I’ve just read Umberto Eco’s “How to Travel with a Salmon”, officially because I wanted to delve back into the world of anthropology and semiotics, but really because I was staying with my parents, had some reading time, and the book was there on the shelf.
The collection of essays has an enchanting, dated feel to it, written by an academic grandee at a time when Europe still cared about chess, opera, and ballet. Eco doesn’t actually refer to any of those things, but his musings are unashamedly written for a class of Europeans that used to call itself the intelligentsia. Sometimes the assumed level of privilege is suffocating, like when Eco writes about his irritation at being inundated with conference invitations in a manner that suggests the reader should be able to relate from personal experience.
Likewise, Eco’s derisive satire of menial workers and foreign cultures sometimes sounds suspiciously sincere, especially when he is taking aim at taxi drivers. He sometimes indulges us with an explicit acknowledgment of his own status.
I received the temporary [driving permit] in two months, but only because, through a series of privileges I enjoy thanks to my social position and my education, I was able to disturb a series of Highly Placed Persons in three cities, six public and private institutions, plus a daily paper and a weekly magazine, both distributed and read nationally. If I were a grocer or a clerk, by now I would have had to buy a bicycle. (1982)
Pity the lowly grocer accidentally reading Eco’s column.
The Magical Watch
Posturing aside, the book comes into its own when mocking technology of the day. Eco satirizes the growing number of features on a wristwatch, boasting of how he would love to buy an extravagant new watch so that he could…
…spend hours and hours knowing the day, the week, the month, the year, the decade, the century, the year’s position in the leap-year cycle, hour, minute, and second of daylight saving time, […] temperature, sidereal time, moon phase, time of dawn and time of sunset, equation of time, position of the sun in the zodiac — not to mention the fun I could have shuddering at the infinity of the complete and mobile depiction of the stellar map, or pressing the stop button at the various dials of the chronograph and the tachymeter, or deciding when I should rest a moment and relax in the assurance of the built-in alarm. I was forgetting: a special indicator would show how much power remained. And still another thing: if I wanted, I could also know the exact time. But why should I? If I were to possess this miracle, I would have no interest in knowing that it is ten minutes past ten. (1988)
Any modern reader will recognise the device in question as a smartphone. The wristwatch was one of the first victims of mobile telephony, so much so that most of the class of 2014 don’t recognise pointing to the wrist as a request for the time of day. The last time I bought a wristwatch it was the late 1990s. The watch had a digital calculator on it and a friend had one that could work as a television remote (arguably the decline of the wristwatch was already evident). In one sense, we added phone-call functionality to our timekeeping devices, but because they lost their strap we gave them a new name. Now with iPod nanos and fitness trackers, Internet gadgetry is threatening to find its way back onto our wrists.
Impossible Map of the Empire
In other areas Eco is less prophetic. He dedicates 11 pages to an academic proof “On the Impossibility of Drawing a Map of the Empire on a Scale of 1 to 1” (written in 1982). The notion of the map swallowing up its empire originates from a Borges short story, and is popular in philosophy and semiotics as a means of describing how something real can be swallowed by its abstraction.
The example was always reproduced as a parable, no one ever really expected the map to be built (or even buildable). Eco teases out his “proof” ad tedium, the joke being that the thesis is foolishly self-evident. He may be poking fun at the more demanding levels of proof pursued by logicians, like Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead’s 379-page proof that 1+1=2.
However, the catch is that the lifesize map of the empire now exists, and even worse the Emperor has given a copy to every citizen! From Mapquest to Google Maps to Streetview, to the imminent rise of app-enabled augmented reality, our abstraction of space has raced towards a scale that matches any human sense of detail. Baudrillard wrote about the digital space as a simulacrum of reality, and referred to the Borges short story about the map and empire, but even then it felt more like a metaphor. You can now, literally, zoom a digital map to a scale of 1 to 1. In fact we could zoom in even deeper, and see a scale of map larger than the reality it represents, examine our microscopic world through a digital lense. The old metaphors, having drifted too close to reality, no longer function as an allegory of our world.