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We Are All Unstuck in Time. And There are Windows in All Directions.

I’ve been thinking about starting work on a research project involving culture and technology. And whenever the “C” and the “T” words come up, I start thinking about why I named this website “Retrograde Mentor”.

Partly, it’s because it comes from the title of one of my short stories and I was listening along with Horatio when Hamlet exhorted him to practice thrift in all things. It might also be an allusion to Marshall McLuhan’s concept of “rear-view mirror” which he explained as something that happens when we are faced with a totally new situation:

...we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”

Art by Andrea Nechita

The rear-view mirror idea once came to mind when I was strolling through an exhibition on the history of radio design at the Victoria and Albert Museum. People adopted radios as soon as they could afford them but the appliances appeared to be anything but radios.

The problem with home radios was that they were sort of a completely new thing. They weren’t a logical extension of an earlier technology, like say how an automobile can be thought of as a development of the horse and buggy, or how a submarine is a different kind of boat, or how an airplane is a kite with delusions of grandeur. The answer was to make radios and gramophones look like wooden cabinets – objects that could fit into your early 20th Century household without ruining your decor and frightening the children. As new materials like bakelite and plastic came about and we got used to what radios were, radios gradually started looking like, well...radios! The same thing was happening with stereos and televisions. The few of you who have survived to my age may remember how the best and most expensive units looked like huge slabs of walnut with glowing blue-gray windows carved into them.

The radios of today would just be too strange and disquieting to early consumers to be accepted for what they actually were. We had to disguise them as something familiar and comforting from the past.

At another level I think the words “Retrograde Mentor” are my attempt to reconcile my interests as a person who works with museums (which are often associated with the past) and my vocation as a science fiction writer (which sort of aspires to be about the future). I believe that there is value in both perspectives and that some really interesting things can emerge when we combine them.

McLuhan had some very perceptive things to say about what the past, present and future mean to us, and the continual waxing and waning popularity of his media theories remind me of Kurt Vonnegut’s characters Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse Five and astronaut Stoney Stevenson from the TV film Between Time and Timbuktu. All are unstuck in time (and space) bouncing about human experience seemingly at random but usually when they reveal the most insight. In other words, there’s more than a rear-view mirror happening here; maybe we’re in the centre of an imaginary panopticon with windows open to all directions.

I have a small personal example of this effect which I’m afraid I will be sharing with you in my next entry.

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