Wednesday, May 28, 2008
High speed junk
Being an academic by profession enabled me to be in at the beginning of the computer revolution. At home I ensured we had everything from ZX Spectrums and Amstrads on. My MA dissertation was typed on a golf ball and my PhD thesis was word processed. In the former, when I inadvertently put down the wrong letter or the wrong word, I pondered awhile and tried to form a new word or sentence to encompass the mistake I had in front of me. A game of micro-consequences, if you like. Anything to avoid Tippex. It forced me into creative language. Occasionally it even sent me on a new path of thought. But above all, writing then involved keeping everything in your head in an order that could be relayed in sequence to the typewriter keys. Nowadays, writing is hewn from blocks. There is no need to sift, shape and deliver in the head. Just throw down the words and then sculpt and refine them out there, in front of you – or, worse, have an automatic editor do it for you.
Alongside this, everything has speeded up. With spell checks, letter and line manipulation, formatting and so on, together with the capacity to use an instant thesaurus and web searching for information on any word, term or subject, writing ceases to be internally gestated and aesthetically pre-formed but interacts with the undigested text-landscape outside it. Umberto Eco said that people now wrote in paragraphs where once they wrote in sentences. They also write like unconscious pack animals, unaware how their texts are conditioned by everything around them.
Does this capacity for speed bring any benefits? Probably not. It outstrips the minds of most and encourages them to think that the fireworks-effect of depositing words on screen or on paper via a printer equates with a meaningful contribution to knowledge. Making it possible for everyone to be an author does not translate into a widespread increase in worthwhile literature. Journalists must write to meet the demands of voracious production deadlines and it shows. Sound bytes and word bytes are thought-lite. News is thrown together and uploaded on to screens in the lemming rush to be first and the consequences are there for all to see, with innocent people branded, events misconstrued, innuendo recorded as fact, moral panic raised and cynicism spread.
It would be a good move for civilised writing to have USB memory pens. Your computer would not be able to word-process what had not been handwritten and recorded first, before you uploaded your draft.
Then again we could all go back to lead pencils and erasers.