Review of What Just Happened, by James Gleick

I’m on a bit of a James Gleick kick right now, and before I dig into reading The Information in earnest, I figured I’d step back and write up my thoughts on What Just Happened, a collection of his technology essays from 1990 – 2001.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Gleick, he’s a fantastic science and technology writer, best known for his biographies of Isaac Newton and Richard Feynman…although when you’re a polymath like Gleick, “best known for” oversimplifies the breadth of your accomplishments.

During the nineties, he was at the forefront of those who understood just how profound the changes taking place to the information landscape were. He may not have been right 100% of the time (more on that in a minute), but he was always willing to see past the immediate wow factor of any given technological innovation to get at the larger implications for us as individuals, for our culture, and for society as a whole.

As you might expect, he covers a lot of ground in WJH, from the joys and frustrations of being a WinWord power user, to the radical transformation of telcos, the growth of Microsoft, the Internet and politics, the death of money, Y2K, and even the state of Internet porn circa 1995.

All the essays are excellent here, although some are more substantial than others. And while Gleick is always well-informed on his subject matter, you can definitely tell which topics he’s engaged with more deeply (especially the history of telephony, which is the starting point for The Information).

Mostly right

What was most striking to me, his modesty in the preface notwithstanding, is how often Gleick gets it right here. Even in the dim first light of the Internet age, he saw with surprising clarity just what this new thing would mean for us.

We definitely laugh when he pokes fun at the Bell Labs employees running around with their buzzing, beeping devices getting plain-text stock quotes or news items and forwarded answering machine messages from their voice mail. But he also steps back from this near-sighted perspective to give us his real thoughts on the matter: these science experiments and toy gadgets will fundamentally alter how we live our lives–and had already started to do so, even way back when he was writing these essays.

And when he does step back, you almost suspect him of having revised the essays in light of what was to come…except in the case of porn (“This is Sex?”), which he doesn’t see as all that suited to the online world. A small misstep in an otherwise eerily prescient collection of essays.

A state of wonder

Beyond how right Gleick is about most of this stuff, there’s also a real sense of wonderment here, a slack-jawed stare at the changes going on that asks could this really come to pass during my lifetime?

It’s like looking at one of of those “Home of the Future” spreads in a 50s issue of Popular Mechanics, where computers cook meals and robots put your slippers on, except that in hindsight we know that Gleick was right–the amazing gadgets and technologies he previews have become an expected, even routine part of our everyday lives. It makes me wonder which of the futuristic capabilities that we marvel at today will be ho-hum in ten year’s time.

Getting used to it

Finally, I was amazed throughout the book at how rapidly we’ve adapted to all these seismic changes to the way we live our lives. From how we communicate with family, friends, and colleagues, to how we pay for goods and services, consume news and entertainment, do business, and participate in politics, things have changed radically since 1990. And as Gleick points out, we struggled with them deeply, and in retrospect, almost comically so, as they were emerging.

But from this side of the shift, it’s hard to remember in any tangible way what it was like before debit cards, cell phones, Microsoft Word, and seamless e-commerce. Reading Gleick’s first-hand account from the front lines of these shifts is a reminder both of just how difficult and how short-lived such transitions are these days.

The final word

All in all, this is a great book–required reading for anyone interested in technology and its impact on society, both looking forward and looking back.

And while I turn now plow through The Information, I’d love to hear from folks out there who’ve read WJH: what’d you all think? Love it? Hate it? Did I miss anything in my assessment? Jump in, and let’s get the conversation started!

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2 Responses

  1. fairly helpful material, overall I picture this is worthy of a book mark, thank you

  2. Thanks…glad you found the review helpful!

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