Friday, May 26, 2006

Oubliette :: Burt Todd - a diatribe

I was saddened on hearing the news of the unfortunate passing of Burt Todd. Not that I knew the man or even knew of him for that matter. However, upon reading his obituary I was struck by certain similarities between his story and two other tales that have fascinated me over time.

He reminded me of the dashing and thoroughly implausible hero Lessingham of the Zimianvian Trilogy. The trilogy is in reality a quartet of the most brilliantly, psycho-baroque mythologising. Over three (plus one) books the author, one Eric R. Eddison, stretches a tale of implausible grandeur, neurotic attention to pointless detail, sprawling plots, and gaping plot flaws. He leaps from a pan-planetary to a pan-temporal sequential path with nary a blink. It is brilliant. Arduously brilliant - like Proust meets Matthew Reilly. At one stage, in “The Worm Oroborus” a narratively inconvenient army is inexplicably swallowed by the Earth immediately following a hubristic exclamation by its leader.

Regardless, and more to the point, Lessingham establishes an independent kingdom (possibly a republic but definitely not a democracy) in the unlikely location of the Danish Islands. And for some petty reason people with greater access military hardware (probably, however unlikely, the Danes) pummel his dream into rubble.

I know that Todd’s independent Pacific state was not shelled into oblivion. But neither was Lessingham’s. Both dramatic climaxes were fiction. Apart from that both characters were rich, dashing, intelligent, and hopelessly out of touch. But Burt Todd was better.

Which brings me to the real import of this needlessly wordy narrative. Burt Todd developed the most wonderful series of postage stamps for the Bhutanese government. Some of these stamps were small rubber discs that could be played on a record-player. Others were printed 3D on silk, or (our favourite) on metal that rusted. How cool is that?!

For decades governments have used stamps for propaganda purposes. Many beautiful, banal or baffling images have graced envelopes the world over to celebrate, signify or sanctify people, events or objects. Burt Todd’s stamp containing a brief history of Bhutan puts them all to shame. There is something that appeals about a parasitic dependent of a means of communication that becomes as important as the message conveyed; much in the way that postcards don’t.

Todd’s invention was absolutely correct in attitude but seems hopelessly misguided in his choice of technological expression. Although one can scarcely fault him for getting it wrong during such a period of technological turmoil - remember Beta versus VHS etc. It is arrogant to assume that Todd had envisioned these stamps for a wealthy Western consumer. With a moment’s consideration you will realise that most mail from Bhutan would be directed elsewhere on the sub-continent which was largely only slightly more technologically advanced than Bhutan. However, the world’s attention was, as always, directed elsewhere.

Nevertheless, the man was spamming. He turned a passive communication system into a dynamic agitprop outlet. Marshall McLuhen would have understood perfectly. Unfortunately, the communication boom Burt was depending on occurred in cyberspace. Stamps became a thing of the past. As did any idea of an independent republic; anywhere anytime.

If Burt Todd had been able to understand the idea of a “data haven” he would be as famous as Steve Jobs and as hated as Bill Gates. His notion of communication-based economies was ahead of its time. Admittedly it was also pathetically short practical application. But “mighty failure overleaps the bounds of low success” or similar sentiments.

The presentation of economic practice as philosophical notion should be despised. Much to our detriment the practice is widespread. In the last years of the twentieth century an entrepreneur attempted to buy the airspace above a series of Pacific islands. This shallow cad hoped to control the access to all satellites and the data they contained should they pass through “his” airspace. Obviously, correctly and rather quickly he was ruthlessly shown the error of his ways by many of those concerned. Had the prat ever read “The Man Who Sold the Moon” he would have realised the folly of such a career path.

I hope any future attempts to incorporate global communication systems are met with hostility. We need someone with the charm and ineptitude of Burt Todd to add value to the countless pointless communications we make.

The stamps can be seen here >>


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