Sunday, January 8, 2017

On the Future (Further) Intersection of Technology and Literature

One form of literature, at least the one that thrives through publishing on the internet, has been transformed by the internet. I’m talking about short fiction, the kind that is most amenable to the attention spans of individuals who use electronic devices. This is one way that we could posit that technology has made an impact on literature. This literature, in fact, is most often where the cutting edge appears because it’s not produced and hashed out by a marketing team.

What does the future of cutting edge literature look like? It’s not in traditional books, or rather, it’s no longer necessary for books to exist in order to present it.

I’m of a generation of writers who are almost a “creation” of the web. Of course, the web did not create me, but if it did go away, so would go away--at least in the digital ether--much of what I consider to be my best and most important work. Essentially, my work came of age with the web. Or I came of age when the internet did. I don’t know if I could conceive of the writing path that I’ve taken in the last fifteen years or so in any other way.

If you consider technology to be indispensable, maybe you ask that question, what if the internet goes away? On the one hand, there are those who believe it’s foolish to have any investment in the web (they shun having their work published there; they either can afford to, because they are safely ensconced in legacy publishing, or they don’t care about the web, consider it a fad or whatever, and maybe they do or do not use it as a tool, etc.), and on another extreme are those I would call the immersives who believe anything is possible, for example, that the web could evolve to the point of spontaneously producing intelligence. (If you think I’m grasping here, just watch this clip from Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World) The web, and its inherent potential, is essentially out of our hands. It is uncontrollable.

If the internet vanished, there are still the people who have created the work, they will create more, and there will be new creators to come. Are we “dependent” on it like life support, or is it rather that we don’t--and can’t--imagine it going away? And even if the internet did vanish, something new would be created to replace it, probably Web 2.0.

To look at the changes that technology has wrought to publishing over just a few years: new ways of marketing, and more venues for one to promote themselves--these tactics can seem merely superficial. On the other hand, the broad reach and availability of these tools has made the web pervasive. What is significant is the impact of the web and its potential to reflect a zeitgeist. An arguable point is that the web has only become more essential, more necessary. For those firmly entrenched in legacy publishing, the internet is a supplement, if it’s not a foregone conclusion by virtue of what it lacks in relation to traditional print publishing. Equally, print might seem irrelevant to a lot of techies.

Again, no matter what changes and developments come, as far as the web and publishing, technology will always bring something new. Because we are constantly working within the technology, it is bound to change; technology constantly evolves. It is almost a “live” organism, in this sense. Whereas there have been no major innovations in the basic technology of the printed book for thousands of years.

In some sense, even writing is static. But perhaps the capacity of the creative minds that produce literature is a realm that is unpredictable, with a potential that we might never fully understand enough to have the capacity to reach. And this touches on notions of artificial intelligence creating a kind of literature. Such expectations I think are still beyond viable; it ultimately takes a human mind to craft the narratives and imbue the poetry of language with the lyricism that humans can grasp.

Since the dawn of the internet, every social media company with a significant financial stake in it has been trying to figure out how to monetize the web; the only way--or the main way--is subscriptions and advertising. If you put any intellectual content out there, you try to monetize it. Those producing it may not have a significant or pressing financial relationship to it. People may not feel obligated to pay for something they can ultimately get for free. This puts someone like me at a disadvantage. My options would seem to be to get into more paying venues. But the truth is that I’m not going to stop writing because no one is paying me.

No matter what speed technology can provide for the processing of data, reading and writing occur at a relatively slow pace, which is more or less fixed. It’s the same as it was 100 years ago, or as it was 500 years ago, and further. Could this convince us that book technology won’t change  for a long time, if ever?

The book, in some form, has been around for thousands of years. The computer, the tablet, et al, for less than a few decades. None of these advances have changed the book. Writing is a quiet and ancient technology in contrast to all pervasive technology as we know it. The change for writers, if they choose to utilize it, occurs mainly in the means of putting the work out there. The book is a relatively stable artifact. If we consider the futurist thinking of far flung possibility, maybe at some point a chip or device planted in the brain will allow access to all books. Then you’ll never need to read a book, you will have vague memories and knowledge of having already read it. Or you will be able to access it from the cloud you plug in to your brain. But even this won’t really change the way the literature that it contains is created. Someone still has to write the literature.

(Photo by Kyle Bean "The Future of Books" website, here.)