Brain Pickings

5 Vintage Versions of Modern Social Media from Centuries Ago

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From Voltaire’s status updates to Edison’s viral videos, or what Diderot has to do with data visualization.

We’ve previously made the case that everything builds on what came before, yet our human tendency is to inflate and overestimate the novelty of our ideas. Today, we turn to five concepts from the centuries of yore remarkably similar to the central premises of five of today’s social web darlings, in the hope of illustrating that, indeed, creativity is combinatorial and innovation incremental.

TWITTER

In November of 1906, artist, anarchist and literary entrepreneur Félix Fénéon wrote 1,220 succinct three-line reports in the Paris newspaper Le Matin, serving to inform of everything from notable deaths to petty theft to naval expedition disasters. He became the one-man Twitter of early-twentieth-century Paris. In Illustrated Three-Line Novels: Félix Fénéon, artist Joanna Neborsky captures the best of these enigmatic vignettes in stunning illustrations and collages. Sometimes profound, often perplexing, and always prepossessing, these visual snapshots of historical micro-narratives offer a bizarre and beautiful glimpse of a long-gone French era and a man of rare creative genius.

Catch our full review, with many more illustrated “tweets,” here.

FACEBOOK

Long before there was Facebook, there was the Republic of Letters — a vast and intricate network of intellectuals, linking the finest “philosophes” of the Enlightenment across national borders and language barriers. This self-defined community of writers, scholars, philosophers and other thinkers included greats like Voltaire, Leibniz, Rousseau, Linnaeus, Franklin, Newton, Diderot and many others we’ve come to see as linchpins of cultural history. Mapping the Republic of Letters is a fascinating project by a team of students and professors at Stanford, visualizing the famous intellectual correspondence of the Enlightenment, how they traveled, and how the network evolved over time.

More on the project in our original piece about it here. See also Dena Goodman’s excellent and somewhat controversial The Republic of Letters : A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment.

QUORA

Published in London between 1690 and 1697, The Athenian Mercury supplied answers to readers’ questions on love, literature, science, religion and a variety of utilitarian concerns and personal matters. The answers came from The Athenian Society, consisting of publisher John Dunton and three of his close friends.

The Athenian Oracle: Being an Entire Collection of All the Valuable Questions and Answers in the Old Athenian Mercuries is an exact reproduction of a book published in the early 1920s, culling the most fascinating and curious questions and answers from the gazette’s archive. You can also sample some of them on the Athenian Mercury Project online.

HT MetaFilter

YOUTUBE

If you thought drawing large audiences around silly cat videos is a phenomenon of the YouTube era, you’d be wrong. The man to whom we largely owe the very existence of YouTube — Thomas Edison, who invented the first motion picture camera and made film both a mass communication medium and a creative craft — also invented the cats-engaging-in-silly-acts viral meme…in 1894:

Edison was also no stranger to the selling power of some girl-on-girl action, as evidenced by this antique viral of boxing women:

These gems, along with others, were originally featured in our piece on Thomas Edison and the invention of movies.

TUMBLR

Thomas of Ireland authored the most famous florilegium of all time. Florilegia were compilations of excerpts from other writings, mashing up selected passages and connecting dots from existing texts to better illustrate a specific topic, doctrine or idea. The word comes from the Latin for “flower” and “gather.” The florilegium is one of the earliest recorded examples of remix culture — a Medieval textual Tumblr.

I spoke about the florligeium as a metaphor for networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity in my recent Creative Mornings talk on the subject.

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New York and the Dawn of Cartoons: 7 Animation Pioneers

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What lovable dinosaurs have to do with chalkboard, Cab Calloway and the hypocrisies of Hollywood.

While California may have its Pixar and Dreamworks, much of the talent that gave animation its start hailed from New York. Today, we turn to the seminal work of five such pioneering animators who did New York proud, a follow-up to our recent omnibus of five early animation pioneers.

J. STUART BLACKTON

J. Stuart Blackton may be best-known for his 1900 masterpiece, The Enchanted Drawing, which earned him the credit of having pioneered animation in America. But his 1906 gem Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, while less well-known, is equally important and era-defining as the earliest surviving American animated film in the strict sense of single-exposures of drawings simulating movement — in this case, using chalkboard sketches and cut-outs.

MAX FLEISCHER

Max Fleischer, a pioneer of animated cartoons, brought us the iconic Betty Boop, Koko the Clown and Popeye characters. In 1932, Betty Boop appeared in “Minnie the Moocher,” a jazz classic by the legendary Cab Calloway.

WINSOR MCCAY

In 1911, Winsor McCay created the landmark film Little Nemo, which is often debated as the first “true” animation. Three years later, his Gertie the Dinosaur claimed its place in history as the first cartoon to feature a character with a well-definted, lovable personality.

OTTO MESSMER

Otto Messmer is best-known as the creator of the Felix the Cat cartoons and comic strips, produced by Pat Sullivan studio. In this 1923 episode, Felix goes to Hollywood, where he encounters celebrities like Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin and Will Hays. Underpinning the cartoon are Messmer’s subtle stabs at Hollywood’s corrupt morals and many hypocrisies.

WALTER LANTZ

Most of us know animator, director, producer and cartoonist Walter Lantz as the creator of Woody Woodpecker. In 1926, some 15 years before Woody, Lantz produced Tail of the Monkey, blending live-action film with cartoon animation.

EARL HURD

Besides inventing the process of cel animation in the early 1910s, Earl Hurd created the once influential and now sadly nearly-forgotten Bobby Bumps animated shorts. Sample them with this treat from 1916: Bobby Bumps and the Stork.

PAUL TERRY

Between 1915 and 1955, Paul Terry produced some 1,300 cartoons, many under his popular Terrytoons studio. Among them was the 1923 gem A Cat’s Life — which, some might say, got a head start on the viral cat videos meme by some 80 years.

For more on the marvel and promise of the dawn of animation, see the excellent Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons.

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The Geography of Bliss: The Secrets of the Happiest Places on Earth

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From Iceland to India, or what medieval depictions of heaven have to do with the neuroscience of well-being.

The French call it la chasse au bonheur. Americans have it inscribed into their constitution. The hunt for happiness seems to be a global, fundamentally human pursuit — but what exactly is its actual prey and does that prey have a natural habitat? That’s exactly what Eric Weiner explores in The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World — a fascinating tale of psychology, geopolitics, science, travel and humor, and a fine addition to these 7 essential books on happiness. From the relationship between democracy and happiness to the role of religion, temperature and failure in happiness, the book offers a provocative perspective on what happiness is — and isn’t — and where we might find it.

Weiner came of age as an NPR correspondent, reporting from some of the gloomiest, unhappiest places on Earth. So he decided to seek out their opposite and spent a year traveling the globe, hunting down the world’s unheralded happy places, where one or more of the ingredients we consider essential to well-being — pleasure, money, spirituality, family, chocolate — flow unabated. The itch for his quest came from a what-if we’re all familiar with:

What if you lived in a country that was fabulously wealthy and no one paid taxes? What if you lived in a country where failure is an option? What if you lived in a country so democratic that you voted seven times a year? What if you lived in a country where excessive thinking is discouraged? Would you be happy then?”

Our tendency to conflate geography and happiness seems to be more deeply embedded in our thinking and even our language than we realize. We speak about “looking for” happiness and “finding” joy as though these were specific locations on an actual map. Until the 18th century, people even believed the Garden of Eden, the biblical notion of paradise, was a real place, so they depicted in on maps — located, as Weiner notes the irony, at the intersection of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where modern-day Iraq lies. At the same time, the entire self-help industry is built — and billed — on the premise that happiness is inside us and we simply need to dig it out. But, Weiner argues, both of these notions are wrong — the line between “out there” and “in here” is much finer than we’ve been led to believe and, as he puts it, where we are is vital to who we are.

The journey wavers across ten countries — The Netherlands, Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar, Iceland, Moldova, Thailand, Great Britain, India and the United States — to uncover the greatest enablers of, as well as obstacles to, happiness, examining in the process a wide spectrum of definitions of what happiness actually is, from Aristotle (“a virtuous activity of the soul”) to Weiner’s personal favorite, by an unhappy man named Noah Webster who penned the first American dictionary (“the agreeable sensations which spring from the enjoyment of good”).

Happy feelings register in the regions of the brain that have evolved most recently. It raises an intriguing question: Are we, in evolutionary if not personal terms, slouching towards happiness?”

In Bhutan, Weiner contemplates their Gross National Happiness as an alternative to GDP as a measure of a nation’s well-being. In The Netherlands, he tracks down Ruut Veenhoven, the godfather of happiness research and proprietor of the World Database of Happiness.

Throughout the narrative, intriguing factoids add delight to journey (did you know that in 1962, the citizens of the Dominican Republic reported the lowest level of happiness recorded in history, a mere 1.6 on a scale of 1 to 10, or that the ubiquitous yellow smiley face graphic was invented by graphic designer Harvey Ball in 1963?), and some perplexing paradoxes begin to emerge — the world’s happiest countries also have high suicide rates; people who attend religious services report being happier than those who don’t, but the world’s happiest nations are secular; countries with a wide gap between rich and poor are no less happy than countries with even wealth distribution.

Weiner’s subtle humor and charming self-derision bring a wink and an exhale to the cerebral, the empirical and the philosophical concepts at the heart of his findings.

Every religion instructs followers in the ways of happiness, be it in this life or the next, be it through submission, meditation, devotion, or, if you happen to belong to the Jewish or Catholic faith, guilt.”

In the end, Weiner comes full circle to the famous words of Henry Miller, with which the book opens:

One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”

The Geography of Bliss is neither a self-help manual nor a pop-psychology book. Instead, its ultimate quest for the objective elements of happiness is, ironically yet intriguingly, just one man’s subjective interpretation of the conditions and complexities of well-being. And, like happiness itself, the book’s beauty lies in the layered insights of its subjectivity.

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