Process vs. Content, Part 1 – the writing life, such as it is, from outside of nature & inside of technology

When it’s opposed to Product, the principle of Process, in life if not in business, assumes the moral high ground – the reverse of the boring, expedient, suspect or criminal ‘means to an end’ so typical of, say, mining methods (see fracking) or election campaigns. ‘Trust the process,’ say therapists, gurus and creative writing tutors. ‘Trust the product,’ shout sponsors, billboards, and TV ads at shrinking intervals. As journey is to destination, so process is to product: while integrity in the former can’t ensure the success of the latter, it tends to increase the potential for satisfaction. Process/product is an obvious pair, just as life and death (or tension/release or lateral/vertical) are complements; or complementary opposites insofar as they’re mutually exclusive.

By comparison, Process and Content aren’t obvious opposites. Synonyms for process in the context of this post include action, method and operation; synonyms for content include import, meaning and substance. Indeed, method often implies meaning, arising from purpose (see Stanislavsky). Process, in the context I’ll refer to it here, becomes a problem to the extent that it’s drained of content, except in the most generic sense. In the words of Scots author Ewan Morrison (see his provocative Guardian article): ‘[Yahoo and Google] are not in any way concerned with or interested in content, or what used to be called “culture”. To them culture is merely generic content…’

This content, such as it is, is growing more generic by the second. And I don’t refer just to online content, though it’s leading the way. Print culture, too intimidated to resist, is slavishly rushing to keep up. Consider Australian Author, the Australian Society of Authors’ quarterly (as of 2011, three editions a year are no longer enough). Prior to 2006 it was subtitled: For writers, readers and everyone who loves books. Since 2006 it’s been: For writers and their readers. (The demise of books was already foreseen. And who wants to admit to loving something obsolete?) The nature of the shift is nicely evoked by the title of an article by Peter Quiddington (April 2009): ‘Digital Tsunami’. The latest issue (September 2011) features a reality check from Leslie Cannold, ‘The Tweeting Truth’, in which she astutely explains how to make Twitter work for you. Here’s a gem from her article: ‘According to small business marketing expert Doug Hay, authors should dedicate just 10 per cent of their efforts to writing and 90 per cent to marketing.’ Which makes sense if you’re game to give up your day job. But what about those authors (the vast hordes of wannabes) who haven’t yet mastered their craft? They’re all out there now, flooding the online marketplace. From Leslie again: ‘According to Twitter guru Gary Hayes, over four new accounts are created every second.’ That’s natural, right? We all want our say; everyone wants to be read. And in theory everyone is creative,* so this must be a good thing. But is this the sort of equalising the digital pioneers dreamed of?

Remember when computer technology (unless you’re a tech-head from way back) seemed less obtrusive/intrusive, merely providing tools you could use for the purpose of cultural production? At what point did technology become the engine that’s driving culture, the force shaping all our relationships (to each other, society and our environment)? It’s as if (because, hey, everything’s ‘as if’ now in our virtual world/s) civilised humans have become technology’s tools.

I seem to recall a halcyon window within which technology saved us time, starting from around about when word processors took over from typewriters, availing us of breakthrough functions such as ‘cut-and-paste’ – enabling swift rearrangement of text and with it, visions of possibility – and ‘copy’ and ‘save’ – ensuring not just prompt duplication and storage of countless complex documents but unprecedented freeing up of time and physical/psychic space. With the slight distance availed me in hindsight, the ’90s now look like the honeymoon phase – when, at least for those of us writers who value solitude and privacy, computer technology proved most seductive. But it’s in the early days, with most drugs, that dependency gets set up.

In case I seem to be contradicting what I wrote in my last post, I don’t hold technology responsible for the ways we humans use it, but I do think it’s passed a kind of critical mass in its momentum, in the sense perhaps that a runaway vehicle gathering speed as it hurtles downhill, and barring Superman’s intervention, will likely cause its passengers harm if/when it collides with an obstacle. Sure, technology seems unobstructed in its race beyond (not against) time. But that’s because we’ve lost perspective now that we’re inside it – we’re stuck outside nature in our conscious minds, squinting in through the bars of its cage; and, split off from our own animal natures, we need to believe that we’ve tamed it – hence the ‘logical’ obsolescence, in a materialist world, of astrology; we can’t experience Mars as an inner psychic force while simultaneously deeming it premium real estate (compared to, say, Venus) because, hey, we’ve found running water on it, any more than we can feel empathy for creatures we think of as objects called ‘schnitzel’, ‘pâté de foie gras’ or ‘pork chops’. (How are we going to notice the harm we do through objectifying animals in a culture where the objectification of women is still taken for granted?)

If technology is serving up a time-consuming process – with online quality content as easy to find as a needle in a haystack – consuming us even as we consume what it offers, it’s because we’ve envisaged it that way. Much of what most of us consume (and I’m thinking of culture no less than of food) is so processed that its contents consist of supplements meant to replace what’s been lost on the long journey of increasing abstraction from far-off unsustainable source via factory and store (and sometimes restaurant, café or fast food outlet) to you. And, like our processed food, we’ve had some of our original substance removed (take your pick from among such goodies as instinct, a sixth sense and/or imagination), and so we’ve uncritically incorporated technology to fill the empty space.

‘Don’t you know zombies are the new vampires?’ says a character in True Blood, the romantic TV drama created by Alan Ball (who gave us Six Feet Under). And to the extent that pop culture reflects the zeitgeist, zombies make sense. If the vampires so ubiquitous in film and genre fiction of late point to our developmentally arrested anti-ageing obsession, our immoral lust for immortality, then zombies would seem to be a natural progression (combined with such themes as cooking, forensics and home renovation for maximum appeal).

* Maybe we need more words in our language (not less, as seems to be happening)? Because as long as we say that Alan Ball can ‘create’, say, an award-winning screenplay, and that four+ aspiring Twitterers ‘create’ accounts every second, the notion that everyone is creative doesn’t seem all that meaningful.

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1 Response to Process vs. Content, Part 1 – the writing life, such as it is, from outside of nature & inside of technology

  1. michaeljalan says:

    One might argue that the most intrusive and far reaching bit of technology to obfuscate the writing process was introduced by Gutenberg in 1439. Instead of painstakingly copying words of wisdom and wonderful illustrations by candlelight and quill, any fleeting thought could then be (relatively) effortlessly reproduced and presented to the masses.

    I remember how confusing it was at Digital Equipment when the first word processors began cranking out immaculately typeset memos about someone I had never met going on vacation for a couple of days. Prior to that anything that someone bothered to typeset was actually important. The introduction of email at DEC meant a hundred people who didn’t care could receive the vacation notice.


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