Mark Cantrell, Author

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ESSAY: Technology Or Bust

Posted by Mark Cantrell on September 22, 2012 at 2:10 PM

Is silence digital in the

ghost-written revolution?

By Mark Cantrell

AS authors, indeed as readers, we are in our own ways informal custodians of a literary culture that stretches back into the depths of time, before even the written word first emerged, and whether we like it or not it's up to us to ensure the next generation has its chance to join in with the narrative flow.

 

To some, the traditional establishment based on print technology remains the essential guarantor of this literary inheritance; for others it's become an old crypt where the possibilities slowly moulder into obsolescence. Digital, on the other hand, offers not only a rebirth of the literary spirit but the gateway to an evolutionary leap that will transcend the bindings of paper.

 

The revolution gathers pace, but as more and more authors and readers alike flock to the digital barricades to throw down the old order, it would be a mistake to assume our place in this brave new future is assured. Revolutions are notorious for eating their own children - all or nothing, then, the fate of our literary culture is up for grabs.

 

The narrating ape

Those words 'literary culture' might sound a little highbrow. Well, yes they can be, but together they also make a convenient catch-all for the diversity of humanity's verbal cultural exchange, primarily on the printed page, but also the spoken word from scripts - for radio, stage, cinema or TV - to oral storytelling, all the way down to some bloke spinning a yarn for his mates down at the pub.

 

All of it extends across the spectrum of storytelling, of capturing a few fleeting moments of life, from the mundane to the extraordinary, and it's the churning pool from which our literary culture seeps into our collective self-knowing.

 

We are story-telling animals, after all, and will forever remain so, but whether our storytelling retains a place as an acknowledged and celebrated aspect of human culture, or withers into some background muttering, like that bloke at the pub, looks set to be determined by technological developments far removed from the world of literature.

 

The High Priests of a digital future promise great things, and are furnishing readers and writers alike with the means to transcend the 'limitations' of the printed page, but in a curious kind of way they might be about to set the clock ticking backwards. There's a cruel irony there, for the possibilities of digital are no illusion, but in the combative tribalism of print versus digital, the almost Year Zero zeal of the latter camp may usher us not into an age beyond print - but into a kind of techno-rendered echo of the pre-print era.

 

Most of us only have a scant awareness of the ancient history of the emergence and spread of the written word - this author included - but we know the broad narrative arc. We stand at the apex of a series of evolutionary changes and revolutionary leaps, each of which has had profound implications for society.

 

The invention of writing is, of course, where it all began, but for most of us it's the birth of print that really gets it going. The printing press was a technological revolution that underpinned profound social change. It steadily broke the power of traditional elites to monopolise knowledge and ideas, undermining their ability to shape how a society perceived itself, and began to place it in the hands of the common masses. Well, more or less, certainly more so than had existed when the artefacts of a literary culture were the labour-intensive efforts of monastic scribes.

 

Times changed, society moved on, new elites emerged to try and shape our view of the world by controlling - or at least influencing - the dissemination of ideas and knowledge and narratives, but for every narrative extolling us to adopt the elites' worldview were competing narratives offering rival or outright subversive counter-views. The babble of human debate and argument has raged down the centuries ever since, as literacy has expanded to take in ever more of the population and the presses have grown in sophistication to meet, even encourage, more demand.

 

It's all rooted in those clay tablets of millennia ago, when ancient priests seized control of the human mindscape by their monopoly of the means to record information, shape ideas, and present the approved narratives down through the generations. So if the story of literacy and literature has been one of control by elite groups, it's also been a tale of the social underdogs breaking free and carving out mental space for new ideas and daring narratives.

 

Whether it's the religious and political pamphleteering of the 17th and 18th centuries, or the rise of radical newspapers extolling revolutionary politics and movements in the 19th, the rise of mass market paperbacks in the 20th, technological and social change has steadily denied elites the absolute power to control and shape cultural expression, debate and posterity. No longer are the rich and the powerful getting it all their own way (although not for want of trying); the peasants/proles are answering back - the damned impertinence! - and what's more their voices no longer fade away with the dead.

 

That's the power of the written word. It's the power of print: it offers a collectivised, if fragmentary memory that denies an absolute mastery of the past, and in so doing subjects the future to the possibility of challenge. If the presses gradually 'democratised' the dissemination of ideas and knowledge, allowing society's rank and file to challenge their superiors, then it also went some way towards 'democratising' cultural expression. Once elites establish a monopoly it leaves whole swathes of activity - be they stories, song, poetry, simple folklore, or news - ignored and unacknowledged, to wither and die on the vine.

 

That is, of course, if those elites don't actively attempt to suppress this 'folk culture' in the first place as they seek to carve their official narrative in stone.

 

By word of mouth

The tradition of oral storytelling long predates the emergence of the written word but it forms the foundation of our modern literary culture - and more besides - as it has continued in parallel like a spoken samizdat. Some of our ancient word-of-mouth stories found their way onto the written narrative early on: think of the Old Testament in the Bible, think of the epic stories of the Ancient Greeks, or the heroic sagas of the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings.

 

The myths and legends of earlier cultures gave rise to some of our earliest examples of written literature. They remain powerful stories - and sources of inspiration for modern fictioneers - to this day. You may not have read the book, but you have almost certainly seen the movie. You might even have played the game.

 

Whether stage or movie, radio or webcast, computer games, hell, even print, whatever the technological shift it rests on a strong literary culture.

 

Well, so much for this homage to the Age of Print; there are those who believe that the printing press, together with the physical book itself, belong in the museums alongside those ancient clay tablets and illuminated manuscripts of yesteryear. They may have a point. They may simply be mercenaries in the culture war to conquer and control the means of cultural creation and exchange - that mindscape first seized long ago by those tablet-wielding priests.

 

In many respects, the story of literacy and literature has been one of giving a voice to the voiceless. The process has been uneven, contradictory, frequently unfair, and as one set of elites has toppled, so others have arisen to take their place, but all the same the broad thrust has been to open up the arena of cultural expression.

 

Now we are in the midst of a new and frenzied cultural revolution. This is the age of digital. The future is data. This is an upheaval no less profound than any that have gone before, but like Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution, it is very much a faction fight between squabbling elites.

 

On the one hand, we've got the traditional publishing industry, or as you might call it, 'Big Publishing' (after all, the 'Big Six' corporates are no more the be-all-and-end-all of print publishing than Google is the entirety of the Internet, even if it may seem that way at times). On the other, we've got what can be called 'Big Tech'. Yes, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and so on.

 

To be frank, it's difficult to perceive either faction having much genuine interest in our literary culture and heritage, but there's a certain irony that Big Tech seems eager to win over both readers and writers with gushing promises, in stark contrast to the aloof paternalism of Big Publishing.

 

Between them, they are essentially wrestling to establish and control the architecture of cultural expression and transmission, not just in the immediate future but across the generations. The smart money appears to be on digital winning hands down and that might be a safe bet: the paperback is dead! Long live the ebook! As if it's ever that simple.

 

The pen is mightier than the word

For all the inherent possibilities in the technology, the reality has lingered far behind the dream. It's only really started to take off in recent years, with the emergence of a ready retail infrastructure - Amazon permitting direct publishing, smaller online publisher/retailers emerged to doing the same - and the creation of some handy kit that at least presents a simulacrum of the physical book-reading experience.

 

Taken together, it's easy to see how all of this emerging technology might be seen as the driving force of a new publishing revolution - Big Tech liberating us from the suffocating grip of Big Publishing - but should the words of any elite ever be taken at face value? Is it the exciting lure of new technology and the profound possibilities it provides that powers the rise of digital publishing? No doubt, the answer is yes but perhaps frustration is as much - if not a much greater - driving force.

 

There's nothing new in authors self-publishing; nor is there anything inherently new in the difficulties they have faced in trying to win favour with the established publishing powers-that-be. What is at least relatively new is the concentration of the industry, along with distribution and retail, into the hands of a small group of big corporates that essentially monopolise literary culture. For authors, the whole set-up has come to resemble something of a fortified citadel.

 

So, faced with the indifference of Big Publishing, what are authors doing? What they have always done, more or less. They are doing it themselves, taking their works to the digital marketplace and publishers be damned.

 

Smell the freedom. Or is that the coffee? The potential to take the publishing - the literary - revolution forward is tremendous but in this rush to embrace digital are we just swapping one corporate enclosure for another? We are caught between two sets of corporate elites, after all, each vying to dominate the future literary landscape. Both are trying to secure their 'ownership' over the emerging digital mind-space. Priests with clay tablets...

 

Competing narratives

So what happens next? Well from the point of view of the emerging Indie self-publishing scene, authors will get better at being publishers: they'll crack the craft of editing, they'll master the art of covers, they'll come to terms with the dark arts of marketing. They will build outlets for their works and they will build relationships with each other and with their readers. They will challenge the established order of both Big Publishing and Big Tech - they must if they are not only to survive but to play a part in the revitalisation of our literary culture.

 

And it would be a mistake to think print is dead in all this; the print revolution itself is far from over, provided both the digital and the printed page can create a space outside the enclosing infrastructures of domineering corporate behemoths. Now that won't be easy - but it's not impossible. The technology exists and the burgeoning Indie scene certainly demonstrates the will to change.

 

Out of this raging milieu, new publishing ventures will no doubt emerge, joining forces with small and medium sized print publishers to form the basis of a revitalised publishing industry. Together, they'll challenge the domineering elites of Big Publishing and the Pretender to its throne that has arisen within Big Tech - and if they get it right, they'll bequeath a vibrant and diverse literary culture to the next generation.

 

On the other hand, this emerging publishing scene might get it horribly wrong and the whole Indie Tower of Babel will come crashing down. Life comes with no guarantees. One or other of the factions battling it out to win this Cultural Revolution might secure the mindscape for themselves, herding us into their cattle-pens, or they'll reach some kind of détente and parcel out the prize between themselves.

 

The elitist grip could tighten, or worse, literature will become not obsolete - that conveys the wrong idea - but abandoned into obscurity: collateral damage blown away in the course of the raging corporate faction fight.

 

Ironically, in this worst-case scenario, the story of literature might go full circle - especially in a digital age where it lacks the enduring substance of paper, let alone clay, to become the written equivalent of an oral culture, ghost words whispered in the background and largely ignored by a cultural mainstream created by a victorious elite.

 

There is, however, no reason to despair at this dystopian depiction. The future isn't written in stone. Nor will it ever be, so long as we, the custodians of our literary culture, refuse to surrender our mental landscape to the corporate chieftains and their priestly technocrats. The story must go on.

 

Mark Cantrell,

Stoke-on-Trent

29 December 2011

 

Copyright (c) December 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Categories: ESSAYS, VIEWPOINT, ARTICLES

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