Every scene needs a storyteller.
Every year, the World Science Fiction Society gives out the Hugo Awards for the best science fiction and fantasy of the year. It’s the genre’s highest honor.
The award’s namesake is Hugo Gernsback, the late publisher of Amazing Stories magazine. He is often referred to as one of the “fathers of science fiction” for his role in popularizing the category. But Gernsback was interested in much more than science fiction. He was also an avid tinkerer and inventor. Prior to publishing Amazing Stories, he documented the rise and evolution of amateur radio, all the while participating himself.
While he is remembered for his role in science fiction history, Gernsback also pioneered a separate and important style of writing that has gone less appreciated. He was the quintessential cataloger — a chronicler, supplier, and cheerleader for a burgeoning amateur technology scene.
Cataloging is a specific type of writing that co-evolves with technical communities and plays an active role in shaping the destiny of a given technology or set of tools. Catalogs themselves are ephemeral and cyclical, rising and falling with the scenes they cover. But the skill and importance of cataloging springs eternal.
Gernsback showed the path.
Judging by his report cards, Gernsback was an average student in everything outside of physics. His childhood consisted of avid reading, with H.G. Welles and Jules Verne being particular favorites, and dreams of electricity projects. In 1904, he emigrated to New York City at the age of 19 and immediately got to work building off his passions and publishing his design ideas, first in Scientific American. He also opened his own shop in the Lower East Side, Electro Importing Company, which imported and sold electrical equipment from Europe. The business created one of the first mail-to-order catalogs for radio technology in the country. The clientele was mostly fellow amateurs.
The catalog evolved into Modern Electrics and spurred offshoot publishing projects like how-to manuals and pamphlets. With their broad reach, Gernsback also helped form the Wireless Association of America to try to organize the network of radio builders. Gernsback realized it wasn’t enough to simply supply equipment, he needed to become a purveyor of information and imagination. From the introduction of The Perversity of Things: Hugo Gernsback on Media, Tinkering, and Scientifiction, an analysis and collection of his work, edited by Grant Wythoff:
In his monthly editorials, feature articles, and short fiction, Gernsback pioneered a kind of writing that combined hard technical description with an openness to the fantastic. Using interwoven descriptive and narrative frameworks to describe a particular device, experience, or vision of the future, Gernsback followed the smallest of technological developments through to their furthest conclusions: the increased availability of a light-sensitive alloy implied that the coming of visual telephones was near, and the number of amateurs sending in their own designs for primitive television receivers only served to confirm the imminence of this new mode of communication.
The world-building and storytelling that would come to define science fiction was intertwined with the actual tools available to the amateur. The combination provided heavy doses of agency which the reader could bring into their own experimentation. Sometimes Gernsback would intervene directly by listing off the inventions he’d most like to see. In an issue of The Electrical Experimenter (one of his many successor publications to Modern Electrics), he made a short list of all the next great inventions: wire insulation, storage battery casings, heavy current microphones, tele-music. He made sure the supply of “what’s next” was endless.
The cataloger archetype is well-worn and consistent. They're writers at heart, usually without formal training — a sort of makeshift journalism. They often run a small operation peddling kits and equipment to the scene, hence the catalog format, but the businesses rarely do better than middling financial outcomes. In addition to Gernsback, other famous examples are Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog, Tim O'Reilly and the technical books of O'Reilly Media, Dale Dougherty and Make: Magazine.1
There are notable similarities between the efforts. What the catalogers provide is different than traditional press coverage or financial investment. They are dealers of agency. Through a combination of tools, information, and imagination they help draw a map around new communities.
If you ask them to describe what they do, you’ll get a meandering answer. As Brand says: “I find things and found things.”
You’ll get an even more varied response if you ask how they do it. In an interview with Dale Dougherty and Tim O’Reilly, I asked this directly. O’Reilly said he keeps a sort of mental map of what technology should exist and then elevates people and projects when they start to fill a role — a “know it when you see it” type of skill. Dougherty says he follows enthusiasm. He recounted a story of meeting Tim Berners-Lee at an academic Hypertext conference in 1991. Berners-Lee was relegated to a poster session from the main program because the organizers didn’t think the Web was interesting enough. Dougherty was taken with the project. Everything else at the conference was moving slowly and feeling stale, but Berners-Lee was offering something – building a web page – that he could do himself. Dougherty became a champion for the nascent Web.
From an interview with Dale Dougherty and Tim O’Reilly:
Whatever the skill, it seems to be widely transferable. It’s common for a cataloger to play this role in multiple scenes during the course of their career. Brand is notorious for following his interests into several: the ‘60s counterculture, the environmental movement, and the personal computer industry, among others. O’Reilly and Dougherty can claim pivotal roles in the Web, open-source software, and the Maker Movement, among many others. Windy career paths make perfect sense through the lens of cataloging. Their impeccable timing – showing up at critical moments throughout technology history – is self-reinforcing. They get involved when things get interesting, and things get more interesting when they get involved.
There is a chain of influence that's worth mentioning, too. When we started OpenROV — our own attempt at kickstarting an amateur marine technology scene — we were emulating Chris Anderson who, while editor of WIRED, cataloged the amateur drone scene through his website, DIYDrones.com. Dougherty spent much of his career at O'Reilly Media. A young Tim O'Reilly's initial writing goal was to get published in Brand's CoEvolution Quarterly. Even though they can’t define it, catalogers seem drawn to the work, and most can place themselves in some informal lineage.
Beyond the Gernsback connection, the catalogers have a long association with science fiction. The Whole Earth Catalog recommended Dune in the inaugural issue, and Tim O’Reilly wrote a biography of its author, Frank Herbert. The opening paragraphs in the first issue of Byte, which cataloged the early personal computer industry, quoted Robert Heinlein. The first issue of Make: Magazine had contributions from science fiction writers Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow. The catalogers build a bridge between the genre and the broader Scientific Project, as Annalee Newitz calls it. The added romance turns a quiet technical hobby into a future-shaping exploration.
Finding & Explaining New Ideas
There’s a good passage from Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard novel where the main character, a painter named Rabo Karabekian, recounts an instructive lesson he received from another character, a WWII vet named Paul Slazinger:
Slazinger claims to have learned from history that most people cannot open their minds to new ideas unless a mind-opening team with a peculiar membership goes to work on them. Otherwise, life will go on exactly as before, no matter how painful, unrealistic, unjust, ludicrous, or downright dumb that life may be.
The team must consist of three sorts of specialists, he says. Otherwise the revolution, whether in politics or the arts or the sciences or whatever, is sure to fail.
The rarest of these specialists, he says, is an authentic genius — a person capable of having seemingly good ideas not in general circulation. “A genius working alone,” he says, “is invariably ignored as a lunatic.”
The second sort of specialist is a lot easier to find: a highly intelligent citizen in good standing in his or her community, who understands and admires the fresh ideas of the genius, and who testifies that the genius is far from mad. “A person like this working alone,” says Slazinger, “can only yearn loud for changes, but fail to say what their shapes should be.”
The third sort of specialist is a person who can explain everything, no matter how complicated, to the satisfaction of most people, no matter how stupid or pigheaded they may be. “He will say almost anything in order to be interesting and exciting,” says Slazinger. “Working alone, depending solely on his own shallow ideas, he would be regarded as being as full of shit as a Christmas turkey.”
Good catalogers are explainers and genius spotters. They have the power to set new ideas in motion. Within a nascent scene, acknowledgment from a cataloger can put a project or person on the map. The encouragement can also fill someone with pride and embolden them to take on bigger challenges. Tim Berners-Lee, in his memoir Weaving the Web, tells a story about Dougherty’s influence during the early days of the World Wide Web:
"Dale Dougherty of O'Reilly Associates, who had gathered the early Web creators at the first Wizards workshop and other meetings, saw a third alternative. After one session at the conference, a bunch of us adjourned to a local pub. As we were sitting around on stools nursing our beer glasses, Dale started telling everyone that, in essence, the SGML community was passe and that HTML would end up stronger. He felt we didn't have to accept the SGML world wholesale, or ignore it. Quietly, with a smile, Dale began saying, "We can change it." He kept repeating the phrase, like a mantra. "We can change it."
Catalogers are hero-makers and not hero-worshippers. There's a distinct tone to their writing: interested, encouraging, and daring. They stand for the upstarts and the outsiders. When they do lean on famous figures — Gernsback including an interview with Thomas Edison, for example — it was to add a flavor of aspiration, not to idolize. Whytoff wrote that Gernsback’s mission was to “enable the public to contribute to the making of things rather than allow them to be overwhelmed by the perversity of things.”
Most catalogers share the sentiment. The target audience, both then and now, seems to be an imagined at-home experimenter in want of new tools, or more leverage, for their own adventures. The narratives they shape are always in-progress, ending with an ellipsis that begs a reader to write their own name into the story: “What happens next is up to you…”
They sing the siren call of the scene.
An Evolving Format
It seems the right way to document an emerging scene is over time, often using a periodical format that draws heavily from the readership for stories, ideas, and contributions. So while there are only a few books on amateur technology scenes, there is wonderful writing scattershot across the editorial pages of these magazines, catalogs, and web forums.2
Like everything else, cataloging has moved online. What used to be a magazine is now a forum or Discord server to engage the community. Chris Anderson wrote about the important decision to allow DIYDrones to grow in feral directions, dictated by the users:
That distinction—a site created as a community, not a one-man news and information site like a blog—turned out to make all the difference. Like all good social networks, every participant—not just the creator—has access to the full range of authoring tools. Along with the usual commenting, they can compose their own blog posts, start discussions, upload videos and pictures, create profile pages, and send messages. Community members can be made moderators, encouraging good behavior and discouraging bad. Open to anyone who chose to participate, the site was soon full of people trading ideas and reports of their own projects and research.
Even though it was open to all, Anderson played a heavy curatorial role in managing the site. He was the most frequent contributor, pointing out new efforts and developments. And he always inspired the community to consider the larger context of their tinkering. Like Gernsback, Anderson would frequently inject the community with imaginative new ideas, whether through highlighting the absurd new projects, like the TacoCopter, or by referencing the sci-fi interpretations of drone futures, like Kill Decision by Daniel Suarez.
But even as digital platforms have made the cataloging infrastructure more accessible, the amount of genuinely new and exciting scenes seems steady state. Or worse: David Chapman’s thesis — laid out in his “Geeks, MOPs, and Sociopaths” essay — is that subcultures have mostly stopped working as an engine of cultural creativity. How could that be?
There are several possible explanations. One could be the VC-ification of amateur scenes. As venture capitalists have recognized the pattern of new companies emerging from these scenes, they’re sending their scouts in earlier than ever — funding anything with even a whiff of potential. The premature adulation messes with the scene dynamics. It forces the players to start looking for big customers, instead of playing for each other.3
Another explanation is that cataloging isn’t celebrated as a unique skill. Going unnamed has caused it to go unrecognized and underdeveloped. If that’s the case, it should be an easy fix. Just name it. We already celebrate these folks, but giving them a common title might encourage more to try.
Cataloging done well is a peculiar sort of success. It's impossible to measure through financial metrics or by the accolades that accrue to famous scientists. But the catalogers are revered, and the esteem is enduring. They become the “hero’s hero”, as the journalist Carole Cadwalladr referred to Brand. Gernsback didn’t win the award, he became it.
The catalogers know something important that most of the startup hype obscures: the purest joy in the technology world is not a big funding round or other high achievements. It’s the simple pleasure of a curious mind and the camaraderie that develops in an amateur technology scene on the verge of something new — a mixture of possibility, personal power, and shared passion.
It seems that every generation requires someone to dust off the old cataloger playbook in order to rediscover and retell this timeless story.
All white guys, I know. Doing archival research on these scenes exposes how long this has been a problem. Modern Electrics was decidedly focused on male readers. Not only the target audience, but the periodical also painted a vision of the future in which radio stayed a male-oriented hobby.
Even Dr. Lee de Forest, America’s foremost wireless authority, confessed himself surprised that so many young men in this country should be in the possession of such well constructed and well managed wireless stations, which is only another proof that the clear headed young men of this country are unusually advanced in the youngest branch of electrical science.
So far America has lead [sic] in the race. The next thing is to stay in the front, and let the others follow. In fact he would be a bold prophet who would dare hint at the wonders to come during the next decade.
The boy experimenting in an attic today may be an authority tomorrow…
Kristen Haring makes the case in Ham Radio's Technical Culture that this gendering of hobbies is a root cause of disparities throughout the fields of professional science and technology.
Technical hobbies are in fact largely practiced by men, but this was not inevitable. The image of ham radio as manly only resulted from the ongoing, deliberate efforts of ham radio operators. This process of masculinizing a technology is documented in this book.
There is more to say about this topic, and I will in future posts.
There are several excellent books about amateur technology scenes. Steven Levy’s Hackers, Josh Greenberg’s From Betmax to Blockbuster, and Haring’s Ham Radio's Technical Culture are a few examples. But all the great books are about individual scenes and communities, rather than the broader trend. Who can blame them? It turns out that each of these stories, once you start digging in, becomes a world in itself. Haring again:
I set out to write a book about amateur technical practices. I planned a chapter on ham radio, one on model rocket construction, others on computer hacking and modifying motorcycles. From the start, I sensed that there was something special about ham radio, so I began my research there … The result is a book on ham radio that begins with a chapter on technical hobbies.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. VCs are right to be following the amateur scenes. And Carlota Perez has shown that the boom/bust financial cycles are important for technological progress. The quibble here is timing. Amateur scenes are hotbeds of cultural experimentation and a VC infusion can narrow the possibility space.
The latest wave of VR may have suffered from this. The Kickstarter-era Oculus project, which grew out of the Mod Retro forums, was a vibrant community of developers and enthusisasts. The temperature changed when they were acquired by Facebook. And The Metaverse buckled under the weight of corporate realities, despite having nearly unlimited resources. There’s an alternate universe where the technology stayed in the gaming community and found a different — and authentic — technology/culture fit.
I’m not anti-VC. I am pro-amateur.