JUNE/JULY/AUGUST 2009 – NO. 34
Writers in a Digital Future
Technology has always played a role in the creation of reading material. In the 15th century, Gutenberg's invention allowed, for the first time, information to travel in different directions at once. Before the printing press, the various versions of books or recorded information (the illuminated manuscripts of the Middles Ages, the codex of the Roman Empire, the papyrus sheets of the Egyptians and, where it all began, cuneiform pressed into clay tablets in 5000 BC) consisted of handmade, one-of-a-kind objects. One person with information would pass that information to another person, using the book as a baton. What Gutenberg's printing press, along with movable type, finally allowed was for information to be transferred from one person to many different people at once. As Victor Hugo wrote in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 'In the 15th century, everything changes.'
It would be another couple of centuries before, with the appearance of the typewriter in the late 19th century, technology finally had a hand in the way that books were written. Before then, all of the major technological innovations were on the publishing side, while the innovations in terms of writing had mainly to do with new ways of telling stories (stream of consciousness, etc.). But 50 or 60 years ago, when most writers began to use typewriters, there was finally a pronounced shift in the way writers thought about and composed their work.
'The typewriter fuses composition and publication, causing an entirely new attitude to the written and printed word,' wrote Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media. 'Composing on a typewriter has altered the forms of the language and of literature."
Twenty-five years ago the invention of the personal computer, and the development of sophisticated word processing programs that went along with it, altered those forms even more. Writers were suddenly free from much of the drudgery of the writing process in the same way that household appliances like dishwashers and vacuums saved the housewife of the 1950s from domestic chores. Writers could now repaginate or change a character's name throughout the entire text with just a few keystrokes. Countless hours were saved, and the processes of composition and revision were incredibly simplified by writing on computers.
"I wrote my first novel on a big clunker of a machine that wheezed slightly when it stored information and had a mere 256 kilobits of memory," wrote Anna Quindlen in her 1998 book How Reading Changed My Life:
It just managed to hold the book, the word-processing program, and a few other odds and ends. My third novel was composed on a machine that fits into my handbag and weighs slightly more than a premature baby. The program corrects my punctuation and capitalization as I type; when I try to type a stand-alone lowercase l, it inflates it into a capital letter, correcting me peremptorily, certain I've made a mistake. I could keep a dozen copies of my book on its hard disk and it wouldn't even breathe hard.
So if writers can spend months and years composing on a computer – not only reading words on a computer screen, but writing them as well – then it's not unrealistic to think that most readers will one day also consume those books on some sort of electronic screen. Some may see this as a leap of logic. As a friend of mine pointed out, milk is produced by squeezing a cow's teat but most people wouldn't want to consume it that way. Others cite our willingness to read large amounts of material online via websites and blogs, online-only magazines such as Slate and Salon (and the online editions of traditional print newspapers such as The New York Times) to show that words produced on computers will soon be consumed on a computer as well.
For authors, this will not be a stretch at all. In fact, they're already used to it. Many authors these days write their books on a computer, and never see their work as a physical manuscript until it's time to send it to their agent or publisher. And even then they might not print out a paper copy, emailing instead electronic files. In fact, some authors never see their books in paper format until right before the book is printed.
Books used to be a kind of facsimile of the writer's creation; the writer typed and the publishers turned that type into recreations called books. Today's writers are composing on computers, and then those bits of data are being transformed into physical books. It's the digital versus analog debate turned inside out. Because it used to be that something analog (like a book) was turned into something digital (like an eBook), and people saw this as false. In this scenario, eBooks were seen as being like a clockwork orange: something mechanical pretending to be organic. But now we have the opposite; orange clockworks: something organic created from something mechanical.
However, while such a leap in computer technology has made life easier for writers, it also presents a very large downside: one computer crash, and – unless you back up your work relentlessly – your book and whatever else it is you're working on will disappear in the blink of an eye. Weeks, months, or even years of work can disappear in a matter of seconds, and digital obliteration lies just an incorrect mouseclick away.
This reminds me of an episode of the television show Mad About You from years ago. Paul Reiser was fooling around on the roof of his Manhattan apartment building when he knocked out the power. After he goes back to his apartment, he's greeted by a gathering of angry tenants, one of whom is a writer. Apparently the writer had been working on a book at the time of the outage, only to lose all of his work during the ensuing blackout. He hands Reiser a floppy disc. "What's this?" Resier asks. "It used to be my novel," the writer responds, "now it's a coaster."
So while the young artists of La Boheme destroyed their art by feeding manuscripts to the eager fireplace of their garret in order to keep warm, writers today can erase their life's work by tripping over a power cord and knocking the plug from an outlet. It's not nearly as poetic as Puccini, but the results are unfortunately the same.
Excerpted from Print Is Dead by Jeff Gomez. Copyright © 2007 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved.
BACK TO TOP