The Shape of Texts to Come: the writing of a new Scotland, 13-14 May 2000 |
References are given at the end of the document.
IN EVERY HOME, A BOOKBINDER?
Let me first make it clear that I am still a neophyte, a naïf in this area – a typewriter-user for whom the new technology came as a destabilizing force. I’ve had to learn, and learn quickly over the last few years, a whole new practice, knowing that if I want to be part of the literature of the future, I must get to grips with the possibilities of 2020 – and not remain stuck in the habits of 1980.
So let’s picture it: the year 2020. Amber, a student in Ohio, for whatever reason has set herself to study contemporary Scottish literature. Where else would she go but to her computer, to the ‘Online Bureau of Scottish Culture’, and its sub-site, ‘The Scottish Virtual Writers Centre’?
“Please click on the language of your choice … ”
A door springs open, the hologrammatic homoglyph of a smiling host welcomes her into the particular cyber-aspect of Scottish culture she wishes to enter …
“Here at the SVWC, where data management is undertaken regarding all aspects of literature affecting Scotland, we offer you total access to contemporary Scottish writing. From this central site, you may subscribe to all Scottish literary netzines, access archives and libraries, visit writers groups in all parts of the country, or join Gaelic and Scots language chat-rooms. You may attend virtual readings either in hologram or video mode; video-conference with those writers prepared to enter into correspondence with questioners – and of course, you can click through to our print-store, where your ‘netcreds’ can purchase any text from our files.
“You may either have the publishers’ luxury bound item sent by mail, or may choose to download the text, or any part of it, on a scale of charges. Then the choice of paper and of binding is yours. Check your printer’s binding menu for options.
“Please click here to enter our virtual foyer … ”
So much for fantasy.
But maybe it’s not so fantastically far away – all this information being available – equally easily, locally, nationally and internationally – is increasingly the case. Amber, at her station in Ohio may as well be in Oz, Oslo or Oban – access is equivalent. She is as ‘centred’ or ‘uncentred’ as she wishes to be.
All that seems rare. But it’s important to remember that the ‘new technology’ is not yet universal, though it often advertises itself as being so. It may have a full range of international links, but not every place has the same number, and not everyone in each place has equal access. Therefore, it is inevitably elitist and divisionist, even as it purports to draw the whole wide world into its web. And at this moment in time, we might say it is ‘generationalist’ too, even if it isn’t quite as recent a phenomenon as is commonly assumed, as Angus J. Kennedy suggests:
The Internet … as a concept is actually older than most of its users; it was born in the 1960s – a long time before anyone coined the buzzword ‘Information superhighway’.1
The body that gave rise to it, indirectly, the ‘Advanced Research Projects Agency’ (ARPA), is as old as I am. That is to say it is the child of the late fifties, of the Cold War, the beginnings of the Space race; Sputnik, 1957 and all that; born out of American desire to devolve their computer resource through a network, to avoid the possibility of a solitary nuclear explosion taking out their whole system. The Internet itself is about thirty years old and the World Wide Web a mere child of ten or eleven, again the by-product of a different purpose – that of Tim Berners-Lee, the Swiss physicist who sought a single channel to unite the research in his field. Since 1991 and the commercialisation of the Web, its growth has been and is phenomenal, as is the overleaping confidence of the part of Netizens. While it still possible for a twenty two year student from the Philippines to bring the Westminster parliamentary system to a halt with a short ‘I love you’, there’s still a distance to go to cyber-nirvana. Angus J. Kennedy again:
… there’s no question that the Net … really is a quantum leap in global communications, though – right now – it’s more of a prototype than finished product. … while Bill Gates and Al Gore rhapsodise about such household services as video-on-demand, most Netizens would be happy with a system fast enough to view stills-on-demand. 2
Of course it is far from a developed technology, but with new facilities appearing faster than the consumer can keep pace with, it is a dynamically developing one.. One day our children may live in the matrix, that ultimately virtual interactive experience, but not for a while yet. And while we still have time, maybe it’s important to remind them that, symbolically:
… the spider’s web (is) a spiral net converging towards a central point. The spider sitting in its web is a symbol of the centre of the world, and is hence regarded in India as Maya, the eternal weaver of the web of illusion … 3
Yes, desirable as a broad awareness of the world and its affairs is, the immediate environment we live in, our locality, is vital. As Patrick Geddes suggests, we must each dig our own garden; or, put in terms the cyber-children may understand, we must each maintain our node of the matrix with regular defragmentation. Because:
.. the mass media clearly do not form a complete culture on their own: in other words, they do not form an entirely closed system, like a language, but simply a fraction of such a system, which is, of necessity, the culture to which they belong. 4
To keep a sense of balance in the cyber-age, we might well pinch a political slogan from the Green movement: think global, act local. The words of the native American Chief Seattle, in 1854, seem peculiarly topical: ‘Man does not weave the web, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.’ Macro and micro stand in a relative relationship, as do virtual and real existence, conscious and subconscious: ‘As above, so below’.
Generalities aside, what does the World Wide Web mean for the writing community in Scotland, now, at the supposed dawn of the new age? I quote a recent email from Angus Dunn, the editor of one of Scotland’s literary magazines, because I think it revealing:
I think the next step is to put some serious work into a web-site. I don’t think many people go to the web to read poetry or fiction, but there is still a lot of information about NW and writing in general that could usefully be made available. 5
I detect a gentle mistrust of the value of creating the website, in that phrase ‘I don’t think many people go to the web to read poetry or fiction’; but it is a mistrust of the medium as an exchange for creative work, not complete disinterest. There is a willingness to admit to it as a useful place for information about writing, but not ‘writing’ itself. But this is an average attitude – there are those in the writing community who are making full use of the facilities available, and others no doubt who will associate writing solely with paper and ink till the end of their days.
Who can say how the new technology will change print culture? What kind of writing the next generation will do? Will we use paper at all? Maybe there’s no use for the bookbinding facility in Amber’s fantasy ….
AN ELECTRONIC ANYTHING IS NOT A BOOK
One day in the future
A child may come across a book
And say: “Imagine being able to hold
In your hand what you read,
To carry it with you and wear it out
With your life; to pass it on
Bearing your marks, your name,
Written in ink, your signature:
Your wave-length in letters.” 6
So let’s try to think about text and what it is doing there on the screen, squirming away while your eye tries to trap it and maybe analyse its semiotic DNA. Like the book, it’s transmitting something, or trying to. Let’s think also about the book as object, and the inherent instability of electronic text, in contrast to the thick materiality of paper and ink.
For anyone who has ever lost material in a computer crash, instability is a consideration. Instability, even of the disk, which can be mysteriously wiped or simply broken. Destroying a book takes a little more determination than the tread of a size nine heel. One has first to light the fire, or put it in the black-bag. So even if most people take to reading from their palm-held, surely there will always be at least a few hard copies somewhere, of whatever text people designate as valuable enough to want to keep. And – ‘nature provideth her own cure’ – just as it threatens to take the business of text transmission away from the printed page, hasn’t the new tech made small press paper publication easier than ever? – so-called ‘Desktop Publishing’, which, according to Patricia Sullivan:
… merges writing, graphic design, art, instructional text design, and publication production in an entirely new way. … a publication can be mapped onto a single electronic file, desktop publishing creates a multi-disciplinary melting pot that encourages us to rethink the relationships of the allied publishing disciplines This new technology allows any one of the professionals involved – a writer, a designer, or a production specialist – to become the total desktop publisher. 7
Sullivan goes on to tell the tale of ‘My writer friend “George”’ who watched a demonstration of DTP and immediately bought the package:
He was sure that he would be turning out “publication quality” documents in hours and was disappointed at how hard it was for him to layout the simplest newsletter on his new system. I watched his frustration mount as he struggled to teach himself how to use a program he was convinced was easy-to-use, never realising that he was learning a new system at the same time as he was trying to use that system on a task he had not done before … 8
The problem lay in his underestimation of the expertise involved: the simpler the magic trick seems, the more slight of hand is concealed:
George assumed the desktop publishing was simple and utterly transparent; any problems he had must be due to his clumsiness with computers … had George not sought professional help he would have abandoned his machine or hired a person to be the desktop publishing specialist. Two months later the technical problems were solved but the documents were slightly comical in their excesses: George had reached the second stage and could now publish the way that anyone can play (saxophone), (John) Coltrane’s ‘badly’. While he had mastered the capabilities of the desktop publishing program, he had not become a competent desktop publisher. 9
DTP packages are developing all the time. Nevertheless, the point Sullivan is making, that there is expertise involved in the laying out and the design of a book which doesn’t come built into the program, is still a consideration for the creative user. The use of so-called ‘wizards’ in DTP is not conducive to the kind of creative art we associate with the best book designers. Considering only one single aspect, as Robert Bringhurst records in his Elements of Typographic Style:
… the subject is a lifelong study and for serious typographers a source of lifelong discovery and delight … consistency is one of the forms of beauty. Contrast is another. A fine page, even a fine book, can be set from beginning to end in one type in one size. It can also teem with variety, like an equatorial forest or a modern city.10
There are basic compositional skills that are readily transferable, but some feeling for the capability and plasticity of the medium must exist for the user to make the most interesting creative use of it. To borrow from Coltrane, via Sullivan, anyone can make a booklet or a website badly. But to create something that genuinely stretches the medium, we must know where the limits are. Most DTP users come nowhere near this point, and the limits are constantly changing anyway Recognition of the skills involved in DTP and the need for constant training is one by-product of this ‘new-age’ of ours.
Yes, we are learning, as the superhighway speeds beneath us and the future opens out before us. Maybe we can’t see it as easily as J.W. Dunne 11 suggested:
sticking your head out of the railway carriage to glimpse the future only works if the line ahead is straight. Still we might say with some certainty that if the regular transmission of text becomes ever more an electronic event, yet the need for a few hard copies remains, then the value of the book as original artefact will increase. We might expect a correspondent rise in the aesthetic values of that artefact – work more along the lines of Iain Hamilton Finlay than Ian Rankin. The ‘book’ may, in effect, become still more an objet d’art, to be viewed, admired and possessed, rather than read, as the separation of the vehicle from its primary purpose, the transmission of text, increases. At the extreme, as it becomes redundant it may transform, metaphorically speaking, from working mill to heritage centre. There is perhaps a parallel with the fate of manuscripts after the coming of printing. Walter Ong suggests ‘that print gave us the ability to fix words on particular pages, enabling standard references and indexes’ and that although manuscripts still existed, indeed they actually increased in numbers, ‘print transformed our understanding of writing from a notetaking used to “generally” preserve speech into a way to fix meaning on a page.’ 12
With DTP, we are able now to fix the very page itself: to book-make. The means of production are more widely accessible. The range of facilities now available on even the most basic home PC DTP package should present enough of creative scope for the designer to make an interesting and aesthetically pleasing, if basic product. The problem is to find a way of ‘idiosyncratizing’ the technology sufficiently to make your publication expressive of your identity, either a distinct group or as an individual.
One thing about the book is that it is ‘really’ there. In fact, such a defining feature of the book’s nature is the fact of its real existence that we might argue ‘an electronic anything is NOT a book’. Books are three dimensional; visual, tactile and olfactory. They do not often sing and dance. Books are stable and durable, relatively speaking. Far from the World Wide Web swallowing up the book, it is possible to construct a converse scenario in which the book swallows at least a portion of ‘Netkultur’, preserving it. You need only look in the Computing section of a bookshop to see that the process of influence works both ways, where the pages of books are adorned by fixed screen images.
It is obvious that the screen in the first place mimics the page, but increasingly books mimic screens – and not just in ‘Word for Dummies’ variants. An interesting and creative example of this reverse case is the satire ‘Knoxland’, by Brian McCabe, in the last issue of Product magazine.13
It is designed as a series of screens from a fictitious website: ‘the Hottest Presbyterian Site on the Net’. McCabe cleverly reconstructs the kind of image we anticipate when we switch on a computer, not the block of type we would expect to find in a magazine. The irony is, of course, that despite the change of medium, it is the same obsessions with religion and sex that the site conjures. Reading, or maybe I should say viewing, this work I have the feeling that something about the stereotypical Scottish nature has been ‘outed’ on the Internet, while in reality I am holding a paper page.
STILLS & MOVIES, TALKIES & SILENCE
Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak.14
So saith John Berger in his seminal Ways of Seeing, and in the case of the Internet, sight certainly came first. It is possible to draw parallels with the motion picture industry before sound, or still photography before the movies. But this is changing fast. Integrated sound and vision is coming your way rapidly – WEBTV, a vast library of programmes, available by download. All you need is the right hardware and software.
Soon, we may all be sitting in our electric blue rooms, ‘waiting for the gift of sound and vision’,15 from elsewhere. And in ever more of those electric blue rooms, there will be performance poets ‘SLAMMING’ internationally by video-link, actors, musicians and dancers, performing for their digital cameras, live online. More than you could possibly ever watch. Putting it out there, ‘up’ on the Web. And the better your system, the better your show.
Yes, high quality, easily accessible sound is fundamental to the fulfilment of the Netdream – counter to Berger’s visual partiality, ‘nthibiginninwuzthiwurd’, as Tom Leonard phrased it,16 paraphrasing that other guy. I think we may reasonably debate whether the vibrations of a mother’s body while her child is in her womb denotes first contact with language, and if it is the same muffled music we later participate in the making of.
The point here, though, is the revolution that the coming of sound, allied to the facility of the kinetic screen, is creating. The power of movement, to morph and change each pixel – no need ever to turn the page. Words appear before you as fast as you want to read them, and disappear when you don’t; or screen images dance to the rhythm of a spoken work you never see a text of. The show is on.
These new technical facilities are even now giving to a whole new creative medium, a computer based and computer driven art, which will feed on those previously existing, am original blend of cinema, music, literature, the visual art. Computers are skilled copying and processing machines, and can be adapted to systematise and speed complex – tasks in all fields. Artists are converging on this common territory, from their different disciplines.
Computers and associated technology are being used by visual artists, by musicians, by writers … in fact, it is THE common tool.
There would seem to be, at this time, no limit to the complexity of tasks as processor speeds accelerate. The problem is, rather, that the avant-garde is advancing so quickly that the general user is ill equipped to keep pace. Our modems are too slow, we don’t have right hardware/software, our ignorance is too great.
But we are learning fast.
A MANY PORTALLED HALL
Let’s go back to Amber and speculate a moment, on how the web-ring (for such is the phrase) of Scottish writing might be accessed. Linkage and manifold access is the key to successful sites. Your own site may be very small and only one of many nodes in the matrix, but by linking with others of similar interest you increase the likelihood of someone finding their way to your door. More than just ‘someone’, ‘the right one’, the person who is genuinely interested in what it is you have to share with them – your ideal reader/audience.
But just how might Amber find her way into Scottish literature in the first place? Maybe she heard Janice Galloway reading on campus and wanted to know more about her and the city she lives in, then took a cyber walk around Glasgow on a web-tour in the company of Moira Burgess. Maybe she was searching Dracula and found herself brought to the Scottish site by means of Stoker and Cruden Bay. Maybe she was doing a project on minority languages and became intrigued by Highland mists and North Sea haars. Maybe she saw Trainspotting the movie and found herself drawn by stages to the Leith of Robert Garioch. It matters not. What matters is that there should be many portals, many ways into the web-ring that is Scottish writing, and that these doors should be open and actually lead somewhere. They must not lead visitors up a dark close.
Linkage is crucial – for the writer as much as the ‘browser’. I quote again from recent correspondence, this time with the poet and translator, John Manson:
I am interested in how I can get publicity for publication on the Internet. For a publication on paper the publisher has to advertise, seek reviews, put out catalogues. But publication on the Internet can only be made known at the moment by word of mouth – I think. 17
‘At the moment’, as he suggests, the web-ring of Scottish writing isn’t fully there. But the network of websites and email correspondence building now, and the ease of forwarding material from one computer to another, means that it’s developing all the time. By email, publicity can be spread even more quickly than terrestrial methods – at least to those who are part of the web-ring. As more individuals and organisations link, and as sites develop, so they will naturally weave together an ever-tighter mesh and the word spreads. Left to human nature, the web-ring of Scottish literature will grow in its random, haphazard, organic way. Given the right support and direction, it could be still more effective.
THE VALUE OF EXTENSION
There are those who believe television washes over viewers, doing little more than to confirm them in their existing prejudices. Others see it as a moral corruption on the one hand or of alienation on the others. Politicians and governments, however, believe it to be an important medium capable of influencing public opinion and swaying voters. Television is an industry that operates under government licence. 18
The web is the child of television in some sense, but it is an ‘unlegitimatized’ child, as far removed from state-controlled TV station as it could be: the web is the deconstruction of the structure that was ‘national’ licensed television, bursting in from the margins and out of them simultaneously. We are all now potentially multiple senders as well as receivers of international electronic sound and vision messages. Control seems alien to the nature of the enterprise. – though maybe that was how the Wild West felt at one time, and see how wild it is now.
Derrida, writing in 1977, anticipates the growth of telecommunication and indirectly raises a serious question, which we can now relate to the World Wide Web:
If one takes the notion of writing in its usually accepted sense – which above all does not mean an innocent, primitive or natural sense – one indeed must see it as a powerful means of communication which extends very far, if not infinitely, the field of oral or gestural communication. This is banally self-evident, and agreement on the matter seems easy. I will not describe all the modes of this extension … (but) … will pause over the value of extension. 19
I’m aware that I’m talking today to a shared-interest group and because of the context that governs this communicative ‘extension’, there are certain ‘givens’, certain things taken for granted, on the basis of the assumption that we share a discourse. For instance, should I question the value of all this writing, I hope that your responses would be defensive, as mine would. But sometimes it’s useful to go back to first principles, to remind ourselves of our reasons for prioritising the practice and study of writing over other fields. Has this extension, this communication, any fundamental value? Or is it, as Walter Ong suggests, that: ‘… as we live with the electronic media, we are finding and will find that we have … simply complicated everything endlessly.’ 20
Derrida, talking about written communication, asks: ‘Can it still be said that upon the death of the addressee, that is, of one of the two partners, the mark left by one of them is still writing?’ 21 We might relate this to the Internet, and ask, ‘is the unvisited site there at all?’ If most of this information is simply being ‘posted’ but never received, is it in any sense ‘meaningful’?
It is perhaps a question of attunement, or of frequency. Human beings are sending and receiving longer messages over greater distances with ever-higher frequency. Like a hive of bees humming together, or a kirk full of psalm-singers, we create not our ‘wavelength in letters’, but a common wavelength in energy. We tune in to one another, singing sometimes antiphony, sometimes symphony – always polyphonic. Any society is only as efficient as its communication system: the higher the frequency, the clearer the transmission.
It may all sound fantastic, but I think we gave no choice but to go forward in the hope that, as the exchange of encoded ideas is simpler than ever before, a fresh literacy will develop, that something of a geo-cultural realignment may result. As access to the technology widens, that new commonalties will be discovered between shared interest groups separated by location and history. So difference is foreshortened by rapid communication, and the world appears less strange.
Sure, there are some voices among the choir so quiet they are heard only by the singer standing next to them, and some that are lost entirely in the collective sound. But their right to sing should never be questioned. The freedom to participate should be what the World Wide Web is about. There’s no shortage of ‘space’. That, I think, is the fundamental value of this ‘extension’.
1 Kennedy, Angus J., ‘A Short History of the Internet’, in The Rough Guide to the Internet, London 1999, pp. 442-463
3 Cirlot, J.E, A Dictionary of Symbols, London 1962
4 Burgelin, Oliver, ‘Structural Analysis and Mass Communication’ in Sociology of Mass Communications, London 1972 , p 313
5 Angus Dunn, editor of ‘Northwords’, in private correspondence
6 Ransford, Tessa, ‘The Book Rediscovered in the Future’, printed as one of series of six postcards to celebrate National Poetry Day, 1999
7 Sullivan, Patricia, ‘Writers as Desk-Top Publishers’ in Text, Context, and Hypertext, London 1989, pp.265-278
10 Bringhurst, Robert, Elements of Typographic Style, Vancouver 1992, p.98
11 see Dunne, J.W., An Experiment with Time, 1928, in which he argues that the future and the past coexist with the present, and that with the right training, a mind might experience precognition
12 Ong, W.J.S.J, ‘Media Transformation: The Talked Book’, in Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture, Cornell 1977, pp.82-91
13 McCabe, Brian, ‘Knoxland’, in Product magazine, issue 3, Edinburgh 2000
14 Berger, John, Ways of Seeing, London 1972: this phrase, the opening of the text, was used as the slogan for the project
15 Bowie, David: a reference to the song ‘Sound and Vision’, RCA records 1976
16 Leonard, Tom, ‘in the beginning was the word’, in Intimate Voices 1965-1983, Newcastle 1984
17 John Manson’s translations of Victor Serge’s Carnets.
18 Hood, Stuart, ‘The Politics of television’, in Sociology of Mass Communications, London 1972 , pp.406 -434
19 Derrida, Jacques, in ‘Writing and Telecommunication’, of ‘Signature-Event-Context’ (1977), published in A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds, ed. Peggy Kamuf, Hemel Hempstead 1991, pp.82-111
Copyright © Robert Alan Jamieson 2000