Writing, books and the future of reading - Part 4 of a long essay
(Parts One, Two and Three of this essay appear under the category of the same name to the left of this post or below this latest section of it)
A recent and important phenomenon is the proliferation of online game “worlds” that have grown to massive proportions over the past several years. In these worlds hundreds of thousands of “real” humans take on avatars or online identities and simulate economies that include all forms of human creation and interaction. Outside of the strictly gaming world, and attractive to many who would never play video games, “Second Life” has literally created a new virtual universe where “real” people inhabit and participate in a figurative universe.
These worlds are certainly “real” in an experienced sense, and are not lived in solely for entertainment, but for the experience of interaction that is so often not available in the daily experience of our fully alienated culture. Why should this not be a precursor of what is to come for art and culture? Why should art and culture not migrate to an online space for those people whose lives take place mostly online anyway?
This does not mean the death of the book. It may be part of “the end of the world as we know it” (as my favorite REM song reminds us.) Personally, I do not feel sadness about this, only curiosity. After all, these are all human endeavors created and experienced by human beings. Online art and culture is simply artifactual of another cultural language and cultural landscape. As any anthropologist knows, every culture creates its art forms from the landscape it inhabits. However influenced by the sensory input of these landscapes, cultural creativity is always human in shape and form.
So we will recognize this new world of art and culture even if we do not always understand its language.
The pace of technology and business change is so rapid that very few business managers, analysts, creative thinkers or other observers and participants with an interest in these matters are able to understand what is happening as it is happening. We are all now put in the position of surfing the world we live in, riding waves of change with as much finesse and grace as we can muster, knowing that like all surfers, we will eventually wipe out. Then we must go to shore, take a deep breath and paddle back into the ocean to ride again.
Even so, we are able to see the effects of changes that have already occurred and from what we know, make generalizations about what will happen to and through the cultural milieu of writing, ideas, knowledge, books and publishing.
The central fact of change driven by the distribution of ideas on the internet is the destruction of the authority model.
All we have known is a world in which knowledge and ideas are passed from one creative thinker, artist or writer to many consumers, as well as other artists and writers. This is how most modern cultures have worked for as long as we have known them. It is central to our (capitalist) production system as well.
In the new online world this is no longer the predominant model. A new paradigm has emerged, which is characterized by much more complicated lines of communication and creativity. In this model, that has developed most fully and powerfully in the community of computer programming and is called “open source,” a single creator may take an idea he or she has developed and make it public in such a way that many other creators or users can contribute to the ongoing developmental and creative process – this deconstructs the notion of a product, as there is never a final product, but rather a never ending product development process. As a model applied to literature, a novel might have multiple endings, or be rewritten endlessly by hundreds of editors and readers.
There are many famous examples of open source computer development, the most famous being the Linux operating system, as well as GNU, Basecamp, Joomla and a development platform called Ruby on Rails that has quickly attracted legions of programmers. And of course the now famous “Wikipedia” has more or less replaced the notion of an authority driven encyclopedia with one that is more accurate and up to date by harnessing the power and creativity of users.
The rules and social interaction systems of the “open source community” deserve careful study insofar as they can be used as models for many other forms of human social interaction, especially as humanity must face and conquer so many looming challenges.
In the world of literature we can imagine a future where writers might post an entire book, whose readers then create an intelligent index to it, enabling other readers to pick and choose to read only what they need or want from the experience of the work. Allowing others to filter the vast streams of knowledge and information that we are faced with in the modern world seems rational and completely in keeping with our current environment.
What this means is that there may never be another “great” writer or thinker as we have known them in the authority model of western culture. It has been almost 300 years since it was possible for an educated person to have read every meaningful book in print in the world. With such incredible amounts of art, culture, knowledge and ideas for us to choose from, and a growth in creativity that is expanding at geometric rates (seemingly growing faster than our population — though logically this cannot be true!), it is virtually impossible for any single human being to be able to synthesize a broad enough experience to create a message or medium that would appeal to enough people to gain one the stature of greatness equivalent to a Shakespeare or an Einstein or a Picasso or even a Joyce or a TS Eliot
While we may have lost the power of such authority figures to transfigure an entire cultural moment, we have gained the power of the many to create and propagate ideas in smaller channels within the culture. We may even have created a new diversity of culture – ironically returning us to a form of tribalism that Western culture diligently attempted to expunge from the planet for the past several hundred years. That may indeed be the greatest triumph of the new digital era – perhaps arriving at just the right moment, a time when we are faced with the critical need to harness all human energy and attention to the critical matters in the natural world, and to the disparities of human wealth and opportunity that mark our current environment of mass globalization.
Individuals and small groups may now emerge as the new units of culture as humankind returns to its tribal cultural roots in the vast cycle of change we both engender and experience within our worlds - the physical, spiritual and now the virtual spaces that we inhabit and that make us who we are.