Friday 29 January 2010

Thoughts on Surviving This Digital Revolution

On the launch of the iPad, some thoughts on how tools are driving content and an interview with Melvin Burgess about his Twitter Tales

If you can't see this video, watch it on YouTube.Thanks Jeannette Towey for posting this on FB

"Over 10 years we have lived through a revolution." Ed King head of the British Library's newspaper archive
When Ed King said this, he was referring to the digitisation of his archives. But it's so true in everything that we do - from reading a book to booking a plane ticket. Our lives have been transformed by technology.

With the launch of the iPad, the blogosphere is buzzing with people who want to declare how much they love it or hate it.

The iPad is yet another step into a Tomorrow that we are only just beginning to imagine.

It fascinates me that a gadget like the iPad is predicted to transform the world of story and reading.

Through the ages, tools have dictated the development of content: the printing press led to books, the zoopraxiscope led to movies, the camera to photography, and so on.

From Wikipedia under Creative Commons License

But it's important to remember that the tool is nothing without the content it provides. And as authors, who are the creators of content, it is our role to shape the future that these tools are set to deliver.

Some are already experimenting with the new media available - the Japanese download text novels on their mobile phones, today I heard about augmented reality picture books, and authors like Kathleen Duey are experimenting with twitter novels and short stories (an aside: this is not new media, but has anyone listened to the BBC's Out Loud archive of poets performing their own work? Brilliant!) ...

Deep Love, the first ever cell phone novel

I've been following the Twitter short stories that author Melvin Burgess (my review of his book Nicholas Dane here) has been posting.

Melvin Burgess. Photo by John Coombes

They are odd, poetic and strangely affecting. Melvin says they are "not to everyone's taste" but there's something compelling about them.
I was just mucking around – trying out Twitter and wondering what tweets were. Of course, all a tweet is, is a not-too-long sentence – but I was thinking of them of having some particular quality to them. Then one day I came up with the sentence – You're pushing a pram down the road. An old lady looks inside and says fearfully, "Your babies are not human."

It reminded me of something I used to do years ago, while I was learning how to write – I’d sit down in the morning and just launch off with a sentence – anything, like they used to make us do in school – and just see how it went. So I thought I’d try the same thing here. That was the first twitter story, The Dancer. I’ve kept it up because the results are surprising and interesting – and because after writing novels for so many years, it’s a real reliefe to do something that can just take me wherever it wants to go. It’s fun.
I think the Twitter Tales are exciting (and surprising is a really good word for it)... but since I don't like to stay connected to Twitter all the time, I have to go back to his website to catch up. Says Melvin:
Twitter is bad place to post stories because they go up backwards and people find it difficult to keep up with them. I think a lot of people, like you, went to the website to catch up, so lately I’ve been trying posting links on my website. It makes them easier to read, but I don’t think it gets so many people’s attention.
Indeed it's very tempting to explore these new forms. When I first heard about Japanese text novels I was sorely tempted to try and write one. It's funny how the limitations of a form seems to promise endless possibility! It would be, as Melvin says, Good Fun (if, that is, you like to write).
Various people do story telling on twitter – many try to make a story out of a single tweet, which is another thing altogether. I’m not aware of anyone doing exactly the same thing though. And yes, it certainly is satisfying – I love it. I’d really recommend it to anyone who likes to write – it’s a really liberating way to work. So far, most of them have turned out kind of OK, but I’d be quite happy to ditch one if it turned out duff. No pressure – good fun. And the fact that you do it one sentence at a time makes it easy to write, somehow.
There is a poetic quality to the stories ... like a novel in Haiku form. Says Melvin:
I do like the final product, although I think they still need a bit more work. One day I’ll go through the best of them and polish them up, As for story I  like this as a form – well, maybe it’ll turn out to be something, I’m not sure. It is, as you say, poetic – a kind of free form narrative poetry, in a way. Whether or not it’ll catch on is another matter, but one, day, I’m sure I’ll use them for something. Maybe I’ll get them set up as Apps for iPhone or something like that …
Funny, that. I've been researching how to produce freebies for punters to download on my site ... all those picture books I've written that nobody seems to want to publish - I want to produce little e-books to give away to be read on mobile phones and Gameboys. But it's a bit beyond my technical ability (for now).

I asked Melvin what his Twitter short stories are telling us about technology and its impact on culture.
It isn’t just Twitter – everyone is running around trying to find out how they can use new media to tell stories. It’s an exciting area because no one knows how it will turn out. I did a TV and online project for BBC Switch a while ago called The Well, that had a big online element – a game in which new areas of drama were hidden. That was interesting too. The programme maker, Conker Media, is very much at the forefront of using new media for broadcast and online and I hope to do more with them. It’s something every writer should keep an eye on.
Still from The Well

Screenshot from The Well game

It's a brave new world out there for authors. What's next?
Who knows? I hav a couple of online projects I’m having meetings to develop next month. There’s possibility as well that we might try to film one or two of the twitter tales. Interesting times we live in!
Interesting times indeed.

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