High tech future for the written word?

I’m going a bit off-piste with this one so do bear with – I’m sure we’ll get mugged by something approximating a valid point down near the bottom somewhere.

I was just thinking how little I now know about the world around me – the man-made world that is. Technology has bounded along at such a lick that it’s left the average man or woman in the street trailing in its wake I’d say.

Not that I’ve ever really been up to speed. I mean, when it comes right down to it – I don’t even know how a radio works. I’ve got the headlines of course – if it came up in a pub quiz I’d know that it’s got something to do with waves and they travel through the air – but beyond that – nothing. I mean – these waves – are they everywhere? Are they all around us now? Do they pass through us? Who knows – not me, press a button, music comes out – that’s it.

So you can imagine the towering level of my incomprehension when it comes to what might loosely be termed ‘new technology’. Take this laptop I’m writing on – how does that really work? Microchips and things yes – binary code, noughts and ones. But how does it come together? And the internet? Twitter? This blog? Frankly I haven’t a clue.

When people – well, you know, nutters – say that it’s all alien technology, reverse engineered from a crashed space-craft found at Roswell, I don’t think ‘Oh – how absurd!’ I think: ‘Well – it’s a theory.’

Things have moved so fast. If I was able to talk to myself as a kid, and show him what we’ve got in the way of gadgets now, he would think I was showing him some distant science fiction.

“Never mind that rubbish you see on Star Trek with the clam-shell phones – that’s so 1995 – take a look at this iPhone. With this thing in my palm I can access every fact in the world – or at the very least someone’s opinion on that fact. I can speak to anyone on the planet who is willing to speak to me – yes on the phone, the way you have to go down to the corner and use the pay phone to do, but also on TV face to face. I can listen to any song on any record in the whole of HMV on the high street – and millions more they haven’t got. Yes, even 12 inch singles. I can watch any movie – the ones you have to go to the cinema to see. And when you get in the car – this thing can bounce a signal off a satellite up in space and tell you exactly where you are in the world and give you directions to where you have to go.’

Even supposing young me wasn’t freaked out by old me just appearing like that and going on at him like some deranged salesman from Phones 4 U he would doubtless be amazed by how quickly things have changed.

But now imagine me as a kid, going back to see my dad when he was a child – say 30 years earlier. I wouldn‘t really have had that much to tell him. ‘You know TV? Yes – well we still have that, but some rich people have colour ones – and you know telephones? Well several people in my class have them in their actual homes.’

Yes – it’s since the 1970s that things have really taken off. I think I was about 12 when Pong came out – that precursive video game based on batting a white dot from one side of the screen to the other between two paddles. I imagine that was the first bit of technology we reverse engineered from the Roswell Aliens. It’s all gone haywire since then.

Now let’s look at literature. (See, told you there was a point). How has that changed in the same period? Well, I’m tempted to bluster and make up some stuff but the truth is, it’s hardly changed at all. Styles come and go, fashions wax and wane, but we still have novels, poetry, short stories. Nothing revolutionary has happened.

It has been suggested that the changes in technology could prompt a revolution in the way we write. That the more open access of the e-book era might allow people new latitude to reconfigure what counts as a piece of creative writing. It might smash open the boxes into which writing must fit to get past publishers and agents and make it into print under the current orthodoxy.

Removing the constraints of the solid, physical book and the expensive process of printing might lead to unexpected and radical change in the forms writing takes.

Is this what’s going to happen? Or will ebooks simply lead to mass piracy and mean that authors struggle even more to get paid for their work?

Who knows? The truth is it’s a revolution – and in a revolution nobody knows what the outcome is going to be, not even the people who start it.

11 thoughts on “High tech future for the written word?”

  1. We are living in the future – not quite the future we imagined (I’m still waiting for my jet pack and my atomic car) but the future all the same. I *kind* of know how a radio works (did you never build a crystal set in your youth, with a cat’s whisker?) but as for the rest… ::shrug::

  2. I remember having to do those ‘What will life be like in the year 2000?’ essays at school and everyone used to go for flying cars and jet packs. So that’s been a big disappointment all round. The other thing every kid predicted was that we would be eating pills instead of proper food – why did anyone think that would be an improvement?

  3. Nicely written and insightful. My mind often spins at the ridiculous amount of technology out there and the sheer weight of information that comes with it. I think I rely on the internet as much as the next person now, but I am still of that generation that if you gave me a thick book in a candlelit cottage on a wild and deserted coast somewhere I would be more than happy.
    Who know if it is all from Alien technology. Not sure we’ll ever know for certain, but in our imaginations, absolutely anything can happen. Probably the single best thing about being human!

    1. I suppose human progress always moves in fits and starts rather than smoothly – a couple of generations ago the arrival of the motor car must have seemed just as sudden and revolutionary. I remember a piece by the late author Laurie Lee who said that when he was a boy nothing moved faster than a horse but, by the time he reached adulthood there were cars ‘like bloated blowflies’ everywhere he turned.

  4. Nice article Chris, and I have blogged the same questions myself. The one that I hope does not happen is no more printed books. I don’t think it will since only 25% of book buyers still prefer a paper back. At least I pray it won’t happen any time soon! I love to hold a real book and line my shelves with my favorite novels! Yes, the e book has it’s place, but it cannot replace the true form of a book, not in my mind anyway!

    1. I totally agree with you Lisa – I would hate to see books disappear – I have shelves full of them and my dream, now about to be realised, was to have a book with my name on the cover, not a download! Nevertheless I can see a time when printed books are few and far between. You only have to look at what has happened to the way music is delivered – and what is happening to the newspaper industry – to see that this information revolution is no respecter of tradition.

    2. Just wanted to offer support for the continuation of real books! Technology and E-books are unavoidable but nothing will ever beat that wonderful feeling of hands on paper and the smell of a real book, period. Proud to be in the 25% rather than the majority.

  5. I gave up trying to figure out how thing work. I’m just happy when I know how to use it. Ebooks are here to stay, but I think touchable books will never go away. I live in Thailand where English books are expensive because of shipping so I read lots of ebooks. But if one really grabs me I order it in paperback.

    1. That’s my attitude to technology too – never mind how it works, which button do I press? Personally I wouldn’t like to predict how much of a role paper books will have in the future – ask me again in ten years!

  6. I adore technology but it means we are awash with information and subsequently we both think and write less. There is empirical evidence this alters our brain functioning and reduces our capacity to concentrate or think deeply. This can’t be a good thing. I’ve always had the attention span of a gnat – how much worse can I get?. I guess the old adage of “everything in moderation” applies to technology too.

    1. I’m sure you’re right – I spend all day looking at a screen one way or another – when I was a kid I never did, except an hour or two of TV. sometimes it’s wise to have time just to think with no other distractions – that can be important time I think.

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