Member Blogs > ten pound island book companyA New Jersey full of Crays

  • Mon, 03 Mar 2014 11:00:53    Permalink
    Over the past few years I've been writing a series of essays about an eccentric American genius called John Ledyard, “The American Traveler.” These essays take the form of walking meditations because they are framed by my walk along the Connecticut River from Hanover, New Hampshire to Hartford, Connecticut – recapitulating a canoe voyage Ledyard made in 1773when he ran away from Dartmouth College and sailed down the river to his family in Hartford.
    The walk has taken me many interesting places. In one way I'm investigating the nooks and crannies of riverfront New England. But in another way I'm walking from America then to America now. My meditations also follow a trail of ideas. Ledyard was obsessed with exchanging furs obtained in the Pacific Northwest for tea and other export items in China. Part of this vision was his realization of the continuity of the American continent, and its immense possibilities for growth. Although he was an impractical man his ideas were good ones, and it has been interesting to watch their progress down through America's history.
    Almost immediately Ledyard's China trade scheme was taken up by cannier Americans. Soon China trade fortunes, based in part based on the opium trade, accumulated. Back home, these fortunes were invested in industry, and in railroads, so that a century after Ledyard's canoe voyage, his dream of crossing the continent was fulfilled by the iron horse. Railroad fortunes dwarfed those of the China trade, and made some old China trading families richer still. The next generation of several of the most prominent of those families invested in the telephone, and in another half century an electronic iteration of Ledyard's dream had been accomplished. In 1915 the first transcontinental telephone call was made.
    Telephones were high profit and cutting edge, but I don't think high profits alone made Bell Labs inevitable. It took men of vision – maybe not as flamboyant, but certainly as outside the box as John Ledyard – to create a breeding ground for so many ideas that have shaped our present. Solid state physics, the transistor, C programming language, Unix.Isn't it interesting that the one thing all those future-prognosticating geniuses never saw coming was the one thing that has had the most profound effect on our world today? I'm talking, of course, about the personal computer.
    So yeah, this week's blog is a tribute to my new custom built laptop with a million gigs of everything, but also a reflection on the progress of a journey that began at Dartmouth College, and an idea that was born in the 1780s.
    Lately, as a part of my “research” I've been reading a history of Bell Labs called Three Degrees Above Zero by Jeremy Bernstein. This book was published in 1984. Thus, a Bell Labs scientist says, “You could have a New Jersey full of Crays” and still not be able to solve a particularly sticky problem. Well, guess what? Turns out the Apple iPad 2 is as powerful as the $15 million Cray supercomputers of the 1980s.  So, in effect, we now actually do have a New Jersey full of Crays.  The book also speaks wonderingly of the possibility that someday humans and machines might talk – tell that to my Droid! And in perhaps the quaintest observation of all, “He is hooked into the network that enables computer scientists to send messages to each other all over the country.” Wow!
    Doing some research for another project, I came across an ad put out in 1968 by AT&T. In this ad they boldly predict “cordless phones you can carry around” and “picture phones for the home.” Not word about PCs. Then, sometime in the late 70s, while we were distracted by punk rock, the supposed “death” of Elvis, the Iranian hostages, or whatever else, those little buggers snuck up on us.
    The next thing you know, we've got Amazon.
    I'm sure that, by now, everyone who's interested has read George Packer's excellent article on the Big A  It pretty much covers the territory as far as books are concerned. But there is one aspect, according to author and expert Amazon watcher Anthony Weller, where Packer has missed the boat.
    He describes a war between Amazon and traditional publishers in which Amazon is gaining ground on an industry imprisoned by its own traditional ways of doing business. True as far as it goes, but in fact, Amazon doesn't really CARE what happens to traditional publishing because they are already turning huge profits from their own proprietary publishing business. I've blogged about this before, but it's worth another look. Books like Helen Bryan's War Brides, published exclusively by Amazon, have sold millions (yes, millions) of copies - mostly eBooks - to an eBook readership that Amazon more or less owns. This trend will continue, and spread through genre fiction, each niche with its own captive audience. They tried to capture “literary” fiction and non-fiction once before, and failed. The next time, I'm guessing, they'll get it right.
    So, Big A will go along, eating traditional publishing's lunch, but meanwhile they'll be putting the finishing touches on a publishing monolith that will dwarf such challengers as Penguin Random House 
    If only Ledyard hadn't taken that canoe ride!
    Next week - Back to books and a report on the Washington Antiquarian Book Fair. Friday and Saturday, March 7th and 8th. See you there!

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