Bill Keller Twits (Plus, Worst Ever!)

New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, in this weekend's Sunday Magazine, submits his contribution to the genre of Stupid Ruminations About Computers Making Us Stupid. A hint: if you find yourself typing the phrase "I don't think I'm a Luddite," your essay is almost certainly in that category.

I don't want to be too harsh; we have all been down that road at one time or another, in conversation if not in print. And Keller's is far from the worst offender. (see below)

But I do want to point out one central inanity. Keller writes:

As a kind of masochistic experiment, the other day I tweeted “#TwitterMakesYouStupid. Discuss.” It produced a few flashes of wit (“Give a little credit to our public schools!”); a couple of earnestly obvious points (“Depends who you follow”); some understandable speculation that my account had been hacked by a troll; a message from my wife (“I don’t know if Twitter makes you stupid, but it’s making you late for dinner. Come home!”); and an awful lot of nyah-nyah-nyah (“Um, wrong.” “Nuh-uh!!”). Almost everyone who had anything profound to say in response to my little provocation chose to say it outside Twitter.  

So what happened here is that, thanks to social media, with very little effort -- comically little effort, in fact -- Keller was able to get "profound" observations on the topic of his ruminations, most likely from people he does not know and would never have otherwise interacted with. This sounds an awful lot like a stellar success story to me. He seems to think that doesn't count for some reason, because those thoughts didn't arrive in 140-character bursts. Whatevs.

Anyway, for pure enjoyment, I went back and reread the actual worst offender in this well-travelled literary genre, and was pleased to find that it still holds up, 15 years later, as the Single Stupidest Rumination About Computers Making Us Stupid.

The article is "Virtual Grub Street: Sorrows of a multimedia hack," by Paul Roberts, in the June 1996 Harper's Magazine. I highly recommend the entire 6000-word essay, which you would swear was a joke of some kind to see whether anyone at the prestigious publication would, at some point, realize that the whole thing made no sense whatsoever.

You see, Roberts was a serious journalist who, for monetary gain, switched to freelance writing of short entries for CD-ROM encyclopedias. He soon discovered that writing one-paragraph summations of Mozart's life is very different from "writing long, earnest articles about spotted owls [and] riparian buffer zones" for environmental magazines. Instead of the proper response -- "well, duh" -- Roberts penned this magnificent opus blaming it all on the new "multimedia writing." Curiously, he thinks "multimedia writing" does not mean writing that incorporates multiple forms of media, but writing that can be tagged with hypertext linking. But when you really get down to it, what he means is writing condensed-desk-encyclopedia blurbs; absolutely nothing he says has anything to do with the material ending up in digital rather than print form -- or hasn't been true of such writing for centuries. Anyway, here is a taste of the magnificent result.

Nowadays, whole months go by when I do nothing but crank out info-nuggets on whatever topics the multimedia companies believe will sell: dead composers, large African mammals, sports stars of yore. It is, without question, hack writing, the kind of pap (I used to think) only the feckless and unprincipled had the nerve or need to take.... The truth is that multimedia writers needn't worry about a great many things. We get our assignments, write our texts, and some months later, a shiny disc wrapped in an inordinate amount of packaging hits the shelves at Egghead or Waldenbooks. No one expects us to understand or care what happens to our texts in the interim, because writers are mere cogs in the multimedia machine. We're never asked to generate story ideas and pitch them to editors. We needn't concern ourselves with story structure, or themes, or any of the other, more celebrated elements of traditional writing.... Questions traditional writers might agonize over for hours or days -- lead paragraphs, say, or transitions – have been rendered moot by the peculiarities of the nonlinear narrative. What remains for CD-ROM writers isn't so much writing as tailoring; tucking specified content into a specified space.... It's a strange way to write. Strange, too, to see how easily the brain shifts from the extended symphonic rhythms of a longer article to the staccato jingle of the 100-word blurb.... Squirting out blurbs is a cakewalk, a lower-order process managed, I'm sure, by the same lobe that handles heart rate and knitting…. 

From a distance, a multimedia text looks exactly like a paragraph plucked from a standard linear narrative. But closer inspection reveals important differences. In "normal" writing, the writer uses the paragraph as a bridge between specific points. Not so with the multimedia text block. Each blurb must, almost by definition, carry out its minimal literary function in virtual independence from the rest of the story. If I'm writing multimedia Text A, for example, I can assume no specific prior knowledge on the part of the reader, because he or she may be arriving at Text A from any of a number of previous texts. Similarly, I can't use Text A to set up Text B, because the reader may be bouncing to any number of Text Bs. For that matter, I can't even infuse Text A with a meaning or sentiment that is essential to the reader's understanding of, or pleasure in, the larger narrative, because the reader, as narrative boss, may skip Text A entirely. The style of the multimedia text, if you want to call it a style, is one of expendability.


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