The editors at Yale University Press were nice enough to invite me to edit this year's edition of Best Technology Writing. It's a great collection of essays, by some of my very favorite writers, and I encourage you to pick up a copy. I wrote an opening essay for the book that tries to wrestle with the ways in which technology writing has changed over the past few decades. Here's a section of it:
The ubiquity of the digital lifestyle has forced us to write and think about technology in a different way. Think back, for example, to Stewart Brand’s classic 1973 Rolling Stone essay on the first video gamers, “SPACEWAR: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among The Computer Bums.” When Brand stumbled across those Stanford proto-gamers, battling each other via command line, it was clear to him that he’d just glimpsed the future. Of course, it took a true visionary like Brand to recognize what he’d encountered, and to write about it with such clarity and infectious curiosity--in the process inventing a whole genre of technology writing that could do justice to the encounter. But there is something about that experience that is also by definition short-sighted: any given technology will mean very different things, and have very different effects, when it is restricted to a small slice of the population. Brand’s opening line was “Computers are coming to the people.” That was prescient enough. But as it turned out, what he saw on those screens actually had very little to do with gaming culture today. SPACEWAR let Brand sense before just about anyone else that information technology would become as mainstream as rock-and-roll or television. But he couldn’t have imagined a culture where games like Spore or Grand Theft Auto -- both of which are deftly dissected in this volume -- are far more complex, open-ended and popular than many Hollywood blockbusters.
Likewise, hypertext, until mid-1994, was an emerging technology whose power users were almost all writers of experimental fiction. You could look at those links on the screen, and begin to imagine what might happen if billions of people started clicking on them. But mostly you were guessing. A shocking amount of the early commentary on hypertext--some of it, in all honesty, written by me--focused on the radical effect hypertext would have on storytelling. Once hypertext went mainstream, however, that turned out to one of the least interesting things about it. (We’re still reading novels the old-fashioned way, one page after another.) And that’s precisely the trouble with writing about a technology when it’s still in leading indicator mode. You could look at those hyperlinks on the screen, and if you really concentrated, you might imagine a future where, say, newspaper articles linked to each other. But you could never imagine Wikipedia or YouPorn.
Now we don’t have to imagine it at all: the digital future, to paraphrase William Gibson, is so much more evenly distributed among us. We don’t have to gaze into a crystal ball; we can just watch ourselves, self-reflecting as we interact with this vast new ecosystem. Some of my favorite passages in this collection have this introspective quality: the mind examining its own strange adaptation to a world that has been transformed by information technology.
Consider this paragraph, from the opening section of Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”:
I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
Carr intends this as a critique, of course, and his observations will no doubt ring true for anyone who spends hours each day in front of a networked computer screen. I feel it myself right now, as I write this essay, with my open Gmail inbox hovering in the background behind the word processor, and a text message buzzing on my phone, and a whole universe of links tempting me. It is harder to sit down and focus on a linear argument or narrative for an hour at a time. In a way, our prophecies about the impact of hypertext on storytelling had it half right; it’s not that people now tell stories using branching hypertext links: it’s that we actively miss those links when we pick up an old-fashioned book.
Carr is right, too, that there is something regrettable about this shift. The kind of deep, immersive understanding that one gets from spending three hundred pages occupying another person’s consciousness is undeniably powerful and essential. And no medium rivals the book for that particular kind of thinking. But it should also be said that this kind of thinking has not simply gone away; people still read books and magazines in vast numbers. It may be harder to enter the kind of slow, contemplative state that Carr cherishes, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. I think of our present situation as somewhat analogous to the mass migration from the country to the city that started several centuries ago in Europe: the bustle and stimulation and diversity of urban life made it harder to enjoy the slower, organic pleasures of rural living. Still, those pleasures didn’t disappear. People continue to cherish them in mass numbers to this day.
And like urban life, the new consciousness of digital culture has many benefits; it may dull certain cognitive skills, but it undoubtedly sharpens others. In his essay, Carr derides the “skimming” habits of online readers. It’s an easy target, particularly when pitted against the hallowed activity of reading a four-hundred page novel. But skimming is an immensely valuable skill. Most of the information we interact with in our lives -- online or off -- lacks the profundity and complexity of a Great Book. We don’t need deep contemplation to assess an interoffice memo or quarterly financial report from a company we’re vaguely interested in. If we can process that information quickly and move on to more important things, so much the better.
Even loftier pursuits benefit from well-developed skimming muscles. I think many of us who feel, unlike Carr, that Google has actually made us smarter operate in what I call “skim-and-plunge” mode. We skim through pages of search results or hyperlinked articles, getting a sense of the waters, and then, when we find something interesting, we dive in and read in a slower, more engaged mode. Yes, it is probably a bit harder to become immersed in deep contemplation today than it was sitting in library in 1985, But that kind of rapid-fire skimming and discovery would have been, for all intents and purposes, impossible before the web came along.
The benefits of this new consciousness go far beyond skimming of course, especially when you consider that many of the distractions are not tantalizing hyperlinks but other human beings. Here’s Andrew Sullivan describing one of the defining aspects of the experience of blogging, in his revealing essay, “Why I Blog”:
Within minutes of my posting something, even in the earliest days, readers responded. E-mail seemed to unleash their inner beast. They were more brutal than any editor, more persnickety than any copy editor, and more emotionally unstable than any colleague. Again, it’s hard to overrate how different this is... [B]efore the blogosphere, reporters and columnists were largely shielded from this kind of direct hazing. Yes, letters to the editor would arrive in due course and subscriptions would be canceled. But reporters and columnists tended to operate in a relative sanctuary, answerable mainly to their editors, not readers. For a long time, columns were essentially monologues published to applause, muffled murmurs, silence, or a distant heckle. I’d gotten blowback from pieces before—but in an amorphous, time-delayed, distant way. Now the feedback was instant, personal, and brutal.
No doubt the intensity and immediacy of the feedback has its own disruptive force, making it harder for the blogger to enter the contemplative state that his forebears in the print magazine era might have enjoyed more easily. Sullivan’s description could in fact easily be marshaled in defense of Carr’s dumbing-down argument--except that where Carr sees chaos and distraction, Sullivan sees a new kind of engagement between the author and the audience. Sullivan would be the first to admit that this new kind of engagement is noisier, more offensive, and often more idiotic than any traditional interaction between author and editor. But there is so much useful signal in that noise that most of us who have sampled it find it hard to imagine going back. After all, the countryside was more polite, too. But in the end, most of us chose the city, despite all the chaos and distractions. I think we've made a similar choice with the Web today.
(Excerpted from The Best Technology Writing 2009. Now go buy a copy!)