Fantasmagorie and the prevalence of paper

This Kindle thing still amazes me. I came around about the same time as the space shuttle and CDs, and look what else they've invented in my lifetime.

Somewhere in their garage, my parents have a platter from a hard drive that died in Dad's lab at work right before I was born, which is actually the size of a platter, and has a big obvious groove in the surfacing where the air gap collapsed and the head scraped a ring of magnetic material off. I asked them once how big a deal the disk was, and they agreed it would have been maybe a couple of megabytes, been stacked with a bunch of other platters in a rack the size of a small dishwasher, and cost some insane number of thousands of dollars. I'm typing on a $500 laptop that weighs about five pounds and has a 120GB hard drive. The Kindle is solid-state, the size of a trade paperback book, and holds about 3GB of text; my MP3 player is half the size of a matchbox, has a multi-color display on the front, and can hold 4GB of audio and files. Both of them plug into the $500 laptop, and I can change the contents at will. The $500 laptop and the Kindle also have tranceivers that allow them to exchange huge amounts of information invisibly over the very air itself.

I wonder sometimes what people from the past would think of all this magic. I've come to the conclusion that someone relatively sophisticated from perhaps the Enlightenment era or later would probably recognize the displays we use on computers as a form of advanced phantasmagoria. One of their distinguishing features of CRTs, LCDs, plasma and electroluminescent displays is that they use lights behind an array of colored crystals or divided by a shadow mask of some kind in order to show you things. The showmen of the 19th century were quite adept at using lanterns, projectors, and shadows to create convincing images of things that were not really there.

Working with light and lenses had become increasingly popular among the learned and eccentric of Europe, heading out of the 17th century. Opinion is divided as to who got there first, but two Dutch fellows named Kircher and Huygens are credited with the invention of what was called, in various languages, the "magic lantern" -- basically a candle-lit slide projector. Candle in one end, lens behind it to direct the light, and a glass plate of whatever you wanted on the wall set in front of the light beam. The small glass plates were painstakingly hand-painted. Images for the magic lantern could be anything from lines to full color, depending on the skill of the painter and the translucency of the pigments used. It was mostly used for pretty or fantastic things until Gothic romances got popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries -- this obsession with vampires, it is not new -- at which point someone got the bright idea to use the magic lantern to scare the bejeezus out of people who had paid for admission to a séance.

While all these effects were still in use in the 19th century, the advent of electric lights and photographic processes enabled entertainers to make them much more elaborate. One of the older effects, which started in the days when limelights involved actual lime, was called "Pepper's ghost". An ingenious configuration of bright lights on a performer down in the orchestra pit and a slanted sheet of glass tilted out over the audience gave the illusion of a ghostly performer sharing the stage with a very real, very solid actor. Because the effect wasn't visible to the actor on the real set, careful choreography had to be employed to make the performance convincing -- not unlike the care required for greenscreen work today.

"Pepper's ghost" is actually still in use today. If you've been to a Disney park lately, the transparent ghosts in the great ballrooms of the various Haunted House/Manor attractions are all done this way. The performers are animatronic figures in reflective costumes rather than actors wearing white sheets, and the hidden chambers are above and below the track the cars ride on; the phantoms that appear in the visible salon are reflected on a huge sheet of optical Plexiglas that sits in the open space between the track and the far wall.

The Kindle is quite a different kettle of fish. Kindles (and other e-readers like some of the Nook models and the Sony Reader Touch) use e-ink technology. The main point of e-ink is that it's reflective, not transmissive -- i.e., it works because it's opaque pigment reflecting light back at your eyes, not colors and shadowmasks you have to shine light through -- and therefore it doesn't require a battery-sucking backlight as TFT LCDs do. There are different kinds, but the gist of it is that each pixel is a little capsule with some beads of opaque white pigment and some beads of opaque black pigment, and that an infinitesimal electric charge applied to the capsule can make some or all of the pigment switch places. Electronic paper only uses battery power when the display changes, which is why a Kindle with the wireless tranceiver off can go a couple of months without needing a charge.

This, I find amazing for an entirely different reason. It is a piece of paper that can change itself a nearly infinite number of times. TFTs need a certain amount of support equipment to work; the film needs to be on a solid substrate with a fairly thick plastic shield on top, because pressure changes the resistivity of the contacts and disrupts the orientation of some of the crystals, and results in that faintly-rainbow oil-slick effect whenever you press your finger on the screen. It also needs some sort of power source for the backlight; technically, you can have a TFT LCD with a reflective backing instead of a backlight, but as Nintendo learned from its first attempt at the Gameboy Advance, it doesn't work all that well, and people bitch at you a lot. Early LCDs used tiny lightbulbs, of the sort they used to put behind the displays of VCRs and stereo systems, but now it's mostly white LEDs.

(The existence of white LEDs is an interesting story itself. For the longest time, LEDs came in green, red, orange and yellow, and that was it. The white ones are a direct result of the sudden cheap availability of the blue ones, which are a comparatively recent invention. Decades from now, when someone makes a retro movie set in the 2000s, the entire goddamn world is going to be covered in black mylar finish, Sony console logos, and bright electric blue LEDs, in much the same way as movies set in the 1970s are full of macramé, polyester, and faux woodgrain.)

The e-ink displays look like a very clean sheet of colloid or plastic paper. The e-ink part by itself is just a film, which can be laminated on both sides and still be thin and flexible enough to use in gimmicky magazine covers. The amount of power it needs to effect its metamorphosis is so small that carbon tape batteries will suffice to keep it running for months at a time.

We think this is neat because paper paper is everywhere in our culture. We pretty much all know how to read and write, here in the first world, and we all went through years and years of schooling full of pencils and pens and tedious worksheets, all photocopied onto cheap paper. We consider it disposable. We label things with it. We wrap things in it. When we produce a thing we figure will be thrown away almost immediately, like a gift box or an advertising circular or a daily newspaper, we make it out of cheap paper. We use and abuse the stuff so much we had to figure out a way of making paper into other paper, so we didn't have entire landfills full of it.

For many hundreds of years, this was not the case. Paper used to be expensive. It was a luxury. It was a major funding-sink in schooling, much like textbooks are today. At least in America, many schoolchildren still did their homework with chalk on erasable slates through the 19th century. Paper is heavy as hell to ship in bulk, as anyone who has ever had to move reams of printer paper can attest, so it was usually of local manufacture, and handmade. It was a major expense in the printing of books, and when cheap penny dreadfuls and yellow journalism became popular, quality paper and whitespace were the first thing the publishers cut back on, in an effort to save on production.

If you brought Leonardo da Vinci into today, one of the things that would most amaze him is the sheer amount of inexpensive paper and easy printing that exists in our world. Producing texts in bulk is still comparatively expensive, but with a minimum of effort literally nearly anyone in a first world country, and probably in a lot of second-world places, can write a thing and have a handful of copies printed up in a type and on a paper indistinguishable from that used by professional publishing houses. Professional scribes have been relegated to doing calligraphic art and wedding invitations. Even professional typists are rare now, and professional typesetters only somewhat less so.

And now I have a whatzit, the size and weight of a small paperback with its case, and the size and weight of a small academic monograph without, which is effectively a single sheet which can become an infinity of other pieces of paper at will. I have thousands of pages stored on the thing -- it is a small library all on its own. Mine happens to have all the magic over-air-info bits as well, so if I have the patience and at least one bar of signal, I can access untold millions of other pages on the internet. In accordance with Sturgeon's Law most of them will be poorly-written crap, but they're there.

It is nice to sit and look at the thing and get the feeling that, however popular the bread and circuses get, there are still people working to make sure the spread of art and information never dies.

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