first part is easy. All it requires is simply the ability to throw yourself forward with all your weight, and the willingness not to mind that it’s going to hurt.

That is, it’s going to hurt if you fail to miss the ground. Most people fail to miss the ground, and if they are really trying properly, the likelihood is that they will fail to miss it fairly hard.

Clearly, it is the second part, the missing, which presents the difficulties.

One problem is that you have to miss the ground accidentally. It’s no good deliberately intending to miss the ground because you won’t. You have to have your attention suddenly distracted by something else when you’re halfway there, so that you are no longer thinking about falling, or about the ground, or about how much it’s going to hurt if you fail to miss it.

It is notoriously difficult to prize your attention away from these three things during the split second you have at your disposal. Hence most people’s failure, and their eventual disillusionment with this exhilarating and spectacular sport.

I’ve never attempted to “throw myself to the ground and miss” in order to float, but I’ve always believed there was more than a little about the process of writing in Adams’s words. Call it “getting into the zone” or achieving a state of “deep work,” writing happens when most other things in the world fade away. You fly by forgetting to fall.

Miss the Ground and This Could Be You. Photo by Fiona Tusche from Pixabay

Procrastinator extraordinaire Douglas Adams surely knew about that. He knew about distractions, too. Don’t be misled by his use of the word here. The distraction needed so you can fly is not the same as all the distractions that keep us from whatever needs to be done. Here it is, rather, the key that lets you enter a mental state in which you are writing and thinking about how to best write rather than thinking about all the many other things going on. It is a distraction from the regular din of the news that nudges you into a comfortable place.

Much like Arthur Dent, the unlikely hero of Adams’s best known work, I’ve found myself more often than not in casual clothing, facing something quite unusual. (If you don’t understand this reference, do yourself the favor and find any visual representation of Dent). Much like Arthur Dent during his first adventures, I’ve been reeling from the newness of it all rather than formulating a coherent strategy of adaptation.

I haven’t been writing much.

It is of course normal in this situation that our “productivity,” for whatever life is still left in that soulless marker of a Protestant Work Ethic™ gone global, has tanked. Not for everyone individually. One friend reports from Californian quarantine that writing is going better than ever. We all deal with uncertainty differently, and as with the world in general, some of us do so in a manner that society will ultimately reward while others do not. Yet I suspect strongly that in aggregate, the doing of things usually considered necessary to be done has gone down. Other things have taken their place.

While I berate myself for terminal laziness (and yes, there’s that discussion to be had as well, about whether laziness is even a useful way of framing this), I have still learned new skills and done days upon days of research. The skills are more technical and organizational though, and the research often devolves into watching YouTube videos on how to wring what I need from an obdurate piece of technology. They are different skills for a different life in another society entirely. Such a society is what we have, so they are not for nought. They appear superfluous to myself from three months ago, but that person was adapted to three months ago Earth.

I’ve become proficient at setting up microphones and cameras and software, and much more proficient at directing and editing myself and integrating that media into virtual classroom environments. All of these things needed to happen and all of these things needed to be done. But I cannot escape from both the knowledge and the feeling that in order to move forward, in order to even have a career after the pandemic hopefully one day soon has run its course, I have to do something else. I have to write.

The Gestureswildly of the Present Moment. Photo by leo2014 from Pixabay

Unlike Adams, I can’t afford to lock myself away with room service and a hot tub, but I am trying to create such an environment, both physically in my home and mentally in my work habits. It’s slow going. It’s hard. And I have it good, comparably. I have no toddlers to entertain or eight-year-olds to homeschool. But writing is hard, just by itself. For every day of serene flow that puts paragraphs on the page by the dozen, there are weeks of reading and thinking and making notes and that creative technique known as wanton couch-sitting. Writing, for me, is even harder when it is so difficult to miss the ground, difficult to distract myself from the gestureswildly of what is going on to find that little spot of sparkle that sways me into the stream.

As Stewart wrote about the final product of Adams’s luxury confinement: “The patchwork alternates between the surreal and the everyday.” And so it does. Quite by accident, that is also an astonishingly accurate description of how the world has worked itself out these past five weeks.

Yet, even in this new world, writing will have to be done. When we no longer communicate in ways we have become accustomed to, some new ways must emerge. And some old ways will need to come back. Writing is thinking silently but forcefully into the ether. Ideally, it is communicating with the benefit of forethought. That is a worthy thing do be doing, and I will be doing more of it again. Just, please, dear editors, collaborators, students, and friends: I’m still learning to fall and miss the ground accidentally. But I am developing the willingness not to mind that it’s going to hurt.

Die Stunde der Erklärer

Morgens die Pressekonferenz des Robert Koch-Instituts, mittags Nachrichten mit allerlei gesammelten Statements aus Ministerien, Ländern, Städten. Am Abend spricht die Kanzlerin. Dazwischen ein steter Strom aus und auf allen Kanälen. Bekannte auf Twitter teilen Memes ebenso wie Links zu Studien historischer, epidemiologischer, oder soziologischer Art. Man hört viel schon Gehörtes immer wieder, und jeden Tag etwas Neues dazu. Hände waschen ist schon so vorletzte Woche. Kontaktvermeidung ist von letztem Wochenende. Selbstabschirmung zu Hause ist das Jetzt. Bitte nicht hamstern und lasst das Toilettenpapier im Regal, außer natürlich ihr braucht Toilettenpapier.

Das Robert Koch-Institut infomiert zur Corona-Krise. 18. März 2020.

Aber was heißt “Hamstern”? Und wann kauft man nur etwas mehr weil man möglichst nicht jeden zweiten Tag wieder das Risiko eingehen möchte zu infizieren (asymptomatisch) oder infiziert zu werden? Man hat es schon Leid, das Gebetsmühlenartige an den konstanten Wiederholungen von “die Lage entwickelt sich dynamisch”. Natürlich tut sie das, täte sie es nicht wäre da nicht viel mit entwickeln. Auf den sozialen Medien überschlägt sich sowieso alles, vor allem in Zeiten des unpassend benannten “social distancing”.

Körperlich rückt man voneinander ab. Wieviel? Nun, das entwickelt sich dynamisch. Sozial aber rückt man zusammen. In dieser Situation verlangt es einige nach Autorität und Handlungsvermögen des Staates. Aber bitte nicht soweit, dass die persönliche Wahrnehmung es als gefährliche, übergriffige Repression wahrnimmt. Wo ist die sinnvolle, demokratisch vertretbare Grenze? Wer hilft einem bei der allfälligen Orientierung?

Expertise

Es ist die Stunde derer, die die Welt einordnen und erklären können. Was derzeit zählt ist eine andere Art von Autorität, die der Expertise, reell oder gefühlt. Ein bislang in Fachkreisen eminenter aber öffentlich nicht groß in Erscheinung getretener Virologe namens Christian Drosten hat jetzt einen Podcast. Das Bildungsbürgertum verpasst keine Folge, schließlich gilt es zu wissen was Sache ist. Eine einschlägige Studie zur Grippe von 1918-20 ist Drosten vor einigen Tagen neu, er erwähnt sie mit Achtung. Und muss dann sofort berichtigen: nein, nur weil St. Louis 1918 gleich alle Schulen geschlossen habe, müsse man das hier jetzt nicht auch tun. Sein Arbeitgeber, die Charité, hatte das anders verstanden, Medien ebenso. Ein paar Tage später ist alles Makulatur. Die Schulen sind zu, und in Experten- und Politikkreisen regt sich wenig Widerstand.

Meine Eltern setzen unterdessen auf Professor Kekulé, der empfiehlt zu Hause zu bleiben aber weg von den Menschenmassen unbedingt dann doch an die frische Luft. Für meine Eltern funktioniert das. Ich lebe in einer Millionenstadt.

Die Infektiologin Professor Addo von der Uniklinik Hamburg-Eppendorf beantwortet konkret und druckreif Fragen zur Impfstoffforschung. Wohlwollend auf Twitter geteilt zieht das als ersten Kommentar nach sich, sie mache falsche Hoffnung mit dem Bericht, dass die Impfstoffentwicklung schon in vollem Gange sei. Denn es würde ja noch eine gute Weile dauern, bis der Impfstoff verfügbar sei. Das hat sie zwar nie bestritten, aber kontextualisiert hat es seitens des Fernsehsenders auch keiner.

Die Interviews mit den Expertinnen und Experten wollen von denen gleich selbst die Einordnung. Im Fernsehen müssten die Virologen nach den Sendeverantwortlichen am besten auch Epidemiologen sein sowie Soziologen und Medizinhistoriker gleichermaßen. Harald Lesch taucht plötzlich jenseits von Philosophie und Physik im Fernsehen auf und erklärt, die Gesellschaft sei “auf Kante genäht”.

“Auf Kante genäht”. Harald Lesch zum Virus als “Urphänomen”.

Ebenso wie Menschen das Heil in politischer Autorität suchen, so suchen auch die, die in der Viruskrise ihre Welt auf den Kopf gestellt sehen, Orientierung. Es braucht den einen Erklärer. Den, auf den man sich verlassen kann.

Erklärer

Den—denn Erklärer sind noch immer in hohem Maße als Männer gedacht. Dahinter steckt die Gesellschaft in ihren Grundstrukturen als Ganzes, aber auch eine jahrzehntelange medial-marktkonforme Schaffung des Typus des Public Intellectual seit spätestens den 1960er oder 1970er Jahren. Verlage, Fernsehsender, Magazine: sie alle suchen, finden, und erfinden seitdem immer und immer wieder den Mann der die Welt erklärt. Der Komplexität reduziert ohne dabei so zu klingen als wäre alles einfach. Man braucht das Feingefühl wie simpel man es machen kann, aber simpler darf es eben nicht klingen, selbst wenn es das ist.

Daniel Bell. Illustration von キヨンネ.

Der Soziolge Daniel Bell hat sich einmal als in “Generalisierungen spezialisiert” bezeichnet. Ob Bell dieser Claim zukommt sei dahingestellt, aber solche Menschen sind nun offensichtlich gefragt. Erklärer, die kontextualisieren und weitergeben können, die vereinfachen können ohne zu verflachen, die Wissenschaftskommunikation und politische Entscheidungsprozesse verständlich machen können.

Dass alle unsere Erklärer ab einem bestimmten Punkt daran eben scheitern sollte uns dabei aber nicht notwendig dazu inspirieren uns bessere Allerklärer zu suchen. Eher sollte es uns dazu bringen, uns damit zu versöhnen, dass die Welt komplex ist und komplex bleibt, und dass das Wichtigste in diesem Moment ist, Lese- und Verständnisstrategien zu haben und mit anderen zu teilen, wie mit all der Information am besten umzugehen sei.

Pardon, das Zweitwichtigste. Gleich nach dem Händewaschen. Auch wenn das von vorletzter Woche ist.

Twitter Thread and Blog Post on the Folly of Comparing the American Left to Nazis

In August, I posted a long thread on Twitter regarding the problem of bad-faith distortions of history. It was set off by an especially egregious statement by Dinesh D’Souza, the poster child for making absurd arguments supposedly underpinned by historical fact. He likened the program of the modern Democratic Party to that of the Nazi Party in Weimar Germany. I countered with a primary source analysis of the NSDAP program, pointing out why his take was patently preposterous.

If you follow Twitter, you may have seen D’Souza tangle with a number of actual historians, most prominently Kevin M. Kruse, Heather Cox Richardson, Kevin Gannon, and Eric Rauchway – all great follows, if you’re looking to add some more historical voices to your Twitter feed.

The thread – see below – became quite popular, according to Twitter it was seen by at least 500,000 people (the original tweet) and as many as 1.4 million (the parts of the thread taken together). This has given me some hope, that we can reach people outside of academica by highlighting how to think historically, and what it means to anaylze, criticize, and contextualize sources.

In the aftermath, Tracy Corley of the Co-Action Lab asked me turn it into a blog post, which benefits from some additional editing and is live on the site now.

You can follow me on Twitter for future threads, occasional snark, and general history geekery. I’d be happy to see you there!

There’s also an unrolled (that is, all tweets combined into one webpage) version of the original thread here:

Tom Wolfe and the Age of Self-Involvement

Tom

There’s writers in there like Pynchon. But if he were a realist. There’s thorough knowledge of American history and the people who wrote it down and made it up. There’s glee in repetition and reinvention, and smart set-ups that read like omissions at first, and omissions that you then make do the work of a smart setup. Tom Wolfe’s signature essay “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening” is a joyful trip into the American maudlin, dateline 1976. It’s narrated like a novel, the art form Wolfe denied its primus inter pares place in the literary quiver; that is, until he succumbed to it.

Wolfe, who wrote like he dressed – impeccably and with sprezzatura, but in an initially off-putting way – died on Monday, May 14, 2018. His iconoclasm did not end in death. The New York Times obituary managed to get his age and birth date wrong in its first go-around, and required a second correction to fix the title of one of his novels. Much hyperbole, as with any literary death, has accompanied Wolfe’s passing, as has much reflection on his place in the media world, and the media that he placed in the world.

If Wolfe was an icon, he also behaved like one. The white suit he trademark wore, Wolfe said, made him look like a Martian, and that helped people relate to him, tell him their stories, see him as an impartial third, an observer from a disinterested place reporting back to the mothership. Only the mothership sat pat in New York City, sharing the life of the elites he castigated in his most successful novel, Bonfire of the Vanities. Before Wolfe was a novelist, however, lauded and applauded first, panned and criticized for his later works, he was non-fiction writer. A journalist; a New Journalist. In essence, a fiction writer of non-fiction.

“Me”

Reading the “Me Decade” essay, you’ll be struck by what passes for reporting here, even by the standards of the scene-setting New Journalism that Wolfe co-created with, among others, Hunter S. Thompson. In one of the most-cited passages (presumably because it starts the thing off), Wolfe reports from the plush, solvent-cleaned floor of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. His heroine is the woman who screams “hemorrhoids!” when asked to name the one thing in her life she most wants to get rid off. Wolfe smilingly berates her on the self-centeredness of her choice, then goes on to imagine a deep dive into her mind, constructing the story that lies behind that moment of clarity and catharsis:

She begins to feel her hemorrhoids in all their morbid presence. […] Well–for God’s sake!–in her daily life, even at work, especially at work, and she works for a movie distributor, her whole picture of herself was of her… seductive physical presence. […] When she walked into the office each morning, everyone, women as well as men, checked her out. She knew that.

But, alas, the hemorrhoidal “peanut” intervenes (the same essay features a description of Jimmy Carter, so who knows, peanuts may have been on the national mind in America two centuries post Declaration of Independence), messes up that picture, creates a cleavage between how she looks (“The Sexual Princess!”) and what she wants vs. what she thinks about: “As she smiled sublimely at her conquest, she also had to sit on her chair lopsided, with one cheek of her buttocks higher than the other…”

The age of the piece shows. Not just in its inherent unquestioned sexism or casual inclusion of homosexuality as among the host of things people at self-help or self-actualization seminars want to get rid of, or the mentions of lifestyles involving either “Sevilles and 450SL’s” or “Superstar Qiana sport shirts,” things a present-day reader likely will have to punch into a search box. That is, if they don’t just stare at the brand names in confusion for a microsecond and then decide they don’t care enough to even do that.

The age of the piece also presents itself, and somewhat sadly, in the fact that there was a gushing inventiveness to Wolfe’s 70s and 80s pieces of reporting, pieces which he was actually able to get published and paid for, and that’s not something we’re used to anymore. New Journalism, to be sure, was influential. But its excesses have been cut down to size. Journalism, even the highly readable kind, seems tame in comparison today. Not in content, but in language; edited or self-edited into tonal conformity. Even if a writer as gifted as Wolfe produced something in a style as eccentric as Wolfe’s today, it obviously cannot have the same effect. You can only break new ground once. The frivolousness would be muted.

That is not to say that journalism is rulebound now. In an increasingly fragmented media ecosphere, the fraying and frothing fringes, the extremists and rightwing million-dollar pundits hired to be performance artists against the other side, have long lost any semblance of decorum. But inventive, happy about the language they use, knowledgeable and excited to try out and on words for size, to break the molds of the newspaper article headline/standfirst/body text triad or the scripted TV narrative, they are not. And in terms of value: on cable, certainly, money follows the performance. But are writer-journalists highly paid? To the tune of being able to afford 12 rooms in Manhattan?

 

Tom Wolfe at the White House, 2004
Tom Wolfe at the White House, 2004

Me, Tom

Admittedly, there is a “look here” flashiness in a Wolfe essay. There’s that stringing-too-many-words-together-with-hyphens tendency (on Jimmy Carter: “he was of the Missionary lectern-pounding amen ten-finger C-major-chord Sister-Martha-at-the-Yamaha-keyboard loblolly piny-woods Baptist faith”). And some of the things that in 1976 were fresh forty plus years on no longer are.

But these are not just the rantings of a word-heavy Cassandra who doesn’t like the way that America, filled to its cultural gills with baby boomers cusping into adulthood, is suddenly behaving. They are that, but they also are the observation of an astute critic, of someone trained in American Studies by his Yale PhD program, someone whose referential drive-bys include swift freethrows to Perry Miller and Max Weber and snide digs at Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe – a prefigurement here of Wolfe’s more ornate taste in architecture and his longer takedown of the Bauhaus in his 1981 From Bauhaus to Our House. Even if you find, as I do, the criticism of the German-inspired clean, functional architecture and design misguided and overwrought, you cannot deny that, it has in the reverence that acolytes award it, departed from the ideal of a democratic, down-to-earth way of equipping people with living spaces and material goods. As Wolfe writes in a footnote included with “Me Decade”:

Ignored or else held in contempt by working people, Bauhaus design eventually triumphed as a symbol of wealth and privilege […]. [T]he Barcelona chair [.] now sells for $1.680 […]. The high price is due in no small part to the chair’s Worker Housing Honest Materials: stainless steel and leather.

Some of this is just Wolfe being a grouch, a Christopher Lasch-type social critic with more of a flourish and less academic rigor – in his 2006 NEH Jefferson Lecture, for example, Wolfe casually omits both Johann Gottfried Herder and Henri Bergson’s coinages when he talks about “homo loquax,” misidentifying that creature, too, as “talking man” instead of the “chattering man” Bergson had in mind.1

Tom, “Me,” and You

But Wolfe’s writings contain truly original insight and a rare talent for telling stories of approachable verisimilitude. Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and subject’s of Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, attested Wolfe that his book was highly accurate. It was a driving narrative about an almost Christlike guru and his “Merry Pranksters” traveling the United States in a VW bus, taking LSD-laced Kool-Aid. Wolfe’s imaginative language made that book as much as its story did. Writing upon the publication of Electric Kool-Aid in 1969, the Guardian2 summed up Wolfe’s use of language and cadence:

The style uses the repetition and the compressed adjectival forms of a poem, and the reader is pleasantly caught up in the internal rhythms. For all its seeming superabundance of punctuation and participles, every word seems placed with a care and a skill of contrivance which should command respect.

Gay Talese, fellow New Journalist and impeccable dresser, called Wolfe a magician for his use of words. But it was not only words that Wolfe’s writing consisted of. It was ellipses, too, dots, dashes, exclamation marks and transcribed primal screams:

“Eeeeeeeeeooooooohhhhhhhhheeeeeooooooooh!”

“Aiaiaiaiaiaiaiaiaiaiaieeeeeeeeeeeeeeohhhhhhhhhheeeeeeaiaiai!”

Wolfe’s greatest talent though, perhaps, was the effortless translation from eye to analysis and judgment to page. And judgement there was in spades. Wolfe may have been avantgarde in style, but he was conservative in substance. He supported Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, citing the latter’s “decisiveness” in starting the Iraq War as something that impressed him. Wolfe never held back with opinions, whether clearly stated or heavily implied in his writings. The criticism leveled at these opinions is valid. But there remains, through it all, the fact that Wolfe was influential. In style, and in substance.

The most important thing a writer can do is to observe, to study and then write. Wolfe did that, iconically attired, days piling on the next, 1500 words sunrise to sundown, the equivalent of ten triple-spaced pages at a time. For decades. Ten triple-spaced pages at a time.


  1. The lecture also begins with a wry humblebrag that is Wolfian to the core: “Ladies and Gentlemen, this evening it is my modest intention to tell you in the short time we have together . . . everything you will ever need to know about the human beast.” National Endowment for the Humanities. Awards & Honors: 2006 Jefferson Lecturer. Tom Wolfe Lecture, “The Human Beast”.
      
  2. “From the Archive, 2 May 1969: Acid Adventures” in: The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2014/may/02/tom-wolfe-electric-kool-aid-acid-test 

A History of the Third Dimension: Past Future Visions of 3D in Movies

3D Glasses

The future would be brilliant, glowing, and rich in color. The future would be lifelike on the screen as much as off. The future, Hollywood attempted – and attempts – to tell us, is 3D.

Watching Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One in 3D a few days ago, I was once again struck by how bad a deal 3D is for cinemagoers. Despite a discount for a weekday showing, I paid an extra three Euros for the privilege of seeing the movie in 3D. It felt like less for more. I am not alone in that assessment. Vice‘s Meghan Neal summed it up succinctly:

The problem is, 3D is often not a premium viewing experience at all. For many people (myself included) it’s a far worse experience than seeing the movie in regular 2D, so now you’ve paid extra money for two hours of unpleasantness.1

Two years earlier, in 2014, Jeff Bakalar, writing for CNET.com, had come to the same conclusion:

As much as the movie studios would like the opposite to be true, 3D movies are handicapping the theatergoing experience and there’s almost never a time you should pay extra for it.2

I paid more money in order to see a movie that was, as the overwhelming majority of so-called “3D” movies are, shot in 2D. Ready Player One, chock full of CGI scenes set in a futuristic, immersive alternative reality, was nonetheless exposed onto Kodak 35mm film stock in Panavision cameras whenever actual actors took the stage. This is not a bad thing. In fact, though I am perfectly happy to record 4K video on my iPhone for home videos and low budget cinematography using DSLRs and mirrorless cameras has opened doors for many creatives, movies shot on film still to me look “right.” A preference, for sure. But one that was informed by over a century of motion pictures that were naturally captured and presented this way since there was simply no alternative.

Patent for a 3D Movie System
Patent for a 3D Movie System

If you go into a movie theater today you will, unless you happen to live in a place where an IMAX theater is available and playing the film you want to watch, see a 3D presentation that uses the same projectors as 2D movies use. Since 3D, however, has to display two distinct images which are then filtered by a pair of unwieldy and seemingly always already smudged plastic glasses to create the 3D image, the brightness of such a presentation is about half of what you’d see if you were watching a 2D movie.

To be fair to the technology, this isn’t inherently a problem with 3D. In the age of high-powered Laser projection, this loss of brightness could in theory be compensated for. A general lack of care in cinema projection rooms the world over, owing to cost-cutting by cinema owners by hiring less, and less qualified staff than would be needed to run projectors smoothly and without a hitch, is most often to blame here.

In the words of Den of Geek‘s Brendon Connelly:

The 3D format doesn’t inherently result in darker, dimmer, less focused images, but the typical multiplex has a terrible track record in taking the few, neither difficult nor expensive steps to make sure 3D is being presented properly.3

In essence, then, through a combination of technology, marketing, and the economic bottom line, 3D today means you a) pay more to b) watch a movie that was not captured in 3D. To see it you have to wear c) a decidedly non-futuristic and often uncomfortable pair of plastic goggles which d) make the picture significantly duller. The 3D effect, in most cases, does not make up for this. I’d prefer to see a brilliant, colorful image instead of a dull excuse for a presentation in which sometimes, maybe, something pops out of the screen.

Not everyone is bearish on 3D, though. Michael V. Lewis, in a 2017 piece for Variety argued that “3D will continue to transport our imaginations light years ahead.” Then again, Lewis is the CEO of RealID, which bills itself “the world’s largest 3D cinema platform with more than 32,000 screens in 72 countries.”4

Past Futures of 3D

3D for decades has meant the promise of a better, more immersive medial experience. Of a narrative world that would not only be presented to you, but envelop you. Without fail, it has been, for the most part, a disappointment. This is despite 3D image projection having a long history dating back to the middle of the nineteenth century, and the technology to make it work reasonably well as projected still or moving pictures has been around since the 1920s.

The 3D in use today is essentially the same basic technology developed by Edwin H. Land and others at Polaroid. Incidentally, the company that became synonymous with instant photography, first produced polarizers that split light. Since a polarizer lets through only light of a certain orientation, by using one on each eye with their polarization offset by 90 degrees, one can filter out the unwanted parts of an image. A projection system that works in sync with these glasses can thus project two images onto one screen at the same time, and the glasses will feed only the image meant for the right eye to the right eye and vice versa.5

The first big push for 3D came in the 1950s. Much like Cinerama, Cinemascope, and other widescreen formats, as well as the ever-elusive Smell-o-Vision, it was born out of the confluence of technological progress and the advent of television.

My own father recalled how his parents, financially stable but far from rich in Post-War West Germany, calculated one day the cost of the many times they went to the cinema, and decided that amortization for what was then a splurge of an investment, a black and white tv set, would not be too far off. Their case is typical. People who had become accustomed to being entertained by the big screen several times a week traded in the size of the movie screen for the convenience of their own couches. The movie industry reacted with complicated, expensive, impressive, or simply different ways of presenting movies. This is what gave us Cinemascope widescreen motion pictures, and improved definition and depth from 70mm projection. And it gave us 3D.

Ultimately, the technology was brought down by some of the same issues that surround 3D today: price (studios wanted to rent out two copies of a film for 3D, since each eye needed to see one), and the sloppiness of projectionists.6

3D had another straw fire in the 1980s. This, too, did not last.

The current 3D craze dates to 2010. To be more exact, it dates to one movie (and, some might argue, the only movie) which showcased what the technology was capable of: Avatar. With studios riding the coattails of Avatar‘s success and hastily converting movies to play in 3D that gained little or no benefit from the technology, audiences quickly became fed up with 3D – again. Although 3D has not died, the hype fizzled pretty quickly.

You may have noticed that there is essentially always something like twenty-five years between these attempts. Time for a generation to have grown up that does not remember 3D was ever a thing, and that does not remember the problems that come with the technology and/or its lackluster implementation. Enough time, too, to hope that technology has moved on to obsolete the issues with 3D that led to the end of the previous wave.

You Don’t Want 3D (Yet)

All 3D Systems suffer from drawbacks. Most importantly, that all of them require specialized capture systems if the 3D effect is to be convincing, and that none of them work with just 3D projectors alone. You, as the viewer, also have to do something. You have to put on 3D glasses. Unless this limitation goes away, and leaves behind with it the headaches (literal, in the case of 3D cinema, as well as virtual), 3D will not become the default option for screened entertainment.

Technologies fail, over and over again, if they are not able to insert themselves successfully into the everyday habits of people. Despite being ostensibly higher quality or more convenient than what came before, media formats of all kinds have failed because they were too expensive, incompatible, suffered from limited availability, or a combination of all of the above.

8-Track cartridges lost out to the smaller, cheaper, cassette tapes. The APS photo format, pushed by camera manufacturers in the 1990s and 2000s, offered more flexibility than the 35mm film then typically used for snapshots at the cost of somewhat reduced quality. But not enough. It never gained a strong foothold in the market, and was eventually doomed by a technology that had almost all of its advantages, but none of the disadvantages: the digital photo camera.

Augmented reality (AR), too, has been much more successful to date than virtual reality (VR). Augmented reality only requires you to use technology you already own in a somewhat different way. The Pokémon Go craze of a few years back was made possible because many people had the necessary technology – a smartphone – already in their pockets. VR, in contrast, requires us to buy expensive, specialized displays in the form of unwieldy glasses that, even if one owns them, one doesn’t just carry around.

This wave of 3D, too, seems to be cresting. IMAX, the company behind many a giant-screen nature documentary and some of the better 3D projections around, announced in 2017 that its future plans include fewer 3D showings. Instead, it plans to capitalize on IMAX-ready 2D movies, such as those shot in large film formats. According to IMAX CEO Greg Foster:

Consumers in many markets are showing a clear preference […] It’s apparent that the demand for 2D film is starting to exceed that of 3D in North America, and we’ll be looking to keep more of our films in 2D as a result.7

If your preferences are similar, you can go see Ready Player One not in 3D, nor as a digital projection, but in the grand scale 70mm format that made 2001 look outstanding fifty years ago. In glorious 2D.


  1. Meghan Neal, “Why Are 3D Movies Still a Thing?,” Vice, May 12, 2016. https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/8q8xy3/why-are-3d-movies-still-a-thing
     
  2. Jeff Bakalar, “Here’s Why Watching 3D Movies Is Miserable,” CNET.com, May 30, 2014. https://www.cnet.com/news/heres-why-watching-3d-movies-is-miserable
     
  3. Brendon Connelly, “How the Film Industry Blew It with 3D,” Den of Geek, June 24, 2016. http://www.denofgeek.com/uk/movies/3d/41729/how-the-film-industry-blew-it-with-3d
     
  4. Michael V. Lewis, “3D Shows Enduring Value, Delivering Entertainment Not Found at Home (Guest Column),” Variety, August 24, 2017. http://variety.com/2017/voices/columns/3d-movies-audiences-1202535879
     
  5. For the technical side of things, see: Eddie Sammons, The World of 3-D Movies. Delphi, 1992. https://thefsu3dproject.files.wordpress.com/2010/02/sammons-two3dm-300dpi-c.pdf
     
  6. John Hayes, “‘You see them WITH glasses!’… A Short History of 3D Movies,” Wide Screen Movies Magazine. Last revised September 14, 2014. Esp. subsection “Decline and Fall…” http://widescreenmovies.org/WSM11/3D.htm 
  7. Ashley Rodriguez, “The reign of 3D is over in US cinemas,” Quartz, July 27, 2017. https://qz.com/1039936/imax-says-no-too-the-reign-of-3d-movies-is-over-in-us-cinemas 

Past Prologue: In Between Conferences

Past Prologue

Easter saw me returning from a trip across Europe for two back-to-back conferences, the biannual conference of the International Association of Inter-American Studies, Reinventing the Social: Movements and Narratives of Resistance, Dissension, and Reconciliation in the Americas at the University of Coimbra, Portugal, and Imagining the History of the Future: Unsettling Scientific Stories at the University of York in England.

York
York

I presented two very different papers. One, concerned with the idea of the outlaw in the American West that I gave at Coimbra connected to my dissertation research on the nineteenth-century American Southwest. One on the history of the future in York was tied to my current project on the history of popular books describing and diagnosing society in Germany and the United States during the 1970s and 1980s.

Coimbra University
Coimbra University

Hindsight is indeed 20/20 (which, sidebar, is a wonderfully accurate expression because 20/20 vision is not perfect, but average). What I could not see during the past years became clear and now is obvious: one is quite influenced by one’s surroundings. In this case, my presentation on legality and extralegality in the American Southwest benefitted from a recent volume that emerged out of my former employer, the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies (Jens Beckert and Matías Dewey’s The Architecture of Illegal Markets: Towards an Economic Sociology of Illegality in the Economy).

Though it is concerned with markets, I found the ideas presented in this volume a very useful jumping-off point for thinking about legality and legitimacy in the American Southwest. The American West has, bewilderingly, been described at the same time as especially lawless and violent, and as relatively tame compared to the cities of the US East Coast.

Much of this is, of course, down to how one interprets sources and which statistics one deigns to trust. There is a fundamental discrepancy here, though, which to me comes down to how people perceived the place they were living in as opposed to how it compared to other places in terms of recordable data. It would not have occurred to me that this work, despite being done in close proximity to me, could so directly influence my thinking on something entirely unrelated.

As for my paper at York, at what was the most singularly insightful and fascinating conference on the broad topic of “science” and “future” I will likely attend during this Saturnian year, it benefitted from recalling a comment by Roger Launius that he was reminded of Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth when hearing about my project. At the time, four or so years ago, I filed this away as interesting, but couldn’t quite place it. In the York paper, things had finally congealed and came together.

 
None of this is especially surprising, but it bears reminding oneself that research is a strange and meandering journey, and that those of us who embark on it should sit in the crow’s nest scanning the horizon, but also climb down and talk to people every once in a while.

In ten days, I will head off to the next conference, The Production of Information: Technologies, Media Markets, and Labour in the Twentieth Century in Hamburg. This will be the third new paper I’ll present in as many weeks, and I’m especially excited because I will be talking about Amazon’s analog forebears. If the past is any kind of reliable prologue, this meeting, too, should be very much worth the trip.

Deactivating Facebook

You may have landed here because you were looking for me on the internet. If you looked for me on Facebook, you may have noticed I’m not there. I’ve deactivated my account. That’s not the same as outright deleting it. I’m not saying I’ll never be back. But I’m not there now.

Here’s the message I put on my Facebook account upon leaving, for reference:

Dear all:

Facebook. Ok, I’m exhausted.

There’s a new development in the Facebook data kerfuffle every day or so. This has been a long time coming. Facebook has never been forthcoming about data sharing and what exactly it’s doing, or really cared to inform us. This is nothing new, but so far it’s always been a “I’ll suck it up because everyone’s here and this is a useful platform” kind of thing. But I’m just too annoyed and tired now, and I’m deactivating my account. For a bit. Or forever.

Why am I out now? I’ve been on this platform since 2006, and it’s been fun. It’s been enlightening at times, but it’s also been a giant timesuck. I am not above a timesuck, but honestly it’s just not as much fun anymore.

I’m not turning into a luddite or lobbing sabots into machines. I’ll keep other social media accounts, some of them even with companies owned by Facebook.

You can find me on Twitter. Not that Twitter doesn’t have its own problems. But for now, it’s more useful to me. And more fun. I’m @torstenkathke there in a professional capacity, and @ictusoculi for private stuff. The line between the two is thin, admittedly.

You can find me on WhatsApp using my phone number, which is in my Facebook profile (since WhatsApp is also in the Facebook universe, you probably won’t have a hard time finding me there) and I’ll try to create a Facebook Messenger account that’s not tied to a Facebook account. Not sure how useful that’ll be, but I’ll give it a shot.

I’m on Instagram as @ictusoculi as well. There’s another Facebook property I’m not leaving. I’m not out of the world. I want to be findable and responsive. Just not here, not all the time.

I also will try to use some of the time I get back from not procrastinating on Facebook to procrastinate some blog posts on thushistory.com into existence. That’s a WordPress blog, so if you have an account with them, I’d love to see you follow me there. The Facebook pages for Thus, History! and IctusOculi will also stay up, so if you’d like to follow my activities on those sites on Facebook, follow those pages instead.

I’ll be deactivating my Facebook account. For now. Maybe there will be a time when I feel differently again, and I’ll be back. For now I just need to take a breath. I’ll leave the account up for a bit so you have a chance to see this.

I’m not slipping out quietly, and I’m not making a huge scene. I’ll just be somewhere else for a while or a year or a life. We’ll see.

–Torsten

Interview with Mediendienst Integration

Mediendienst Integration recently interviewed me. It’s a German site that acts as a clearinghouse for all kinds of news and information related to the topic of migration, as well as everything related to it. I discussed past visions of the future and how they may affect how we see our present and future today.

The interview (in German) can be found here: “Vieles wird uns im Rückblick absurd erscheinen”.

Out Now Everywhere: My Book ‘Wires That Bind’

Wires That Bind - Image

I am very happy to announce that my book Wires That Bind: Nation, Region, and Technology in the Southwestern United States, 1854–1920 is now available worldwide, including at retailers in the US, UK, and Australia.

Find it at Transcript Verlag, Columbia University Press, Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and many other places.