Thursday, November 13, 2008

A PDF in a Glass Case

Inspired by a live taping of the radio show 'Selected Shorts' which I attended last night, I started re-reading Ed Park's novel Personal Days, which came out in May. In addition to being unsettlingly funny, it perfectly captures the details of a mundane office job. Consequently, as I realized yesterday with a bit of horror for Ed, the book's technological details will probably be hopelessly obsolete in a few decades. The constant references to emails, software error messages, Power Point, pdfs - it won't be long before even the mention of one of these innovations evokes a chortle. Nothing dates an era as surely as its technology. Imagine reading a book, today, where a large portion of the action hinges on the idiosyncrasies of eight-track recorders or one of those first personal computers that no one knows how to use anymore.

The 'Selected Shorts' episode (which will air this Saturday and Sunday) was hosted by Ed and his fellow Believer editor Heidi Julavits. For some reason, they mentioned that they had originally intended to call their magazine The Balloonist. As with so many things, this inevitably put me in mind of Monty Python, and a skit on the golden age of ballooning in particular. As the skit points out, the hot-air balloon was once the height of technological innovation. But technological leaps forward are not always accompanied by scientific understanding. The Montgolfier brothers, who built the first manned hot air balloon 1783, were initially inspired by smoke in their father's paper factory lifting small scraps into the air. Throughout their balloon-building career, the brothers remained convinced that it was the smoke that lifted things, as opposed to the hot air. As a result, early balloon rides could be hard on the lungs.

I spent a large part of today in front of a microfilm reader in the New York County Clerk office on Chambers Street, looking at hand-written immigration records from the turn of the century. How many people today ever use microfilm? Most technologies pass into obsolescence, but others are completely forgotten. After people stop using email, it may not take many more decades before people forget what email was - before they forget that it was ever an innovation in the real world. That is my secret hope for Personal Days - that someday in the future one of its readers will come across a passage about QWERTY keyboards or cd drives and see it not as a laughably retro reference, but as the techno-babble of some forgotten era. On that day the novel will pass from very good period fiction to very good science fiction.

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