A blessed Yuletide and a merry Christmas to those of you in the northern hemisphere, as we celebrate the rebirth of the Sun – or the birth of the Son, if you prefer. The library is closing early today and I’m heading home for the week with an armful of books, to be read between the caroling and snacking and time spent with family. I’m still trying to wind the year down with lighter reading, so this week I’m carrying home two Star Wars novels (to complement my annual Christmastime rewatch of the entire Star Wars saga), and reading The View from the Summit, Sir Edmund Hillary’s telling of his travail up Mount Everest.
In recent weeks I’ve finished two books that haven’t gotten comments previously; A Scientist in the City, which was interesting enough, and The Victorian Internet. A Scientist in the City, published in 1994, peeks into the science that makes city function. That science is more material than social, though the behavior of people within the urban environment appears occasionally as data in traffic projections. [author] examines the physics that define strengths and weaknesses of different building materials, and explains subjects like the generation of electricity. He doesn’t cover systems by themselves, and water treatment is ignored completely. I liked it well enough, but it’s definitely dated and on the thin side. The book ends with several different projections for the City of the Future: our options are Trantor, the Matrix, and suburban sprawl with bullet trains.
Before that, I enjoyed Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet, which tried to convey to readers that the internet now completely transforming their lives was not without precedent. It’s a breezy history of how electricity transformed communications and helped create the modern world. We creatures of the 21st century can’t appreciate how radically life changed for those of the 19th; our idea of technological revolution is smaller computers, or ubiquitous touchscreens. The nineteenth century took civilizations held by the same limits that had enclosed humans for millennia prior — the speed of transportation and communication maxing out at a horse’s gallop — and threw them into a completely new world. Cities could communicate with other cities in mere seconds; economies were revolutionized by merchants’ ability to keep track of broader markets and manage their inventory more efficiently. Although the comparison is slightly overstated– for telegraphs required intermediaries for most people to use them to communicate — the telegraph’s transforming effects on society do bring to mind the way the internet worked its way into our everyday lives in the 1990s, when this book was published; the creation of military scientists and the domain of tech geeks, it has conquered so much of society that many essential functions depend on that. The telegraph didn’t become quite that pervasive, but it was a tool of friendship and romance as well as business and politics, and it started our slide toward being plugged into the electronic, digital world. The Victorian Internet is on the lighter side, but definitely useful.
I’ve also finished small is beautiful in recent weeks, and thought it tremendous but I’m not ready to try to comment on it yet.