Saturday, April 17, 2010

Does technology matter?


I'm a vintage technology kind of guy--I spend a lot of my time fiddling around with mechanical cameras and old analogue synthesizers (or, for that matter, pianos, guitars, and drums). I like things that are tactile--tools that feel a certain way when I use them, and which give me certain results that, at least in part, are determined by the technology used to create them.

I used to think I felt the same way about reading and writing--but my recent appreciation for the iPad, and general acceptance of the ebook, are suggesting to me that the same doesn't apply for my experience of literature. Why should this be?

The fact is, I had no trouble switching from writing on a note pad to writing on a typewriter to writing on a dedicated word processor to writing on a computer. Rhian and I are probably the last generation who will make this transition--our experience has spanned the entire history of writing technology, in just a handful of decades. And I think I'm a unique position to say that technology does not matter to writing the way it does to other forms of art.

Stories, I think, are not created with the hands, the way music and art are. They're created in the mind, and translated into print by whatever means are at hand. The tactile is important in photography, and even more (far more) in music--but in literature, it's little more than window dressing. We might be deeply invested in that window dressing (indeed, I still love pencils and note cards, and as I said in my iPad review, I will continue to adore the physical book), but in the long run it doesn't matter. Literature is an effort to connect two minds, the reader's and writer's, through language, the original tool, and the one that means the most to our shared humanity.

(And if this post sounds like something I've said before, honestly, it's just an excuse to share that seriously stupendous little YouTube clip. I believe the movie is the 1970 Merchant-Ivory picture Bombay Talkie, and the man and woman are Shashi Kapoor and Helen Jairag Richardson.)

13 comments:

jon Frankel said...

I too went from notepad, to typewriter, to computer, but I find the three to be very different, though maybe the end result is the same. Editing a novel, revising a novel, on a typewriter is a real pain in the ass. Wordprocessing means you can endlessly revise without effort. No carbons, no white out, no rewriting entire sections to fix a line, no cross outs or page 19a,b,c etc. But it also means you have to either be in an office, or lug around a laptop. writing on a pad and paper you can be anywhere, like at work. I've written three novels out in long hand in composition books, on break, hiding here and there. But they're a pain in the ass to transcribe onto a computer. I don't know if the outcome is any different, but the time commitment is different. I remember one reviewer complaining about my first book having the signs of being written on a word processor, which dates the book and the reviewer. it was first written on a self-correcting portable electronic typewriter on thermal paper. I thought that was the coolest, high-tech device ever when i bought it (1984). By 1987 when i wrote the book on it it was quaint.

jon said...

i didn't want to leave my last name! cursed auto-fill....

jrlennon said...

I had one of those typewriters! Later I got rid of it and switched to a Brother all-in-one word processor. I remember I was actually able to load the files from it (on 3.5 inch floppies) into Windows 3.1, albeit without the formatting, which I had to repair manually. THAT was exciting--it's how I edited my first published novel.

Trevor Jackson said...

Was it B. R. Myers in his notorious manifesto who cursed word processing for DFW's Infinite Jest and other similarly lengthy novels?

rmellis said...

That transitional technology was so interesting: I had one of those electronic typewriters that typed a line at a time, so you could correct small things as you go, but not edit or anything. Is that what you're talking about, Jon?

Before that I had an IBM Selectric leftover from my dad's work, and before that a manual. But all this time time I was writing by hand, and just typing on the machine, which I continued to do until I bought my own computer in 1993, and wrote a novel. Those of you who actually typed whole novels on typewriters.... wow!

rmellis said...

If you want, Jon, I can erase your first comment and repost it under "Jon."

jon said...

That's OK Rhian, it's just disturbing to have a last name out there (but with the website link, does it really matter?)
yeah, my electronic thing typed out a few lines that you could correct. but it used this thermal paper so it would actually go back and 'erase'. but the paper yellowed and copied badly. I certainly typed out from written manuscripts an entire novel on a typewriter, a manual one at that, but it was short. As soon as I could get it on a computer i did, probably around 1989, a mac 501k I believe it was. I remember the thing JRL had, the dedicated wordprocessor. I ask my mother-in-law about this sometimes. She wrote 30 or more novels on a regular typewriter (not a selectric, which was a great machine, and did correct too, you had to type over the text). She talks about saving her carbons etc. I was a better typer then than i am now, but spell-checkers taught me how to spell. I do wonder if it encourages over working things. You really can 'change a comma to a period in the morning, and in the afternoon change it back again' endlessly. sorry for writing so much, but in a conference about the first cinema verite documentaries, with the mayles's and the man they worked for, one of them commented that small digital cameras wouldn't necessarily produce a huge crop of great films, anymore than the widely available, portable technology of the pen and paper produces large numbers of great novels.

Franz Neumann said...

From what I've read, DFW's Infinite Jest was written in longhand, then typed up using one finger. Twice.

Sung said...

Although I did write a couple of short stories in longhand, almost everything I've written, I've done so on a word processor. The very first one was Paperclip, on my Commodore 64. What I recall mostly about this program is that it required a "dongle," a little gray box that had to be plugged into the joystick port, for it to work, a hardware solution to piracy. The other thing I remember is that the program had a limited memory, so I actually had to start a whole new file when I wrote something long enough!

It just amazes me how much progress has been made in technology. I doubt I'll see such a speedy transformation in anything else for the rest of my life.

One thing I just thought about -- I don't think I've met a poet who wrote on a word processor or even a typewriter...

rmellis said...

I know, I feel so old. I remember the first pocket calculator. It's all been so amazingly fast...

jrlennon said...

That Myers piece was asinine--he's not the kind of guy to check and see how Wallace actually wrote.

I actually used a word processor on the C64 that I programmed myself, in BASIC. How's that for dorky?

5 Red Pandas said...

Not having a computer in high school held me back because I had no idea what I was doing in my computer drafting class and CAD was incomprehensible to me. (I went to a real nerd school.) I had a typewriter and one English teacher wrote on a paper that he liked my ideas but that I should learn to type. If I had a word processor or computer I would have at least proofed things better. (Then again, any teacher knows that even with spell check students are often lazy and don't proofread word processed documents.)

I'm jealous of those who can write sustained passages long hand. I just can't do it. My hand cramps up, my handwriting becomes illegible. I write down notes in notebooks but I think it's mostly as brainstorming rather than things I will go back to and use. It's a way of thinking aloud.

I got my first PC in 1995 and word processing plus the Internet had me hooked. You couldn't pay me to go back to the typewriter. I didn't think using a typewriter was romantic at all. It just made me feel poor.

Matt said...

I think what real, live, analog photography and musicianship offer which writing does not (if using a typewriter vs. a word processor) is a technical dimension of intimacy. This could only be imparted through writing if, say, you were reading the original manuscript of a writer using a manual typewriter - and even then, you'd need a glass of wine first.

I love using my 1966 Zorki-4 camera: it is the antithesis of "automatic". And yet, I finally bought a DAW software program which allows me to compose, record, and mix music using virtual (that is, software-based) instruments - and I have absolutely no aesthetic or moral issues with that.

There's a lot being written about the end of the book, the end of this, then end of that - all because of the efficacy of technology. If anything, as regards publishing, it's the end of some people's jobs, and it's potentially the end of thinking about publishing in ways that we've been thinking about for decades. I'm concerned however that the Twitter-Inter-verse is plugged up with too much discussion about the inevitability of The End, as opposed to attempting to lay down a new infrastructure.