1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Twenty-Three: Technology

Much of my creative life, and certainly almost all of my professional life for the past 20 years, has been greatly influenced and impacted by technology.

It starts earlier than that, of course. In 1984, the first Macintosh computer came out, and it came with a simple word processing program. Coincidentally, 1984 was the first year I started writing short stories or fiction of any sort, camped out in Erza Chowaiki’s room in our high school dorms, since he had the Macintosh and I did not.

As I started my creative life on the computer, my creative process was also shaped by the computer. For example, I don’t write drafts of my books, a thing which one would need to do when one was working on a typewriter, and editing on the fly, as one can on a computer, was not possible. When I type the words “the end” on a manuscript, it’s ready to send off to the editor — not because I write perfect prose (trust me), but because all the edits and changes I wanted to make were done as I was writing the book, in a rolling draft. One’s tools shape one’s process.

By 1998, effectively all my writing of any sort was done on computer, much in the same way it gets done now — the “word processor on a computer” metaphor is a durable and useful one. And as an artifact of my own age and and habits, I tend to write better on a desktop computer than on a laptop; something about being at a desk, with the work tool firmly rooted in place, gets me in a mind for work. It’s not impossible for me to work on a laptop; I’m writing on one now, and most of my recent novels have had substantial chunks written up on a laptop, when I was traveling or just wanted to sit somewhere else in my house for a change of pace. But most of it is at the desk, on the desktop.

Also in 1998, digital rather than print was my primary mode of transmitting my words. While the tools have changed, this is still (largely) true today. In 1998, when I started Whatever, I taught myself enough html to make the blog and update it daily. Today WordPress does all the backend for me, better and more robustly than I ever could (thank you, WordPress. In fact I found rolling my own html exasperating), but still more or less how I started doing it back in the day. I famously posted my first two novels here online, in a very early example of digital self-publishing, which ended up getting me a traditional publishing deal — but “traditional publishing” these days also includes electronic books and audiobooks, the first format of which could hardly be said to exist in 1998, and the second of which was wholly overhauled and expanded by digital transmission. Ebook and audio without a doubt have made a huge difference in my success as a writer.

Aside from work directly, tech makes an impact on how I live my life. Directly, these days it’s been amazing to me how so much of our digital and technological life is now primarily carried in a single object: Our “smartphone.” Like most people, I think, at various times in my life I have had a phone, a camera, an ebook reader, a device for listening to music, a separate device for video (with music included), a device for recording audio, and another entire device for accessing the Internet (known as “a computer”). Oh, and paper maps. Now: you have a phone.

I do love this, I have to say. Even 1998 me, with all his tech toys, would have been utterly amazed at my current phone, the Pixel 2, and everything it can do that no one in 2018 thinks is in any way particularly noteworthy. Obviously a smartphone has a camera and apps to access music and video and books and the internet and also tracks your health status and where you are on the planet and how you can get to where you are going next and has the ability to text people across several different media and even sometimes, if you’re old and still into that sort of thing, you can use the phone to talk to people.

(And honestly the amount that the smartphone has actually killed talking on the phone is the most amazing thing to me, and even more amazing is how it’s killed it for me. My smartphone rings and for the first few seconds I just stare at it, thinking, what the hell is it doing now? Then I remember: It’s being a phone.)

I do still have some dedicated “single use” tech: I still have a dSLR camera rather than just relying on my phone for pictures, as an example. And of course I still have a desktop computer and a laptop computer. Phones these days are useful for reading and consuming things, and many things these days can be created on them, but for me they’re kind of cramped for typing and writing anything longer than a tweet. But even I don’t pretend that the Internet is not now primarily living on people’s phones. It is, and it’s a thing creative people with digital lives have to work with. It’s not bad. It just is.

I wouldn’t go back, regardless. I like my smart phone, just like I like the computer. I think about generations of writers writing drafts on typewriters (or by hand(!(!!))) and then having to redraft and literally cut and paste changes onto paper and I get tired and moody. I can’t imagine having a been a writer without a computer. I’m pretty sure I would have been, anyway, but not in the way I am now, and very probably not with the success that I have had. The next generation of writers will include someone who composes novels entirely on their phone and thinks it mad that anyone else has ever done it differently. Good for them. I’m glad it works for what they do. I hope the work is good. I’ll still need things to read.

36 Comments on “1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Twenty-Three: Technology”

  1. Before anyone says it: Yes, I know novels have already been composed on cell phones (and yes, I’m aware they do it in Japan all the time). I mean to say that someone out there will be using the cell phone entirely as their primary composing method in a day-to-day sense, rather than doing it as an experiment or stunt.

  2. For what very little it’s worth, I have Scrivener on my iPhone and have done some work on a novel that way. I’m too old for it to be my primary method, but I can certainly see others progressing to it naturally in future. It’s just too handy, and it’s always there.

  3. I love how now everybody hates talking on the phone just like I do. (Except people who call me 5 times a day at my job, WAH). Though I was listening to the Judge John Hodgman podcast the other day and he pointed out that that is probably because nobody can hear on the phone now.

  4. I am one of those cranky old codgers who not only doesn’t own a smart phone, I don’t own (or want) a cell phone of any flavor. I truly hate talking on the phone, and the idea of walking around with a phone semi-permanently grafted to my body makes me whimper. I actually LIKE using those old paper maps. I like using an actual camera. And the rest of the nonsense is nothing that I need or want.

    For any kind of writing, though, I am all about the tech. I write EVERYTHING on a computer, for much the same reasons you do (though I am most certainly not a writer of any sort save as a hobby). I even draft things like thank-you notes on the computer, and then copy them off on stationery in longhand. I am old enough to think that a thank-you note should be written out by hand, but if I did my drafting in longhand, I’d either be sending out correspondence with all sorts of strike-throughs and arrows or else I’d waste a lot of paper redoing multiple drafts. So I compose on the computer and then copy the final draft by hand onto my good stationery.

  5. Great column. I remember pre-digital graphic design and layout: rubber cement (or if you were high-end, a waxer), T-square, non-repro blue pens and boards. Headlines using Letraset presstype, or long galleys of typeset columns ready for cutting and pasting. I don’t miss a bit of it. Long live Photoshop and Quark/InDesign.

  6. I would still have a flip-phone if it wasn’t for my wife insisting on being able to text-message me (or Facetime). But having gotten dragged into the near-leading-edge of phone tech, I’ve found some very enjoyable uses for it…like the Kindle app (in case I don’t have my Kindle with me) the iReal app (for practicing improv) and the iBird app (don’t need to carry a field guide anymore).

  7. Terrific column. You speak for a lot of us old guys who got comfortable with a desktop computer and regard a laptop as a travel convienence. It works but it just doesn’t feel right. I also have a Kindle with a word processor on it for traveling light. It does work for notes and ideas but I will never do any serious work on it. Anything less than a full sized keyboard feels cramped and “disturbs the force” when writing.

  8. In 1984, I had an 8th grade English Teacher who called my parents for multiple parent-teacher conferences because I would hand in my homework nicely printed and typed from the family computer (including drafts). She told my parents numerous times using a computer was hurting my writing abilities and bad for my education. Ultimately, a “compromise” was reached — rough drafts could be printed, but my final draft, like everybody else, had to be longhand cursive (on unlined typing paper).

    A few years later, I heard a younger brother of a friend talking about that teacher. In the meantime, she had received a grant for a computer in her classroom. After some training, she loved it, and was recommending everybody use one for their writing…

  9. I read books mostly these days on my iPhone 6s due to arthritis in my hands. And it’s frankly a godsend for that. But trying to write on one brings back bad memories of the TRS-80s we used at our weekly newspaper back in the 1980s.

  10. While I totally agree on the smartphone, I do NOT read books on it. I have over 500 books on my Kindle.

  11. Oh, I’m great on maps but my wife is useless (always has been). Now she just punches the address where we’re going into the smartphone and, voila!

  12. I’ve lived the process as well. While I recently (very reluctantly) got a simple cell, I alternate between desktop and laptop for my own writing. Being able to write in bed or anywhere else for that matter is a nice thing. Not so nice is the amount of over connectedness people assume today. For instance, the number of calls from my doctor left on my home phone message system (remember them?) because my work does not allow me to simply answer the immediate need of the cell to reach me. There are other things I do besides respond to the ping telling me somebody (likely no one I know) has responded to something on one of the multiple media platforms I use.

    Seriously the down sides of todays connected paradime are many: data mining of personal useage habits on an industrial level, a dependence on a variety of services that all come with a price, the anonymous trolls that are ever present on social media poisoning conversations, and the ability of government to intrude in one’s personal affairs on a truely frightening level.

  13. Speaking of arthritis, (RAM, above) full-time writer Holly Lisle was in despair, but then she extended her writing lifespan by switching to a Dvorak keyboard, where, for example, the vowels are in the “home row.” She blogged about it.

    I switched too.

    Some folks would paint over their old keys, but In my case, as part of learning to touch-type Dvorak, I left all my keys unaltered. That worked fine. My Macintosh came with software for making the switch to Dvorak. Now I have to switch back to a normal qwerty board whenever I take my computer in for help at the apple store.

  14. We all use tech in the way that best fits our circumstances and preferences. My fat fingers consistently hit the wrong keys while texting, and since I have to look down even to have a fighting chance at hitting the right key, I usually don’t notice a mis-typing until I’m several letters away. Then I have to backtrack. And although I’ll sometimes fill a few minutes reading something on the phone, these old eyes start hurting if I do it too long. Yes, I know I can raise the font size, but then the letters are so big it’s a scroll-fest.

    But I’ve been writing on a computer since 1987, and don’t miss the old days of printing manuscripts AT ALL. It’s still magical to me that I don’t have to retype a story to send it out, and don’t have to trudge down to the post office to mail the dang thing, knowing it’ll be several days before it’s even been received.

    It’s also pretty cool that if I need a bit of information for a story, I can look it up right away on the internet. I have a pretty good idea of figuring out which sites are trustworthy on scientific, historical, or other topics, and it’s great not to have to stop and head toward the library. This is NOT criticism of libraries, people! Sometimes I still go to them for volumes that contain information that’s more in-depth than I’ve been able to find on the web. I also go to them to check out new hardcover SF novels that cost more than I’m willing to pay. Sometimes I don’t even have to leave home and can download a book from home!

    I with most other people, though, in that I don’t talk on the phone much. Never that big a fan to begin with, and given that the phone conversation is probably more likely to take place out in the world rather than in the (relative) quiet of our own homes, just the difficulty of hearing, as others have pointed out, tends to make such conversations short.

  15. I thought you might like to know this story I just recently learned about Chinua Achebe. When he wrote his first novel, Things Fall Apart, he was in Nigeria and didn’t even have a typewriter. So he sent his ONLY copy of the handwritten manuscript to a typing service in London to have them do a typewritten MS knowing that was necessary for submitting to a publisher. Months passed and he did not hear from the typing service so he thought his MS had been lost. He said that if it had been he would have given up writing for good. Fortunately for the reading public he had a friend going to London for her leave and he asked her to check with the service. The service had the MS but had let it hang around. The friend yelled and screamed and shortly the typewritten MS was back in Achebe’s hands.

    I am another Luddite who doesn’t have any kind of cell phone but I appreciate some technology like the ABM that let’s me take out money any time of day and (almost) anywhere in the world. I don’t want to go back to the days of travellers’ cheques.

  16. I have a smart phone and really like its features, but my next phone will be a flip phone.

    The smart phones have gotten so large that they won’t fit into my pants pocket anymore, and that’s one of my must-meet criteria. I can buy a flip phone and an iPad mini–getting a real tablet rather than a substitute one poorly masquerading as a large phone–for less that the cost of a smart phone, carry the iPad mini around with me in a backpack when I need to have the features it offers, and upgrade the iPad mini as required for a whole lot less money–and still have a phone that fits in my pocket.

  17. I started writing in lined spiral notebooks. I do not miss those days. Like you, John, I am most comfortable writing at my desktop computer although I will, if yanked away from it, make do with a tablet or laptop.

    Thank you, by the way, for the term “rolling draft”. Yes. Perfect. It’s how I write, too.

    But I still have separate devices for music and reading. These can and must be connected to the desktop computer to add and curate content, but when I’m not doing that, I turn off the wi-fi access. I like being not connected to the Internet, except when I have an actual reason to use it.

    And I like not having the purveyors of devices and software monitoring everything I do with the notion of being able to more effectively sell me more stuff.

    Which is probably why I have an old-fashioned cell phone that makes and receives phone calls and nothing else. No text messages, no internet access, no music. I have on rare occasions used the camera, but I’m not much of a camera person.

    I actually DO like talking to people on the phone but that, in part, is why we also maintain a land line and what may be the last remaining hard-wired non-portable telephone set in existence. I can hear voices clearly, right down to the buried laughter or the sigh not-quite-coming-out or the cats in the background yowling for dinner, and distinguish all those sounds with clarity and joy.

    The cell phone is so that people who absolutely, positively MUST get my attention right this instant when I’m away from my email can make that connection.

    From what I’m reading in this comment thread, I may be a very strange individual indeed. It doesn’t bother me, though.

  18. 20 years ago, didn’t have a computer, used the ones at work for word processing/writing. (Short articles for a local paper.) Got involved with a woman who had a PC, learned to hate that thing ;-) Finally bought a Macbook in 2002 and never looked back.

    Still use a flip phone and an I-pod, and a ‘real’ camera. I hate multi-tools, whether they’re called ‘Leatherman’ or ‘smart phones’.

  19. I’ve killed 3 Kindles (long stupid story) so I mainly use my phone for reading with the Kindle app, finding out when the bus is coming, and occasionally texting. I too still have a landline, on which I can actually hear and understand conversations. There’s enough tech out there now that everybody can pretty much tailor it to work for them.

  20. When instarred my profession life after getting out of school in 1973, all the writing (technical engineering reports) that I did was on paper. The final draft was a mess of cut and paste then passed off the a secretary to put into a readable typed form.

    When I retired from professional life in 2010, all my writing (still technical engineering reports) was done on a computer without any secretarial help and everything was electronic, no paper.

    Over that time period, at least one job (Secretary) was eliminated. Was I more efficient than when I worked together with a secretary? I doubt it.

  21. Another flip phone user here. Supposedly I can access the web on it, but given that it’s a prepaid phone I don’t. Calls and text messages are all I use it for, and I always run out of time on the prepay plan before I run out of minutes (they roll over).

    I tried putting some music on it when I took a long trip earlier this year, thinking I could plug in my headphones and listen on the plane. No problems transferring the album from my laptop to the phone, but for some reason the phone scrambled the playlist order and wouldn’t go back to the way I’d set it up. So I just read my Kindle instead.

  22. I am always tickled to find that we have both favored the same smartphones for the last three upgrades or so. I am personally fond of the Pixel 2 because it fits in my hand so much better than the Nexus 6P or the Galaxy Nexus.

    The only downside to the Pixel is the smaller battery, and my constant game-playing has put a serious dent in the battery life. I can’t decide whether to brave changing the battery myself (cheaper) or paying someone to do it for me.

    I’ll be keeping an eye out for your next choice of smartphone!

  23. 1998 was when I got my first cell phone, and I was a late adopter. Living in Finland in the days when ‘Nokia’ was almost synonymous with ‘cell phone’… I only got a smartphone in 2011, when some people I know left Nokia (after Nokia decided to embrace Windows Phone) and built their own Linux-based system, and I wanted to support them. Funny thing is, Nokia’s mobile business went to shambles with the Windows operating system; the business ended up being sold to Microsoft, which couldn’t make it work either; and now MS has announced that they no longer develop the phone or the OS. Meanwhile, I’m still getting regular updates for my 2011 Jolla phone… and now there’s a completely different company using the Nokia brand to make cell phones, both basic phones and smartphones – that run Android. (Nokia itself mostly makes mobile phone networks these days, I think.)

  24. The real problem with smart phones is that you’re putting a heckuva lot of faith in one small battery. (Elsewhere right now I’m involved in a discussion of using a dedicated gps versus a gps ‘app’. Same issues.)

    If my camera dies, I can sub out a spare battery. Ditto flashlight, gps etc. If most take AA batteries, one set of backups is enough. Yeah, they sell ‘power packs’ and solar chargers etc. for your smart phone, it’s still a case of eggs in a single basket.

  25. One thing about writing on a cell phone – does anybody do so using voice recognition ?

    The tech isn’t exacty new, I know a woman who wriote an entire book using it, back at least ten years ago. Do people actually prefer that tiny little keyboard?

  26. Definitely can understand smart phones killed talking on the phone. Which is why I sill have ye olden flip phone (circa 2005). While I picked up the smart phone for non-talking purposes (TuneIn radio app and eventually watching some t.v. shows and the like), I still use my flip phone for talking and texting. It still works as I recently bought a new battery for it. The good thing about my smart phone is that no one except some family members know the number. Anyone else who calls gets immediately blocked.

  27. Luddite here, and proud of it.

    I do have a cell phone, a simple flip phone. Very late adopter, got it maybe 2007 or 2008, and am still carrying that original device. Am glad now, as it has saved a lot of problems through three(?) episodes of severe car trouble. I do talk on it. Also value the texting for when I’m out and in a location where ambient noise makes talking even face-to-face difficult, let alone on a phone. I only give out the number to trusted people, and only even have the thing on when *I* am out and about. Definitely have kept the landline and probably always will.

    I loves me my desktop computer. When I was working, the company-issued laptop allowed many work-at-home days, which was great. Maybe sometime I’ll wish to get a laptop for myself, but that hasn’t happened yet. I have an actual camera and like it. Have a Kindle, which I now love, but only acquired it when I got to pick a service anniversary gift at the company.

    I keep paper notebooks, pencils, and pens, of various sizes, with me at all times. When I do write fiction (strictly amateur), it is mostly drafted longhand in a notebook first, but editing and redrafting begins as that first is transcribed to the computer.

    That said, I enjoy seeing how my friends make intelligent use of their various devices, to meet the needs of their lives.

  28. What is this “phone” thing you people keep talking about? I carry a magic answer box in *my* pocket.

  29. In ’98 I was working on development of a device & supporting OS/network that you would recognise as an iPad (OK, android tablet for haters – it was anti-Microsoft anyway so everyone should be happy) but one that talked to a house-scale network that did all the stuff that people are getting started on doing with IoT related stuff now. Media anywhere you are, home control, all that. Just think, we could have all that 20 years ago, if it hadn’t been for a single email from a billionaire closing the project down. And it wasn’t even the billionaire that owned the lab I was working at…
    And it wasn’t the first time I’d worked on a proto-iPad either; that was the Active Book, ten years earlier. Yes, you could have had all that *30* years ago; thank goodness AT&T stopped that one with underhand tactics.

  30. But even I don’t pretend that the Internet is not now primarily living on people’s phones. It is, and it’s a thing creative people with digital lives have to work with. It’s not bad. It just is.

    I don’t agree with the last part. I think it’s a bad thing that so much of the Internet is now locked into walled gardens, under perpetual corporate control. I’m certainly not arguing that people should get rid of their smartphones, or even that smartphones are the root cause of this change, but I don’t think it would have happened without the iPhone’s software ecosystem.

    Instead of writing blog posts or comments, people write tweets now. Targeted harassment certainly happened before Twitter and Tumblr, but these platforms encourage mindless mobs in ways that didn’t exist previously. It’s really hard to write thoughtful commentary with the tools that they (and Instagram, etc.) provide – not that people don’t occasionally manage to do it anyway, but that’s in spite of the restrictions and not because of them. Unfortunately, I don’t see any of this changing as long as the financial incentives remain in place.