Content old and new

This week my day job took me to a conference on social media and the future of communication. There were speakers from Facebook, Twitter and myriad free-thinking marketing wonks illuminating what the future holds. They were dizzy with excitement about what lies around the corner for us in the way we communicate with each other.

The manner in which we record and share information, or ‘content’ as people in these circles love to call it, has changed out of all recognition in recent years. And we’re not done yet it seems. There’s new net-based thrills at every turn. Hold on, it’s going to be quite a ride.

davies-ethel-statue-of-newton-by-eduardo-paolozzi-the-british-library-london-england-united-kingdomIt happened that this gathering was held at the British Library in London, at the conference centre there. So at lunchtime I wandered across the courtyard with it’s imposing, if rather baffling, statue of Newton, and entered a dimly lit room in the main body of the great library.

There, in the gloom, are the collected treasures of the British Library. And I was awed to see communications devices from a different age. Ancient manuscripts and huge hand-written tomes, illuminated scrolls and documents of great age.

Never has the word treasures been more aptly used than for these marvellous books. All that was precious, all that was strange and wonderful, all that was worth writing down in an age when writing things down represented the pinnacle of new technology is here.

There are religious books from many faiths across the world, richly decorated in gold and beautifully crafted. Yet, some of the most fascinating artefacts are among the most humble in appearance – the hand-written early gospels unearthed from ancient desert dust, for example, which provide insight into the beliefs of early Christians.

The forging of political belief is represented here too – the Magna Carta, soiled and burnt and torn, it’s words and ideas still resonating down the centuries.

There’s music as well – a case of original hand-written manuscripts from Mozart through Beethoven to Handel’s Water Music, until finally at the end we find Beatles lyrics, the words to Yesterday scrawled on a page torn from an old notebook – the first draft of Ticket to Ride written on the back of a child’s birthday card.

And then we come to literature. Here’s an early Shakespeare folio, there notes from Milton and Jane Austen, Conrad and Angela Carter.

Beowulf_firstpage_jpegIn one corner of a case against the back wall is a small unassuming looking book. It is tatty and burnt at the edges. Its awkward, runic, Anglo-Saxon script is indecipherable to modern eyes. It is Beowulf, the earliest poem we have, the earliest literature of any kind, written in English. It is where our literature began.

I wonder what the British Library will keep from our brave new age of fast paced social media. What ‘content’ will become the treasures of the future? Will they keep our Facebook status updates? Will they preserve our tweets?

To download or not to download

Recently my book – which has been out in paperback for a few weeks now, was turned into a download. You can now get it on Kindle here.

As well as the old-fashioned dead tree way here.

I’m not sure how I feel about it – pleased still of course, that the book is out at all, that I have a publisher in Skylight Press out there doing their best for it and caring about it as much as I do. But in terms of the fancy new Kindle version – how do I feel about that? It’s the future I know, no doubt at all about that. It would take someone who was a bit of a Luddite these days to be a download denier – and that’s certainly not me.

So I’m glad to have the book out in this format – and I certainly see the advantages of it. The portability of the devices, the almost instant access to a whole library of books.

I also think that anything which not only preserves, but reinvigorates reading and the novel has to be a good thing. It has to be a living, breathing art form, the moment it lapses into becoming a museum piece then it’s doomed.

Finally, I like the way that downloads, and that means Kindle right at the moment, have already led to a publishing revolution allowing authors who do not have a publisher to take their destiny in their own hands and do it themselves. This reminds me of the early days of punk rock – or of indie bands. The self-sufficiency they had, the DIY ethic, led to some brilliant music and a voice for people who would not otherwise have been heard.

The same thing is happening in fiction now I think – different voices, ones which might not have made it into print, have managed to side-step the publishing system and find a platform for their work.

So two cheers for downloads then. But let’s not (ahem) write-off books.

Let me say firstly, that the dream for me, the one I’d had since childhood, was to have a book published – one I could hold in my hand, put on my bookshelf – one that had the feel and smell and yes, romance, of a book. I didn’t dream of a download.

But that might be more to do with the fact I have grown up with books. A new generation may well be following hard on my heals who dream of switching on their Kindle, swiping their fingers across the screen and having their name pop up on the illuminated display.

Times change after all. But my key worry isn’t about the downloads themselves – more about what they can lead to. Once things are available on digital format it seems to me that their value starts to plummet.

Look at music – digital piracy has decimated that industry. Look at movies, going the same way. There used to be a newspaper industry – I used to work in it. Now because so much news is available free on the internet the market has set the value of news at near zero.

I don’t want the same fate to befall printed fiction.

Already I am hearing horror stories from fellow authors about their downloads being pirated and stolen. Most authors are paid little for their work even when the system is working – if it breaks down they are in real trouble.

So I’m delighted to have my book out on Kindle – thrilled by it – and I really value those readers who choose to buy Song of the Sea God in that way.

But my hope is that the download revolution doesn’t issue in an era when books are thought of as ‘freeware’ available to all without any payment to those who have worked hard to produce them.

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.