The Last Word : Techno
Someone said that by the time he walks out of the computer store, he knows that his new purchase is already on the way to the trash heap of old technology. Like a rainbow we're always trying to catch, cutting edge technology moves away from us.
I remember when cell phones were first available to the general public. The first generation were the size of a desk telephone and had to be lugged around in a box with a strap like those old wind-up phones pictured in World War II movies. You half expected the user to be calling HQ. They were monstrously expensive. Ditto the first laptop. Does anyone remember Compaq? This was the size and weight of a loaded hard-sided suitcase. Within nanoseconds both of those technologies had been shrunk down to a manageable size, and, more importantly, they began to cost less.
Technology has, like with everything else in last 60 years, impacted the publishing industry. Last week I traipsed to New York to meet with my agent and my new editor. Inevitably, the subject of technology came up. For years I sent physical pages to my agent and to my editors. Every time I needed commentary on a chunk of a novel, I had to print down the pages in question, box them up, head to the local FedEx box, drop it in and then pray that I'd written the address down correctly, or not forgotten a crucial phone number. Then I'd wait. And wait. I thought of these interludes as vacation. Eventually a much-battered, well-traveled manuscript would come home, accompanied by pages of notes. The whole process took weeks.
Now I send my pages over the Internet - which doesn't always make the best presentation. In those long ago days of yore, I took real pride in producing a clean, proficiently typed manuscript. Now, with the vagaries of different word processing programs, my manuscript sometimes opens up with double spacing mixed around single spacing, my page numbers have disappeared and my indents are gone. Nonetheless, my editor prefers the email attachment to the bunged up manuscript in a box. To say nothing about how this magic has hastened the review process. No more vacation.
The newest bit of technology to hit the publishing industry is the e-book reader, e-books being the digital format of printed material. Kindle, which is the Amazon originated e-book reader, has replaced the manuscript. Although my agent and editor are still devoted to the printed page, their younger colleagues have embraced the e-book reader for one very good reason. Most of them are relatively low on the totem pole of publishing and have to carry around the slush pile. This way they can take five manuscripts home over the weekend and not hurt themselves. The authors' work is transferred to the readers electronically. One device, multiple manuscripts, no more back pain.
I confess that I am ambivalent about books being read on a reader as opposed to being held close to the heart. On the one hand, it gets more books into the hands of readers, but on the other, it's not really a book. I checked out Amazon and discovered the books available electronically are far less expensive than even the trade paperback versions, which as a consumer I can only applaud. At the moment the e-readers are priced around $350, but if a voracious reader pays only six bucks a download, it should pay for itself rather quickly. I guess one other benefit is that you can't lose your place should you drop the book, but I wonder how fragile the reader itself is. If I owned a Kindle, I could have my purchase from Amazon zapped to me in seconds. I wouldn't be in line at the post office waiting for my Amazon order. I wouldn't be chatting with acquaintances when I could be scrolling through digital pages. I couldn't thumb through a new book, crack the spine, and breath in that indescribable new book smell. Maybe I just haven't reached the point where my curiosity outweighs my "it was good enough for my ancestors, it's good enough for me" Luddite leanings.
I have ever been slow to embrace technology - with the exception of the word processor. I put off buying a cell phone until they became as ordinary an accessory as a pair of earrings; I didn't sign on to email until I realized that instant communication was an improvement over having to make a far more time-consuming phone call. Nowadays every business transaction requires a cell number and email address. And I wonder how we managed before, back when we could be out of touch.
iPods and digital cameras are quickly replacing the old technologies of records and film; we are now freed from the tyranny of having to sit in our homes to listen or waiting 10 days for film to be developed. With texting we can communicate constantly without actually having to speak. With ebooks we can have our heart's desire in literature at our fingertips instantly - without having to go to the bookstore or library. We assume that we are improving on our quality of life even as we speed it up. I'm not so sure. Sometimes I think that the invention of the telephone was the first step toward speeding up our lives so much we have destroyed the planet.
I know it's backward of me to disdain new technologies just because I haven't tried them. I am reminded of my mother, who scorns the idea of learning to use a computer much the same way I turn my nose up at texting. But I know that someday I'll embrace texting and the e-book, and wonder why it took me so long.