Tuesday, May 10, 2016

In praise of distracted, Internet-addled writing

In his review of Freewrite's "Smart Typewriter," Ian Bogost offers praise for the pre-Internet era of writing, when one could set one's fingers to the keyboard and simply write, without all the distractions and bells and whistles that a wifi connection bring to the process.

There's more than a hint of protesting too much.

No one would reasonably dispute that writing tools affect the shape and content of both writing and the thought that goes into writing, but it's mistaken to suggest — as Bogost seems to — the the older, slower way was necessarily deeper. Here's an odd passage:
For Nietzsche, the typewriter offered a way to write despite his deteriorating vision (and sanity). He knew that tools changed their users; “Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts,” Nietzsche aphorized. These are facts I happen to know just because they were memorable, not because I remember facts like these regularly anymore. I’ve long since outsourced such easily-rediscovered knowledge to the Internet.
Here's the thing: The human brain is at once both wondrous and limited. In writing this essay 30 or 40 years ago, Bogost might've dropped the exact same knowledge from memory — or, if he (as is often the case with this kind of learning) remembered-ish Nietzsche's comment, he would've gone into the stacks of books (his own, or perhaps a library's) to find the comment, quote it precisely, and cite it. Now, if he's unsure, he can Google it up. Good writing rarely stops and starts with the writer's brain and the writing tools; it's often augmented by reporting and research, knowledge of not just how to marshal facts in service of a story or argument, but how to marshal those facts. Forty years ago, Bogost might've written: "I've outsourced such easily-rediscovered knowledge to the encyclopedia," and it would've sounded silly as a lament. We writers use such tools to enlarge our understanding, and our craft.

Another passage that struck me odd:
Writing today feels terrible not because writing has changed (surely writing always felt terrible), but because today one can never write alone. The writer always feels watched by the voyeur army of real and imagined critics that later will post or tweet inflammatory comments after publication.
But when has that ever not been the case? Not the tweeting part, but the reaction part? If you can write without anticipating your audience's reaction on some level, without trying to shape that reaction through your craft, then you're not really attempting to do what writing was created to do: Communicate.  Making oneself understood as best as possible is sometimes a difficult process; but why write without caring if the message you're sending is being received?

Bogost in the end tries to make piece with the modern era, concluding "the truth of writing today becomes clear to me: writing is both enhanced and ruined by computers. Actually, everything is both enhanced and ruined by computers." One could say the same of a pen. Or a chisel. Writing clearly has never been an easy task, save for a precious few savants among us. Bogost is pining for a utopian yesteryear that never was.

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