THE FUTURE of writing

IS WRITING ON-LINE ANY MORE PERMANENT THAN WRITING ON SAND? AND, IF NOT, WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE WRITERS? PAUL ROBERTS HAS WORKED IN THE FUTURE
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
It's Wednesday, late afternoon, in Seattle and I'm writing about classical composers - Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and so on, 30 of them for a multimedia product on European history. It's an odd assignment. I've never written about music or studied the people who make it. My speciality, before I started writing for CD-Rom companies, was environmental journalism, and what I know about classical composers is, basically, Amadeus. But ignorance, in the new electronic literature, isn't always an obstacle. The irony of the information revolution is that consumers neither like nor expect long, densely written texts on their computer screens.

Long texts addle the eyes; they slow the rapid-fire "interactive" process; steal precious screen space from the animation, video, and multimedia's other, more marketable gewgaws. So we writers needn't be experts so much as filters whose task is to absorb and compress great gobs of information into small, easily digestible, on-screen chunks. Brevity and blandness: these are the elements of the next literary style. Of roughly 1,000 "essays" I've "written" for CD-Rom companies here in Seattle over the last year and a half, fewer than 40 ran longer than 200 words - about the length of the paragraph you're reading now - and most were much, much shorter.

I never expected to be working like this. I once earned a respectable living writing long, earnest articles about spotted owls, riparian buffer zones, even, on one occasion, a 10,000-word treatise on the Douglas fir, hero tree of the Pacific Northwest. Nowadays, whole months go by when I do nothing but crank out info-nuggets on whatever topics the multimedia companies believe will sell: dead composers, large African mammals, sports stars of yore. It is, without question, hack writing, the kind of pap work (I used to think) only the feckless and unprincipled had the nerve or need to take. But if the emergence of the so-called new media has clarified anything, it's just how malleable literary standards and professional expectations are, how quickly they can wither or mutate or be ignored altogether in the presence of powerful novelty and cold cash. In early 1994, just before I joined the digital revolution, few of my writer friends had any understanding of what CD-Rom was, much less any desire to write for it. Today, half the writers I know in this town are either working in electronic publishing or trying to.

A brilliant performer from a young age, Austria's Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was perhaps the most influential composer of the 18th century. He wrote more than 130 works, including the operas Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro, and is noted for his purity of form and melody. Despite such talents, Mozart struggled financially, earning a meagre living as a pianist and tutor. He died a pauper at 35.

An economist might explain the current literary redeployment as a simple shift in supply and demand. Between Christmas 1993 and Christmas 1995, consumer ownership of CD-Rom drives in the US jumped from under 9 million to an estimated 40 million, with another 17 million purchases projected by the end of 1996. What was accurately described a few years ago as a garage industry is now very much a mass market, and to keep it that way multimedia companies like Microsoft and Voyager and Broderbund are spending billions of dollars developing thousands of CD-Rom titles in virtually every category one can imagine: games, naturally, but also encyclopaedias, interactive magazines, children's products, how-tos, history, science, wildlife. This title wave has generated a massive demand for what multimedia executives glibly call "content", launching the industry on an enormous hiring binge: software engineers and digital artists, of course, but also legions of writers and editors, lured away from newspapers, film companies, magazines, and publishing houses, plucked from the ranks of the un- and underemployed (or "freelance", to use the more generous term) and offered more money a week than many previously made in a month. For those of us raised to believe that a career in writing meant a life at or near the poverty line, multi- media feels like a gold rush, a wartime buildup, a massive new government programme.

but the new media's appeal to writers goes beyond dollars. There's the allure of a sexy new technology, sharpened by a fear of professional obsolescence. The fact is, multimedia can do things the printed page never even dreamt about. It's digital, which means that obscene amounts of data can be stored on a 4in, wafer-thin laser disc. It's also interactive, which means that all those digitised artefacts - hundreds of photos and graphics, video clips, my wee texts - can be linked in a kind of electronic- semantic web. You can access my "essay" on Mozart, for example, from any number of other texts on the disc, simply by finding the word "Mozart" in highlighted, or "hot", text and clicking on it with your mouse. You could be reading something on 18th-century music, say, or Viennese opera, and - click - up pops my terse little bio. But there's more. Once inside my text, you might click on "Don Giovanni" and get yet another text, or a few seconds of music from the opera, or a video clip from Amadeus. And once in "Don Giovanni", you might encounter the word "Italy" and click up a nice little geopolitical summary. And so on. Each text - and, theoretically, each word in each text - can be an electronic portal to an infinite number of other digital locations. You can hop from one object of fascination to any number of others, branching this way and that along various semantic trails, creating your own, custom-built, nonlinear narrative from a vast reservoir of recombinant texts.

Clear waters and abundant marine life make Mafia, an island off the coast of Tanzania, one of the best diving spots in the world. Tropical temperatures are ideal for many varieties of crustaceans, including lobsters. Divers also encounter huge schools of fantastically coloured fish and can swim with sea turtles, octopuses, large but docile whale sharks, and, occasionally, the manatee-like dugong.

Nonlinearity might seem like little more than channel surfing, but its proponents - ranging from wealthy software gurus to tenured English professors - champion it as an authentic yet functional postmodern form, a critical break from the age-old, rigidly linear format of the printed page. Nonlinearity, we're told, re-distributes narrative power to readers. It undermines the tyranny of the Author. Its branching "intertextuality" is a much closer match to the brain's own networks. Indeed, advocates believe that with nonlinear text, or hypertext, literature can at last give full expression to the kinds of unconventional discursive impulses that folks like Joyce and Barthes were forced to convey via the grotesquely obsolete linear format. For that matter, nonlinearity provides a kind of running critique of the linear format, laying open the myth that "stories" can be told only one way, in only one direction, and towards only one conclusion; towards "closure". With nonlinearity, as with thought itself, there is no closure, only additional links. Thus nonlinearity, to its proponents, is the beginning of a new, more honest and complex literature - and, perhaps, the beginning of the end of an old one. "The printed book ... seems destined to move to the margin of our literate culture," writes Jay David Bolter, a Georgia Tech professor of communications and one of the more articulate exponents of electronic texts. "Print will no longer define the organisation and presentation of knowledge, as it has for the past five centuries."

Personally, I've never achieved the degree of literary transcendence that these advocates describe. Down at the level where I operate, the digital "revolution" is actually something of a bust, a hi-tech revival of the piecemeal sensibility that animated the pulp magazines and the early broadsheets. But mine, it seems, is a minority view. Even as you read this, editors and publishers the world over are practically wetting themselves in the rush to get their content "on disc" or "online". Meanwhile, my brethren are flocking in ever-greater numbers to digital-writing conferences. Last year, to offer just one example, a Seattle arts organisation sponsored a workshop for writers hoping to break into multimedia - nothing special, just a local CD-Rom producer sharing insights and showing demos. It sold out. Tickets, at $40 each, were snapped up weeks in advance. The night of the event, organisers ran out of chairs, and folks who hadn't bothered to pre-register actually had to wait on standby, like fans at a rock concert, praying for no-shows. What a poignant comment on the digital revolution: an overflow crowd of writers - sensitive, struggling artistic types, by and large - forking over a week's grocery money to hear not some world- famous poet or author but a mid-level exec in an industry whose greatest hit is an interactive game called Myst and whose primary unit of literary meaning is a toneless, unsigned blurb that, for all the cleverness of its hi-tech format, could have been written any time during the previous 500 years:

Tormons Tablets cure all disorders of the Liver, Stomach, and Bowels, Headache, Dyspepsia, Constipation, Biliousness, Dizziness; Clear the complexion, Increase the Appetite, Tone the System, and are a sure Remedy for Depression of Spirits, General Debility, Kidney Complaints, Nervousness, Sour Stomach, Disturbed Sleep, etc.

I'm making most of these examples up, by necessity. The multimedia industry is hugely paranoid about leaks and we're all required to sign fiercely worded non-disclosure agreements, or NDAs, before we're even told the topic of our next assignment. Such secrecy usually baffles the newly initiated, particularly after they see what they'll be writing and how unlikely a target of industrial espionage it is. Still, I can't reveal names of my client companies and bosses, or the CD-Rom titles I've worked on. Technically, I'm not even supposed to disclose the existence of these agreements. It's as if multimedia companies want deniability, as if the transaction between writer and publisher never occurred. In multimedia, as in other instances of corporate creativity, text simply happens. It appears on-screen without any evidence of being the work of a single, living individual.

NDAs notwithstanding, it's probably safe to reveal that I am, in fact, a real person, 34, married, with a two-year-old daughter and four-year communications degree. Like many multimedia writers, I got my literary start in newspapers and magazines, settling finally at an alternative news weekly in Seattle. Also like many multimedia writers, I work mostly at home. My text-production facility is a small second-floor study in my 80-year-old house, in a wooded, hillside neighbourhood seven miles from downtown Seattle. My workspace resembles that of any busy writer: computer, reference books, coffee cups. The giveaway is the floor. It's almost always buried beneath thick strata of mimeographed articles on a range of topics too diverse for a normal journalist: Roman history, Greek philosophy, rain forest ecology, medieval battle tactics, Mayan archaeology, Romantic poets, mountain climbing.

Sadly, multimedia writers are too harried to savour the variety of subject matter. Although a single CD-Rom title might contain several thousand separate text blocks, text budgets are typically small in comparison with budgets for the more time- and memory-consuming video or audio components. Thus, the famously high wages for writers - anywhere from $18 to $30 an hour - are based on the expectation that we will extrude texts with machine- like efficiency. Producers are always encouraging us, dropping such helpful comments as "These really shouldn't take more than 30 minutes apiece" and "I was getting about three of these done an hour." I've no idea where they get these estimates, but the tactic is effective. Before I developed the rhythms and strategies of the seasoned multimedia writer, I kept a stopwatch by my computer, struggling to crank out each blurb in under 15 minutes. This follows another irony of the information revolution: the texts of the next century are being manufactured much like the products of the last one - on an hourly basis in a vast, decentralised electronic sweatshop.

For a time I was able to take a romantic pleasure in the frenzied pace of the work. It seemed so classic, so 19th-century. Dostoevsky and Dickens both poured forth prodigious streams of words every week. George Gissing hammered out the 220,000-word novel New Grub Street, the portrait of a hack writer, at about 3,500 words a day - half again as much as my best performance. But my fantasies soon buckled under the load. Those walking word-machines wound up with true works of art. All I have at the end of the day is screen after screen of blurbs.

Invented by Christopher Sholes in 1867, the typewriter transformed both the process and content of written communication. Typewritten letters were initially dismissed as cold and impersonal but quickly came to dominate business writing, while the typewriters themselves helped open office work to women. Mechanical writers were eventually replaced by electric models, which in turn have been rendered all but obsolete by computer word processors.

Most multimedia writers I know didn't plan their move into electric publishing. I, for example, was never a computer enthusiast. To the degree that I considered it at all, the entire phenomenon of interactive CD-Rom - which even then was being invented in suburban office parks just a few miles east of my house - seemed like a brush war in another hemisphere: vaguely interesting, mostly irrelevant. But things change. My newspaper's rumour-mill warned of impending layoffs, my daughter arrived, and I began to notice that many of my writer acquaintances were disappearing, one by one, from the freelance ranks. I'd meet them at parties and no sooner had talk turned to jobs than they'd launch into breathless depictions of the work they were doing, and the technology they were using, and, more to the point, the buckets of money they were earning. No one had ever talked this way about writing. It was like hearing some just-returned settler describing the frontier: wide- open and mine for the taking.

My first multimedia assignment, finagled through a friend of a friend, came in the spring of 1994. A man called me at home and asked whether I knew what CD-Rom was and if I had ever written for digital publications. I mumbled an ambiguous reply and found myself the following afternoon in a small beige office in the suburban megalopolis known hereabouts as the Eastside. The voice on the phone turned out to belong to the project producer, a gaunt fellow in his thirties whom I'll call Bob. Bob shook hands hastily. He wore faded blue jeans and an untucked polo shirt. A year before, he'd been editing a magazine somewhere east of the Rockies. Today, he seemed harassed and tired and in serious need of cigarettes. Bob asked a few perfunctory questions about my writing, interrupting my answers with a staccato "uh-huh, uh-huh," then, apparently satisfied, hauled out a nondisclosure agreement. I signed it. Bob explained that I was now legally barred from telling anyone, including family and friends, anything about the Project. I laughed. Bob looked cross. He related a story of several loose-lipped former employees who had been tracked down and prosecuted. "They're serious about this," said Bob, catching and holding my gaze.

Later, as I learnt more about the industry, the NDAs became more understandable. Title budgets can top $1 million, with no profits expected for three years. The more excited a company is about a project under development, the more paranoid its staff becomes that a single leak might let a rival get to market first with a similar product. I'm still not sure if these fears are valid or simply an extension of the militaristic paranoia and manic team-spiritedness that have long energised the software industry. In any case, secrecy remains a central component of multimedia's corporate character, infusing what is essentially an entertainment business with a gravity both absurd and titillating.

At least, I found it so. Bob, apparently, was well past the philosophising stage and was also in a hurry. He moved deftly from the NDA to a terse discussion of production schedules, software requirements, and, finally, the Assignment, handing me a list of 50 subjects, somewhat historical in nature, and a thick stack of reference materials. He wanted 75 words on each by the start of the following week. Nothing fancy. Simple declarative sentences. High- school reading level. Tight. No one had ever talked to me about writing like this before, either. I felt disoriented, like Barton Fink after he receives his first assignment for a "wrestling movie". I scanned Bob's office, looking for clues as to what I'd gotten myself into. On the wall, I spied a chalkboard sketch, a series of small circles each labelled with an abbreviation ("Intro.", "Vid.", "Aud.") and all interconnected by spokes. A nonlinear conceptual blueprint, Bob explained vaguely, waving at it. For the first time, he smiled. "But you guys don't need to worry about that."

The truth is that multimedia writers needn't worry about a great many things. We get our assignments, write our texts, and some months later, a shiny disc wrapped in an inordinate amount of packaging hits the shelves at Egghead or Walden books. No one expects us to understand or care what happens to our texts in the interim, because writers are mere cogs in the multimedia machine. We're never asked to generate story ideas and pitch them to editors. We needn't concern ourselves with story structure, or themes, or any of the other, more celebrated elements of traditional writing. All that is handled by the engineers and designers and scriptwriters who lay out the disc's schematic, who decide where and when the digital objects will appear, which object will be linked to which, and why. Questions traditional writers might agonise over for hours or days - lead paragraphs, say, or transitions - have been rendered moot by the peculiarities of the nonlinear narrative.

What remains for CD-Rom writers isn't so much writing as tailoring, tucking specified content into a specified space. Producers send us off with sage advice: avoid complex syntax and vocabulary; suppress "voice" or "attitude"; do not, under any circumstances, exceed the specific word count. It's a strange way to write. Strange, too, to see how easily the brain shifts from the extended symphonic rhythms of a longer article to the staccato jingle of the 100-word blurb. Dismaying, actually. Yet the self-disgust pales, at least initially, against the sensation of relief. Conventional, linear writing can be a gruesome task. Beyond the lame pay and the feast-or-famine job cycle, the pounding of disparate facts and feelings into a tightly structured narrative is like digging a ditch across a concrete parking lot.

By contrast, squirting out blurbs is a cakewalk, a lower-order process managed, I'm sure, by the same lobe that handles heart rate and knitting. For the first few months, I felt as if I'd entered a writers' fairyland, where one could earn a good living without anxieties or writer's block, without the corrosive oscillations between depression and ecstasy - just a steady putt-putt-putt of words. I would fire up the computer at 8am, shut it down at suppertime, and by the time I'd raised the fork to my lips, whatever I had been working on six minutes earlier had completely evaporated from my head.

The 50-word caption typically begins with a declarative sentence summarising the photographed subject. The second sentence puts the first in context with a general topic statement. The third adds interesting, even humorous detail. Beginning multimedia writers are often advised to study magazines famous for their captions, including National Geographic and Life.

My disillusionment with multimedia grew less out of any principled objection than from a slow accretion of insults and revelations. There was the tedium of blurb-writing. There were the routine demonstrations of text's low rank on the CD-Rom totem pole: whenever software engineers had trouble cramming all the visual components on to a disc, we writers would simply be told to chop our texts in half. As my meagre status sank in, I found it ever harder at parties to wax enthusiastic about my job. My humour darkened. I took to introducing myself as a hack, a blurbmeister, affecting a cynicism I didn't quite feel but I knew was coming.

from a distance, a multimedia text looks exactly like a paragraph plucked from a standard linear narrative. But closer inspection reveals important differences. In "normal" writing, the writer uses the paragraph as a bridge between specific points. Not so with the multimedia text block. Each must, almost by definition, carry out its minimal literary function in virtual independence from the rest of the story. If I'm writing multimedia Text A, for example, I can assume no specific prior knowledge on the part of the reader, because he or she may be arriving at Text A from any of a number of previous texts. Similarly, I can't use Text A to set up Text B, because the reader may be bouncing to any number of Text Bs. For that matter, I can't even infuse Text A with a meaning or sentiment that is essential to the reader's understanding of, or pleasure in, the larger narrative, because the reader, as narrative boss, may skip Text A entirely. The style of the multimedia text, if you want to call it a style, is one of expendability.

I realise that even with a conventional article, I can't make my "linear" readers read what I write in the order that I write it. Linear readers skim. They jump ahead, looking for interesting parts, then refer back for context - behaving, in some respects, like the multimedia user. But the nonlinear interactive process undeniably accelerates this haphazardness. The nexus of creativity is shifted from the writer to the producers, who lay out the textlinks, or the readers, who make use of those links.

To be fair, if a multimedia writer has the technical expertise and the financial resources to control the entire story-line process, some interesting literary and journalistic forms are possible. Allowing readers to choose their own research paths, or in the case of nonlinear fiction, to choose among multiple outcomes, probably qualifies as a genuine step forward in literary evolution. The reality, however, is that most multimedia writers are not (and, given the complexity and expense of production, aren't likely to be) in control of the entire process or even a large chunk thereof. Multimedia is the epitome of corporate production, of breaking projects into elements and doling them out. As such, the average writer is effectively, if not intentionally, sealed off from the larger narrative, and quickly learns not even to think about how the texts will be used or where the writing is going, because it doesn't matter. One text is pretty much like another, a self-contained literary unit: modular, disposable, accessible from any angle, leading both everywhere and nowhere.

Larger text blocks, though providing more freedom than captions, often prove harder to write. Readers anticipate more information, so more hard data - distances, ages, sizes, dates, etc - are critical. Larger texts also require some adherence to standard writing "rules", such as varying sentence length, as well as some degree of structural innovation. Themes raised in an opening sentence, for example, may require mention or resolution in the conclusion. Ultimately, however, larger texts can grant only the temporary illusion of conventional writing, such that writers embark in directions that, while interesting, simply cannot be explored within the allotted space.

Advocates of nonlinearity often claim that a conventional writer's frustration with this new form stems from the loss of authorial control. We are angry that readers can pick and choose among our ideas or can mix our texts with information from entirely separate sources. Mostly, though, we are threatened by the new kind of mind that such writing requires. "A philosophy of mind for the coming age of writing," Bolter writes, "will have to recognise the mind as a network ... spreading out beyond the individual mind to embrace other texts, written in other minds ... The most radical solution would dispense altogether with the notion of intentionality: there is no privileged author but simply textual networks that are always open to interpretation. Such a philosophy may be nothing less than the end of the ego, the end of the Cartesian self as the defining quality of humanity."

I admit that the thought of losing narrative control is excruciating. But is my frustration so selfish or authoritarian? We hardly expect musicians or sculptors to allow their work to be pulled apart and reassembled with bits and pieces from other artists. We writers are no less invested in our work and cannot be expected to delight in the prospect of merely contributing to a collective, egoless supertext. Nor are we likely to be persuaded that the journalistic imperative - to educate and inform a readership - can come about via a format that is so antithetical to persuasion or extended analysis.

Ultimately, what depresses me most about multimedia writing is its sheer pleasurelessness. Conventional writing, even at its low-paying, psychotic worst, provides me with an intellectual challenge, and lets me attempt a mastery of language and form. Writing allows me to tell stories. Multimedia writing is not about telling a story. It's about telling fragments of stories, fragments that may or may not add up to anything. It's about preparation and research - everything but the actual narrative release. At the end of the project, you're left saturated and unfulfilled, ready to burst. One Saturday night, at a friend's house for dinner, having spent the previous four weeks writing titbits for a science title, I found myself rambling almost uncontrollably about the project. For a full 45 minutes I flouted the nondisclosure agreement, marshalling facts and figures, prying open 100-word capsules and spreading their contents into a tale I'd been unable to tell for nearly a month.

The universe is believed to be between 10 billion and 20 billion years old. Composed mainly of empty space, the universe is dotted with countless stars, galaxies and planets. Some scientists theorise the universe began as a single, ultradense ball of matter, which exploded. This so-called Big Bang Theory may explain why all known objects, including those in our galaxy, are moving away from one another at high speeds.

We are living, according to some hi-tech advocates, in the "late age of print", and I have to say that the business of writing is being transformed with amazing speed. Publishers continue to pour out new discs by the cargo-container load. Conferences go on inviting neo-luminati to discuss the shape and substance of the new New Literature. Phone and cable and computer companies, meanwhile, are developing fantastic new technologies to bring interactive everything to consumers' fingertips. So while the explosive growth of the CD-Rom industry is waning somewhat, the creative slack is being vacuumed up by online services, whose technical criteria place similar requirements on writing and whose managers seem to be hiring writers with almost as much vigour.

indeed, I can imagine a not-so-distant future when a sizeable fraction of professional writers won't ever enter the world of print but will go directly from school to digital publishing. Maybe they'll be constrained at first by the needs of older readers who were raised on print and who have only recently and partially and timidly converted to the non- linear faith. But in time, this will change, as printing comes to be seen as too expensive and cumbersome, as computers become more powerful and more interlinked, and as they show up in every classroom and office, in every living room and den. My 12-year-old nephew lives in a small, rural town, yet he is as comfortable with on-screen multimedia presentations as with comic books. He represents the mind that writers will write for. Perhaps his generation will perceive language in a different way. Perhaps the understanding and pleasure they will derive from creating and consuming nonlinear text will be as significant and as beautiful as anything that has come during print's long reign. Yet I can't help viewing this future with alarm and sadness, not simply because I question the quality of the literature these people will have but because I can already see that I won't be capable of comprehending it. I have participated in, and in some small way precipitated, my own obsolescence. For those raised in the tradition of linear print, this may represent the bleakest irony of the digital revolution - that we so willingly took part in our own extinction. !

Books will be around until at least the century after next. But the expansion of technological communication means that they will become only one of several sources of information and literary expression. CD- Roms, most effective as carriers of encyclopaedic and how-to information, are already fast joining their sound-only counterparts as a familiar part of our cultural experience. Many experts, however, see them as an interim technology to be largely replaced by the Internet once the problems of electronic transactions (e-cash) are resolved, the bandwidth connecting computers increases and people become skilled at using it.

1996: UK publishers start to launch Web sites as marketing tools. Penguin's minimalist orange and white pages, for example, contain brief book extracts and allow browsers to order books. CD-Rom market growing but almost exclusively in the non-fiction field.

1998: all schools and libraries have Internet access and CD-Rom drive; they join publishers, newspapers and magazines in having their own Web pages.

2005: the Internet has become cheaper and faster. Most homes have access. E-cash now a reality. Publishers' core business continues to be books, but they have now become skilled at marketing their titles through direct sales and electronic extracts. Specialist publishers flourish as they can now target readers on the Web. Ninety per cent of new titles are from small publishers.

2010: publishers now distribute a large portion of their stock through the Internet, selling titles both as books and now increasingly in electronic form. CD-Roms are relatively cheap and used almost exclusively for reference. Book publishing more or less confined to fiction, literary and blockbusters.

2050: a new art form has emerged, hybridising literature, video, animation, and music. The "creators" perform on their Web pages where they connect directly with their audience.

Comments