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Finding A Sense Of Normalcy As We Write About Technology

Writing is timeless. Kind of. In contemporary fiction writing that I enjoy—and that I write—the goal is to appear both present yet timeless. Saying something like “I Tweeted my friend.” or “I Liked the comment.” feels clunky and awkward, a reminder that some of the things we do are indeed steeped in today and inherently meaningless.

The issue is that that there is no other way to express these acts outside of what companies like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. have articulated. When you say you “Liked something,” you pushed the Like button. It’s difficult to differentiate literal liking from technologic, media Liking.

The only work that bypasses the problem was the brilliant A Little Life although that book maybe cut out technology to a fault. You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine and Dark Matter have fared better too. Yet, poetry like Ben Fama’s Fantasy and nonfiction like Teju Cole’s Known And Strange Things fail this test horribly. Perhaps the item that is lost in translation is going from reading these works online, on a tech device, to reading a physical book where the words “Facebook” and “iPhone” feel like farts within beautiful paragraphs. There is a tense discomfort akin to chewing on aluminum foil.

Will we ever solve this problem? I, personally, don’t think so. This is something we’re working through. We live in a very dug-in time, where markers of our everyday are so definitive of now. It’s impossible for Tweeting to be timeless: it’s only been around for a decade of our thousands of years of existence and is constantly teetering on disappearance. Just look at MySpace. These things go away, are forgotten.

I had this debate recently at a book club where friends were much more positive in this regard, relating the matter to writing about cars in the past or navigating understandings of things like weapons in older texts. Sure. I suppose. What is different is that the ubiquity of these past items have yet to realize themselves in regards to social media. Using a computer is somewhat timeless, sure, but Liking a status is not. Therein lies this problem.

The problems here is in the explaining. Yes, we all—Now.—know about these subjects but in future decades, in future lives, will they understand that Snapchat was a flash-in-the-pan trend to send fleeting photos of yourself? Probably not. It will be a footnote in tech history gone unstudied as ancient communication in a blip. I’m all for logging history, sure, but we mustn’t steep our writing in explanation nor should we lose it under the weight of assumed, stupid tech jargon we didn’t create.

Wired contributor Quin Norton recently shared thoughts on this subject and they’re quite illuminating.

We often fall into a trap: if we make net life just like real life, we can write about it! But net life is real life. It deserves its own aesthetic of language, and it only suffers the paucities it’s accused of when clumsily translated to our old ways of being in the world.

And if ever we needed evidence, it is this: when it steps back into real life it brings its strange back with it. These are examples of graffiti from the Egyptian revolution, they are values of an incorporeal world, made corporeal, to the great disruption of accepted political structures. This is the Polish parliament, taking on the momentary identity of a 4chan based non-group that first materialized four years earlier to harass the Church of Scientology, to protest an intellectual property treaty. These protests eventually destroyed the international treaty, and no one really knows how it happened.

That is my hangup: we’re zooming too far in on the now to be able to see now. If “net life is real life,” how do we express reality in a timeless manner? If real life is the through line of time, how do we make then-and-still-to-come people “understand” an experience? If communication is at the root, how do we communicate?

I have no answer to this problem. I have a lot of critiques. I have a lot of gripes. But I don’t have a lot of answers. I do think we should leave tech literature and how-to guides to explain present tech related communication and instead talk rather than talk about how we talk.

Should all this technical business be in our nonfiction and fiction? I don’t think so. If we exist independent of our technology, we should act like it. Otherwise, we’ll sound like the children that we critique for being too obsessed with their phones.

I’ll leave you with Norton’s summation of this, which is exactly how I feel about the subject sometimes.

We are defeated. We are stuck with facial expressions at a monitor, the little clicking and tapping of prone hands, maybe if we’re daring, even a description of the screen. We are further cursed by the fact and an insurance adjuster could very well be penning a love letter while making her own pepper spray cop. As writers and artists our literal tools are not only locked out of the loop between humans and their computers, but distantly removed from the drama of their networks.

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