Sunday, March 30, 2014

The future of writing

The revolution that was alphabetic writing is still resonating through human culture and society more than three thousand years after the Phoenecians invented it, and the Greeks improved upon it. It has given every religion on earth its sacred texts, and preserved them -- even as disagreements over how such books were to be interpreted has led to sectarian wars in which hundreds of thousands of people have died. It has given every civilization its laws, every language its literature, and every people their history.

Along the way, there have been revolutions within this revolution: the invention of paper in China in 200 BC, of moveable type by Johannes Gutenberg in the 1430's, the publication of the first newspapers in the 1600's, and Ottmar Mergenthaler's invention of the Linotype in 1884. But the electronic revolution, unlike these others, has not only to improved the speed and efficiency with which the written word can be distributed, but may change the very nature of writing itself.

It hasn't always been possible to earn a living by writing. In the early days, being a writer required a wealthy patron; Chaucer had John of Gaunt, and Spencer had the Earl of Leicester. Books remained expensive, but the writer's share in their sale was small, and pirated editions common. The Statute of Anne in 1710 established copyright in England, but it was at least another century before anyone could actually sustain life on book royalties alone. What was missing was a mass audience of literate people, and people who could afford to buy or rent books. Public education eventually brought such an audience into being, and public libraries and book-lending services such as Mudie's (the "Netflix of Victorian Literature") made reading an affordable habit.

One of the most notable was Charles Dickens, whose books -- sold originally in serial installments -- made him a wealthy man, although in his later years he also made a good deal of his income from public readings. We all know the rags-to-riches tale of J.K. Rowling, whose Harry Potter books made her the wealthiest woman in the United Kingdom, with riches far exceeding those of the Queen (who's actually running a bit low on cash). And yet Rowling's rise came before the arrival of e-books as a force to be reckoned with, and whether this new format will help or harm writers is still uncertain.

One thing electronic publication has already done, though, is to make writers of us all; indeed there may be more writers of certain kinds of material than there are people interested in reading it. Like the "I'm DJ'ing" segment of Portlandia, where everyone is DJ'ing, we are entering into a world where anyone who wants to can be an "author" via self-publishing services such as Smashwords, Author Solutions, At the same time, for many authors whose books are brought out via traditional publishers, it's getting harder to make a living; for every Anne Rice and Stephen King there are hundreds of novelists who struggle to make ends meet, and can't quit their day job.

It's a strange moment -- half opportunity, half cosmic joke: now that anyone can get their writing "out there," there's too much out there to sort through, and becoming "known" is more difficult than ever.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Long and the Short of It

Sometimes it seems that everything is getting shorter -- books, magazine articles, e-mails, and attention spans.  Recent studies suggest that many corporations are wary of investing in advertising in longer-form publications, and are looking for ways to promote their brands in "short-form media." The cost is surely less, and the question arises: are a hundred animated GIFs and sidebars worth more than a 60-second spot on what remains of "television," where the Nielsen share ratings (the % of households tuned in to a given program) has declined, along with the total number of "television households" surveyed. The miniseries Roots managed a 66% percent share, with 100 million viewers for its final episode -- whereas in 2013, the number one television show, The Big Bang Theory, nets only a 9.8 share or about 16 million viewers. One begins to feel that, even if the headline were "World Ends Tomorrow," it would be hard to get figures like those of Roots for any program today.

But of course there have always been short forms, and just because the average book seems to be getting shorter doesn't mean that only short books are viable. Elizabeth Kostova found an agent -- and a publisher -- for her debut novel The Historian.  She got a six-figure advance and the book was a runaway best-seller.  It's 240,000 words long. David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (ok, everyone but me thinks he was a genius) runs to 484,000 words; Vikram Seth's very successful second novel A Suitable Boy runs to 590,000 words, though admittedly it's exceptional. And when something "long" is made of "short" pieces, there seems to be no limit to length; I've known friends who, falling in love with a TV series such as The Wire, have managed to watch all 60 episodes in the course of a week or two -- six times the length of Roots. Like those who read the serialized novels of Dickens, we may not quite realize what all the parts add up to until we've read them -- and even then, we may be hungry for more.

But one must wonder: how will those forms that are inherently long, bulky, and bound to their physical forms -- the epic, the fantasy trilogy, the authoritative biography -- fare in the land of instant knowledge, of reciprocal mini-citations like those in the "did you read that" episode of Portlandia? What does it mean that some book publishers are launching whole new divisions dedicated to bringing the latest blog into print? Will on-demand video and YouTube, as the movie studios worried that television would do back in the 1950's, be the death knell of long-form entertainment in cinemas?

To which I can only answer, in the lingo of old-fashioned radio and television broadcasts, "Stay tuned ... "

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Hackers, Phreaks, and Jammers

The man shown here doesn't seem like much of a danger to anyone. Armed only with a plastic whistle that came free in a box of Cap'n Crunch, along with an earlier version of the 'black box' in his left hand (actually an iPhone), this man was once regarded as a dangerous criminal mastermind, one whose activities were worthy of the scrutiny of the FBI and InterPol.

He's John Thomas Draper, a legendary figure as the first 'phone phreak' to find a way to get free calls through the Bell Telephone system. Phones in the early 1970's used a series of tones to activate and direct calls; using the toy whistle, Draper was able to fool the system into authorizing long-distance calls without any charges; it just so happened that the frequency of the whistle -- 2600 Hz -- was the same as the phone company's electronic tone. Draper and other "phreaks" used the trick for prank calls, to call each other, and to test their ability to route the call over as long a distance as possible. Among those who found this exciting were a couple of California kids who have since become well-known -- Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

The "phreak" culture, in retrospect, wasn't really all that dangerous. All they "stole" was phone time; they didn't seek to defraud customers, steal peoples' identities, or collect anyone's data.  But as the use of phones, and phone modems, became more and more widespread, the stakes of this kind of activity -- or hacktivity as some call it -- have increased. Hackers who have become familiar with weaknesses in operating systems, encryption programs, Java scripts, and various "Trojan Horse" programs that gain access by seeming innocuous, have targeted corporate and government entities, and some of them quite gleefully seize personal financial information when they can get it. Some, such as Wikileaks and the Anonymous group, see theirs as important investigative work, as well as a political jab against what they regard as the government's unjustified power to keep things secret. Others, such as the group of Chinese military hackers associated with the "Comment Crew" in Shanghai, use cyber attacks as a form of political and economic subterfuge.  Still others, the purists I suppose we could call them, simply hack to show that they can; in them, the playful pride of the original phreaks lives on.

Spammers, of course, are the most annoying class of Internet junk, and their more dangerous cousins the Phishers are all to willing to lay traps for the unsuspecting.  Few of them, however, seem to have any larger agenda other than stealing money.

Jammers are perhaps the most politically purposeful of all who have sought to use the media against the media, and many of them use a wide variety of techniques other than the the Internet, though the 'Net often amplifies their effects.  The Guerrilla Girls made feminist incursions in the media, wearing gorilla suits, and the Yes Men famously staged fake press conferences, at one of which they pretended to be representatives of the Union Carbide corporation who wished to apologize -- as the real firm had not -- for the chemical disaster at Bhopal in India.