The Alchemy of Us: Book Review
How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another
All that you touch
All that you Change
The only lasting truth
-Octavia Butler in The Parable of the Sower
The quote above comes from the wonderful book by Octavia Butler through her character Lauren Oya Olamina. If you haven’t read the two Earthseed books, I highly recommend them.
The Alchemy of Us explores this very idea: that we shape matter and the world around us, and in turn, are shaped by our creations.
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I find this exploration fascinating. It is also helpful as professionals and technologists to understand how we can change material or applications, and be affected by the changes we’re making.
The Alchemy of us has many examples of human inventions, how we created them, and how they created a new world. We won’t explore all of them here (check out the book for that), but will take a few examples and apply them.
Interacting and Tracking Time
The first chapter starts the book with an exploration of clocks and time-keeping. I find the history of time fascinating, and we explored it last year in a podcast (along with several other stories, so check that out).
The book doesn’t go as far back in tracking time as we did, but starts with Ruth Belville, the Greenwich Time Lady. Their family business in the 1800s and through the turn of the century involved ensuring everyone had the right time. At the time, the only way to get an accurate time for your clock was through astronomical observations, so Ruth would visit the observatory, set her clock, and then go around London selling the service of allowing everyone to adjust their clocks to the correct time.
All of this because there wasn’t a more accurate way to stay in sync! Until the creation of more accurate clocks and watches through quartz crystals and eventually atomic clocks, London relied on the Greenwich Time Lady to accurately set their clocks.
Prior to our obsession with clocks and accurate time, we (as humans) worked in ranges. Sunrise, high noon, sundown, etc. But with clocks, we now can accurately tell time to the second.
This was important for a more modern economy—running railroads on time, banking, etc. It also led to the thought experiments that brought us closer to the nature of reality. Einstein, working as a patent clerk, saw many of the patent applications trying to solve the problem of synchronizing railroad clocks. This led to his thought experiments of time and trains moving, and eventually to the Theory of Relativity.
I’m glad we can so accurately track time, and that we have a better understanding of our universe and reality. It’s hard to imagine anything else. But our accurate clocks have also enslaved us to time and time-tracking. I know I obsess about time and am constantly aware of the minutes I spend in meetings or other activities.
Many of us, myself included, run our lives by the clock. Whether it’s my own intention or dictated by others, we’re constantly aware of the time—going to school and counting down the minutes to recess, bouncing from meeting to meeting, or allowing ourselves a certain amount of time for activities.
Our ability to tell time precisely has been massively beneficial, but also has changed our lives. And some of the best moments aren’t dictated by the clock, but happen when we lose track of time. So how can we allow for more of those moments and less second-by-second planning? I don’t know the answer to that, but know time is a blessing and a curse.
We live in a world of constant and instant information, but it wasn’t always like that.
Samuel Morse was originally an artist. He was away from his wife working on a commission in Washington, D.C., when she fell ill and passed away. Of course, they only had delayed communication through letters delivered by horse-riders, so he didn’t find out about it until after she had passed away, and didn’t arrive home until after her funeral. He never had the chance to say goodbye or even be present for the burial. That profoundly affected him. And led him to explore faster long-distance communication.
Morse eventually created the telegraph and Morse code to transmit short messages over long distances. This profoundly affected communication and society. Distance was no longer an immense problem, and America craved more and more information. When an assassin shot President Garfield, it practically glued Americans to telegraph updates on his condition and eventual passing.
The telegraph created a culture of instant information, something that continues to this day with other forms of communication. It also affected communication itself. To keep the telegraphs clear for messages, the cost of each message got more and more expensive the longer it was. So the incentive was for concise messages, often under 10 words.
Writers would strip out superfluous words in their dispatches. Families would strip out emotion from messages to shorten them. And this flowed through to general writing. Newspapers became more succinct and authors like Hemingway embraced the concise writing style.
The invention of the telegraph and Morse code was a massive benefit to society, but also changed communication in ways that would have been hard to foresee.
How many of our technologies do the same today? Twitter is an easy comparison, forcing users to shorten posts to 280 characters. And it is one of the most real-time information platforms we have. But other tools and applications have changed society. All of social media has connected us more now than ever before, both for good and bad. Streaming services have changed how we watch movies and television, and how we create the shows.
When we build our products and technology, we rarely expect them to have world-changing affects. But they can. So it is our responsibility to think through the implications of what we’re creating. How can it be used for good? How could it be used for evil? How can it be used in unexpected ways?
I go through this exercise often, as we add new features and products. We try to understand, prior to creating, how our users and customers might use new updates for good and bad. We can’t anticipate everything, but try to think through how those scenarios might play out and if we think it is worth the change, especially if a good update might cause more harm if used inappropriately.
When Edison created the phonograph, he wanted to record sound and play it back. He was successful, and this invention changed everything from music to conversation to society.
Eventually this “recording of information” led to further breakthroughs, from digitizing information, to hard disks for storing more and more data. We are now easily able to store massive amounts of information and access it seamlessly.
But as the world became data and stored more information, we’ve also become data ourselves. We can turn everything we do into data to be bought and sold and used.
Recording data has been a blessing and a curse, like many of the innovations before. Being able to have so much information is amazing for us, for businesses, and for society. But we don’t have nearly as much control over our own data as we should.
There are many products addressing this, but we still have a long way to go in how we manage and share our own information. This was another difficult to foresee use of new technology, but something we need to thoughtfully fix for the future.
The Alchemy of Us was a fascinating read, with marvellous stories about innovation and technology, and how we’ve both created new inventions and have been shaped by those inventions. As professionals and technologists, it is our responsibility to think through the implications of what we’re creating, and to fix many of the problems that have come before.
Other Good Links
Adele gets Spotify to take shuffle button off all album pages (article) - I’m surprised it took this long. Artists often create albums in a certain way, and intend listeners to experience the album in its entirety or in the way they created it. I remember this debate when I was young and you could only shuffle CDs rather than on Spotify. Not that we shouldn’t be able to skip or shuffle, but it’s also interesting to think about the order the musician created, and why.
Vinyls are Now Outselling CDs (article) - I’ve been building my own vinyl collection, and really enjoy it. So it’s not surprising to me that vinyl is doing so well. But it’s fascinating how the process works and how it can’t even keep up with demand.
“In the first half of this year more than 17 million vinyl records were sold in the US — nearly double the number for the first six months of 2020. If you didn't know anything about the formats, you'd be forgiven for thinking vinyl records were a new innovative way to listen to music.
But making vinyls remains a long and difficult process, often relying on technology or machines that were pumping out records in the 70s and 80s. Indeed, The New York Times reports that production logjams are now common for artists, as vinyl makers rely on decades-old pressing machines.
Put simply, supply can't keep up with demand.”
The craft is the end (article) - I really enjoyed this read, and agree that the craft should be the end. I’m not perfect in this, but I realize more and more that status-seeking is a dead-end. I prefer the craft itself rather than trying to get into more and more inner circles (all our professions have them, and I honestly can say I prefer the outside).
For many, the goal of success is to be rich and respected. That’s why you work hard. For this person, the goal is to do the work he thinks is important. Doing the work is the end.
Lewis argues that the answer is craft. If you care about your work—for its own sake—you can transcend the petty status-seeking that surrounds you.