Electronic Age: The interwhatsis, and the future of literature

Let’s face it: the internet has us all freaked out.  It’s 1439 all over again–maybe more like 1450–and this Gutenberg dude has just revolutionized the way information is disseminated and all we know for sure is that those monks who make a living doing awesome illustrated manuscripts are probably all going to be out of jobs.

A  friend tells this story: he bought some electronic gizmo for himself and bought another one for his parents.  He brought it home, opened the box, took it out, but knew he didn’t have time to carefully peruse the manual, so he set it aside, went to work.  He had a niece visiting, and when he got home, she was playing with it.  She just got it out and started playing, and in one afternoon had already figured out aps that weren’t even in the manual.  He went to visit his parents later that day, and they still hadn’t opened theirs–were too freaked out by it to even open the box–like if they’d touched it, it might bite them or something.  And there you have it–three generations right there.  Freaked out/terrified, willing to try, but cautious, and ‘wow, this so cool!’

I thought about this recently when I read the tragic/comic story of Spurs point guard Tony Parker and his impending divorce from actress Eva Longoria. The tipping point, apparently, was her discovery on his phone of over 700 text messages he’d sent to and received from the wife of one of his teammates.  One wonders just how many iterations of ‘u so hot ‘n sexy gurl’ Parker thought it necessary to preserve for posterity.  But then another thought occurred–Parker hadn’t deleted the messages because he didn’t know how to.  I totally get that, though I do personally have a fool-proof way to delete old texts. I hand the phone to my daughter and say ‘honey, would you delete all these messages please?’  Works every time.  But then I’m also not texting Brent Barry’s wife.  Or, you know, anyone I’m not supposed to.

I text a lot, but I’m not very good at it.  The predictive spelling always messes me up, as in recently, when my son, in grad school in Minnesota, texted me that they were experiencing their first Minnesota winter storm.  I meant to ask him if he had a good winter coat.  What I texted instead was ‘do you have a good boat?’  I do stuff like that a lot–my daughter Lexie becomes ‘Jewie’ in text-world, and I’m forever reassuring my wife ‘I’ll be good soon,’ when I just want to tell her I’m on my way ‘home.’

Last night, my daughter asked me if, when I was her age (17), I ever wondered what cool new inventions we’d have in the future.  I told her that I was really thinking we’d have, like, hover cars by now.  If you’d said to me “everyone will have phones,” that wouldn’t have seemed too weird, but that those same phones would also have cameras would have seemed impossibly James Bondian, and internet connections?  I would have had no idea what that even meant.  Computers were these ginormous things that filled entire buildings that you programmed with punch cards.

So for my generation, our relationship to techonology is tentative and fraught with hidden perils. I just learned that a collection of my plays is going to be published in a Kindle-friendly e-version, and that I get a Kindle from the publisher.  I think this is awesome news, and I can’t wait to get my Kindle.  But I also know I’m not going to know how to use it unless I get my kids to help me.  And that they’ll, like, just look at the thing and instantly know how to use it.  Plus, you know, there’s also this nasty little Luddite part of me that immediately doesn’t like Kindles, that thinks “I like books, damnit, I like the feel of paper in my fingers, Kindle’s the future and I don’t want any part of it!”

I like books.  I like newspapers.  I like critical essays, published in academic journals.  And I thnk all of that’s going away, or at least it’s all going to change, and I don’t know what’s replacing it all, or how to feel about it.  And I think–hey, what’s the big deal, good writing is good writing, what does a delivery system matter?  But it does matter.

So this is a blog post–apparently I’m blogging right now, sitting here with my laptop.  And what’s a blog?  A short essay.  I know that world. And I like blogging–it’s fun.  I should have my own blog, really, if I knew how to set one up.  But then I read a really great blog, like that amazing thing that girl does on Hyperbole and a Half.  She’s as funny a writer as I know, but she’s also an artist–she illustrates her own writing, and although she doesn’t really draw all that well, her drawings are absoloutely perfect for her writing style. She’s fantastic.  And she couldn’t have existed in the Brave Old World I now remember with such fondness. For one thing, she self-publishes. We used to look down at self-publishing–not any more. Self-publishing, in fact, is what people do.  A guy like Bill Simmons couldn’t have existed twenty years ago–a guy who just liked sports and wrote about them on this blog, and hoped enough people would read his stuff and like it that he’d make some money. And because he’s smart and clever, it worked and he’s now . . . gotten two books published.  I’m totally addicted to a San Francisco Giants sportsblog, the McCovey Chronicles.  The moderator, a guy named Grant, is an amazing writer–funny and smart and bright and literate.  But half the fun of the blog are all the media links.  I contribute, but only text–I don’t know how to do all the rest of it–comically photoshop celebrity heads on, like, farm animals or whatever.

So what happens to literary fiction?  What happens to the best of popular fiction, or fiction generally? This stuff’s great for snark and bile–for pith and vinegar.  But how, now, does one use language to convey experiences with The Spirit, and how does one include video links, and how does that form change content?

I happen to like Times and Seasons and Feminist Mormon Housewives, and all these other publication/social communities.  I think they’re all awesome, and great for criticism, and great ways to network.  But I also loved Brady Udall’s new book.  And I want to read it printed, on paper.  And I also can’t wait to get my Kindle, and get my kids to show me how to use it.  We have, at our fingertips, more information, more literature, more snarky fun than ever before in the history of the world.  And more access to porn, and to sites for paranoid insanity, and to specific instructions on how to build home-made explosives.  It’s going to change everything, and I have no idea how to cope with all that.  And I also can’t wait to see where it goes.

Plus I’m a theatre guy.  My favorite art form is by its very nature ephemeral, disappears in the very moment of its creation, leaving behind only a few fragmented artifacts.  Maybe that’s the secret to survival.  Maybe it’s on life support, monitors beeping, a DNR on its charts. The future is now, and I’m terrified.  And exhilarated.  Breathe.

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6 Responses to Electronic Age: The interwhatsis, and the future of literature

  1. I wonder how childless people over the age of 50 ever learn to use a computer, cell phone, or other electronic device.

  2. Moriah Jovan says:

    A few marginally connected thoughts about ebooks and ereading:

    1. In my (granted, limited) experience, it’s people over 50 who’ve taken to e-reading (Kindle, especially) because they can increase the font size and don’t have to strain to read those nasty little paper books in the tiny little print. Reading in general is UP. People who BUY books (in digital) is UP.

    2. For a sec, let me plug dotEPUB (http://dotepub.com/) "Download any webpage as an ebook." Now that I have a reader which will read the EPUB format, I collect long blog posts, long informational web pages, anything long that I want to read, but don’t want to read on the computer, into a folder. When I have a bunch, I load them up on my e-reader. I can effectively take little bits of the web with me without all the distractions of the rest of the web.

    3. The situation’s really too confusing for anybody who’s a reader, but not an ebook geek. Thus, the Kindle is the best choice for people who a) don’t know and b) don’t care, but want to have an e-reader. I have four e-readers, and every one of them has a discrete advantage over the others depending on venue. If I want to read in the dark, I use my BlackBerry or eBookWise. If it’s daylight, it’s the Kindle. If I want to read EPUB format books, it’s the Sony. I’ll be getting a 1st-generation iPad when the next generation comes out.

    4. Print books aren’t going away, nor should they. The ebook is replacing the mass market paperback. Hardbacks will be for people who love a particular book they may have read in some other format. I’ve written a couple of posts on print books: http://b10mediaworx.com/b10mwx/why-print-will-never-die and this (in response to only the 1,428th person to say "I like REAL books"): http://moriahjovan.com/mojo/i-like-real-books That said, there are some things that are better in digital than print, e.g., choose your own adventure stories. Those things died for a reason and now with digital they’re coming back. Hyperlinking and indexing are the key.

    5. Print books aren’t any more REAL than digital books. Too bad the creators are forgotten in favor of paper, ink, and glue.

    6. I still buy paper books–ones I want to keep, usually in hardback.

    7. Digital books and print-on-demand mean books never go out of print. This is a killer for authors whose rights are held by the publishing company, but a godsend for those of us who self-publish and retain our rights. I went to Barnes & Noble the other day and saw one of my most favorite books–published in 1992 and long out of print–on the shelf, in trade paperback size, which means it was print-on-demand. http://twitpic.com/3d9dwp and http://twitpic.com/3b6gkw The ebook is replacing the mass market paperback. Watch the genre shelves fill up with trade paperbacks.

    8. I feel like I’ve waited my whole life to be able to carry my jukebox in my hand (http://moriahjovan.com/mojo/jukeboxes-and-libraries). I wanted to a) buy one song at a time and b) somehow put it on a little Walkman-size device. It never occurred to me to want my library in my hand, too, but wow.

    And finally:

    9. Print is not competing with digital. Reading is competing with the internet, TV, movies, sports, video games, role-playing games, NASCAR, and beer.

  3. FoxyJ says:

    We got a Kindle a few years ago right when they came out, because a family member bought if for us since we are both ‘readers’. We actually don’t use it a lot because we don’t buy very many books (I’d rather check them out at the library). But, a few months ago I started bringing my Kindle to church instead of my scripture and it has been so helpful. I have three little kids and my husband doesn’t attend church; the Kindle takes up much less space in my diaper bag, plus I can hold it with one hand and the baby can’t rip the pages like she did with my scriptures. I still love my regular scriptures and study them at home, but the Kindle has been a lifesaver at church. I just wish it were easier to flip through the pages on it :)

    For me, most new technology has been this way–not really a direct replacement for older technology, but an enhancement. Making visiting teaching appointments with a quick email or text is so handy; I use Facebook to keep up with friends from my mission, my blog gives me a place to discuss issues I might not otherwise talk about at church, and so on. Most people I know, even ‘older’ people seem to be embracing new technology and finding positive uses for it.

    I also agree with Moriah that what I don’t really see is competition between print and digital. Most people I know that read do it in a variety of media, but there are still plenty of people who don’t read, digitally or in print.

  4. Yeah, Eric, I feel it. I used to think the demise of paper printing was immoral and lamentable, but I’m not so sure anymore. One of the first things to go, for me, was the printed newspaper, at which point I knew I was in trouble. I used to love printed newspapers, but now I find them so irritating, to have to hold them up, get ink on my fingers, page all the way through them, and carve out special time just for them. Now I get my newspapers solely through e-mailed headlines, and I never pick up printed newspapers anymore.

    The same thing is starting to happen with books, now that I have an e-reader (Kindle). It’s so nice to have one’s whole library in a lightweight device that makes it easy to have 3-4 books going at the same time and have them with you all the time. I’m to the point where I have too many printed books for my shelf space, and I don’t want to get more shelves. Because of this, once I finish a paper book, I nearly always get rid of it by reselling it or donating it, because I don’t want to store it. But the Kindle solves all those problems. In fact, if I could, I would trade in hundreds of books sitting down on my shelves for e-book editions.

    On the other hand, I like having printed books around as a kind of mental food storage, in case the grid ever goes down and we don’t have juice for our devices, only natural light by which to read paper books.

    As far as the Internet itself, I don’t necessarily like how it’s fragmenting everything, destroying longer artistic/communication forms such as the music album, the book, and the magazine. It’s destroying them not only as contained delivery forms but also economically, of course. I think overall we’re getting dumber, because of the Internet and related devices. Our attention is becoming so much more shallow and divided.

  5. Eric Samuelsen says:

    I know I said this badly, but in fact, I don’t think the Internet is going to ruin anything. I think it’s going to change things, and that we don’t know right now what changes will be commonplace in ten years, and as an increasingly old guy, I’m frightened of change. Heck, I don’t even like the new box Grape Nuts comes in. But I’m also exhilarated by it, by the possibilities. Both and.

  6. Oh, you’re a lot more optimistic than I am, Sam. I think the Internet has and will continue to do cool things, but the bad will ultimately outweigh the good, as far as helping unravel society more than "ravel" it. You can practically date the modern day’s new, more aggressive political polarizations to the arrival of the Internet, and this will continue to get worse. The Internet foments all kinds of splinter groups and aberrations. Talk about a turbo-charger for the world’s overall devolution in these latter days.

    (That said, I personally of course love and use the Internet all day long for mostly worldly purposes.)

    Oh, and the magic of an e-reader like the Kindle is that you can read for a long time on it with no more apparent eye strain than reading ink on paper. Whereas when I’ve tried to use my backlit iPhone as an e-reader for long, it made my eyes go buggy pretty quick, and I assume the same would happen with an iPad. The only book I’ve been able to read completely on the iPhone is the eighteenth-century erotic novel "Fanny Hill" ("Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure") because the titillating material kept me reading despite the eye strain. And the other Kindle magic is the huge selection and ease of books to download faster than the speed of thought.

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