Recently, Porter Anderson’s column for authors, “Writing on the Ether” (in Jane Friedman‘s most excellent blog) had a post titled, “Faster, Authors, Faster!” It inspired this post and has given me something to chew on intellectually for several days now. I’ve been following Anderson’s delightful curation, usually weekly, for over two years. He gives an up to the minute (nearly) assessment and distillation of some of the most interesting Twitter mumblings (and more) within the publishing industry, including everyone from the biggest players to the smallest (but often most salient) independent voices. Between Porter and Jane herself is a virtual cornucopia of wisdom that is simply riveting if you are in the slightest bit interested in reading, writing or finding your voice and audience as an author.
The point of the latest collection of tweets and article citations was to focus on a trend that I’ve found goes way beyond the field of writing. To sum it up (because let’s face it, who has time to read all the annotated sources in the average blog post): authors are feeling pressure (from a variety of forces) to get new books (especially in a series) out into the world as fast as ‘humanly possible’. This desire to speed up the world and our creative production is not restricted to publishing or writing, however. I see it everywhere. I feel it on every level. My ‘inner anthropologist’ (awarded to everyone who gets a professionally useless BA in the field) has stood up and taken notice.
We are, as human beings, deeply interested in our place in the world and the impact we make on the people around us. The problem is that social media and the amazing way it can connect people in very different geographic locations is also an amazing way to make us feel overwhelmed. It is 24-7 in a way we have no previous defenses or skills as a species to draw on. When someone connects with me via email or Twitter or Facebook at midnight (my time), they may very well be in the heart of their awake hours in Australia. Should I be foolish enough to respond in real-time, weary from my day, I will inevitable find myself at 2 am still engaged in what feels like an essential human conversation. Things I care about can turn into obsessions at that hour. My opinions can take on a laser focus that will seem overly harsh when I re-read my comments in the ‘light of day’.
But what has happened to our sense of time, to our understanding of ourselves? In A Sideways Look at Time, author Jay Griffiths points out how different the experience of time can be for different people and even for the same person under different circumstances. In many ways, our current struggles with time are just the logical conclusion of a chapter that began with making the trains run on time. What can seem like a thing of convenience and even efficiency (a word I have come to detest), can become something sinister and at odds with the very substance that makes us human and unique (at least in our own eyes). We also have no template for considering the 7+ billion people on earth as ‘the people around us’ … we are designed by evolution to be ‘big fish in a small pond’ not ‘little fish in a big pond’. Kindergarten in the US is now covering the material that used to be in first grade. If you’re up to it, see: What happened to Kindergarten? in Scholastic’s blog.
So what does this all mean for humanity? I’m just a little fish, so honestly I don’t know. But I’m reminded of one of my very favorite movies: Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. The title alone is so delightful, but if there was ever a documentary I could recommend to everyone and say, watch this over and over … this is it. It was made in 1997 and features four extraordinary individuals with careers that teeter between obsession, brilliance and pure vision. Anyone who has been driven to tell a story, research a mystery or risk everything to support an idea will identify immediately. And I’m beginning to think that creative people are all becoming very much like these otherwise singular individuals. Computers can do most of the other mundane tasks like basic calculations, so now only our immortality is tied to our singular focus, our obsessions, quirks and idiosyncrasies. And being weird isn’t enough, you have to be weird in an engaging way and get there before any of the other 7 billion weird, quirky and creative people get there. Feeling pressured yet?
According to Wikipedia, “The title of the film is a play on the old engineer’s adage that out of ‘fast, ‘cheap,’ and ‘reliable,’ you can only produce an end consumer product that is two of those three (the classic example is a car). Rodney Brooks, the robot scientist from MIT, wrote a paper in which he speculates that it might be more effective to send one hundred one-kilogram robots into space, instead of a single hundred-kilogram robot, replacing the need for reliability with chance and sheer numbers, as systems in nature have learned to do. The advantage would be that if a single robot malfunctioned or got destroyed, there would still be plenty of other working robots to do the exploring. The paper was fully titled ‘Fast, Cheap and Out of Control: A Robot Invasion of the Solar System’, and published in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society in 1989.”
So, as a blogger I’m beginning to wonder if I’m fast, cheap and out of control? Maybe I should try to be reliable and fast but expensive. Or maybe I should keep my reviews and blog posts cheap and reliable but not very fast (that sounds doable at least). Ultimately the question for every writer, myself included, is how can we stay human in all of this? And what makes us human, what makes our contribution to the many millions of words published every day interesting and worth reading? Or are we just exercising a narcissistic reflex to either reinforce our own image of ourselves or to amplify our voice in a self-serving way? I’m also deeply puzzled by the fact that all four of these obsessed individuals were all men and apparently not even fathers … can women and mothers afford to be ‘fast, cheap and out of control’? And if not, is that a bad thing? Perhaps some answers will emerge in the future … if only we can race fast enough towards it, I won’t have to be so impatient!
What do you think? (and yes, I’m really listening – in between bursts of narcissistic reflection, of course)
Category: Our House