Last night without any intention on my part, the 1938 Howard Hawks film Bringing Up Baby settled into the television set. It was meant to be a brief stop on the way from this signal to that one, but somehow it stuck. The rapid-fire non-stop dialogue never left a pause, not a single moment, for me to consider moving on. And then there was the song: I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby. Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant wandering through the woods singing this song at the top of their voices, looking for a fox terrier, a leopard and a dinosaur bone. When the speed of change hits a certain velocity, nothing makes as much sense as a screwball comedy.
“There’s a pitch in baseball called a screwball, which was perfected by a pitcher named Carl Hubbell back in the 1930s. It’s a pitch with a particular spin that sort of flutters and drops, goes in different directions, and behaves in very unexpected ways… Screwball comedy was unconventional, went in different directions, and behaved in unexpected ways…”
Andrew Bergman We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films
The song was written in 1927 by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, and finally broke through in 1928. It’s been an enduring classic of American popular song. Looking back at the list of songs Fields provided lyrics for, you can hardly believe your eyes: The Way You Look Tonight, I’m In The Mood For Love, On The Sunny Side of the Street, A Fine Romance, Big Spender and more.
The stock market crash of 1929 occurred in October of that year, which means that I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby was written in the middle of a market bubble. In the midst of a surging material world, the song stakes a claim for love and romance. Fields tells the story of overhearing the conversation of a poor black couple gazing at the stylish and expensive jewelry on offer in Tiffany’s display window. Apparently the man said “Gee honey, I can’t give you anything but love.” What might have turned into Breakfast at Tiffany’s, instead became a standard in the American songbook. Love seems to need a medium to pass from one person to another. While it might pass through diamond jewelry, wall street millions, real estate or a family crest—McHugh and Fields make the case for the impossible thing that we’ve all got plenty of, baby.
Through the cultural history DVR provided by YouTube, we can get a sense of how this song has resonated with artists and audiences over the years.
I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields
Gee, but it’s tough to be broke, kid.
It’s not a joke, kid–it’s a curse.
My luck is changing–it’s gotten
from simply rotten to something worse.
Who knows someday I will win too
I’ll begin to reach my prime.
Now that I see what our end is
All can spend is just my time.
I can’t give you anything but love, baby.
That’s the only thing I’ve plenty of, baby.
Dream a while, scheme a while,
You’re sure to find
Happiness and, I guess,
All those things you’ve always pined for.
Gee, it’s great to see you looking swell, baby.
Diamond bracelets Woolworth doesn’t sell, baby.
Till that lucky day you know darn well, baby,
I can’t give you anything but love.
Abraham Maslow is perhaps better known for the Hierarchy of Needs. When we think about human motivation—what a person might want or do in any given situation—we run the scenario through the Hierarchy of Needs to gauge its relative importance. But Maslow developed another analytical tool that’s also in widespread use. It’s called Maslow’s Law of the Instrument and has to do with over-reliance on a familiar tool.
In conversations about business or technical strategy, it will often emerge in the following formulation:
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
Once this incantation is uttered, all around the table nod in agreement. The tool has defined the solution instead of going to the extra effort of finding for the right tool for the job. The job is calling out for the right tool, and you’ve only brought a hammer to the table.
One might imagine that jobs and tools had been split in half by Zeus, and each wandered the earth looking for its perfect other half. Tools, it seems, operate under a well-understood set of modes and rules. If those rules-of-use don’t match up with the job, then the tool is imposing an alien structure on to a job. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve occasionally used a wrench as a hammer to good effect.
When we employ the tactic of the Law of the Instrument, we silence the instrument in favor of the job. The job dictates the dialogue and determines the rules of engagement. Yet when used thoughtlessly, the tactic itself becomes an instrument subject to the Law of the Instrument. Tools, and hammers in particular, often have more to say than our rules of thumb would suggest. For instance there’s a common joke among carpenters:
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a thumb.
When Nietzsche talks about philosophizing with a hammer, he isn’t thinking about nails. He uses the hammer to test idols by tapping them lightly with a hammer, he sounds them out. The hammer is used to determine whether the idols are hollow or intact.
In the Law of the Instrument, it’s not the hammer that creates the limitations. It’s the familiarity, the habit of using a hammer in a particular way. If we approach the hammer with a beginner’s mind and allow its strangeness to surface, we may find our toolbox populated with a whole new set of instruments:
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a mole popping out of one of an immense field of holes.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a rock to be broken on a chain gang.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a carnival game where you have to prove your strength by making a bell ring.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like something to be heated to a red hot temperature and fashioned on an anvil.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a sculpture waiting to be released from a hunk of marble.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem inspires you to hammer out justice, hammer out freedom, hammer out love between your brothers and your sisters all over this land.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a coconut that has yet to give up its meat and milk.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like rice on its way to becoming mochi.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks as though it could be solved by the god of thunder.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem can be solved by tossing the hammer farther than the other guy.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a low-budget, British horror movie.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like one of eighty eight strings on a piano.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like it needs its reflexes tested.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem sounds as though it’s related to the parts of the ear.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like you can’t touch it.
This is a meander, rather than a construction. If it were a house, it would probably fall down. No foundation, no plumbing, no two-by-fours holding up the walls. Just a set of connections, some things that grouped themselves together around an image.
It started with Jon Udell’s essay, published on May 17, 2011, called “Awakened Grains of Sand.” I didn’t read the essay until much later. I’d marked it in an RSS reader, and then sent it to my Text DVR, Instapaper, to read at a later date. In the essay, Udell makes another attempt to explain what he calls “web thinking.” By coming back to this subject again and again, he teases out new threads, new aspects of the real shape of what we call the virtual. His work with calendars, analog and digital, pinpoints a space where a potential connection is missed. Generally speaking, different kinds calendars can’t seem to talk to each other.
It was Udell’s use of ‘grains of sand’ as a metaphor that caught my attention.
In a recent talk I failed (spectacularly) to convey the point I’m about to make, so I’ll try it again and more carefully here. We can make about as many 14-character tags as there are grains of sand on Earth. True, a lot of those won’t be nice mnemonic names like WestStDamKeene, instead they’ll look like good strong unguessable passwords. But there are still unimaginably many mnemonic names to be found in this vast namespace. Each of those can serve as a virtual bucket that we can use to make and share collections of arbitrarily many web resources.
The implications take a while to sink in. Grains of sand are inert physical objects. They just lie around; we can’t do much with them. But names can be activated. I can create a 14-character name today — actually I just did: WestStDamKeene — that won’t be found if you search for it today on Google or Bing. But soon you will be able to find at least one hit for the term. At first the essay I’m now typing will be the only hit from among the 30 billion indexed by Google and 11 billion indexed by Bing. But if others use the same term in documents they post to the web, then those documents will join this one to form a WestStDamKeene cluster.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
A dove house fill’d with doves and pigeons
Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions.
A Dog starv’d at his Master’s Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State.
A Horse misus’d upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human blood.
Each outcry of the hunted Hare
A fiber from the Brain does tear.
Blake starts with the tiny inert physical object and from it he conjures the whole universe. Udell’s grains of sand have the potential to combine into legible sequences and encode some specific meaning, or refer to an assembly of services. Blake uses parts to stand in for wholes, a rhetorical figure known as synecdoche. An augury is a sign or an omen.
The poet Robert W. Service, known as the Bard of the Yukon, also makes use of the ‘grain of sand.’ While he’s best remembered for “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” in a poem written in the 1950s, he travels the dangerous territory first marked out by Giordano Bruno. If Blake sees the world in a grain of sand, Service notices that the beach is filled with sand. Each grain might be a world, a constellation, a universe. A million grains of sand quickly makes the leap to infinity.
A Grain of Sand
Robert W. Service
If starry space no limit knows
And sun succeeds to sun,
There is no reason to suppose
Our earth the only one.
‘Mid countless constellations cast
A million worlds may be,
With each a God to bless or blast
And steer to destiny.
Just think! A million gods or so
To guide each vital stream,
With over all to boss the show
A Deity supreme.
Such magnitudes oppress my mind;
From cosmic space it swings;
So ultimately glad to find
Relief in little things.
For look! Within my hollow hand,
While round the earth careens,
I hold a single grain of sand
And wonder what it means.
Ah! If I had the eyes to see,
And brain to understand,
I think Life’s mystery might be
Solved in this grain of sand.
Today we speak easily about the possibility of multiple universes, for Giordano Bruno, those thoughts ended in imprisonment and eventually execution. On February 17, 1600, Bruno was burned at the stake for his explorations into the expanses of infinity:
Whatever is an element of the infinite must be infinite also; hence both Earths and Suns are infinite in number. But the infinity of the former, is not greater than of the latter; nor where all are inhabited, are the inhabitants in greater proportion to the infinite than the stars themselves.
Blake sees the world in a grain of sand, Bruno says that whatever is an element of the infinite must be infinite also. For Saussure, the arbitrary nature of the phoneme means that a signifier has no necessary link to the signified. Udell can chain together a sequence of grains of sand and point them at any object, or collection of objects, in the universe. The sleeping and withdrawn grains of sand are awakened when this link is made.
After finishing Udell’s essay, I was also taken with its resonances to my post: Going Orbital: Content and its Discontents. Where Udell tries to explain ‘web thinking,’ I try to examine the differences between the practice of the analog and the digital. It’s a strange land where a thing is a copy at its origin; and by moving it from here to there another copy is created. Even the act of reading it creates another copy. These things have no fixed position, and appear to exist simultaneously in multiple locations—a kind of every day non-locality.
In thinking about this leap from the analog to the digital, Udell considers the example of calendar entries. But another example of this figure pulled itself into this constellation of thoughts. In Ian Bogost’s book, Unit Operations, An Approach to Videogame Criticisim, he recounts some of the early history of computers and computation:
Among the first true high-speed electronic digital computers, ENIAC’s main disadvantage was a considerable one: it contained programmatic instructions in separate segments of the machine. These segments needed to be properly plugged together to route information flow for any given task. Since the connections had to be realigned for each new computation, programming ENIAC required considerable physical effort and maintenance. Noting its limitations, in 1945 ENIAC engineer and renowned mathematician John von Neumann suggested that computers should have a simply physical structure and yet be able to perform any kind of computation through programmable control alone rather than physical alteration of the computer itself. …Stored-programming makes units of each program reusable and executable based on programmatic need rather than physical arrangement. Von Neuman, Eckert, Mauchley, and Goldstine designed a control instruction called the conditional control transfer to achieve these goals. The conditional control transfer allowed programs to execute instructions in any order, not merely in the linear flow in which the program was written.
In this figure, the move from the analog to the digital takes the form of moving from a physical model of computing to a logical model. Here too, we need to take a leap in our understanding of location and how a thing occupies space. The world can be loaded into a grain of sand, and the grains of sand rearranged in arbitrary patterns.
“Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s jobs with yesterday’s tools!”
— Marshall McLuhan
While it’s bound to continue on, the latest stop in this chain of thought is with Apple’s iCloud and the end of the file system. The desktop and file folder metaphor breaks down once you find yourself trying to keep things in sync across multiple devices. Source and version control software isn’t a part of the common tool set. This is part of the ‘web thinking’ that Udell has had such difficulty in getting across. Part of the problem is the metaphors we have at our disposal. A metaphor is literally “to carry over.” A broken metaphor no longer carries over, the sense leaks out as it crosses the chasm.
It’ll be interesting to find out whether this transformation can take place without explanation, outside of language. If whatever you’re working on, or listening to, just shows up where ever you need it. That could be enough, understanding it may be beside the point. Does magic need an explanation? The work of synchronization and versions isn’t something you do, it’s just the way certain kinds of digital things behave. If it catches on, we’ll start wondering why all digital things don’t behave that way.
Recently I’ve been using a very simple analytical technique to look at a variety of systems. I’d describe it as a blunt rather than a fine edged tool. The metaphor breaks down around the edges, but the yield is still quite good.
Systems require energy to remain organized, otherwise they fall prey to entropy—they start coming apart. The system must at least match the power of entropy to maintain the status quo. That level must be exceeded to refine the granularity of its organization. For the purposes of the analysis, I’m using electricity as a metaphor for power. The tool is employed like this:
- Does it runs on battery power?
- Must it be plugged into an outlet?
Let’s start with the characteristics of the plugged-in. For these systems, electricity is a utility, an assumption, a constant. Power is commoditized and on tap in the environment. Whatever the system requires is available through the outlet on the wall. Power is unlimited, steady and metered—but in order for the system to be operational, a power cord must be connected to the grid. Another way to think about this is through the economics of abundance.
A system that runs on batteries has a limited store of power. Concepts like standby power, active power use and sharing a limited resource start to come in to play. Batteries need to be recharged and eventually replaced. Active battery life must line up with human cycles of sleeping and waking; working and living; active and passive use. Tilt the battery to a slightly different angle and you can see the economics of scarcity.
The desktop computer was made to be plugged in. Not much has changed there. The hardware and the software assumes unlimited commodity electricity from the environment The first laptops were built for portability, they were easy to move from one outlet to another. The battery’s low capacity resulted in limited usefulness as a un-tethered device. Over time the hardware of the laptop began to change to accommodate the limitations of the battery, but the software was unchanged. It was crucial that the laptop run desktop software without any alterations.
Adobe’s Flash makes an interesting case study for this analytic technique. Flash was built to operate within the plugged-in system of the desktop computer. As such, it moved easily and naturally to the world of laptops and netbooks. In the world of battery-powered devices it shows its roots. It begs the question of whether something built to use power as an infinite commodity can be altered to operate in an environment of finite power. Faith in a Moore’s law-like increase in capacity holds out hope that these kinds of applications can be merely altered. As long as they can conserve just enough power, they should be able to operate successfully in a large finite energy environment. Another way to ask this question might be: is reform sufficient, or is revolution necessary?
It’s with mobile computing devices built from the the ground up like the iPhone and iPad that battery life has been extended to up to 10 hours. That’s a span of time that begins to be available for complex relationships with the rhythms of life. Software for these devices is also built from the ground up to operate within a restricted power environment. Among other things, mobile computing means a device unrestricted by a power cord.
The battery introduces an era of limits against the infinite constant of the electrical outlet. It’s worth taking a moment to consider how something like electricity, water or natural gas could be converted into an assumed resource of the environment. Imagine if any of the plugged-in appliances in your home had to be re-engineered to work on batteries. Would they need to change incrementally or radically?
In 1978, James Burke debuted a television program called ‘Connections.’ It was billed as an ‘alternate view of change.’ The first episode looked at how a vast technical network had become deeply entangled with every aspect of our lives. Burke thought one way to put that entanglement into relief would be to turn the network off, and then review the effects. To accomplish this Burke created a re-enactment of the 1965 blackout of New York City and the entire northeast of the United States.
Not surprisingly, New York needs to be plugged in, it wasn’t designed to run on batteries. This sent Burke on a quest to find out how we arrived at this point. While we can create artificial scarcity through economic incentives and punishments in the billing for electric power use, these efforts take place within a context of an infinite power supply. There’s always the option to pay more for more power. Contrast that with a battery, no matter how much money you have, your battery will drain at the same rate as the next person’s.
The move from desktop to laptop to tablet/handheld traces an evolution from the infinite to the finite. It also traces a line from the finite contents of a hard disk to the infinite contents of the Network. The cloud computing factories that supply the endpoints of the Network are in the process of being retooled. Heretofore they’d just been plugged into the grid like everything else. Now the grid is positioned as backup power and the Network factories are plugged directly into the the standing reserves of the earth. Natural gas is transformed into electricity through local power generation. This isn’t a transformation from outlet to battery, it’s the substitution of one form of outlet for another.
The photograph of the earth that Stewart Brand put on the cover of the Whole Earth Catalog made plain the finitude of our planet. There is no infinite reserve of power behind the outlet on the wall. As we continue to build out the electronic Network environment, at some point, we’ll run up against this limit. Of course, we may have already hit the limit, or passed it long ago. But like the space battles in our science fiction films, we expected to hear a great crashing noise as the limit was reached. Surely there would be some sort of sign, some gesture from the earth letting us know that we’ve exceeded our allowance. But as the poet Milosz reminds us, worlds end, and sometimes no one notices.
A Song On the End of the World
by Czeslaw Milosz
translated by Anthony Milosz
On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.
On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.
And those who expected lightning and thunder
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.
Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be,
No other end of the world will there be.