As Flies to Whatless Boys, aka Technological Ruminations

As Flies to Whatless Boys strikes me as presenting a complicated and nuanced picture of technology, or to be more precise, technologies. I think we might read much of its actions, and time periods, as ruminations upon the ways in which we are embedded, perhaps unevenly, within various technologies which impact our life— for instance the differences between a trans-Ocean letter circa 1845 and email today.

We can see such ruminations on technology in the differences between Etzler and Stollmeyer’s failed (yet bombastically described) “Naval Automaton + Floating Island” (217) and the subsequent, and paratactically presented, news article on William Tucker’s successful shipping and passenger company. We have here two depictions, the first which goes into great detail on the pomp and minutiae of Etzler and Stollmeyer’s display, and the second which focuses on the person (Tucker), the technology itself presumably of such familiarity to the newspaper reader as to require no particular description. In considering this juxtaposition what gets revealed are the ways in which people use technology almost without consideration (Heidegger’s ready-to-hand), as opposed to the ways in which technology can become apparent through its failures (present-to-hand).

We can see an emphasis on pragmatic uses of technology in the dissembling of the Satellite’s crate for repair of the schooner (242). The vessel of transportation itself turns out to be more valuable than the machine contained within— its stenciled name SATELLITE by this point in the story marked with a mossy double strikethrough, a metaphorical pointing towards its failures.

And while failed inventions permeate this text, such as wooden railroads rails, certain inventions persist, for instance the pencil and paper, utilized as much in 1845 by Papee as it is in 2010 in the Trinidad archive. Miss Ramasol’s control over the photocopier also points towards the ways in which technology can be both present and controlled (or made unavailable through control— perhaps due to its complexity, as Mr. Robot’s experiment with the portable copier proves) thus either intermittently present or ready to hand. Lo-fi has its own certain benefits, as the drawings indicate, while hi-fi has others, as the mimeographed news articles, with a certain amount of available fidelity, display.

I think the greatest indication of As Flies to Whatless Boys’s opinion on technology comes at the end, in Marguerite’s letter to William, in which she describes William’s “illustration of how the short bills of certain sapphire and emerald hummingbirds are perfectly suited for feeding on hibiscus flowers, slightly curved bills for heliconias, and the long straight bills of the copper ones for the tiny tubes allamanda flowers….” (322). Here we see in nature differing technologies for differing uses, as constructed through evolution, with its historical iterations of successes and failures. Use value of a technology (bill size and shape) has made certain modes of life available for these hummingbirds, made certain plants available (and vice versa- the plant’s evolution has matched the hummingbirds). In other words, perhaps the successes and failures of technology (the pencil + paper vs. the Naval Automaton + Floating Island) is part of our own continuing evolution. The pencil remains because it succeeds in making a certain way of life available.

As such I think we might consider As Flies to Whatless Boys’s website as an exploration into the ways in which evolutions in technology overlap/ draw on previous iterations/ construct something new. The website is an attempt to marry technologies of the digital with technologies that have come before it— The book, the drawing, the video, the journal. This is all fine (My personal favorite— the Benediction of Mr. Talbot). Of course this also raises questions of disuse within the face of technological evolution. Or alternatively, what does it mean to have a hand written journal as a pdf? Is it a journal or is it a digital file, etc. What technologies will get lost in our evolution and what technologies will remain? I suspect we’ll always have pencil and paper, but perhaps the streaming video will go out of style. James Tiptree Jr.’s novella Houston, Houston, Do You Read? is a good example of this. Future space travel in this story operates off of redundancies and dependency, rather than increasingly complex technology. I don’t think the website will ever replace the book, but will the increasingly complex internet always remain?

3 comments

  1. Profile photo of Maxine Anderson

    “As such I think we might consider As Flies to Whatless Boys’s website as an exploration into the ways in which evolutions in technology overlap/ draw on previous iterations/ construct something new. The website is an attempt to marry technologies of the digital with technologies that have come before it— The book, the drawing, the video, the journal.”

    Yes — in the spirit of following up and wrapping up my final thoughts about the course, this is (I think) one of the most important themes or issues we identified as a class. It’s interesting that the empiricist exhortation to reach ever-onward toward the new and the impulse to criticize this technological optimism both sort of ignore the overlapping and imbrication of old and new technology.

    (Similarly: I’m now thinking of examples where technology changes but serves to maintain the particular social function of the old technology, like the mail -> email shift. And then there’s the ways in which the platform/user experience email really hasn’t changed in ten years, but the social function of it has changed! Whoa.)

    Anyway, always trying to find the dialectical way of slipping between/out of false or not-particularly-helpful dichotomies or oppositions. I think the possibilities of studying overlaps and slippages are particularly helpful for this.

    PS – would love to know your thoughts on why, given this historical context of productive overlaps, the book/website overlap isn’t intuitive or particularly useful. (I also felt that the book/site transition felt disjointed, but haven’t thought hard about why it wasn’t working for me…)

  2. Profile photo of Aaron Pinnix

    Chy, I definitely agree with your claim that “Perhaps what’s “scary” about (digital?) technology is the myriad ways in which it can be used” — We can see this in the shut down of Twitter in certain countries during Arab Spring. The same tool which can be used to tweet about X (the broad range of what people tweet about) can be seen as a threat by a national government. Black Twitter also comes to mind. We’ve talked about this throughout the class— the almost cyberpunk appropriation (the term “liberation” also comes to mind) of tools. Similarly we can look to lots of occasions where “old technologies” have also been limited by governments due to fear of subversion. Book burnings, Pol Pot’s restrictions, etc.

    There was certainly a disjoint between book and website. This gets in some way towards the uneven encounter between the physical and the digital. I certainly missed the cues, or rather, in encountering them I didn’t understand the cues as what they were intended for. Like a language one can’t speak, the cues lacked adequate meaning to be operative.

    In response to your last point- I was thinking about this the other day- Will the internet be superseded like the telegraph? Overcome by another technology? Telephones are a similar one. I’m sure my apartment is still wired for a hardline, but I have no idea because everyone has cell phones now. The old remnants still runs through the building, (probably) unused.

  3. Profile photo of Chy Sprauve

    Some Observations:

    – Perhaps what’s “scary” about (digital?) technology is the myriad ways in which it can be used. A technology like the pencil doesn’t seem to engender the same sort of fear because we can control (?) it. Also, it’s “old.” Old = less scary?

    – I didn’t think the companion website worked well (with the print text, at least). The author, Robert Antoni, at the Caribbean Digital II panel suggested that the reader (of the print book) missed the cues in the novel (symbols) and therefore lost the immersive experience. Perhaps if the reader had understood the cues, the companion website would have fit more seamlessly into the text. Antoni’s point connects to my first observation and Aaron’s mention of control: technology doesn’t always do what we want it to do. Or is it that readers / viewers don’t always do what we want them to do?

    – To answer Aaron’s final question, will the increasingly complex internet always remain: perhaps. My first answer was yes because I couldn’t imagine something more expansive than the internet. But then I think of all the writers on technology that sound so dated just five years ago–so who knows what will be possible another five years from now. Maybe we’ll do something else completely at some point and the internet will be like the pencil (can you imagine?). The attempts to control and manage technology, however, will always remain, because our innovations are man-made. So I don’t know if the internet, as it is now, will always remain, but I do know that our uneasiness and questions of access will never be resolved.

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