This post is the third of seven posts about the future. Caveat lector.
I think it was only during the second Lord of the Rings film, The Two Towers, that it hit me. Hang on: I remember this. I remember not liking this.
Like so many others, I was excited by the prospect of the LOTR films. I loved LOTR! I was one of those quite geeky but smart kids who revelled in that imaginary, epic world. I’d read the books several times. It wasn’t until the above moment that I realised I had made this up.
Somewhere between reading the books and reaching my twenties, I had convinced myself that I was the sort of person who liked LOTR, who had read it as a kid, and again as a teenager. Convinced myself utterly. It took the buttock-numbing horror of Sam and Frodo’s long march to remind me that I hated Tolkien almost as much as I hated CS Lewis, and I needed to get out now—and bin the expensive set of LOTR hardbacks I’d recently bought and never opened.
The same impulse can be seen in the endless lies we tell others about ourselves, half-believing them. As a vegetarian (uncaring, unsentimental), I get this from carnivores all the time, it’s oddly pervasive. “Oh, we don’t eat much meat at home.” “I could give up meat.” “I’m almost vegetarian.”
“I don’t watch much TV” is the other one, when you tell people you don’t have a TV. (I don’t have a TV. I watch a bit of TV on the internet. I lie about how much. I’m lying now.)
The most offensive one: “I’d much rather shop at a little local shop.” Bullshit. If you did, there would be no Tescos. But you campaign against it and you petition the council and when it opens you shop there anyway and the little shops die, and you justify it because it’s there now, but that is precisely when action should be taken.
This willful lying to oneself is everywhere; it is particularly evident in attitudes to the future.
Everyone in publishing: “Ebooks will never catch on.” And in the same breath: “but I love my Kindle. It’s so useful for reading manuscripts/reports/whatever.”
Shmuel, a Flickr user and copywriter, put together this excellent bingo card of lies publishers tell themselves, willfully or not. The Ur-comment is at bottom right: “Evidence that doesn’t fit my beliefs is wrong.” What is extraordinary is that this continues even when we ourselves are generating the evidence, when we are our own exceptions.
We prejudge endlessly. Because we have not experienced the emotions that new technologies trigger we assume that they will be less powerful than the emotions we already know. Just because we haven’t had these feelings yet. I love books. But I know that ereading will inspire a whole new range of responses to the written word and I want these too (I am trying to collect them).
I am not saying this is easy. Bill Drummond again:
“Recorded music has run its course. It’s been mined out. It is so 20th Century, like proper money and fossil fuels. Maybe we have the internet to partly thank for this, like we have so much else to thank it for. It has helped speed things up, turning recorded music into this dated thing, like what happened to the German mark during the Weimar republic.” — The17, p.22
“Trying to explain why I think recorded music is in the process of becoming as dated as mosaic or pottery is pretty difficult when for most of us recorded music is the form of artistic communication that has had the most emotional impact on our lives.” — The17, p.145
I have to confess too, to stop lying.
I don’t read like I used to—although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I rarely finish books. I’ve always had a habit of abandoning novels 50-100 pages before the end. I don’t know why, I’ve always done that. I think I’m doing it more and I don’t mind because I think my critical senses have improved and by eradicating book guilt I’ve reached a point where I am happy to cast things aside. I read 5, 10 books at once. I read them on paper and electronically as the mood takes me.
I read with continuous partial attention and I don’t care that I am frequently interrupting my own reading. I despise the discourse that says we are all shallow, that we are all flighty, distracted, not paying attention. I am paying attention, but I am paying attention to everything, and even if my knowledge is fragmented and hard to synthesise it is wider, and it plays in a vaster sphere, than any knowledge that has gone before.
I go through cycles of belief about the future of writing, of publishing, of the written word. But too much is broken to continue to pretend that the models we have become used to, the models of sales and distribution, of composition and recompense, of form and style, of reading and attention, can stagger on much longer.
This is the world we are living in and we can either lie to ourselves about it or we can dive headlong into the new forms and effects that it produces.