It has been a crazy couple of weeks. I was running on full steam wrapping up my thesis through July 22, and then went straight into cleaning-packing-moving mode moments after my return from the Exam Schools. And even after we got nearly all the unpacking done at the end of last weekend (save for the boxes of artwork), I still felt a little brain dead this past week. It was starting to get frustrating, because I wanted desperately to get into the swing of things, to get caught up on thesis follow-ups and the news I had missed. And more than anything, I was eager to get started in earnest on the book. But I just couldn’t get my head back in the game. I found myself wandering from coffeeshop to public library trying to find a comfortable place to reengage my brain. My sense of space and time was all out of whack.
On Wednesday night I picked up Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, and it was just the cure for this transition/adjustment malaise. There were so many things about this book that made it just the right thing for me to read at this very moment, and for that I’m thankful. I had come across it when I saw that Tech Book Club read it, and when I bought my mom a copy of Wanderlust: A History of Walking, but I was most recently reminded of it in an essay of Solnit’s I’d saved to Instapaper from a tweet.
In the most basic sense, I had been interested in the book because it covers the life and historical context of Eadweard Muybridge, who essentially developed the means to take rapid shutter speed photographs and thus paved the way for modern cinema to capture moving images. His motion studies of horses and human bodies revealed novel detail that had been previously inaccessible to the naked eye; in gallop, all four of a horses’ hooves do, in fact, leave the ground. I enjoyed reading into the founding story of this period of photography and early cinema, given my background in film studies. We have a lovely print of Muybridge’s dancing couple that we displayed at our wedding (vintage hipster gag, I know) that we had picked up from 20x200. I had a soft spot for the man and his work already, and was eager to learn more.
What I wasn’t expecting to find in this book were all the connections to my recent work on the Quantified Self. In many ways, Muybridge was dissecting motion of human bodies, revealing objective, abstracted detail about the body’s movement in much the same way that sensors now enable us measure activity and movement in even greater detail. Muybridge froze time to show the patterns in a walker’s gate. Now instead of freezing time, we’re collecting data all the time, with sensors that track our gate throughout the day and monitor our movement while we sleep. Data now does what celluloid did then, parsing information into smaller and smaller knowable units. But it’s also sometimes uncanny: “Those gestures—a gymnast turning a somersault in mid air, a nude pouring water—were unfamiliar and eerie stopped because they showed what had always been present but never seen.” As Solnit puts it: “With the motion studies that resulted it was as though he were returning bodies themselves to those who craved them—not bodies as they might daily be experienced, bodies as sensations of gravity, fatigue, strength, pleasure, but bodies become weightless images, bodies dissected and reconstructed by light and machine and fantasy.” I relished the opportunity to connect those dots in my own intellectual history, from film history to internet studies, in a new way in reading this book.
Solnit’s book is about a man, an innovator, but it is also about a place in time. Solnit writes a lot about landscape, the west, San Francisco, etc. I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact that the ideology and the lifestyle of the makers of technology have on its design and adoption in broader contexts, especially now as it enters the intimate realm of our bodies and our minds. I loved the rich descriptions and sweeping connections Solnit makes from the early mining days of San Francisco directly to the emergence of Silicon industries, all happening on the same soil. It made more acute a hankering I’ve been having to spend more time in the Valley, if only to get something of an ethnographic understanding of the contexts and circumstances in which our technologies are built. She described that period in which Muybridge was working with such energy and drama; it made me want to be that much closer to the history that’s happening now.
Solnit has a knack for drawing out these sweeping connections. She does it with such finesse that you don’t want to try to poke holes. She’s connecting a lot of dots, and doing a fine job of telling you precisely why a technological innovation has turned out to be really important. I like the way her mind works, pulling threads together across time and space. I try to do that in my own work. It’s the work of an interdisciplinarian: the railroad and the cinema and silicon valley all begin to make sense together if you are looking at the right pieces.
Reading this got me thinking about what we’re trying to do in if/then. Solnit weaves a story about the rippling effects of converging technologies on the way we see and experience the world. Our book will weave a story about the rippling effects of current technologies, drawing out these connections and pointing to where these moments of change are happening around us right now. The only difference is the clarity and confidence that hindsight affords. I want to write about the near future in the way that Solnit writes about the past.
Solnit writes about how the Victorians worried about losing a sense of place and time, of embodiment: “It is as though the Victorians were striving to recover the sense of place they had lost when their lives accelerated, when they became disembodied. They craved landscape and nature with an anxious intensity no one has had before or since.” We’re still worried about technology’s effects on what is lost and what is gained when we change our perceptive abilities. The Victorians grappled with the dichotomy between the natural and the technologically-mediated worlds. Seeing that dichotomy spelled out so clearly through this book, it made all the more clear to me that I think that we’re getting closer and closer to the collapse of these binaries.