Clive Thompson

Clive is a Canadian freelance journalist, blogger and science and technology writer. He worked for Canada's Report on Business magazine and Shift magazine, then became a freelance contributor for The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Lingua Franca, Wired, Shift, Entertainment Weekly and several other publications. Clive writes about digital technologies and their social and cultural impact for a number of publications, including the New York Times Magazine and Wired. In 2002, he was awarded a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT.

Clive has a blog, Collision Detection, which he started in 2002, and a Twitter account @pomeranian99, which he created more recently.

Published Thoughts

How Google Books gives new life to old literature

The other week I was on Twitter discussing sci-fi with some other fans, and we wound up talking about Ray Bradbury’s story “There Will Come Soft Rains”. If you haven’t read it, do; it’s very short and available here in a probably-not-legal copy. In brief (spoilers!) it’s the tale of a smart home that is the only thing left in a city that has been razed by nuclear war. The family members who lived in the house are dead too, reduced to charred ash-shadows on the side of the building:

Here the silhouette in paint of a man mowing a lawn. Here, as in a photograph, a woman bent to pick flowers. Still farther over, their images burned on wood in one titanic instant, a small boy, hands flung into the air; higher up, the image of a thrown ball, and opposite him a girl, hands raised to catch a ball which never came down.

The thing is, the smart home doesn’t know the inhabitants are dead, so it keeps on cooking meals for the family, cleaning the dishes, and issuing reminders about bills that need to be paid. Towards the end of the day, the house asks the mother in the family which poem she’d like the house to recite. Since the woman doesn’t respond, the house picks one on its own — a poem called “There Will Come Soft Rains”, by Sara Teasdale. 

It’s a pretty unsettling poem. I’ll quote it here in full:

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
if mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

Since I read this story around 1980, when I was in middle school and the Cold War was raging and the Toronto Star was printing maps of our city showing where, in the event of a full-on nuclear war, the bombs would probably land and how far the devastation would spread, the prospect of a world without any humans was not that far-fetched. This poem haunted me for years; whenever I read of the devastation of modern wars (Syria, Ukraine, Sudan) it cycles somewhere in the back of my mind. 

I never knew much about the poem or the poet, though. As a kid, I figured Bradbury might have simply invented it, and that Sara Teasdale didn’t exist. But now I live in the future, where I have Wikipedia and Google at my beck and call, so upon reconnecting with this story two weeks ago I quickly found myself reading up on Teasdale’s life and works. It turns out she was, during her active career from the 1910s to 30s, one of America’s best-read and best-loved poets. But she was also extremely sickly — so frequently bedridden that she didn’t start school until she was about nine — and had a distant marriage. Teasdale was also frequently in hospitals and in a lot of pain, and this, as it turns out, is also something she wrote about ...

 ... which I discovered when I started poking around on Google Books for her work. I wanted to see what “There Will Come Soft Rains” looked like in its original layout. Poetry looks pretty dull when you see the poem rendered in a house font (as above); it’s a lot more powerful when you see it with its original typography, particularly when it’s an old gorgeous book from the 30s. So I went looking for it and found it, via Google Books, in Teasdale’s volume Flame and Shadow.

Fortunately for me, Flame and Shadow was published in 1920, so it is pre-1923, the year when copyright law slams down tight on contemporary works. Because American works published before 1923 are out of copyright, Google Books not only has many of those works scanned, but they’re fully readable online, and even downloadable as a PDF.

So barely 15 minutes after shooting the breeze about Ray Bradbury on Twitter, I was sitting in a corner reading the complete copy of a book of poetry from 1920.

It’s a remarkable book. Teasdale is like a remix of Tennyson and Robert Frost, obsessed with death and what the specter of nonexistence means to our earthly life, yet still slightly carrying the courtly/mawkish airs of Victorian poetry. One of the more intense sections of Flame and Shadow is an eight-poem sequence called “In a Hospital”, which is pretty clearly drawn from Teasdale’s own grim experiences of being serially hospitalized. One of the poems is bluntly called “Pain”; another compares her body to a broken field ploughed by agonies; “The Unseen” describes Death itself corporeal, drifting quietly through the corridors of the hospital, unseen by the nurses.

There are also quite a few poems devoted to war and its ravages, which makes sense when you realize she probably wrote most of these during World War I — the most brutal, horrific opera of death the planet had yet seen, when the new technologies of the tank, the machine gun and poison gas pioneered slaughter on an industrialized scale. Once I’d read and pondered these other influences on her life, “There Will Come Soft Rains” takes on a bunch of new shadings. Teasdale is clearly talking about the War, but she’s also thinking of her own war — her body against itself, the erasure that was coming when disease wore her down and the world went on without her.

Obviously, I’m writing this essay to encourage everyone to go read Sara Teasdale now! She is pretty awesome. (At very least, go check out the original typeset version of “There Will Come Soft Rains”, which is here.)

But on a different level, this is a story about how the Internet, Google Books, and copyright have tweaked the way I read — and what I read. 

Before the global information highway came along, I didn’t really have any easy way to stumble on Teasdale’s work. Hell, I’d half suspected she was a fiction of Ray Bradbury for decades. Now that I can look things up and scratch any itch of curiosity, I get led down some wonderful rabbit holes. But the deepest rabbit holes, I notice, have been in works of literature that are out of copyright — i.e. published before 1923 — because they’re all there, not just in “snippet” format but the whole gorgeous lovely works, waiting to be read the moment I become interested.

So in the last few years, I’ve found my reading list is tilting more and more heavily to pre-1923 works. One night I stumbled across a mention of the 1706 book The Art of Memory, a wonderful description of ancient memory techniques by Marius D’Assigny. I discovered, hey, it was all there on Google Books, so I downloaded and read it. I heard about Wired Love, an awesome 19th-century novel about a woman telegraph operator who falls in love over the wires, and read that too. Last week I noticed a footnote in a book that mentioned a 1916 magazine article that claimed rural women were becoming so besotted with driving their newfangled automobiles that they were neglecting their hens. Whaddya know: That was online in full-text too.

Consider this one of the unanticipated pleasures of our modern age: The re-emergence of the past. 

The Overview Effect

On last Sunday’s episode of Mad Men, set in 1969, NASA touches down on the moon for the first time. The responses of the folks back on earth range from delight—Bert Cooper cackles “Bravo” upon hearing Neil Armstrong’s famous line about “One giant leap for mankind”—to cynicism (when a teenager declaims that it’s a colossal waste of money). As the writers of Mad Men knew, going to the moon provoked a lot of reactions.

Perhaps most dramatic were the ones amongst the astronauts themselves. Going into space, it seems, dramatically changed the way they viewed life and humanity. There’s a name for this cosmic turn: “The Overview Effect”, coined by the author Frank White in his book of the same title. It is, as he calls it, the radical shift in perspective that comes from being able to step away from the Earth and see it from afar.

White interviewed dozens of astronauts, and includes transcripts of their conversations in the book. They’re pretty spellbinding. As you might expect, the Overview Effect produces a lot of psychological wonder and spiritual reflection. But most pointedly, nearly every astronaut felt a sense of artificiality and absurdity about national identity, strife, and war.

Here’s Russell Schweickart, who flew on Apollo 9, and looked back at Earth from a quarter-million miles away. As he puts it:

[The Earth] is so small and so fragile and such a precious little spot in the universe that you can block it out with your thumb, and you realize on that small spot, that little blue and white thing, is everything that means anything to you — all of history and music and poetry and art and death and birth and love, tears, joy, games, all of it on that little spot out there that you can cover with your thumb. And you realize from that perspective that you’ve changed, that there’s something new there, that the relationship is no longer what it was.

Schweickart later flew on Skylab, and described in this fashion the sensation of zooming repeatedly around the planet:

When you go around the Earth in an hour and a half … you look down there and you can’t imagine how many borders and boundaries you cross, again and again and again, and you don’t even see them … You’re really out there, going twenty-five thousand miles an hour, ripping through space, a vaccum. And there’s not a sound. There’s a silence the depth of which you’ve never experienced before, and that silence contrasts so markedly with the scenery you’re seeing and speed with which you know you’re moving.

Many of the astronauts say they were struck by how small the scale of a human life is compared to the infinity of time and space. This can, of course, sound like the typical Buddhism-lite whoa-dude epiphany of stoners in dorm rooms, though one can rather forgive the Apollo crews: They came by the epiphany honestly. As Edward Gibson, who flew on Apollo 12, puts it:

You see how diminutive your life and concerns are compared to other things in the universe. Your life and concerns are important to you, of course. But you can see that a lot of the things that you worry about don’t make much difference in an overall sense. The result is that you enjoy the life that is before you; you don’t sweat so much about the next milestone … It allows you to have inner peace.

Here’s Eugene Cernan, who flew on Apollos 10 and 17, and Gemini 9, and was the last man to walk on the moon:

You can see from pole to pole and ocean to ocean without even turning your head .... You literally see North and South America go around the corner as the Earth turns on an axis you can’t see and then miraculously Australia, then Asia, than all of America comes up to replace them. You see a multicolored three-dimensional picture of Earth. You begin to see how little we understand of time. You ask yourself the question where really am I in space and time?

Others marveled at the deep aesthetic joys of the Overview Effect. In 1985, Edwin Garn flew on a Space Shuttle mission that attempted to rescue a satellite. He wound up having a crazily gorgeous experience along the way:

Toward the end of our mission, after we tried to rescue the satellite, I wanted to do one complete orbit of the Earth, uninterrupted, all the way around, which I did, floating on the flight deck, listening to Swan Lake. It was so fantastic and so beautiful, and I felt guilty, thinking about my family, my wife and seven kids. My feeling was that I’d seen and done it all, and I didn’t care whether I came back or not; it really didn’t make any difference. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, but if something happened, we didn’t come back, fine, so be it, just utter peace and contentment and fulfillment.

Many of the astronauts that White interviews argue that the experience would be a powerful political tonic, if you could somehow impel it upon the rulers of the planet. As Joseph Allen, a veteran of several Space-Shuttle flights, said:

A steady stream of world leaders should go into orbit. It would have a profound affect on their wisdom .... It is similar to the time of Copernicus; we have a broadened view of our place in the universe, and more educated view.

Is this actually true? Could more space travel—more first-person experiences of Overview, particularly by the powerful—actually reduce strife on Earth? That’s hard to say. We have a long history of generating excited predictions about the utopian effects of new technologies for travel or communication. In 1907, the feminist thinker Charlotte Perkins Gilman predicted that the advent of air travel would bring about “aerial” man, one so transformed by the experience that he “cannot think of himself further as a worm of the dust, but as a butterfly, psyche, the risen soul”. White himself often drifts into this terrain. But many of the astronauts seem aware of the limits of this giddy boosterism. “It wouldn’t bring a utopia to this planet for people to understand it all,” as Cernan concludes, “but it might make a difference.”

Me, I confess I’m drawn to the romanticism of the Overview Effect. I like the idea of actively seeking out experiences that unmoor our sense of self, and shift our perspective. And as White notes, one needn’t go to space to get a cosmic view. The Effect can be triggered by powerful art—anything that pivots you into a new way of seeing things, or, as Northrop Frye would put it, educates your imagination. A lot of environmentalists in the 1970s described seeing the famous “Blue Marble” photo of the Earth—taken at 20,000 miles away by the receding Apollo 17 spacecraft—as a catalytic moment in realizing just how fragile the environment might be. Ecologist Donald Worster called the photo “a stunning revelation,” adding that “its thin film of life” was “far thinner and far more vulnerable than anyone had ever imagined.”

In his book Moondust, the author Andrew Smith argues that the moon landing was in some respects an art project, as gesture “as primitive as song”. We went there not so much to see the moon as to gaze back at Earth. It was “a unique opportunity to look at ourselves,” he writes, an accomplishment less of technology than of aesthetics, culture, and spirituality. “How madly, perfectly human.” Many of the astronauts White interviews in The Overview Effect lament the difficulty they have in putting their new perspective into words, of communicating its sheerly alien quality to other people. Gemini X astronaut Michael Collins concluded that that the ideal crew for an Apollo mission would have been a “philosopher, a priest, and a poet.” (“Unfortunately,” he added, “they would kill themselves trying to fly the spacecraft.”)

Today, of course, some of our biggest challenges—I’m thinking specifically of global warming—require taking a massively global perspective. The era of human space exploration is in a relatively dormant period, but I’m hoping it’s only a hiatus. We could use more opportunities to look back from afar.

The bones of old decisions

Back in the 1800s when typewriters were first being invented, the creators realized they had a problem: People liked to type more quickly than the machines could handle. You’d start cranking away on a letter, and get on a roll. But the letters on those early machines were laid out alphabetically, so you’d try to type two letters in succession that were right next to one another — and the machine would jam.

In 1867, the American inventor Christopher Latham Sholes hit upon a clever solution. He analyzed word-letter frequency and laid out the keys so the most common two-letter combos were spaced far apart. The result: The QWERTY keyboard layout. 

QWERTY slowed down the human typewriter, because it forced us to move our fingers more frequently, in often awkward ways. (Vowels are common letters, yet the only one on the QWERTY “home row” keys is the a.) But it was a sort of cyborg compromise. You slowed the humans down so that the clunky machines could keep pace. Since it prevented jams, the overall rate of typing sped up.

Decades later, the quality of mechanic typewriters rose dramatically, so jams were less of an issue, and typing speed rose. Then came electric typewriters in the 1960s — like IBM’s famous “Selectric” — that sped along even faster yet; old-school jams were impossible because the letters were slammed down via a rotating ball. I’m old enough to remember typing on one of those things, and I could race along pretty spiffily, doing about 40 or 50 WPM, making the sound of a Gatling gun. Then in the 80s I started typing on computers. With no moving parts other than the keys, I started flying along at 70 WPM.

By this time, QWERTY had outlived its purpose. The machine didn’t need to be slowed down any more. If anything, it was possible for the human to speed up. That would require rearranging the keys — and in fact, the “Dvorak” keyboard layout, invented by August Dvorak, arranged the letters so that the ones we type most often are in the home row. This requires 63% less finger movement, allowing you to go faster with less finger strain. It was a brilliant invention, and a superb response to the evolution of typing machines. 

But it was never adopted. Why?

Because of “path dependence” — the way that decisions from the past lay down ruts that guide our behavior in the future. Once QWERTY was established, it proved to be a hard habit to break. 

After all, think of the economic risk in deviating from the familiar QWERTY layout. Who’s going to make the first typewriter with some weird new format? Nobody’s gonna buy that. And culturally, if QWERTY is what we see around us, it’s what we learn, regardless of whether there’s a better way to do it. Technically, there’s nothing stopping me from switching to Dvorak right now. It’s just a matter of changing one setting on my computer. But I’d have to relearn an old habit, and I’m kind of lazy … so QWERTY it is, and QWERTY it remains. Dvorak died in 1975 “a bitter man,” as Jared Diamond writes.

The path dependence that Sholes laid down is amazingly resistant to change, when you think about it. Look at your smartphone: It doesn’t even have a physical keyboard, so technically it could have any layout. And given the ergonomics of two-thumbed typing, there’s probably some layout that would be far more comfortable and smooth-going. But nope. We use QWERTY on our phones, too.

In one sense, QWERTY is a cautionary tale. We live with the bones of old decisions. Beware what paths we set out on, people! We’ll be hiking down them for a long time! We better watch out! That’s advice that applies on every level — technologically, emotionally, economically, societally, spiritually. 

But every once in a while the path loops back on itself. 

In my job, I’ve recently started reading a lot of nonfiction on my Kindle Touch. I’m a note-taking freak; when I read on paper, I always have a pencil at hand to jot down marginalia. So with the Kindle Touch I behave the same way. Whenever a passage provokes an interesting thought, I pull up the on-screen keyboard and start pecking away. 

The Kindle Touch keyboard is pretty crappy, though. It’s very inaccurate at detecting where my fingers are touching, and with such a slow processor it’s erratically responsive. So I’ll find myself hitting the wrong keys, or typing the same key twice, or missing a key, and making tons of errors and cursing like a sailor and getting annoyed. Oh well, I’ll tell myself. I guess I should just type more slowly.  

Nearly 150 years after Sholes, I’m still wrestling with a machine that can’t keep up with the typist. 

I suppose I’ll need QWERTY a bit longer.

A video game for an audience of one

Two years ago I was trying to think of something to get for my wife for her birthday, and I was stuck. So I decided to go the “heartfelt” route and make her something by hand: The personal touch! But what would I make?

Well, I’m a big nerd from way back, and she’s also something of a nerd too. So I decided that I’d make her something peculiarly digital: A personalized video game.

I downloaded a copy of Inform 7, a free and easy-to-use app that lets anyone create “text adventure” games, where the player navigates a world of text by typing commands and reading descriptions of the rooms they enter (“Go west”; “open mailbox”). My wife and I are both in our 40s, so we’re old enough to remember the first-ever text-adventure games like “Zork”. I still enjoy the stark poetry of “Zork”’s opening scene:

West of House
You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.

That scene always reminds me of the first few lines of Dante’s “Inferno”:

Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.

I’m probably picking up these resonances because I’m middle-aged, so my grade-6 days playing “Zork” seem awfully far away now, while the cosmic midlife freakouts of the “Inferno” are a lot more proximal. But at any rate, I liked the idea of creating a little playable literary world to give to my wife, a sort of geeky love letter. I began plotting out a text adventure that was based in our years together, with a few dozens rooms and filled with detail and easter eggs (hidden stuff you have to discover inside a game) drawn from our shared experiences. It was fun and not terribly hard to do; I’d never created a text adventure before, but Inform 7 is reasonably straightforward. After several evenings of work, I had the game done, and on her birthday I loaded it onto her computer and explained what I’d done. I was half worried she’d think I was nuts, but to my great delight she loved it.

Here’s how the game opened up:

The Bedroom

You wake up in your bed at home. The sun is coming in the windows, and you feel deeply rested. What time is it?

You roll over and grab your iphone, and holy moses — it’s 9:30 am on a Saturday! You hear a beep and look over at your sidetable, where you see an ipad.

Now, here’s the thing: That’s all you get to see.

I’m not going to show you any more.

And that’s because a game like this doesn’t quite behave the way games normally do.

Normally, games are a form of mass entertainment. They’re a one-to-many medium. A single entity — sometimes a big corporation, sometimes an indie creator working alone — creates what is (hopefully) a fiendishly fun system, and gamers try to master it, playing and replaying it again, slowly getting better and better, as with Call of Duty or Candy Crush. With games like this, the designers want as many people as possible to play their titles, of course. The more people they get hooked, the more money they make.

In recent years we’ve seen the rise of something different: Artistic games, where the designers are aiming to create an expressive act. They’re trying to evoke an emotion or a mood, or to make a point. (A superb example of this sort of art game is Jason Rohrer’s “Passage”.) These games aren’t designed to get you addicted, seducing you into playing them over and over again. If you run through “Passage” two or three times, you’ll understand the message and experience Rohrer is trying to communicate, and you probably won’t need to play it any more. Artistic games turn the genre into something that’s more obviously a speech act — games and their rulesets as a way of talking about the world. (The scholar and game designer Ian Bogost calls this “procedural rhetoric”.) Nonetheless, these art games share one thing in common with Call of Duty or Candy Crush: They’re still a one-to-many medium. The game designer creates the experience, hoping that many people will play it, much as a poet writes a poem hoping that many people will read it. The game is made for an audience of many.

The game I made for my wife is something rather different. It was a game made for an audience of one.

The reason I’m not showing you the whole game is for the same reasons we don’t show our love letters to the public. They’re private communications, composed with a single person in mind. Indeed, even if I did put my game online for everyone to play, it wouldn’t make any sense. None of the objects inside the rooms have any meaning to anyone but my wife and I. They’re a rumination on our shared experiences, so if you didn’t experience them, they won’t make much sense. My wife enjoyed the game (thank god) and found it meaningful; you’d find it boring gibberish.

All of which makes me realize that the evolution of games as a medium might be entering a very cool and strange phase.

Every year there are more tools for authoring games, ranging from things like Inform 7 to Scratch or Stencyl. They’re still kludgy, but getting simpler all the time. They remind me of early-stage word-processors in the 70s or 80s. Those tools deindustrialized typography, making it possible for an individual to dash off a document that had a level of formatting previously only available to those who owned a printed press. As games become easier and quicker to make, they enter similarly new expressive territory. A tool like Inform 7 deindustrializes the making of games. And when a medium is deindustrialized, it always get wilder and weirder. Once millions of people can mess around with it, they inevitably do things that are far more diverse and crazy and unexpected than when the medium was in the hands of only a few huge corporations.

We can now start thinking about dashing off a game as a way to joke with a close friend, to invite someone to a party, or maybe to apologize to someone you’ve treated poorly. Games become something you can create for an audience of one.

If you made a game for one person, what would it be like?