Bugged By Technology

This morning, I awoke to find​ that I had been transformed into a gigantic insect. Don’t you hate when that happens?

That’s a reference to one of the classic opening lines of 20th-century literature, Franz Kafka’s 1916 novella The Metamorphosis, the tale of poor Gregor Samsa and his abrupt entomological condition. The other work for which Kafka is best known — and which is perhaps the most quintessentially “Kafka-esque” — is The Trial, in which Joseph K. is arrested and put on trial for a crime he not only didn’t commit, but which isn’t even revealed to him. (Orson Welles filmed the book in 1961, casting Anthony Perkins as Joseph K.) Kafka’s last novel The Castle probes another of his favorite themes, the individual struggling against a byzantine, unknown, and unknowable bureaucracy.

He was always one of my favorite writers, and Kafka’s works can be by turns surreal, horrific, or just downright funny. He died of tuberculosis in 1924, just shy of age 41, and while one has the image of the starving writer — a hunger artist, perhaps — scribbling away in his Prague garret, he was actually a fairly successful bureaucrat (he knew of what he wrote!) who spent 20+ years working for the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute in Prague. (Prague was then in the Kingdom of Bohemia and part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until after the First World War, when Czechoslovakia gained its independence.)

Kafka — who also had a doctorate in law — earned a decent income and was beloved by his superiors, who deemed him irreplaceable (he had a mad urge to go off and enlist in the army during World War I, but his bosses insisted they needed him in the office and convinced the recruiters to reject him). Still, he dreamt of more literary endeavors, and took as many writing vacations as he could get away with. Unfortunately, he was such a perfectionist that he destroyed virtually everything he ever wrote, save for the works he had sent to friends and colleagues for comment, and the very few that were actually published in his lifetime. He wrote to his best friend Max Brod, who would become Kafka’s literary executor, “Dearest Max, My last request: Everything I leave behind me . . . in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread” (Samuelson, 1998).

It is to our great benefit that Brod ignored his request.

In January, 2017, the final installment of a three-volume biography of Kafka was published. For logistical reasons, the volume covering Kafka’s earliest years was the last to be published, and in many ways it’s the most fascinating. One thing I never knew was that when Kafka and Brod traveled around Europe in 1910 and 1911, they hatched a plan to write and publish a series of travel guides which they were going to call “On the Cheap.” At the time, there was very little like Fodor’s (let alone TripAdvisor) that reviewed and rated hotels and restaurants and provided other practical information — or, more to their point, kept travelers from getting ripped off in “tourist traps.” You know, I’d pay good money to read a travel guide written by Franz Kafka! (A hotel that carves your room folio on your back after checkout?) Neither of them had the funds to get very far with the idea, though.

Travel guides of some sort have existed since antiquity, which is not surprising, and usually took the form of basic navigational aids for sailors. The earliest such guide, which dates back to Ancient Greece, was called a periplus, Latinized from a Greek word that meant “sailing around.” It was basically a list of ports and landmarks that ship captains could use to figure out where they were. Later, the Romans took the idea inland and produced the itinerarium, a map of towns, roads, and distances, whence the word “itinerary.”

The Ancient Greeks took the idea of the periplus and went one better. The periegesis (“progress around”) added verse descriptions to various geographical locations and became a popular literary genre. (Personally, I think more TripAdvisor contributors should write in verse; wouldn’t complaints about lousy restaurant service sound much better in Greek hexameter?)

The travelogue or travel narrative became popular around A.D. 1000 in China, and much later in the West, upper-class Europeans who gallivanted about the Continent — what was called the “Grand Tour” — would write about their experiences, usually adding more than a smattering of art and archaeological appreciation (or “pretension” if you want to get technical). In the 17th and 18th centuries, printing presses throughout Europe were turning out these “manuscript guides” by the bucketful and while they were a good read (as is a lot of modern travel writing, such as books by Bill Bryson), they were not especially useful in telling you the most economical place to stay in Paris or where to get the best schnitzel in Berlin.

The first modern travel guide — and one that introduced star ratings — was published in 1836. London publisher John Murray began printing the Murray’s Handbooks for Travellers to take advantage of the burgeoning tourist industry, thanks to the advent of the railroad. Murray published volumes that covered Europe, Asia, and North Africa, and rated the various sights, though not accommodations, using stars. The goal of the Murray guidebooks was to allow the travelers of the time — who had a lot of, but not unlimited, time and money — to sightsee as efficiently as possible. John Murray III, grandson of the company founder, would re-revolutionize the travel book format 20 years later.

While Murray’s series was popular, the gold standard in late 19th-century/early 20th-century travel guides were the Baedeker guides. Even Kafka and Brod had relied on the Baedeker guides. Scion of a family of German printers, publishers, and booksellers, Karl Baedeker worked for various publishing companies in the early 1800s, and in 1832, was able to acquire Franz Friedrich Röhling, a publisher based in Koblenz. This company had, a few years earlier, come out with a succinctly titled travel guide called Rheinreise von Mainz bis Cöln; ein Handbuch für Schnellreisende (aka A Rhine Journey from Mainz to Cologne; A Handbook for Travellers on the Move) by a Professor Oyvind Vorland. It soon went out of print, but it had given Baedeker an idea. Although at first he had merely wanted to update the original edition, he developed his own idea for a travel guide. Indeed, the information he wanted to provide was a complete novelty at the time, and included things like how to get around, what to see, where to stay, where to eat, how much to tip, and, most importantly, what things cost. The Baedeker guides were about more than logistics; Baedeker was considered “Europe’s ideal parent,” as the guides:

set an example of private and public virtues ranging from thrift to patriotism, comforted the timid and encouraged the daring, taught the proper response to courtesy or cunning, combined moral probity with practical wisdom, and even — while warning his readers away from unseemly pleasures — let slip the knowledge of where they might be found (Mendelson, 1985).

Baedeker guides covered virtually the entire globe, and had become such a cultural icon and earned such a reputation for reliability that Jacques Offenbach even name-checked Baedeker in a lyric in his 1866 operetta La vie Parisienne: “Kings and governments may err/But never Mr. Baedeker.”

Offenbach is known primarily for the opera Tales of Hoffman, his magnum opus which was unfinished at the time of his death. Offenbach was a German-born French cellist and composer and wrote nearly 100 operettas between the 1850s and 1870s, many of which are still staged today. They also appeared on vinyl record fairly early on. A recording of La vie Parisienne was first released as a set of five 10-inch 78s in 1931.

Vinyl records are of course a direct descendant of Thomas Edison’s original invention of the cylinder-based phonograph in 1877. (It was American inventor Emile Berliner who, in the 1890s, invented the familiar flat phonograph record which is at present having something of a renaissance.) Edison’s phonograph also piqued the curiosity of Alexander Graham Bell, who made several improvements to Edison’s design. Bell had been tinkering with various acoustic devices from a very young age, and while we all know the telephone, Bell’s Volta Laboratory also invented the first dictation machine — and, indeed, trademarked the name Dictaphone — in 1907. These were still wax cylinder machines, and you can see one in action in the 1944 film noir classic Double Indemnity, in which a dying Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) narrates the story into a Dictaphone.

In the early 20th century, offices were quickly becoming modernized, and stenographic recording devices were among the first pieces of office equipment. Many of these devices were made by manufacturers of phonograph records and players, as they used a similar technology. In Europe, a popular brand of dictation machine was the Parlograph, sold by Germany’s Carl Lindström Company. Carl Lindström was also a record label; its English division was called Parlophone and years later released records by a little Liverpool combo called The Beatles, whom you may have heard of.

In the 1910s, one employee of the Berlin-based Carl Lindström Company was a woman named Felice Bauer, who would demonstrate the Parlograph at trade shows, and even appeared in a printed photographic flip-book the company had produced to promote the device. However, the Parlograph appalled Bauer’s fiancé, who was a bit of a Luddite when it came to new technologies invading the office. He felt that such a device “degraded” the user. He wrote to her sarcastically:

A combination of telephone and Parlograph can be invented; surely that cannot be too difficult. By day after tomorrow, you will be telling me that it has already been accomplished. . . . More difficult, but of course also possible, would be a combination of gramophone and telephone. . . . By the way, this idea is quite appealing: a Parlograph goes to a telephone in Berlin and a gramophone does likewise in Prague and these two carry on a little conversation with each other (Stach, 2005).

He was exaggerating — or so he thought — but it certainly did anticipate modern technology to come.

They ultimately broke off their engagement, actually more than once, in no small part because they lived in different countries and had only met in person fewer than half a dozen times. Felice Bauer eventually married a Berlin banker, but her Prague-based technophobic ex-fiancé — Franz Kafka — remained a lifelong bachelor, finding his one, true love only months before his death. How Kafka-esque.


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