Archive for April, 2009

Growing up in the 90s, I learned to use the internet at the same time I was entering adolescence. Arguably, the internet was also entering its teenage years: that awkward, teeming period when modems ceased to be the exclusive perview of geeks and big business and started finding find their way into private homes. After listening to the ludicrous crrrk bing-bong! bing-bong! ksssssshk of 56k dial-up, I’d log in to MSN Chat, check my various Hotmail accounts, surf poetry forums, look at fantasy pictures, type search queries into Yahoo: all the preoccupations of my thirteen-year-old Gen-Y self. Then as now, there were legion free sites and services to join, which I, glorying in the creative freedom of multiple online handles, was only too happy to test-drive, only rarely contributing under my own name. The internet being what it is, many of those sites no longer exist, the accounts I created and any content published thereon long since vanished into the electronic ether. But twelve years later, despite the myriad accounts I’ve let lapse, a handful still remain.

Like salmon returning upstream to spawn, I find myself revisiting these earlier haunts. To my now twentysomething self, they are cringeworthy reminders of my teenage years: that penchant for writing everything in lowercase, the often-bad poetry, the meaningless rants and banal social commentaries. But rather than abandoning these realms altogether, I find myself logging back in, culling the crap and instating new, up-to-date bios. Partly, it’s because of the book: I’ve worked long and hard to become a published author, and am therefore unable to resist shouting my triumph across every available server. It’s also a kind of catharsis, closing off the old efforts my younger self made towards the goal I’ve subsequently achieved: validating her efforts, even though she-then, as distinct from me-now, will never see it. Mostly, though, I feel a kind of allegiance to these places. I owe them the honesty of an up-to-date status, even if it’s only to proclaim the reason for my absence. Call it a strange, personal scrap of netiquette, but I find it disquieting when someone I’m following online in whatever capacity suddenly stops updating without any mention of why. It’s like holding a phone conversation in which the line abruptly goes dead at the other end. To delete the account, rather than locking it into explanatory stasis, would be like pretending the conversation never took place at all.

I still sign up for things and forget about them, of course. Everyone does. By and large, it’s harmless. Either the site is large enough that you can eventually come back and unsubscribe, or small enough that when it dies, there’s nothing left hanging about for unwary friends to find.

Unless, of course, you wrote an ill-informed, poorly constructed rant at age eleven and posted it to a site which, though many years dead, is still Googleable, left to drift eternally through the seas of Internet like some Goddamn Marie Celeste of prepubescent idiocy. Of course.

First, some links:

Clay Shirky on the collapse of traditional newspapers and the need to find alternative means of journalism;

Natalia Morar, who organised an anti-government flashmob on Twitter and is now hiding from arrest;

Oprah and other celebrities battling to be the first on Twitter with a million followers; and

SR7,  a company for hire that specialises in digging up dirt on employees for other companies.

Now, some thoughts, in no particular order:

 1. Journalism is essential. People both like and need to know what’s going on. However, journalism is not a naturally occuring resource. People must go out, obtain information, then analyse, write and relay it, a time-consuming process traditionally deemed deserving of monetary compensation. No matter how easy it is to copy an existing source online, that source first needs to come from somewhere; and before that, someone must decide that the source itself is newsworthy.

2. As has always been true of all creative endeavours (singing, painting, dancing), there are vastly more people who participate in these activities than are paid to do so. Largely, this is a question of enjoyment, creative expression and ease. Blogs have tapped into this in a big way. Most bloggers make no money. Many blogs are read by only a tiny handful of people known to the writer, or not at all. And yet, they are prolific, because even without monetary compensation, the vast majority of people simply enjoy writing them. Many readers employ a similar logic.

3. Despite having been around for a number of years, Twitter has only just hit the collective journalistic hivemind. Recent weeks have seen an explosion of articles on how it is being used, why it is damaging people, whether the concept is utterly pointless, and the implications of its ongoing development. Diverse examples of all these include:

– the now-notorious #amazonfail incident and its aftermath;

the Times bemoaning Twitter as a ‘rolling news service of the ego’ and then promptly signing up;

a warning that social networking sites are damaging kids’ brains at the same time Twitter is being added to the Brittish school curriculum; and

– the use of Twitter in both the Mumbai bombings and hyperlocal news sites.

4. Writing on the collapse of newspapers as we know them, Clay Shirky sums up the process of social revolutions thusly: “The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.” He concludes by saying that what we need is a “collection of new experiments” to help us figure out how journalism – as distinct from newspapers – can keep working.

5. TV news isn’t going anywhere. Neither is radio, which has survived bigger technological upheavals. Print journalism is failing because the internet has ruined its monopoly on exclusive media. Unlike free-to-air radio and television, which have always had to contend with the notion that a majority of listeners won’t be paying directly for their content, newspapers have thrived as a one-to-one exchange: a set amount of money per customer per paper, with very few exceptions. It’s not that the internet devalues the written word, or that making journalism freely available is inimical to notions of profit: it’s that, without being able to charge on that one-to-one basis, newspapers cannot command anything like their previous volume of revenue. They’ve simply never had to compete with a medium that could do the same thing, better, for a fraction of the cost. And now they’re floundering.

6.  Spare a moment to consider the notion of Digital Rights Management – DRM – and its relationship to the newspaper fiasco. Although concerned parimarily with digital music copyright, the ongoing debate about encryption for games and, with the advent of the Kindle and other such devices, the pirateability of digital books and audiobook rights, the underlying problem is the same in both instances: defining notions of ownership for both users and creators in an era where digital copies are readily available. Books in particular have always been subject to the whims of borrowing and lending without falling apart, but might their new digital formats change that? Or are they an exception to the rule? For long stints of time, it’s nicer to read on a page than a screen, but what if screens are improved, or some other technology developed that is just as comfortable to use as paper? Will we still crave tactile connections

7. People might not like to pay for content, but as WikipediaYouTube and Linus Torvalds have already proven, many are ready, willing and able to create content for free. Open source principles clearly predate the current revolution, and consciously or not, they’re informing it. Remove money from the equation (or at least, give it a drastically reduced emphasis) and gaze anew at the crisis of print journalism. Blogs, tweets, viral news: many of the new news staples are ungoverned, unruly, disparate products of the hivemind – flashmobs, crowdsourcing – but that doesn’t mean they go utterly unpoliced or work without change or criticism. Hey, it’s a revolution, folks. We’re breaking and making at the speed of thought. Give us time to learn the ropes.

8. Way back in 1995,  Major Motoko Kusanagi once mused, “And where does the newborn go from here? The net is vast and infinite.” In 2006, she reaffirmed the sentiment. We’re not yet ghosts in the shell, but let’s keep an open mind. The future rests in us.

As of Easter, my editor has finished with Solace and Grief. Apparently, she even enjoyed it, which makes me glow with a quiet firefly-warmth. I’ve taken a break from the sequel these past couple of months, so hearing this now is like snuggling happily into a favourite blanket. The exhausting thing about trying to get a first novel published – or rather, one of the many exhausting things – is that if you stop work on it, nothing happens. Editors do not magically gain access to your halfway finished draft, nor do agents ring and ask if they might peruse the most recent chapters. Instead, you are alone in your creative universe. Progress only happens when you make it happen – and when the necessity of eventual publication hangs over your head like the proverbial Pointy Thing of Damocles, there is a guilty need, both pressing and urgent, to always be doing something. Submission is only a temporary fix, elation quickly overriden by a nagging question: now what? Most publishers take months to respond – what happens in the interim? Editing what you’ve already sent off is a good way to keep busy, but waiting for a response still feels like sitting on your hands. In more ways than the obvious, publication comes as a refreshing change. Perversely, it grants the freedom to vacation from your characters sans guilt, to sit back and work on something else (or catch up on your DVDs, whatevs) in the delightful knowledge that somewhere, some wonderful soul is tinkering away on your behalf. The novel is being Worked On, and all is right with the universe.

Solace and Grief, as I may or may not have mentioned, is the first of a trilogy. Book 2 is currently under construction to the tune of about 40,000 words, with the caveat that the last 20,000 are in disarray. Literally. Many scenes have been roughly hacked into a new order, but before I read through and start a-stitching with my elegant surgeon’s keys, there’s a small matter of imperative: a new character whose intentions I must fathom absolutely before putting her – and the middle chapters – back in play. I’ve not addressed the problem for a while, but now that the editor is done, certain mental wheels have started clicking. Soon enough, the story will start to itch at me, and when the internal pressure reaches critical strength, I’ll fling myself back into it with a vengeance.

Assuming all my uni essays are done, that is. Publication changes many things, but – alas! – the intrusion of the real world isn’t one of them. Damned necessity.

Poem/Fingers

Posted: April 7, 2009 in Ink & Feather
Tags: , , , ,

I seem to be in poetry mode at the moment. Weird. But also fun.

fingers

when precisely was it that my

fingers (scrap-nailed, bent)

 

became

 

lined with use, adult tools that do not

resemble those slim fronds

with which I learned

to grasp crayons, doorhandles

 

firmly, with a child’s sense

of seriousness in such simple tasks; when

 

did the callous below

the ring-finger of my left hand,

flesh-caramel dot beneath a silver band

form; or when

 

did the sharp creases of

my palms first tar

in lines of life, heart,  mercury

 

the hidden onwards road,

the wandering star?  

Another poem for the wondrous oracle meme.

last night

restless, sweating at the touch of old gods, I
lay tangled in the dawn of sleep, fretting
my pillow, dreaming of places where the wind cries
through the open arms of broken statues, seeming
 
insubstantial, shaking with fear
at the saw-blade terror of avatars
walking like madmen under foreign stars
uncomprehending of what loas rode their hands, breaking
 
glass eggs, world eggs, cracking the gold yolk
silver-limned on the table-top, 
unable either to falter, choose or stop
the terrible march of their red guns, blackening
 
the sky with stone towers, falling like tears
or waterfalls, down
the deep gullies of our throats and eyes
to mark the ruination of these years
 
and on waking
 
I was left whole but altered, hollowed out,
the inner spiral of a nautilus shell
behind each gleaming eyelid.
all was well.

Recently, I’ve been struggling to comprehend the social ramifications of defamation, censorship and privacy laws in government and industry. While the scenario of a verbally abusive co-worker or boss is undeniably awful, and while nobody should have to put up with insults about their character, religion, race, competency, sexuality and/or personal hygiene, I can’t help but feel that restrictions designed to enforce polite behaviour are increasingly infringing on freedom of speech. Prior to the rise of the internet, I imagine there was a fairly intuitive rule of thumb when it came to bitching about colleagues, viz: don’t write anything down. Trash talk was for the pub and other such friendly gatherings, or at the very least somewhere courteously beyond earshot of the person in question. Email lead to a new caveat: keep it off the company servers. Personal accounts are personal accounts, but you never know when someone might have legitimate cause to flip through your business correspondence. Even in this instance, however, there was still a veil of privacy, in that barring an authorised, dedicated search or deliberate hacking, there was no way for the subject of the conversation to accidentally ‘overhear’ and thereby take offence.

But sites like Facebook and Twitter have changed all that. Now, employees are able to form online groups and discuss the foibles of their jobs en masse or tweet about the demands of annoying co-workers – with troubling consequences. The blogsphere, too, has created workplace turmoil, with some employers sacking staff for mentioning their jobs online. While companies are well within their grounds to worry about the release of actual business information, especially where a preemptory or unauthorised mention of same could cause genuine loss or damage, the notion of bringing a company’s reputation into disrepute simply by admitting to personal foibles and opinions is deeply troubling. Satirising a job is not the same as maligning it, and criticising management should not be a sackable offense. Nonetheless, such things are currently happening.

As a student, I never liked the idea, put about at assemblies and other such spirit-building occasions, that I was moving through life as a ‘representative’ of my school, nor that my behaviour at all times, regardless of whether I wore the uniform, was correlated to some nebulous, anachronistic notion of school pride or reputation. As a grown worker, the sentiment still holds. First and foremost, we should belong to ourselves: all other affiliations, be they professional or academic, are secondary. There’s an ugly paternalism to schools and businesses laying claim to the morality and opinions of their attendees, and this is what rankles: the notion that our individual humanity is permissable only insofar as it doesn’t contradict the party line. It’s a big, messy, multifaceted issue – slandering colleagues is different to releasing confidential data is different to criticising management is different to having a sense of humour is different to daily blogging – but it is, ultimately, the same issue. Namely: how should we act online?

In a perfect world, people wouldn’t insult each other, nor would certain personality types be incompatable. But this is not a perfect world. In an age when instantaneous, public communication has dropped the veil of privacy from personal complaint, we need to grow thicker skins and get used to living with other people’s opinions. Because what’s really throwing us for a loop isn’t the fact that people have opinions or even that they’re different from ours: it’s that, all of a sudden, we know what they are, and feel moved to respond. Companies are kidding themselves if they think that the vast majority of their employees would still work if they didn’t have to. Work is a necessary evil: get over it. Employees are kidding themselves if they think that bitching about co-workers in cyberspace is the same as bitching at the pub. If you wouldn’t say it to their face, don’t type it where they can see it: simple. The law is kidding itself if it proves systematically incapable of distinguishing between serious, ongoing abuse and satire. People make jokes, and every exchange is nuanced: take it into account. Authority figures are kidding themselves if they think their position should put them beyond mockery or scrutiny. As in politics, you will be teased, disliked; your decisions will be questioned. It’s the price of being in power: live with it or step down.

But most importantly, we as a society are kidding ourselves if we think the solution to socio-digital omnipresence is to segregate our personalities. Our jobs and lives are bleeding together exactly because the two should be compatable; because people want to enjoy their work while still retaining the freedom to speak their minds. Communication should be used as a tool for social improvement, not restriction, which means compromise on both sides. And historically speaking, compromise has never involved the building of walls between different groups or ways of life.

Instead, it knocks them down.