Brave New (Writing) World: Question Authority

I hate all multiple choice tests — whether serious or frivolous — because no matter how many choices you give me, I always come up with an answer that isn’t listed. That I have survived so far in this choose-among-the-available-boxes-and-only-those-boxes society is attributable solely to my skill in figuring out the wanted answer even while my soul is screaming that it’s wrong.

Dealing with tech really brings out this side of my personality, because of the tendency in both software and hardware to require either/or choices. It’s probably that binary, base-2 stuff. I’d probably be a lot happier in a computerized world built in, say, base-12, though the odds of my wanting a 13th option are probably pretty strong.

It’s a good thing I mostly work at home, because when computers annoy me, I curse them. Loudly. And that tends to annoy co-workers.

But don’t get me wrong: I love our new high tech world.  I skim dozens of news sources every day, instead of reading just one newspaper. I have multiple versions of my work available, making it easy to try different approaches to the contrary story that just doesn’t quite work. And I can look up anything I want to anytime I want to without living near the Library of Congress, which is closed right now due to snow as well as being 1,500 miles away. Say what you like about Google searches or Wikipedia, they’re a lot more useful and accurate at three in the morning when you need a bit of information than an outdated set of the World Book Encyclopedia, a Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and last year’s World Almanac — the core reference books in my childhood home.

So I’m not a Luddite. And I recognize that all these wonderful tools will inevitably change the landscape of our lives. But some of those changes make me uneasy. I find myself wondering: am I just scared of change, or is there really something wrong with the design of some of those programs, the limits of some of that hardware, the assumptions of some of those systems?

And I’ve finally found someone who understands the inner workings of the computer revolution well enough to make judgments on what we’re doing right and what we’re screwing up: Jaron Lanier, whose new book You Are Not a Gadget provides a refreshing — and non-Luddite — critique of our new high tech world, particularly the part defined as Web 2.0. Like me, Lanier loves the Internet, but he has concerns. And as the father of virtual reality and an expert in developing interfaces between conputer science and other disciplines like medicine, he has the knowledge to analyze his concerns.

I’m only a little ways into the book so far, but what initially made me keep reading was his explanation of how certain decisions in programming early on have locked us into ways of doing things that are not the best choices. These things become so fundamental that we don’t even think about them — and that changes how we think. His basic example was the MIDI system for music, which became standard even though it was originally written only with keyboards in mind and doesn’t work well with, say, saxophones or singers.

The next thing that hooked me was the first item on his list of “Why It Matters” that there are problems with the current direction of our high tech world:

Emphasizing the crowd means deemphasizing individual humans in the design of society, and when you ask people not to be people, they revert to bad moblike behaviors.

He then goes on to discuss the importance of authorship — a subject we at Book View Cafe take very seriously indeed. He rejects the idea that the collective mind will turn all books into one book. Using an earlier technological revolution — Gutenberg’s — as an example, Lanier says:

What is important about printing presses is not the mechanism, but the authors.

This reminds me of all those people who want to copyright an idea, as if an idea was all it took to produce a great book. It’s not the idea; it’s what the writer does with the idea that makes something worth reading.

Whether Lanier is suggesting that instead of machines getting smarter maybe we’re dumbing ourselves down to communicate with them (a la my experience with standarized tests) or suggesting that no one knows enough about the human brain to really understand friendship, making “friends” on Facebook a pale imitation, he makes me think.

I’m not finished with the book yet; It’s a short book, and not densely written, but I find that I read only a few pages at a time because he gives me so much to think about. In fact, this book itself is a great argument for the importance of authors, because what I find most intriguing is that the way Lanier looks at an issue is different from both the way I’ve looked at it and the way everyone else I’ve read on the subject has looked at it.

He’s providing a unique take on dealing with our brave new world, one we all need to think about.


The Shadow ConspiracyRocket Boy and the Geek Girls

Nancy Jane has stories in both of the anthologies recently published by Book View Press: “The Savage and the Monster” in The Shadow Conspiracy and “Blindsided by Venus in the House of Mars” in Rocket Boy and the Geek Girls.

Her collection Conscientious Inconsistencies is available from PS Publishing and her novella Changeling can be ordered from Aqueduct Press. All fifty (plus one new one) of the short-short stories she posted as part of her year-long Flash Fiction Project are available for free here.



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