Thursday, September 22, 2022

Five years ago at the blog -- No special relevance here. I just like talking about this stuff.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Thoughts on a Ouija board

As previously (and frequently) mentioned, I've been chipping away at a couple of essays about 21st century attitudes toward technology. The incredible spike in innovation of the late 19th and early 20th centuries plays a big role. Unfortunately, the more I dig in, the more I find new aspects to the subject.

I came across yet another when watching this Bob Chipman movie review of Ouija [Now apparently off line -- MP]. My general rule for movie reviews and criticism (Chipman falls more in the latter but is also pretty good at the former) is to only check out writing on movies that I either have seen, or care so little about that they can't really be spoiled. This one fell in the second category.

Chipman is exceptionally good with historical and cultural context. He started this review with a brief historical overview of the popular board game, suggesting that the filmmakers could have gotten a more interesting and original film had they mined the actual history of the Ouija board rather than opting for something standard and derivative. What caught my ear was the fact that the Ouija board was first marketed in 1891 as an attempt to cash in on the spiritualism craze of the era.

Here's Linda Rodriguez McRobbie writing for the Smithsonian:

As spiritualism had grown in American culture, so too did frustration with how long it took to get any meaningful message out of the spirits, says Brandon Hodge, Spiritualism historian. Calling out the alphabet and waiting for a knock at the right letter, for example, was deeply boring. After all, rapid communication with breathing humans at far distances was a possibility—the telegraph had been around for decades—why shouldn’t spirits be as easy to reach? People were desperate for methods of communication that would be quicker—and while several entrepreneurs realized that, it was the Kennard Novelty Company that really nailed it.

The facts weren't exactly new to me, but somehow I had never thought about the peak of the spiritualism movement coinciding with the explosive scientific and technological advances of the era. I'd always tended to think of that form of spiritualism as quaint and old-fashioned, particularly when compared with the sci-fi infused New Age mysticism of today. Now I'm wondering if I got that exactly backwards.

Particularly in America, the period from around 1880 to 1910 was one of unprecedented technological change, reordering every aspect of society to a degree that hadn't been seen before and hasn't been seen since. It was also, not surprisingly, and era of wild speculation and fantasy. Most of HG Wells' best known scientific romances came from the 1890s. The idea that Mars harbored not only intelligent life but great civilizations had started gaining popularity a decade earlier.

Perhaps living in a time of impossible things makes people credulous, it might even be a form of adaptation. People not only excepted the incredible, they craved more. This gave rise to and army of metaphysical conmen exposed by the  Seybert Commission in the 1880s. While it is always dangerous to generalize from outliers, it is certainly interesting that the greatest age of progress was also remarkable for producing dreamers and suckers.



  1. My intuition here agrees with yours, i.e. that the late 19th through early 20th century was a period of great innovation. E.g. in 1850 we didn't have a clue why chemistry worked the way it did but by 1940, we did. (those dates could be tightened up.) An enourmous difference/intellectual feat. But I tried to prove this with numbers, and failed. It turns out the number of patents awarded has been basically a steady increase over the fairly long term with no obvious periods of unusual activity. (I forget the exact dates, but 1860 to 1940 or so). Getting my dates/numbers right would be nice...

    Similarly, I like to argue that there's been nothing new in the world since I was born (1952). TV, movies, airplanes, telephones, all old hat by 1952. heck, we even had walky-talkies then. Basically, we figured out enough QM and physics in general that the inventions of the 1950s (e.g. the transistor) were just applications of what we already knew. Of course, I get pushback on this. As a computer nerd, I'm supposed to be amused that the computer this is being typed on is well over 10,000 times faster than the ones I used in grad school...

    Another blog recently mentioned H. P. Lovecraft, who was writing in that period. Very strange stuff, that.

    1. I've thought a lot about the best way to quantitatively measure progress and innovation and I've looked at a number of different proposed approaches. I've come to the conclusion that none of them really gets the job done.

      For one thing, how do you quantify the creation of an entirely new category? It's a bit like trying to assign a metric to compare getting a new set of eyeglasses with restoring vision to the blind. For example, give or take a decade or two, recorded media simply didn't exist before around 1800. Telecommunication didn't exist until a few years later. How can you come up with a meaningful number that lets us compare the degree of innovation of synchronized sound or color to the actual invention of moving pictures.?

      Counting patents is especially problematic for at least a few reasons. First, the quantity is heavily influenced by business models and legal/regulatory frameworks. Second, the number of patents has more to do with the complexity of an invention than with its innovation. Third, the importance of different patents varies wildly.

    2. I think you meant "1900", not "1800" there, but yes, quantifying innovation is hard. Good point: being able to record things was enormous. Which reminds me: photography was another thing of arguably of this period, although its start was somewhat earlier. The daguerreotype was announced in 1839, and less lethal and more convenient technologies were in place by 1860 or so. The enthusiasm and energy with which folks in the 19th century took up photography, desipite the difficulties were amazing. And of course, the inventiveness of the period was amazing. What look like quite serviceable panoramic cameras were made in 1861 and 1862. (I'm a photography nerd, so my "what look like quite serviceable" might not strike others the same way...).

      Oh, yes. My favorite photo trivia. The Zeiss Planar was designed in 1896, but had too many surfaces, so wasn't usable until lens coating technologies advanced (after WWII), at which point it was used for the normal lens for every quality camera for the next several decades. (The 1902 Tessar was used instead, and still has it's uses.)

    3. I was thinking of photography as the first recorded media though checking Wiki shows that was a little later than I realized with experimental systems first showing up in the 1820s