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What's with the name?

Allow us to explain.


Thoughts On The Death of Books, The Emptiness of Video Games, The End of the World, Etc.

One Christmas, a few years back, my grandmother gave my brother and I each an envelope containing a crisp twenty dollar bill. My brother opened his, and thanked her. She smiled and said, with a wag of her finger, directly to him, “Don’t spend it on video games!” My brother and I exchanged a quick glance. I received no such instructions. I can’t say exactly how I spent that money, but given my spending habits, I have a pretty good guess.

My grandmother’s remark was not surprising. Her technophobia was a long-standing cause for rolled eyes between my brother and I. Computers were the downfall of everything, as was the wane of fountain pens and letter writing. She thought it was wonderful that I was a writer, but I don’t think she ever quite got how the internet was involved. Her understanding of modern technology came from late night cable news, and she didn’t want to listen when we tried to do damage control on that front. Video games were never, ever okay.

My grandmother passed away in April, coming to the end of many years of poor health. I flew home, and accompanied my mom to what is now her house. As I poked around, processing old memories, I examined a piece of furniture I hadn’t looked at closely since I was a kid. A beautiful wooden desk, with a roll-up panel on the side. Within the panel are several narrow shelves, specifically designed to hold varying sizes of paper. Typewriter sheets, notecards, envelopes, that see-through paper I have no word for — you know, the stuff you put on top of other paper to protect the ink. All of it was high-quality, with embossed watermarks and cleanly printed addresses. I rubbed a sheet between my fingers. This was a world away from the flimsy stuff I shove thoughtlessly into printers. It was smooth, fibrous, satisfyingly heavy.

As I sat there, touching that paper, I thought about her anxiety over the great typewriter die-off, the quick disappearance of sending letters in the mail. I thought of how she would wax poetic about the look of invitations she’d received decades before, how she disapproved of me and my brother’s chicken-scratched notes, how thrilled she was with my partner’s stunningly precise penmanship. I looked again at the desk. It was a gorgeous piece of furniture, likely quite expensive, an investment made expressly for a type of communication she loved and watched die. A physical reminder that the world she understood was becoming obsolete.

Some time later, back in my own home, with gadgets and cables and air full of internet, I read a short story on Nautilus, a new science and culture webzine I’ve been regularly devouring. The story in question was “The Candle Burned,” a poignant, Asimov-ish tale of a future in which books are a thing of the past. The protagonist is an out-of-work literature professor, whose field of study has become too obscure for steady employment. The writing itself was lovely, but the message troubled me, particularly when I reached this part:

See, the crisis began at the end of the twentieth century. People had no time to read. First children had no time to read, then their kids really had no time to read, and so on, every generation worse than the one before. Interactive entertainment pushed out reading. Technology pushed out philology. Literature, history and geography couldn’t compete with cybernetics, quantum mechanics, and plasma physics. But literature was worst of all. It just fell by the wayside…In the twenty-first century electronic platforms took hold and publishers stopped printing paper books. Because people no longer read, the number of writers dwindled and eventually they went extinct. Writers stopped writing!…I understand that it was an inevitable process. Literature died because it didn’t fit into evolutionary progress. But it used to carry the wisdom of mankind to the next generation. It used to nourish souls and build spirits. It helped form the minds of children. Today, our children are raised emotionally and intellectually empty. They grow up soulless like machines.

Okay, “troubled” is too light a descriptor. I read that, and I got angry. Downright indignant. When my partner got home that night, I launched into a massive rant — pacing, ticking things off on my fingers, the whole nine yards. The idea of writers not writing was absurd. Where else would the “interactive entertainment” come from? AIs grabbing plot elements from databases, assembling stories like Mad Libs? An army of chimps hammering away at cast-off typewriters? Did the author really think that someone who would’ve otherwise been interested in the humanities would swing toward quantum mechanics just because there were no paper books around? Did he not know what a Kindle was for? And did he really think that classic literature was the only way to “nourish souls,” that physics and chemistry and writing code and all the rest of it don’t have a beauty that feeds others as much as stories do for some of us? He knew who Carl Sagan was, right?

I continued to stew over this, and thought about all the times in history when a change in methods of communication has convinced folks that the world is coming to a dismal end. I thought about how Plato railed against the idea of writing stuff down rather than memorizing it (the irony being that someone had to write that down for us to know about it). I thought about how the novel is a relatively new thing, when compared to the length of time that Homo sapiens have been around, and how in the mid-nineteenth century, only 10% of people on the entire planet were literate, and that you couldn’t reasonably argue that the only people in our history who had, y’know, thoughts and feelings were those who had read books. I mentioned “The Candle Burned” to my editor, without saying much on how I felt about it, and she responded with similar points, about how reading prose fiction was supposed to have made girls in the 1800s unmarriageable, and how comic books were publicly burned in the 1950s. I thought about all these things, and I felt a smug sort of satisfaction, knowing that this entire vein of hand-wringing is no different than worrying about the dangers of rock ‘n’ roll or bicycle face.

But then I thought again about that desk in my grandmother’s house, full of paper that never got used, and I realized all my clever arguments were missing the point. My grandmother loved writing letters. She loved paper, ink, fine pens, classic artwork, records. Without her permission, the world stopped caring about all that. They offered her metal and plastic in return, and it never mattered how much I tried to explain how useful that stuff was, because all she could see was the disappearance of something beautiful. And when I tried to explain that I was interested in video games, it was always in defense, never out of love. I talked in vague terms about how fun they were, and how, no, they didn’t make people shoot each other, and how, yes, girls like to play them, too. What she was worried about wasn’t the existence of games, I think. It was about the absence of things that she had valued. She was worried I’d grow up “soulless like machines.” I was always talking about how the lack of her things wasn’t a hindrance, not how my things had filled the gap.

The explanation I should have given is this: A game is like a book, but you can walk around in it, and in order to turn the page, you have to solve a puzzle. They’re like plays in which you have the leading role, and you never forget your lines. They’re like paintings that allow you to step through the frame. I’ve explored alien worlds with frosty stars and heavy planets hanging in the sky above me. I’ve run through ravaged cities, and been struck by both the magnitude of the destruction and the smaller tragedies under foot — a lost teddy bear, an undelivered letter. I’ve stood in magical forests, surrounded by tapestries of leaves pierced with gauzy beams of light. I’ve met characters that I love as much as any I’ve found in books or movies. I’ve faced problems as intricate as a game of chess. I’ve read books and articles on history and philosophy and ethics to help me better consider the themes I find in games, because yes, they really can be that complex. My friends and I have spent years debating the moral questions games present us with, and we show no signs of stopping. We write lengthy emails about the artwork, and the music, and the voice actors, and how best to refine our strategies. When we game, we are anything but “emotionally and intellectually empty.” I can’t game if I’m tired. I can’t game if I’m upset, or preoccupied. I can’t enter with anything but a sharp mind and an open heart.

But as much as I love games, they are not a replacement for anything else. I love books, too, and they feel so very different. Some stories belong to books, and only to books, just as some belong only to games. I don’t want books to go away. I read them all the time, on a little electronic screen. I wrote one, and I’d like to write more. But if there was a future in which they did go away, in which reading did indeed disappear alongside paper…it’s a sad thought, but I’d be okay with that. I’d be okay because I know that some other beautiful thing would take its place, just as something took the place of epic poetry and pageant wagons, just as something will replace games or virtual reality or holonovels or whatever else we come up with. Books might go away, in a future far from now, but we will still tell stories. It’s what we’ve always done, even before books were a thing, even before anybody ever thought about writing something down. Stories will always be there, and we will always be hungry for them. How we tell them isn’t what’s important. What’s important is that we keep seeking them out. Given what I know about our species, I don’t see how we could not.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. Like most internet people, she has a website. She can also always be found on Twitter as @beckysaysrawr.


  • Wesley Hampton

    This is wonderful. I feel like I should comment more, but I really can’t put it any better than that.

  • Suzanne Larsen

    and given my eternally pessimistic bent, all I can see is Fahrenheit 451. The giant flat screen tvs, the continual barrage of “reality tv”, the fact that most of my friends under 25 have no interest in books and don’t even read bedtime stories to their kids.
    On the other hand, I’ve gotten 5 people to read The Hunger Games via pestering and threatening to physically beat them with a copy, so maybe there’s hope after all?

  • Anonymous

    This is why I maintain a gleefully reactionary loathing of “eReaders” and their ilk.

  • Elwyne

    “Stories will always be there, and we will always be hungry for them. How we tell them isn’t what’s important.”


  • Nat

    As someone who still has to physically restrain themselves from entering a book store to not spend loads of money on books a-plenty when there are bills to pay, I have found eReaders to be handy for vacation travel when I can’t decide which 10 books I want to take with me or if I’m reading a book that I want to continue on my lunch break and don’t want the whole office to know my reading habits. They have their place and can be handy but I still can’t see them replacing proper paper and ink books.

  • Anonymous

    I like that you really reframed what a video game is. That’s always what they’ve been–stories–but it’s hard for a non-gamer to see that sometimes, I think, though as they become more widespread, I think people are starting to understand.

  • Samuel

    I’m reminded of an article about games and stories I read that attempts to frame the Mass Effect 3 ending fiasco in terms that people who read books but don’t game or get gaming would understand.
    Video games aren’t the death of a medium, they are simply another, new medium for telling stories.
    I can’t say anything good about reality TV though, not off the top of my head.

  • Miss Cephalopod

    I’ve been pretty resentful of eReaders, until I moved to Denmark to study and have to cross a distance of 800km by various trains whenever I want to see my family. Now I’m happy with my Kindle – lovingly named Frodo because he’s pocket-sized – because it allows me to read fanfictions lying in bed or sitting in proper posture instead of hunched over (as an animator I spend enough time like that already) a computer screen that will damage my eyes, and even on the train or bus. It’s much easier and cheaper for me to get hold of books in their original language and I’ve rarely read this much classic literature because it’s all for free, my Kindle is stuffed with Wilde, Austen, Shakespeare, Verne. I save shipping costs and feel like I’m doing a bit to support the environment that way, rather than ordering a book from another continent.

    And you know, I still hoard printed books like a dragon amasses treasure, after a mere year I’m already running out of space in my student accomodations. For me, getting an eReader simply opened up more possibilities instead of replacing good old books, because before you can take my printed books away from me you’ll have to kill me first. :-P

  • Anonymous

    Handy, absolutely, but missing so many of the aesthetic pleasures a book can provide.

  • Nat

    Which I’m not arguing against by any means? I’m just saying that eReaders shouldn’t be discounted because now I can read my fanfiction on a larger screen than my phone without using data or, dare I say, ‘To Desire a Devil’ without my boss commenting as she passes by my desk during lunch.

  • Nat

    No, ME3 just decided to throw away two games worth of plot development away for some Asimov-ian ‘deep thought’ hooplah /no I’m not still mad why do you ask?
    Sorry this doesn’t contribute to the discussion I’m just still not over the ending.

  • Jayme

    Read the article. Is good. Is not what I think you think it means.

  • Melynda

    Throughout history things have always passed on in one state or another. Cave walls, clay tablets, diorite steles, papyrus, scrolls, bound books, ereaders. People are always resistent to what they know and love and the beauty that comes with it. As much as we know stories will always be there in whatever form they take, but as things change and start slipping away into the unfamiliar, it’s hard not to want those things back.
    As for video games, I can only hope that they get even more immersive (holodecks? yes please) but at the same time, there will always been a day when I just want to be a 6 year old girl again, sitting on my grandparents’ bed playing Super Mario Bros.

  • Samuel

    One awesome thing about e-readers.
    Most of what is considered classic literature is actually public domain, but try going into a store and asking for a free copy of The Illiad, or the Republic, or Hamlet, etc..
    But with e-readers, anything public domain is free. The world of literature, at your fingertips, for free.

  • Supermorff

    That penultimate paragraph… is beautiful. Thank you.

  • Anonymous

    мy coυѕιɴ ιѕ мαĸιɴɢ $51/нoυr oɴlιɴe. υɴeмployed ғor α coυple oғ yeαrѕ αɴd prevιoυѕ yeαr ѕнe ɢoт α $1З619cнecĸ wιтн oɴlιɴe joв ғor α coυple oғ dαyѕ. ѕee мore αт…­ ­ViewMore——————————————&#46qr&#46net/kkEj

    It’s much easier and cheaper for me to get hold of books in their
    original language and I’ve rarely read this much classic literature
    because it’s all for free, my Kindle is stuffed with Wilde, Austen,
    Shakespeare, Verne. I save shipping costs and feel like I’m doing a bit
    to support the environment that way, rather than ordering a book from
    another continent.

  • Constance

    “One Christmas, a few years back, my grandmother gave my brother and I…”
    “Her technophobia was a long-standing cause for rolled eyes between my brother and I.”

    “My grandmother gave I an envelope” sounds silly to me, but who am I to judge…

  • ACF

    I think you’re right on about needing to explain video games on an emotional level. I’ve sometimes tried to explain the appeal of videogames to my parents, and I think the first time I succeeded was when I was telling my father about Assassin’s Creed. I explained how you could climb the temples in Damascus, and jump from roof to roof; how you could look out over ancient Jerusalem. I think that he got it.

  • Eisen

    No sorry, videogames are not stories. Many videogames have stories, but many others don’t, like Tetris or Bejewelled.
    Stories are stories, and you can tell a story via book, or via game, but game and story are not the same thing. Videogames are a medium that can tell a story, but don’t have to.

  • RodimusBen

    Every generation has difficulty accepting the entertainment of the next one, or the one after that. Almost anyone who has recently graduated from their 20s to their 30s knows what I mean. At around 26 or 27, I started slowly feeling more disconnected from the new stuff that was getting released. The advancement of gaming technology, the change in the tone, style and pacing of movies, and the shifts in musical fads became things I was no longer excited to keep up with, but rather began to actively resist.

    Eventually I realized that my “80s nostalgia kick” wasn’t going to go away– that as a 32-year-old adult, I had become convinced that the stuff of my generation was the pinnacle of pop entertainment, and that anything new was just a shallow imitation. Today I work hard to keep an open mind to new things. On days when I lose that fight, I find myself saying things like, “back in the 1980s, those actors would have been on location, not in front of a damn green screen!”

    Problem is, my dad thinks the exact same way. He looks back with fondness on doo-wop music, Green Hornet radio dramas, and sitcoms like Dick Van Dyke. When I start talking about the awesomeness of the Back to the Future movies or Miami Vice, his eyes start to glaze over. I came to recognize that reaction, because it’s the same one I get when someone tries to tell me how great the Pirates of the Caribbean movies are, or the incredible amount of musical talent it takes to create dubstep (yes, someone has actually said that to me).

    Every generation is this way, and probably always will be. We are humans with a finite number of years on this planet, and we grow comfortable and attached to the things from our youth. We reach a point where we don’t need to keep rapidly absorbing new media to satisfy our brains. The same goes for the writer’s grandmother and her difficulty accepting new media and new methods of communication. This whole phenomenon is more pronounced now than it has ever been in human history because of the pace at which technology is advancing.

    Every young person whose interests earn the indignation of their elders will one day be an elder who doesn’t understand the appeal of new media to a new generation of youth. What I think is important is that we respect the past, and respect each
    others’ individual choices about what media we want to consume,
    regardless of our age. What I think is most impressive about this article is that the author learned to appreciate WHY her grandmother had such a hard time letting go of certain things. That’s the important thing to understand. It wasn’t “wrong” that she refused to embrace video games. It’s just human nature.

  • Anonymous

    Well, pardon me. Except that 99.5% of games ARE stories, even if the story is just “a giant ape stole the princess and I have to get her back!” or “the pigs ate the birds’ eggs and now they are so desperate for revenge they’ll blow themselves up to kill the pigs!”

    They certainly aren’t all complex stories, but it is now rare that you can plop someone in front of Pong and expect them to love it. (And even Tetris developed the Dr. Mario version, which had a thin storyline, too).

  • Eisen

    It isn’t important how many games have stories and how many have not, even if I think you made your ’99.5%’ figure up.
    And I don’t even get why you get so fucking mad. Does your world end to exist if games are in fact a medium and not the same as stories? Because it is like that. You could also have said: “Books are stories.” – but books are just a medium, like games. Imagine it like a folder on your pc – you can put Music in it, you can name your folder “Music”, but that doesn’t mean your folder IS music. It just contains music.

  • Anonymous

    You know what I’m tired of? Elitists. Whichever side they’re on they sneer down at the others from their clearly superior and lofty position, condemning all those who are stupid enough to enjoy whatever. This doesn’t have to be an either/or thing, you know. It’s entirely possible to embrace technology AND love literature/communication in its more classic forms.

    Are some things fading into nothingness? Yes. Hand-written letters on embossed paper aren’t nearly as popular as they were. Wax seals and quill pens are more of a nostalgic gimmick than the norm. Clay tablets are museum pieces. Oral histories are all but forgotten if they aren’t written down somewhere.

    Times change. Get over it. There’s nothing wrong with continuing to hold onto the past and treasuring what you have, but rejecting change just because it’s different is childish. I have a room full of books. I love books. I love reading. I also have a kindle full of books for those times when paper books would be too bulky or when they aren’t immediately available in my area. I have virtually no money and have to budget every last thing. As much as I would love to keep buying physical books, I’d much rather eat and pay my bills. I can borrow ebooks from my library system that aren’t available in other forms. I can borrow ebooks from the Boston library system even though it isn’t part of my local circulation network because I’m a MA resident. I can keep reading the books I want because of technology and I am not about to piss all over that just because a Kindle doesn’t smell as good as a “real” book and it doesn’t have the same texture. Words are still words and the stories are still good even if I click a button instead of turning a page.

    There’s a lot of stuff I haven’t embraced due to lack of interest. The gaming world, for instance. I don’t think I’ve owned a gaming system since the original Atari came out, but I don’t feel like I’m suffering from the loss or that the gaming industry is destroying games forever. Do we really want to go back to 9-bit graphics and stay there forever? Only have side-scrolling platform games because that’s what a lot of the original games were? Heck, technically you could say that the video game industry destroyed board games. And that board games destroyed card games. Can you get the same visceral feel out of solitaire on you computer as you do with actual cards? When was the last time anyone outside of an Austen novel played whist?

    My problem with video games- and a majority of television and movies, for that matter- isn’t technology. I love being able to reach content near-instantaneously and the crisp quality of the graphics and presentation. I just find a lot of the stories vapid and in the case of games I hate FPS/shooting/action stuff, which is probably 94% of what’s out there. Technology isn’t to blame for that, though, people are. And it’s people who bring about change. If you don’t like something, find another way to do it. Convince others why your way is better. Insulting people and ridiculing their preferences isn’t the right way to convince someone to listen.

    If all else fails, stick with what you like and stop trying to control the world. Chances are you’ll be dead long before the last paper book is ever published, so why worry about it? If future generations love some “classic” thing they may keep it around, but otherwise there isn’t much you can do. Change is inevitable. Enjoy what you can. And stop spreading hatred.

  • Anonymous

    You have a Kindle named Frodo. <3

  • Miss Cephalopod

    It’s even officially registered as Frodo and has a swirl-embroidered cover – I like to pretend it’s an Elvish cloak :P

    Needless to say, when a friend of mine got herself a Kindle, I made her name it Sam. <3

  • Anonymous

    I have to agree with Eisen that video games aren’t stories, they are games. Games CONTAIN narratives (sometimes a game narrative is as simple as ‘everyone else is hiding and have to be found’, sometimes it’s as complicated as the storyline to the Mass Effect games or whatever). Arguably ALL video games employ some sort of story, like the example MisterEHolmes gives.

    But I still say it’s wrong to say video ames ARE stories, because the stories they contain are there to support the game’s primary function, which is the gameplay. A novel’s pimary purpose is to tell a story, as is a film’s, or a comic’s. A video’s primary purpose is to be provide entertaining gameplay.

    Now, that is not to do down video games. I’m not really a player myself, but I have every respect for them as a cultural product. But it doesn’t boost their validity to say they are storytelling instruments as films or books are, because it shoehorns games into a genre that it doesn’t belong to in the effort to align them with respected artforms. As something attempting to compete with films and books as a storytelling medium, video games are never going to measure up.

    If we want games to be respected, I think we need to accept that games are games, and that games can be just as valid a passtime as reading a book.

    The animation of a game may be beautiful but it doesn’t mean the game belongs to the same genre as Leonardo Da Vinci. The narrative of a game may be really well devised, but it doesn’t mean it belongs to the same genre as War and Peace.

  • Anonymous

    I agree that eReaders are A Good Thing (at the time time I can’t imagine I’ll ever get one), and that the printed book form is simply a piece of technology which is being replaced by another, one which is more fit for purpose as society changes.

    But I disagree with the pro-eBook notion (not expressed in the article, but one I hear a lot ) that it doesn’t make any difference whether a book is contained in pages or coding. The medium is the message, the message is the medium.

    The book we read on a Kindle is different from the one we read in paperback. A book is more than the manuscript words; it’s the setting, the colour and smell of the pages, the cover artwork, the size of the book, the printing errors, the creases in the spine. These are not irrelevant ephemera, but as much part of the concept ‘book’ as the words on the page. Or they have been for a couple of hundred years.

    I’m not saying that these things no longer being part of the ‘book’ concept in a few decades will be a tragic loss, exactly. For those of us who love physical books it’s sad, sure, but that’s nostalgia speaking. Kindle books will come to be defined by their own set of quirks and characteristics soon enough.

    All I’m saying is that it’s disingenuous, or misguided, to claim that there is no difference between a physical and digital book. It’s like pouring water from a rectangular vase into a tubular one: they content hasn’t changed in form, but it has changed in shape.

  • Eisen

    Thanks Kata.
    Normally I’m quite careful with absolute statements, but even if the discussion about games and what they are, are difficult, I’m sure about my former conclusion.

    What I’m not sure about is the story part. Yes, you could say Donkey Kong has a story (princess saved by a italian plumber), but with many other games we would have the underlying question: What is a story?

    Could you say the ‘story’ of tetris is… once upon a time there where blocks… and they like to cuddle up till they dissapear? The story of SIMs, or Sim City? The story of Rollercoaster Tycoon or Civilisation? Is it a story if there is no real end, or an infinite quantity of ends or beginnings? Is it a story if there is no protagonist?

    I still don’t think that every game out there contains a story. And I also don’t think that a games primary purpose is gameplay (because visual novels could be labeled as games, but they have more story than gameplay, same as – I would say – The Walking Dead and other PnC Games). These are assumptions that – in my opinion – don’t apply to all games.

    But on the other hand: Does it really matter? For me, games are a great medium with more or less interactivity. Some contain stories, others don’t. Some have great gameplay, and the gameplay of other games is minimal. In the end you can’t say “a game is like that or like that” – they’re manifold like their players.

  • Anonymous

    Ah but what translation are you going to get of that Iliad. You are doing yourself a disservice if you miss out on the better costs-actual-money translations by Fitzgerald or Fagles.

  • Robert Vary

    True, but there’s also a wealth of public domain literature in one’s own language, whatever that language may be. As a native English speaker, I know that I can easily, freely, and legally find works by Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Charlotte Brontë (and Emily, and Anne), Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, L. Frank Baum, Jonathan Swift, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Lewis Carroll, Louisa May Alcott, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christopher Marlowe, Oscar Wilde, and countless others.

  • Robert Vary

    Hee. I named my Nook Jane, as in Eyre.

  • Robert Vary

    I don’t think anyone here is advocating e-readers replacing physical books, or that physical books have many advantages that e-books do not. I know I have a very deep and abiding love for books, such that I physically recoil if I see a book get damaged (pages ripped out, say). Hell, I just today got back from a book-themed vacation in New York City in which we made pilgrimages to the New York Public Library main branch, the Strand used book store, and the Books of Wonder children’s book store, along with seeing Matilda the Musical on Broadway, a show based on the book by Roald Dahl, both of which are largely about the transformative power of books, reading, and learning.

    E-readers supplement all the wonderful things about physical books, though. I don’t have an easily accessible, well-stocked library branch near me, but my library system has many e-books available to borrow online. I travel constantly for my job, and while some books are easy enough for me to carry wherever I go, others would be to large and/or heavy for me to keep in my bags at all time. With an e-reader, if I want to read some Sherlock Holmes, I don’t have to carry my massive Complete Stories with me. If I do travel for long periods of time, longer than a single book would last, I (like Nat above) can bring a whole series of books with me without having to pay an additional baggage charge.

    Overall, e-books have definitely not made me read paper books any less, but they have certainly gotten me, an already voracious reader for as long as I can remember, to read more in general.

  • Anonymous

    This reminds me of that xkcd strip that takes excerpts from the last 150 years of people fretting about the evolution of technology: