Book review: “Enchanted Objects”

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I don’t usually post book reviews, but I just finished reading Enchanted Objects, by David Rose, which I undertook as research for my speculative fiction work-in-progress.

Enchanted ObjectsThe book jacket copy describes Rose as “an award-winning entrepreneur and instructor at the MIT Media Lab, specializing in how digital information interfaces with the physical environment.” My brain began whirring the moment I heard about the book and I was excited to hear him speak at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park in July as part of his book tour.

His talk both enchanted and disturbed me, as did the book itself. A few things I found enchanting:

  • that the book begins with the question “What makes something magical?”;
  • that smart people like David Rose are asking what relationship we want to have with technology;
  • that “the most promising and pleasing future is one where technology infuses ordinary things with a bit of magic to create a more satisfying interaction and evoke an emotional response”—and that this enchantment should be based on fundamental human drives that have their earliest expression in myths and storytelling;
  • that optimists like Rose see technology evolving beyond the “black-slab” so ubiquitous now in the form of our ever-proliferating screens.

I have a harder time articulating what disturbed me. Partly it was the obvious fact that any technology can be applied for good or ill. For example, cloud-connected objects open the door to hacking, government surveillance, and further erosion of the membrane between public and private life. (Just look at the potential problems inherent in unsecured devices like Fitbit or “smart” homes controlled by not-so-in-control software.)

A bigger and less specific discomfort arises from one of the questions that is sparking the research and writing of my current novel:

What is our relationship, as a culture, with the ideas and artifacts of progress?

Rose is an unapologetic technological optimist—as well he should be, given his work at MIT’s media lab and the many tech companies he has been involved with starting. To his credit, Enchanted Objects doesn’t ignore the potentially darker side of an Internet of Things. But—optimistically—he believes that humans’ desire for good will check and balance any Big Brother scenarios.

I’m not so sure. Perhaps it’s my pessimistic nature, or my fear of unintended consequences, or the creep-factor inherent in a world of inanimate objects that respond to you as if they were aware. Some of the worst problems in the world have arisen not from the actions of dedicated evil-doers or nefarious anti-heroes but from millions of small and seemingly inconsequential decisions by individuals. Each decision, on its own, seems benign and even positive, but the sum total of these decisions end up leading us down a garden path toward a future much darker than the one we envisioned.

Whether you are an optimist or pessimist, I recommend Enchanted Objects as a chronicle of the important work currently being done by leading technology researchers and thinkers. It’s written accessibly, without jargon, and holds together as a summation of the arc of Rose’s career to date.

We may wish to slow or even reverse humanity’s relentless pursuit of technology, but given the impossibility of that wish, I suppose we could do worse than to end up in the world Rose describes in Enchanted Objects.

What do you think? Would you be charmed or disturbed by an umbrella that tells you when it’s going to rain?

À la recherche du temps perdu*

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Last month, I answered some questions about my writing, one of which was “Why do I write what I do?” My answer focused on the “what.” In the weeks since, I’ve realized there’s a deeper reason for the “why.”

Back in the days when photography required developing, a chemical fixative would stop the development of the image and preserve or fix it.

"DevelopingFilm1937" by Flickr photographer dok1 / Don O'Brien - Flickr photo. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“DevelopingFilm1937″ by Flickr photographer dok1 / Don O’Brien – Flickr photo. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Writing, for me, has always been a fixative for time.

I’ve felt since my twenties that time was accelerating. Sometimes I joke that the reason bills go unpaid or food spoils in the fridge is that I cannot accurately perceive the elapsed time since I paid last month’s bill or stashed the yogurt on the second shelf. Of course, this is merely a perception—albeit a powerful and disconcerting one.

Ron Friedman, writing about the time acceleration phenomenon for Fast Company, cited a plausible explanation (apart from biology) for this feeling. The Habituation Hypothesis rests on the idea that as we get older, more and more of our daily activities become reflexive. This habituation causes an inattention that leads to the feeling that life is an ever-accelerating merry-go-round of repeated activity.

I’ve been experiencing this more lately as I pause before bed to reflect on the day in my journal (yes, I still keep a hand-written journal). My changing journal entries embody, with distressing accuracy, the crux of the Habituation Hypothesis. When I was younger, I wrote page after page about new experiences, new people, new emotions. Now I find it difficult to come up with anything that differentiates one day from another. With rare exceptions, each day resembles the one before, if not in content, then at least in form.

Oddly, I enjoy this repetition at the same time that I find it distressing. I enjoy my daily rituals: making a pot of tea each morning, taking a late afternoon walk, and cooking dinner each evening while listening to the news and sipping a glass of wine.

Embracing opposites

The real revelation is not that time seems to accelerate as we age. Instead it’s that, as we get older, our ability to embrace opposing ideas and emotions expands. We can love our habits while at the same time feeling distressed by how they make life seem to fly by. We can recognize that embracing the new may serve as an antidote to the acceleration of time, as Friedman suggests, but that new experiences make us anxious. And we can feel compelled to fix the moments of our lives on paper while knowing this fixative is as fleeting as any electrochemical flash of memory in the brain.

In contemplating all of this—which is, inevitably, tied up with feelings about mortality—I return to one thing that seems to function as an all-purpose salve for both existential and visceral woes, something that any of us can practice, at any time.

Mindfulness.

Paying attention to what is happening in the current moment is an anti-fixative. The purpose of mindfulness is not to hold on but attend to what is before you and then to let it go. Paradoxically, this focused attention and letting go can turn habituated moments into magical ones, a jumbled rush of frantic activity into a captivating tableau, or an ebbing life into a series of savored moments.

More on the perception of time

A brush with death slows time – Radiolab story
Time Warped” – Claudia Hammond’s book

* Thanks to Marcel Proust for lending the title of his seven-volume novel to this post. The title is usually translated as “Remembrance of Things Past” but a closer translation is “In Search of Lost Time.”

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Ask me anything (really)

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Goodreads authors can now enable the “Ask the Author” feature, allowing readers to submit questions to their favorite (or maybe no-so-favorite) writers.

When I heard about this, the acronym “AMA” came to mind. AMA is Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything” open question forum where everyone from Guillermo Del Toro to President Obama can answer questions of all kinds.

When I started thinking about Reddit, I started thinking about Aaron Swartz, the prodigy/tech genius/hacker/activist/lead developer of Reddit who took his own life at age 26 in January, 2013.

The fact that it took me only two conceptual leaps to arrive at this place may be partially due to recently hearing an interview with Brian Knappenberger, the director of a new film about Aaron’s life, “The Internet’s Own Boy.”

And I may have gotten there so fast because I too have a boy, a boy who is now just a decade younger than Aaron got to be and only a couple of years shy of Aaron’s age when he helped build Reddit. My boy, too, is at home on the Internet. He has a different set of interests and skills, but reading Aaron’s parents’ reflections about their son after his death gave me chills.

Having arrived at this place of sober contemplation, the idea of readers asking authors questions on Goodreads seemed suddenly lacking in gravitas.

But of course it’s not, or at least it doesn’t have to be. Sure, readers will ask their share of silly questions, like what authors eat for breakfast or whether they write in their bathrobes.* But the potential is there to engage at deeper levels.

SlippersThe things I write about—searching for meaning in life, how we find the will to live in the face of the vastness of the universe, making meaningful connections with other human beings—go to the core of what it means to live and breathe on this earth. Questions asked of an author have the potential to matter as much as any others.

So go ahead: ask me anything—below, on Goodreads, Twitter, or Facebook—wherever suits your fancy. I’ll do my best to do justice to your questions.

*Toast and tea. Bathrobe: no; slippers: yes.

Another way to stay in touch

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Bunny on the run reveals work in progress

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One thing you learn about life after a while is that there is never a perfect time for anything.

A few weeks ago, my former doula client, Fault Zone assistant editor, fellow writer, and friend Dorcas Cheng-Tozun e-mailed me to ask if I’d be interested in participating in a “blog hop.”

By Paulo Costa (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Paulo Costa (Own work)”, via Wikimedia Commons

Flexing my haunches and wiggling my ears, I read on to see what was involved. (Forgive the tired metaphor; I cannot help but picture those small mammals of the family Leporidae whenever I hear the term “blog hop.”) Despite falling in the chain-letter category of online publicity, it seemed a worthy undertaking: women writers highlighting one another’s work by answering a few questions about their own work and then providing links to several other blogs. (Here’s how Dorcas answered the questions.)

The one problem was the terrible timing. I would need to get my post ready for the week of June 23, and line up the other writers for the following week. Meantime, I was in the middle of organizing Fault Zone readings for the San Mateo County Fair, editing submissions for Fault Zone: Diverge (non-member entries open till August 1), and preparing for a week on the east coast.

But I said yes, and I’m glad I did.

Hopping in the real world

My east coast trip felt like a real-world manifestation of a blog hop. I spent time with two dear long-time friends: Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez, professor of gender studies and literature at Simon’s Rock College and founder of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, and Rochelle Nemrow, founder and CEO of FamilyID.

These are not the women to whom I passed the blog hop baton, but I wanted to recognize the extraordinary work both are doing. Jenny has created a community of women writers in the Berkshires that has spawned an annual month-long celebration of writing with readings, workshops, theater, and storytelling for women of all ages—and now an anthology. Rochelle has created a company that not only provides a valuable service to families but supports families in its business and hiring practices. I’m really proud to call them my friends—and to brag that I knew them when. (Jenny’s faculty bio mentions that our childhood friendship is partly responsible for her attending the college.)

Now on to the blog hop questions and answers. Get ready for a tiny bit of a “reveal” here as I discuss my current writing project—but very tiny, as I am one of those writers who doesn’t like discussing my work too early in the creative process.

What am I working on/writing?

The phrasing of this question allows me to brag about all the writing other people are doing since I’m in the middle of editing submissions for the next Fault Zone anthology, Fault Zone: Diverge (contributors, please be patient!)

I really love editing. I know some writers don’t—and I know it is easier to edit the work of others than to edit one’s own. But I gain enormous satisfaction from helping writers bring out the best in their words. (I wrote about this in a post in which I compared the joy I derive from editing to the joy I derive from supporting families during childbirth as a doula.)

I’m also trying to find the time to work on a new novel that popped up unannounced one day a few months ago. Here are a few things about it:

  1. It’s a departure from my usual genre of literary fiction into speculative fiction, set in the near future.
  2. Though the world of the book contains technology of the future, the focus is not on the gadgetry but on the human beings who are immersed in it.
  3. The central idea of the book is that storytelling can save the world.

How does my writing/work differ from others in its genre?

After receiving degrees in creative writing and in journalism, I struggled for years with the question of popular vs. academic (or commercial vs. literary) fiction. Eventually I arrived at the conclusion that I wanted to combine the best of both.

By Evan-Amos (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Guilty pleasure. By Evan-Amos (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the literary tradition, I aim for language that is rich and appealing in its own right. But that appeal must never be for its own sake. The words must always reveal character or advance plot, even as they please the ear. I want to walk the tightrope between commercial and literary, offering books that people label pleasures rather than guilty pleasures. Kind of like dark chocolate sea-salt caramels rather than M&Ms.

Writing in a new genre—speculative fiction—is humbling. I have enjoyed stories set in the future since I first read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. But realizing what a rich body of work exists in this area—and wondering how I will contribute anything original to this sea of stories—keeps me up at night. I’ve had to make a conscious decision not to think too much about existing books and established authors, but instead dig deeply into the world I’m imagining. I have to believe that my take on the world of the future won’t be exactly the same as someone else’s. In literature, after all, there are no original themes.

Why do I write what I do?

I still write fiction for the same reason I did when I was ten: “to find the answers to life’s persistent questions” (the raison d’être of the fictional detective Guy Noir in A Prairie Home Companion). Of course, the questions I worked out through writing in elementary school are vastly different from the ones I’m tackling in my current novel.

These days my questions are about culture, society, and technology. What are the unintended consequences of smart phones, driverless cars, wearable computers, computers you swallow—especially on creativity? Should I worry that my kids spend as many hours in interactive gaming as I used to spend with my nose buried in the pages of a book? What’s an older generation to do when it feels its core values are threatened by the evolution of technology and culture? Are there such things as universal cultural values? Is our society really going to hell in a handbasket?

How does my writing process work?

I write every day. I floss regularly, exercise 40 minutes 4 times a week, and get at least 8 hours of sleep.

One of those statements is true. Ask my dentist.

I do understand the value of maintaining a regular writing schedule. When I’m not on deadline for another project, I try to write in the morning, for at least a half hour. When I’m on deadline, I fall back on weekly dates with my writing partner, which guarantee at least two hours of writing. Since two hours a week is not sufficient to maintain momentum on a novel, I’ll be back to daily writing when my editing deadlines ease.

But my characters are with me throughout the day even if I’m not sitting down and typing. I collect scraps of ideas, images, and scenes. I often work out plot or motivation problems when walking, cooking, or practicing yoga.

I’m a firm believer in the power of the seeded unconscious to fuel creativity. That is, first tackling a problem head on, then letting it go and letting the mind to turn to other things, or to nothing, allowing solutions and ideas to arise from a place that is often inaccessible when you try to reach it directly.

And I edit as I go. I usually begin each writing session by reading over and lightly editing the previous session’s work to get me in the frame of mind to move ahead. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, few things are more painful than putting down fresh words in a story.

Who’s next on this exciting blog hop?

Next up are two writers I know in different ways. I met Darlene Frank in person through the California Writers Club. I then had the pleasure of editing her work for the Fault Zone anthologies. I “met” Julia Whitmore by chance, stumbling on her blog in my many serendipitous journeys around cyberspace, and I’m glad I did. I can’t wait to hear what they both have to say in answer to these questions, and I hope you’ll check them out too.

Darlene FrankDarlene Frank is a writer, editor, and creativity coach who helps writers gain creative confidence and fulfill their artistic vision and dreams. She works with nonfiction authors especially in the self-help and memoir genres and with writers who have undergone a radical life transformation and want to create art from that experience. Several of her memoir stories about being raised as a Mennonite in Pennsylvania are published in literary anthologies, including Fault Zone and Times They Were A-Changing: Women Remember the ’60s and ’70s. As an editor and book consultant, Darlene guides first-time authors through the “indie” publishing route to create a book that shines. She is author of two business books, has written and edited thousands of pages of corporate training materials, and teaches workshops on how to navigate the writer’s journey. She lives by the ocean in the San Francisco Bay Area, her creative home for over 30 years. Visit her at www.DarleneFrankWriting.com.

Julia WhitmoreJulia Whitmore lives in the Pacific Northwest, and is a lifelong closet diarist. She came out (as a writer) three years ago, and now juggles the rocky business of learning to write fiction, with a host of interests and activities. She teaches yoga, plays in a band and enjoys travel, hiking, skiing, gardening and cycling. Over the years, her passion for politics has led her to school funding, environmental projects, helping out at the local library and youth symphony. Her first try at novel writing, which she describes as a classic beginner seat-of-the-pants effort, is tucked high in a dark closet. She hopes to finish draft one of novel two this summer. This second story might, she says, be read by more than her critique group, perhaps by her sweetie and an editor, before undergoing major surgery revisions. She and her husband are celebrating thirty years together this year, and have two children. Visit her at http://holdouts.wordpress.com.

Please stop by and visit them.

 

 

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Where do your stories live?

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As a Mother’s Day gift this year, I asked my family not for a thing but for an experience.

“Let’s get together once a week and read a book aloud.”

Lady readingWith much grumbling—and some one-upsmanship involving my 16-year-old proving how much more mature he is than his 13-year-old brother by being more agreeable—the three men in my life concurred.

I loaded the book I’d like to start with, Karen Russell’s Sleep Donation, onto my Kindle. But as of today, nearly a month later, we have yet to engage in a single reading session. We almost pulled it off a few weeks ago, but Older Son informed me at the last minute that he was committed to walk his friend’s dog.

Honest misunderstanding… or passive-aggressive avoidance?

Either way, I’ve been thinking lately about the different ways we tell and listen to stories. Stories are everywhere: in TV dramas like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Orange Is the New Black. They’re in video games like Outlast and even Minecraft. They’re in 140-character conversations among friends and strangers. They’re in words spilled across a cafe table between near strangers who seem to share an outlook on life.

I’ve written before about the place of long-form fiction in this new world of stories. The arguments seem ceaseless about whether “the novel” is dead. All that hand-wringing used to worry me. What if I am a dinosaur, a dying breed, the last gasp of a civilization unraveling as a result of its addiction to brevity and technology?

Recently, though, I’ve concluded that I don’t care whether the novel is dead or dying, because storytelling is alive and well. It’s like that old business trope about the railroads being superseded by the automobile because the rail companies thought they were in the train business rather than the transportation business. If writers think of themselves as only about words on paper, then their work will be superseded by newly emerging art forms. But if we define ourselves as storytellers, we’ll endure no matter what the medium.

The impetus to share personal journeys, to shape the events of life into a comprehensible narrative, to turn tragedy into anecdote, to understand ourselves by speaking the truth of what we have experienced—these elements of story will only be extinguished with the last breath of human civilization.

This tension between old and new means of expression is part of the theme of my new work, which I am—somewhat ironically—conceiving of as a novel. Consider it the last gasp of a dying dinosaur.

Where do you get your story fix? Take the poll or leave a comment.

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