Alchemical futures

Sometimes, I’m lucky enough to have the chance to teach a short course about science fiction to a group of 17 year-olds. I’m always intrigued to find out what ‘science fiction’ means to them. This week, kicking off, one lad went straight for super-powers. As it happens, I’ve never had this answer before, but what made me take note was how well he explained what he meant, quickly but thoughtfully: science fiction giving us access to other possible worlds, possible futures … what if … maybe … perhaps … one day … then I could … dream that … build that … I should add, he was the same student who homed in on science fiction and dystopian futures, so he wasn’t sitting there being idly optimistic.

I went through a phase in my teens of reading lots of Jung and, a little later, Freud, considering medicine and psychiatrist / psychoanalyst as a possible future. I still have many of the books I bought then. Jung led me off on curious paths. Alchemy was in there, of course, and has endured as an interest — morphing along the way. I went off certain Jungians at some deep level after a conference (held in Windsor Great Park!), which struck my 18 year-old self as pretty bonkers and anti-science, and I used to get my Jungian books from a very odd bookshop in the middle of nowhere (deep, rural Gloucestershire) which the friends I persuaded to come along (or give me a lift there) ended up calling ‘the magic bookshop’. New Age, though we didn’t know it.

But alchemy’s never gone away. It couldn’t, could it? I loved that Royal Institution talk I went to back in 2006, ‘Alchemy, the occult beginnings of science: Paracelsus, John Dee and Isaac Newton’. The dream of a very special super-power, transforming both matter (world) and self.

Alchemy, originally derived from the Ancient Greek word khemia (Χημεία - in Modern Greek) meaning "art of transmuting metals", later arabicized as the Arabic word al-kimia (الكيمياء, ALA-LCal-kīmiyā’), is both a philosophy and an ancient practice focused on the attempt to change base metals into gold, investigating the preparation of the “elixir of longevity”, and achieving ultimate wisdom, involving the improvement of the alchemist as well as the making of several substances described as possessing unusual properties. The practical aspect of alchemy can be viewed as a protoscience, having generated the basics of modern inorganic chemistry, namely concerning procedures, equipment and the identification and use of many current substances.

Alchemy has been practiced in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), India, Persia (modern Iran), China, Japan, Korea, the classical Greco-Roman world, the medieval Islamic world, and then medieval Europe up to the 20th and 21st centuries, in a complex network of schools and philosophical systems spanning at least 2,500 years.  Wikipedia

And given a background in zoology and theology, I’ve not been able to get this out of my head since stumbling across it the other week:

Once, he called himself a “biologian”, merging the subject matter of life with the method of a theologian. More recently, he told me that he is an alchemist. In Defense of the Memory Theater

Isn’t that great? What a way to think of what you’re engaged on. The work.

It is, by the way, well worth reading all of Nathan Schneider’s post about his uncle, the “alchemist”:

The most remarkable memory theater I’ve ever known is on a computer. It is the work of my uncle, once a biologist at the National Institutes of Health, a designer of fish farms, a nonprofit idealist, and a carpenter. Now he has devoted himself full-time to his theater … [a] single, searchable, integrated organism. When he tells me about it, he uses evolutionary metaphors cribbed from his years researching genetics. The creature mutates and adapts. It learns and grows.

Delicious (I)

I started blogging in November 2003 and my first use of Delicious was on 12 July, 2004. I see that many of my entries for that July are, unsurprisingly, tagged “blogging_community”. They’re still there in Delicious, but I can’t find them via the timeline of pages unless I reverse sort these. Is the Delicious edifice crumbling? I’m glad I’ve a number of local backups dating back over the years. But that is matter for another post.

When I started using Delicious, it was almost entirely as a prop to help me get up to speed with everything I was discovering online. Those years were hectic. I remember when I first started teaching what a learning curve there was and how weekends and nights, in term and holiday alike, disappeared in preparation, reading and marking for at least the first three years (made the more intense as I evolved into an English teacher, a subject I’d last studied formally in my mid-teens). We all know these periods of unavoidable, passionate engagement as we close with a new subject, a new discipline, a new pursuit.

I look back now to another time when, rather late to the party, I began to register what the arrival of the accessible read-write web meant. It was in November 2003, with the birth of TypePad, that it first hit me: a long period, where what had been hard — requiring coding skills that divided the world into the few who had them and the rest of us who, most decidedly, did not, was coming to an end and the ready ability to publish and be heard (who knew by whom?) was upon us. I knew then that I wanted to be involved in this, the future-already-becoming-the-present.

So, for a long while, Delicious, for me, was nearly all about discovery and very rapid note-taking, itself requiring the investment of much time, if I were to gain even a basic grasp of all this stuff. I learned to read fast but attentively, précis-by-excerpt, tag and bookmark, binding knowledge together in a way that had to do duty in the absence of something more adequate (no appropriate memory theatre, then or now).

Back then, as soon as TypePad made it straightforward to use FeedBurner (June 2006?), it seemed to me right to link together the feed for this blog and that of Delicious (a decision I probably wouldn’t make today, were I starting over). Blogging and bookmarking seemed like the two leaves of a diptych in a period when the pace was both frenetic and apparently inexorably determined by technological change.

Things haven’t got slower (as if — though I think I can now be, and am, more discriminating, both knowing more and being a bit the wiser), but my reading habits have certainly changed. With extensive commuting (c 160 miles a day), the time on a train to read and, more significantly, the year-long experience of using an iPad and Instapaper whilst being connected, the way I work, read and think has changed.

One of the pleasures of living in a more connected world is the constant discovery that changes you thought peculiar to you are going on, simultaneously, in others. I noted Read It Later’s post last week, Is Mobile Affecting When We Read?. I can certainly identify with the use of whitespace time, but I’ve been more struck in the last few months with how I’m storing material up in Instapaper, going back to it, archiving things that once I would have bookmarked straightaway in Delicious, ruminating over others and then, finally, sending myself an email reminder to bookmark X later. And later frequently, now, means Saturday — when I have the time to deal with what has become a sizeable backlog. More filtering happens at that stage, too.

Delicious (backed up locally and in Pinboard) has assumed a different role in my life. No longer the bank of preference for instant notes, it’s where I’m putting things that I’ve generally sifted or gone back to (sometimes a number of times). (Of course, some things still seem worth bookmarking at once, but the reason for that can itself turn out to be depressingly ephemeral.) I’m much more interested now, much more able now, to use Delicious as a repository for things which I’ve had the time, and the perspective, to weigh.

All of which makes Delicious, or something like it, even more important. And I haven’t even begun to talk about the network.