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Monday, October 26, 2009

Grumpy IT Guy Responds to Your Articles about Electronic Publishing

Ok, I’m not a guy and I’ve never worked in IT, though I am the default “help me with this computer thing” person to many people in my life. While sometimes I can get a little prickly, I do not embody the stereotype of the “computer person” any more than I embody any other stereotype, but I do get treated in certain ways because of preconceived notions about what I’m like cognitively or emotionally: that we computery types have no feelings, no creativity, no savoir faire, or are somehow antisocial because we choose to spend so much time on the computer. People act like we’d live in a steel box on the moon if we could (actually, that could be cool, depending), but my point is, the whole technology-is-ooky mentality of the publishing, writerly, and book-loving world needs to change. People need to stop acting like they aren’t already using and enjoying the totally non-ooky technology we bring to the world on any given day.

Lately I’ve been reading nothing but articles about the future of publishing and mostly they make me want to barf, but probably for different reasons than it makes everyone else concerned with it want to barf.

It’s true that the coming (or current) obsession in publishing is how to handle a smaller print-book business.

There is an abundance of ignorance, fear of the new, and myopia in these articles, whether it’s WSJ managing editor Robert Thomson saying that Google encourages reader “promiscuity” and that “net neanderthals ... think everything should be free all the time.” So-called learned people disregard updated dictionaries for older ones that don’t know what an airplane is. Agents are preemptively sad about how seeing a book published in an electronic format for the first time won’t have the same awesome fuzzy feeling as holding a newly minted book in hand, even though they are just speculating about what that would entail.

I remember the first time I updated the front page of nationalgeographic.com back in 1998. At the time I was practically a shoeless child, a self-taught HTML programmer, formerly a copy editor — and terrified, thinking of the hundreds of thousands of people who might be looking at it right at that exact moment, terrified I’d make a code-breaking typo or upload the wrong file, but I didn’t. That night, I walked home in the dark, proud of the fact that I’d worked a little late, the lights of 17th Street sparkling at me through the tears in my eyes as I walked alone to the metro station. I’d never been so proud of myself, so excited in my entire life. I had found My Thing, a way to encompass Everything.

The sad agent article quotes another article that especially irked me for missing a huge mark without realizing what it was missing. “As Emily Pullen, of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, so aptly points out in a blog post: ‘Creating digital literature and harnessing the medium’s unique capabilities requires a specialized knowledge of programming languages. As such, it is software engineers and computer programmers (the techies) who are best suited to use this new literary medium, not the traditional Writer.’”

For people who are all about language and learning (writers, readers, hello?), you’d think someone having something to do with books would have the idea to talk to one of these mutant “techies” who don’t seem to know what humans want.

Please also note that those two articles in question were published using tools created and developed by people with “specialized knowledge of programming languages” that are designed specifically to allow nontechie “writer” humans to publish their words to the world for free, and to be read for free, yet they clearly take that for granted. It’s as if they associate the old ugly rotating-gif early internet with techies, but now, the Internet, maturing and redesigned (and overrun by ads and business concerns of more people who don’t get it and the type of people who totally caused the first bubble burst), is somehow no longer the domain of techies.

These writers and poo-pooers fail to recognize that the gap between “techie” and “functionally literate in today’s world” is diminishing while the realm of creative programming endeavors continues to grow exponentially. It’s going to be amazing. They’re going to love it! They just need to chill, and stop not paying attention.

They don’t get it.

That’s okay, we’re used to it. I’m starting to sound like the rude IT guy from Saturday Night Live, but seriously folks. Can we stop with the “techies” thing? In my daily experience being called a techie, nerd, or geek is a point of pride, but when it’s said (written) in a disparaging way, it goes too far with the throwing around labels and lumping groups, and makes you sound snobby and ignorant. Some of the smartest, most innovative programmers I know are formally trained journalists and artists.

Meanwhile, I’ve known few, if any writers who had any sense of good visual taste, proper eating or sleeping habits, a clean house, or a decent wardrobe. So stop with the name calling and the finger pointing. I love both writers and programmers, and often, as in my case, they are one and the same person. Get with the program.

Let me blow your mind for a second: there is no such thing as an ebook.

Programming is punctuation, syntax, logic, behavior, and instruction. You think we’re so different? I got into programming soon after being an English major in college. I hated computers until then, they were clunky, ugly, and awful. So why? Because I had a moment of insight that it was the future of publishing, that there was an important connection between the thing which held the words (technology) and the words themselves. I thought that a world where anyone and everyone could create and distribute ideas would be a better place.

It’s not technology that’s lagging now. In this case, it’s human understanding of the potential and permutations of the e-format. Show me an ugly ereader, and I’ll show you the clueless committee that commissioned it. I’ll bet those people don’t really use computers, or the Internet. I bet they also look at books as commodities and don’t know design from daguerreotypes. They probably write their emails in Comic Sans and look at the web in IE6 (yes, those are disses). I have strong suspicions that the ereaders sold by Amazon, B&N, and maybe, poor Sony, are as disappointing and dreary as they are because that’s what’s being brought to the engineers. I’m sure the plan is to lock people into a physical format (remember Betamax?) and then use number of units sold to project customer interest. The ereader is a product of how much (or how little) they were willing to invest, divided by the time in which they wanted to rush it to market. If you knew what “cell phones” in Japan were doing, you’d know that the lameness of the ereaders we’re being presented with is not due to the limitations of technology.

I personally know a good handful of people who have created software that will do amazing things for the written word. They’re philosophers, designers, and book lovers who happen to also be genius programmers. The problem is licensing. What content can be integrated? That’s the hold-up of publishers and copyright law. No good and bad guys here, just a long word problem that needs a solution.

Check out this ereader cheat-sheet, and see if you can think of features you’d like that aren’t included in these products. Me? I think ereaders need a kickstand for when I’m using them for reference while coding, cooking, or sewing handmade books together (I’ve been teaching myself Coptic binding by watching YouTube).

If customers knew what to ask for, they’d demand it. Ereader sellers would scramble to respond. What we’re seeing now is a bunch of shitty first drafts. Humans (all of us puny humans) usually need to see and feel something to form solid ideas about how to improve upon it. Once you hold an ereader it’s easier to evaluate: “this isn’t what I meant. where’s the color? why’s it so heavy? why can’t it do X, Y, and Z?” Any experienced web developer or designer has been there a million times before. Writers have too, but perhaps we need to remind them of the draft and workshopping phase of a piece that evolved from a good idea with a disappointing result, into a creative masterpiece that embodies everything they meant and hoped it would.

To live and breath and make beautiful music together, writers and makers need to form better relationships. Book authors and software authors need to join hands and approach our feuding parents with our forbidden love, and remember not to panic and drink the poisoned Kool-aid.

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Relax, we understand joo.


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