A day made of glass:

I’m reminded of an interesting passage in the book Glass: A World History:

As we have seen, one of the rapid developments in glass technology was the making of panes of window glass, plain and coloured, which was particularly noticeable in the northern half of Europe [after the twelfth century]. One very practical effect of this was on working conditions. In the cold and dark northern half of Europe people could now work for longer hours and with more precision because they were shielded from the elements. The light poured in, yet the cold was kept out. Prior to glass only thin slivers of horn or parchment were used and the window spaces were of necessity much smaller and the light admitted, dimmer.

It could also be argued that windows altered thought at a deeper level. The question here is the way in which glass, whether in a mirror, window, or through a lens, tends to concentrate and frame thought by bounding vision, and at the same time leads to abstraction and attention to the details of nature. It seems likely that the glass window altered the relations between humans and their world in ways which it is now difficult to recover.

This echoes an earlier observation by Lewis Mumford, in his book Technics and Civilization: “In losing color and ceasing to serve as a picture – the function it had occupied in medieval church decoration – and in letting in, instead, the forms and colors of the outside world, glass served also as a symbol of the double process of naturalization and abstraction which had begun to characterize the thought of Europe. More that that: it furthered this process. Glass helped put the world in a frame: it made it possible to see certain elements of reality more clearly; and it focussed attention on a sharply defined field – namely, that which was bounded by the frame.”

The windows that surround us, once clear, are increasingly filled with summoned images and symbols. We don’t look through them but into them. Naturalism fades; abstraction loses its backdrop of “the outside world.” The window turns back into a picture – a series of pictures, rapidly moving. The field blurs. The frame changes.

9 thoughts on “(re)framed

  1. Designcomment.blogspot.com

    By coincidence, I was working my way back through some of my own scribbles this evening and came upon one I created, following the time I watched the PBS documentary episode about ‘Moby Dick’, and the life of the author. It should be noted, the quest involved there was a lot to do with north America’s young economy, the provision of light and a society at that time, which needed a certain kind of light. In a way though, I wonder are the voyages nowadays into the middle of the dangerous credit markets – and same that has swallowed many a fine craft and crew. We are still removed, but a few steps from hunter gatherer.

    Aside: I was listening to Robert Shiller, of Yale mention a study performed by some anthropologists into pension fund managers published in a book. It was strange how many funds, had their own ‘creation myth’ embedded in their culture. So many of things in modernity are reflections, in so many ways of earlier behaviours.


  2. Rentreality.wordpress.com

    With my luck, I would lean on someone’s desk while talking to them and accidentally reformat their computer.

    With the video section displaying the car’s built-in dashboard GPS, I couldn’t help but think back to the bit about London’s taxicab drivers. Also, I would have privacy concerns with all of those “Welcome back!” screens displaying my name.

  3. Nick Carr

    Chris: Good one.

    Rentreality: You should read Gary Shteyngart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story. In the near future, as portrayed in the book, there are screens set up along sidewalks which display the credit score (among other rankings) of each passerby.

  4. Durell Flood

    Distracted: With Yakuza style results. Why would anyone be watching television while cutting something with a knife?


    I’m almost done with my 2nd reading of your book. I have to work my way now through the footnotes. Thank you for taking the time to write it.


  5. Marcy Dunagan

    I think there are serious safety concerns with putting touch screens in a car’s dashboard. There’s a big difference between touch screens and traditional automotive controls like knobs, levers and buttons, which can be operated with a brief glance. After you drive one car for awhile and become familiar with it, you don’t even have to look to see if the little arrow is pointing to the right letter to know whether you have shifted into the gear you want to be in; your kinesthetic memory knows. Despite the name, a “touch screen” is a profoundly visual interface. You have to stare at it to operate it. In this way it’s not that different from using a mouse with a computer screen, which I don’t think anybody would suggest for automotive use.

    On the other hand, I agree that it would certainly be handy to have GPS navigational capability when driving (you can probably guess that I don’t have one in my car). However, it makes a lot more sense to me to use a mobile device for that, when the car is parked or pulled over. The in-dash screen would be convenient for the navigator riding shotgun, but the fact remains that, in America at any rate, most motorists drive alone, and if people are stupid enough to text while driving, plenty will find the touch-screen distracting. We need to keep our eyes on the road. The picture is still just a picture; the real world is still out there.

  6. Nick Carr

    Don’t worry, Marcy, Google is developing a car that can drive itself. Once we have that, our entire windshield can become a giant touchscreen Web interface, and we’ll never again have to be bored by the scenery.

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