Present Shock: On Ubiquity and Doing Things in One’s Own Time

Remember Future Shock? I was a bit young for Alvin Toffler’s manifesto on the disorientations of technological change when it first came out, but when I finally got to it another 15 years down the line, it was still relevant. At the same time, though, I was young enough to feel deeply smug when I first read it. I was of that generation that didn’t fear technology, but loved it, and wasn’t afraid to get its collective hands dirty tinkering and jerry-rigging and figuring out things that didn’t come with a manual (not to mention things that did—I’m sure the exasperated acronym RTFM was invented by someone roughly my son’s age). That book, I felt, was written for my parents. We, on the other hand, would skate hand in hand with all this change, evolving breezily along with it.

And to some extent that’s been true. While I admit to being old enough to remember having to get up to change channels, I’ve pretty much experienced the technological changes of the past 30 years with pleasure. I’m currently in school with a lot of people 20-25 years younger than me, digital natives all, yet I don’t feel that I’m at any disadvantage in terms of tech savvy. I actually suspect that having had to learn this stuff as it came along has given me a bit of an edge—back in the day before personal computers were widely affordable, my friends were building their own, rigging phone modems, swapping out RAM and memory with big clunky screwdrivers rescued from their bike kits. We didn’t need no steenkin’ Genius Bar.

But on the sociological end of things, I find I’m a little slower to adjust. It’s not my technical understanding that’s dragged, but rather my decisions about which parts of it I like and don’t. Sometimes I think the biggest difference between my generation and the born-digitals is that we like using the technology for purposes of discussing where we’ve been, while they enjoy broadcasting where they are—but I think that’s a bit of a reverse-engineered generalization. Still, the fact is that I’ve never warmed to the idea of always being “on”: being available to chat or signing in somewhere with Foursquare or—horrors—talking about my state of mind, health, or household on Facebook. I like a bit of a buffer zone between me and the world, the virtual equivalent of not always answering the doorbell. Which is why, I think, I’ve taken to blogging. It lets me mull over my thoughts and construct them in my own time, still connected to the ever-expanding circles but on my terms, not theirs.

Sometimes I wonder if that’s a generational gap, wanting to keep our communications on our own timelines, or if that has more to do with the circles I run in, of content creators and those who would maintain a little more control over their output. Either way, the ubiquity of all those varieties of communication these days forces us to decide, often on the fly, what we’re OK with and what we eschew. And while some of those are easy calls—I can tell you right now you will never, ever see me type the phrase u r—or u, or r, for that matter—many of them take more thought.

Over at The Millions, Sonya Chung has a great piece about just this dilemma, titled Confessions of an Analogian Writing for the Webs. She’s interested in particular in the popularity of—and often the demand for—short-form writing. For every writer I know who’s taken to blogging and online essay-writing like a duck to water, there have been several who balked, at least initially, at the recent requirements for a writer not just to connect but to be connected. And not only writers, but academics, publishers, agents… there are choices to be made here. As Sonya puts it:

Strictly speaking, yes, the time I spend writing for online publication is time not spent writing my second novel; and yet it is still, for me, time spent nourishing my writing life. There is, it would seem—needs to be for most of us in this publishing environment—more to the writing life than manuscript word counts and book deals. One must be mindful of the stamina, and the supportive community, required for the long haul of long-form literary writing; which is, even in the case of relative “success,” increasingly divorced from a viable livelihood and voluminous readership. Being able to write and publish short-form work, on a somewhat regular basis, has energized me to keep showing up at my fiction desk.

Although she also notes that her fiction desk is actually a spiral-bound notebook in which she writes longhand—and this also seems to be a choice I see cropping up more and more. I know that I show up at classes with both a laptop and a paper notebook, and I still keep a bound Moleskine datebook which I use more, and in more detail, than my Google calendar. GalleyCat even offered up the idea of writing in longhand as a NaNoWriMo tip a couple of days ago.

So yes, there are many choices writers find themselves having to make on a daily basis that just weren’t on the table a few years ago. Sometimes I think it’s not the technology that makes so many people uncomfortable, but that constant deciding—not just what format fits, but how much of a good thing is too much?

That last one, I’ll admit, I’ve never been too good at. So I’d also like to point your attention to the last part of Sonya’s essay:

In September 2011, The Millions graciously allowed me a platform for highlighting a group of authors, and, perhaps more significantly, a varied way of looking at and engaging in the writing life — that of zig-zag paths, a slower pace, living multiple lives; and ultimately “succeeding,” one way or another, in one’s own good time. I am referring to the Post-40 Bloomers series, which I’ve been honored to write and edit over the past year.

In a few weeks, you’ll be hearing about Bloom— a new site, originating from “Post-40 Bloomers,” carrying on and expanding the series, with support from The Millions. Instead of monthly, you’ll read about a “Bloomer” weekly, along with other great features related to later-life blooming. So far, Bloom is scheduled to feature Donald Ray Pollock, Peter Ferry, Deborah Eisenberg, Bram Stoker, W.M. Spackman, Kate Chopin, Shannon Cain, Karl Marlantes, George Eliot, Samuel Richardson, Penelope Fitzgerald, Joseph Kanon, Pauline Chen… this exciting list goes on and on.

The irony of it all delights and humbles me. Bloom is about taking one’s time, sometimes off the beaten path. We’re claiming the technology of fast-and-instant and using it to talk about the many different ways of living, working, creating—fast, slow, direct, indirect, prolific, sparse.

I am honored to be part of Bloom as well. As the site’s senior writer, I’ll have a hand in some of this excellent material, and get to watch much of it come together at close range. Don’t worry—I won’t be abandoning my post at Like Fire. In fact, I imagine that some of the energy from Bloom and its excellent cast of writers and editors will feed this place, and make me a better blogger here. Again, it’s a decision—and not one I make lightly. But the right one, I think. I look forward to seeing you there, and a little more often here. On your own time, of course.

(Image from k_hargrav’s Flickr photostream.)

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2 Comments to Present Shock: On Ubiquity and Doing Things in One’s Own Time

  1. Karen T's Gravatar Karen T
    November 12, 2012 at 12:07 am | Permalink

    CONGRATULATIONS!! Bloom sounds great.

  2. nbm's Gravatar nbm
    November 12, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    It occurred to me while reading this that maybe the “short-form writing” that perhaps took time from, but also supported, major writing a century or two ago was the writing of letters.

    Time to nip over to Bloom for a look.

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