ASCII by Jason Scott

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Standage —

Entry written on August 12th.

How lucky I was to talk with Richard Thieme at a Shmoocon a number of years ago, and to discuss the topic of my talk, which was finding pre-20th century parallels to hacker cons. And how lucky it was that Richard then asked if I’d heard of a book called The Victorian Internet, by Tom Standage. I had not, but I purchased it minutes later online and it was waiting for me soon after I got home.

The Victorian Internet is a look at the history and events of the Telegraph, the morse-code-driven communication over wires that dominated trans-oceanic communication for a number of decades. But more than that, it is a brilliantly arranged historical narrative drawing together threads and parallels to the modern-day Internet, both in discussions of human interaction, commerce, law and most importantly the resulting crash of life before and after this new technology. It reads like a novel and comes off as accurate, with an awful lot of citations and a lack of need to exaggerate that comes from having done actual research. It was brilliant.

To my delight, I have found that Standage continues to write historical books in this vein: The Neptune File (about the rush to claim discovery of the planets Herschel/Uranus and Neptune), The Mechanical Turk (Of automatons, a chess-playing robot, and the nature of human intelligence), and A History of the World in Six Glasses (concerning a tracing of human history based on the beverages consumed). All are wonderful. All are an easy read. And all should dominate the sales charts; books like this make their readers smarter.

My talk at DEFCON at the beginning of this month centered around historical narrative and how deriving information based on narrative is going to be inherently faulty, so better to focus on source materials and objective gathering as best one can. That said, I am entirely happy with quality narratives derived from the source material, providing a linkage for people to read about which itself can be researched from the source material. I feel the same way about people who sort through archives I or others have and do little stories based on some subset of the material; the source material and alternative/additional resources are right there for the initiated, and a delightful candy of story is there for the uninitiated. Winners all around.

Standage is my gold standard; if I think I can write a narrative with his level of quality, I’ll have considered what I’ve done a success. Otherwise, I’m not trying hard enough.

Do not hesitate to buy his books, every one.

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