Andrew Losowsky & Ewan Morrison: Telling Tales In Modern Times

When nlp commissioned Scottish author Ewan Morrison & Andrew Losowsky of The Huffington Post to conduct an email debate on the merits, or otherwise, of our digitized age and the role of literature within it we expected a well informed exchange of opinion. We got no small degree of drama.

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Schumpeter to Skype: telling tales in modern times

The players:

  • Ewan Morrison A force in the Scottish literary scene. He has previous with nlp and his novels are published by Jonathan Cape/Vintage. He has also worked extensively as a scriptwriter and director in film and television and writes for the Guardian on cultural matters.
  • Andrew Losowsky Senior Books Editor of the Huffington Post, writer, multi layered creative being. “Books aren’t fighting digital any more. Instead, they’re adapting to remain unique” he declares. Fond of magazines and unusual book formats.

Act one:

Dear Ewan

We find ourselves at a curious moment in publishing history. For those of us with access to them, these digital, connected platforms have enabled the amount of content to near infinitely outstrip demand, as well as becoming near instantly downloadable, unlimited in supply, and available wherever we happen to be, 24 hours a day.

Yet it seems to me that we’re still feeling our way around these devices and how they change our relationship to information. Ebooks still have ‘pages’, copyright terms are stricter (and less applicable) than they were a century ago, DRM prevents our devices from doing what we all want them to do. Few writers are truly engaging these platforms and their possibilities.

What changes would you like to see around digital publishing in the next five years? Are you excited or disappointed about what is to come?

All best wishes

Andrew

Dear Andrew 

 

It’s hard to know what is going on beneath our feet, difficult to discern slow seismic shifts – and we are definitely living through such a period just now. We tend to focus on the tremors as they occur and the media pick up on them and debate them to death without seeing the larger picture. 

 

So it’s of help to step back and look for theorists of change. Joseph Schumpeter (8 February 1883 – 8 January 1950), advanced a theory of economics and culture that I find useful: Creative Destruction. His theory was that capitalism, as a seemingly unstoppable force, when unleashed, creates devastation with ways of life and job distinctions, only to create new ones. So for example, the invention of the lithographic printing press put tens of thousands of typesetters out of work. We are witnessing something of this just now as supermarkets put “corner shops” largely run by Indian or Pakistani families out of business. Other recent examples include the closure of many local pubs, as people can buy alcohol more cheaply in Tescos. This is the free market and it plays havoc with social patterns. 

 

Schumpeter’s thesis, which is an intriguing and compelling one, was that unfettered capitalism would end up undoing the connections that bind us. In the 1940s, he was already predicting something like the death of the high street and of social retail space, anticipating Tesco and Amazon home delivery. Every person stuck in a bubble, shopping online for the cheapest, most convenient commodity. The irony is that Schumpeter, a right winger and advocate of the free market, concluded his thesis on creative destruction by saying that a certain point would arrive when people would sense that they had lost their communal bond, their “social”, and that the family would be destroyed by capitalism – a thesis very close to that of most religions. At that point there would be a return to something like a planned or protected economy.

 

I say all this because I think that the “creative destruction”  of the publishing industry and the drive towards free content on the internet (after all, Amazon have pushed book prices down to historic lows and the net is forcing a massive reduction in the value of songs, of photos, of films through piracy and through the Creative Commons), might be that step too far, and one which people will step back from and say – hold on – we want our gatekeepers, we want to protect things of cultural worth.

 

Then again, I am being deliberately naïve. But do you agree that the digital revolution is a period of ‘Creative Destruction’ – one that will annihilate previously designated creative industries, job distinctions and life roles?

 

Maybe we are at one of Schumpeter’s earlier stages, like that which replaced the VHS with the DVD, maybe it is that banal. Or maybe all hell is about to be unleashed and everything cultural is about to be “for free”.

 

Your response please sir,

Ewan

 

Act Two:

Dear Ewan

There is no doubt that (at least for highly connected societies with reliable infrastructure) this is a period of creative destruction, and one whose pace of change is only increasing as Moore’s Law continues to apply. The shift to a near-unlimited supply of free, high-quality content, available through perfectly legal means, makes this transition far more significant than ‘VHS to DVD’.

Yet I don’t believe that all publishing will crumble in the face of available content.

Perhaps this is a good moment to decide what is worth saving. This brings me to two key questions:

–       Why do we need professional writers?

–       Will consumers value any form of content enough to pay for it, and if so, what?

Starting at the top, the value of someone earning money to hone their craft is, of course, a good thing for those who want to enjoy the results. However, the writing industry faces two problems. The first is that people will write and people will read, regardless of whether a financial transaction is involved. The second is that reading a one-hundred-year-old text is functionally the same as one that is a year old.

So while, on one level, writing could be analogized to sport (a small percentage makes it their career, the rest do it for pleasure regardless), the consumption of sports as a spectator is predicated on more culturally specific trends and technology. Watching a fifty-year-old recording of a football game on YouTube, no matter how classic the match, is almost unbearable to a modern audience, due to the nature of the commentary and the paucity of the camerawork. Video games too benefit from this – only die-hard nostalgics will actively look back. People pay because the advance of technology can demand a premium.

However, literature thrives on the conversation returning again and again to Dickens, Austen, Eliot and Melville. It makes for great cultural continuity, but a poor business choice in the long term. Contemporary professional authors are undercut not only by self-publishing but also out-of-copyright classics. (In fifty years, expect cinema to have the same problem.)

For a reader, this is fantastic. For a publisher, it is a threat. Personally, I’m generally on the side of the reader, but I do understand the value of high-quality publishing, making end products more fit for consumption. Alternatives will most likely increase in importance to try to fill that need without charging the end user or restricting access only to those who will pay a high premium. These include patronage, foundations, brand sponsorship, non-profit publishing.

So what will people pay for? Current technology trends suggest personalization – be it based on location, voice, technology, need. I don’t believe all publishing or writing will be influenced by these ideas. But I am intrigued to see what will emerge as a result.

Best,

Andrew

Andrew

 

You bring up “personalisation” of books. I find this very interesting and troubling.

The fact that you are “intrigued to see what will emerge as a result” smacks to me of technological determinism, as if there was no role for human subjects in determining and maybe limiting or changing this future.

 

I am not on the side of the reader because the reader has been taught to be a consumer. The consumer is an historical construct which can be undone. I believe there is a need for an avant garde and a space for experimentation beyond the confines of the market.

The various forms that you describe for funding literature are an historic regression. To give you an example the idea of personalised books runs counter to the enlightenment, to the invention of the printing press and mass availability. Let us not forget that the printing press was revolutionary. That it created the split in the church that led to Protestantism. What we are seeing with these customised books for the individual consumer (signed copies with personal messages to the reader and if you pay more you can have a Skype chat with the author, pay more still and you can meet him her for dinner), is essentially a movement backwards in time towards the book as illuminated manuscript, as unique artwork and a movement towards author as performing monkey. 

 

 

Cheers

Ewan

 

Intermission

 

(During which a prolonged hiatus in communication developed. Perhaps the conversation had ended? But then this arrived…)

Act Three:

 

Hey guys

 

To be honest, I think the digital debate is a fight that’s already been lost. Things have been moving at an incredible speed. I’ve nothing really to say on it anymore. I’m unplugging from the digital world, social media can comment on what it had for breakfast for all eternity for all I care. Anyone who wants to can write the internet void for free forever more, and who am I to stop them. The more of them wasting their time, the less competition I will have in ‘real media’. Thanks to the net, writing has become just another demonetised hive mind activity. I’m following the dying trail of the last of the monolithic old-media empire money and working in TV where I can get paid a decent union regulated wage. I’ll write books for pleasure.

 

Nothing really to debate there. Game over. I don’t want to engage in a debate with a pro-internet, pro-self publishing, pro-information revolution side. My only weapon here is refusal to communicate in a form which I will not legitimise. 

 

So I’m signing off from this debate. You can print this if you like.

Let’s stay in touch.

 

Ewan

Hi Ewan

 

I don’t fully recognize the net that you describe, although certainly there are many areas of it that fit the description. A medium can’t be generalized or dismissed by looking only at some of its usage, no matter how popular the lowest common denominators may be. There are some remarkable and interesting new forms, combining design, interactivity and narrative, that are beginning to emerge on digital platforms, whether in fiction (eg story app The Silent History) or non-fiction (such as iPad magazine Katachi). Perhaps even hive minds might produce something of value or worthy of serious debate (eg Wikipedia.)

Am I pro-self publishing? Yes. Am I pro-professional publishing? Yes as well. I don’t believe one threatens the other, except in forcing the latter to confront and remodel itself in reaction to the former. And there will still be life – and money – left in print publishing for some time to come.

I also am somewhat optimistic that new models will create ways of earning living wages among these new platforms, just not in the ways to which we’ve become accustomed. We’re in the early days of figuring that out, though Jaron Lanier has a few ideas, spelled out in his new book Who Owns The Future?, that seem to be getting some traction.

I wish you luck with all of your projects, in every medium you explore.

Andrew

End

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