“In the even more congested times that await us, literature must aim at the maximum concentration of poetry and of thought.“
–Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium
Calvino’s lectures happened before Tim Berners Lee assembled the world wide web. So they do not anticipate particular forms or procedures but are meditations on how the writer might best humanly respond to the cumulative demands of the computer age.
There were established clues as to how the world was moving. In 1945, Vannevar Bush wrote, “new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified.”
In this Memex idea, Bush anticipated an “information explosion” in which knowledge would not only become abundant but be arranged so as to allow readers to make their own ways through narrative pathways that were neither linear or sequential.
What Berners Lee and Bush both had in common was a need for greater speed in accomplishing more complex science-based tasks. Quickness is number two in Calvino’s list of essential qualities to pack for the New Millenium.
Speed kills, they say. The speed of the interconnected web has certainly killed a few reputations. One thing I learned early on with Slugger, is that when you’re at the point of greatest danger when you’re on the sharp end of a quick breaking story.
Calvino’s primary advice is to festina lente, or hurry slowly. So that most of what is written on Slugger is of the moment, but the archives provide a contextual straight line that often seems to extend Slugger’s ongoing inquiry (into Northern Ireland) into infinity.
For some of us, this creates a jumping off point for an ongoing process of eliminative induction. However we deal with it, quickness is forced upon us because multimodal networks feed the responses of others back to us at a greater speed than was previously possible.
This, in turn, creates far greater room for spontaneity, which can give rise to judgements on our authenticity. The lack of it can out us as a phoney). The two go hand in hand with these faster feedback loops.
However, towards the end of Calvino’s second lecture, he tells this illustrative story…
Among Chuang-tzu’s many skills, he was an expert draftsman. the king asked him to draw a crab. Chuang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house, and twelve servants. Five years later the drawing was still not begun.
“I need another five years,” said Chuang-tzu. The king granted them. At the end of these ten years, Chuang-tzu took his brush up, and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen.
Not only is there is craft required, it is acquired over a long period of practice. In terms of the social arts, spontaneity brings something else to the party. JL Moreno, the father of psychodrama, was an early advocate for improvisation in theatre.
In Vienna in 1912 he attended a lecture by Freud, who singled him out asked him what he was doing:
‘Well, Dr. Freud, I start where you leave off. You meet people in the artificial setting of your office. I meet them on the street and in their homes, in their natural surroundings.
You analyze their dreams. I give them the courage to dream again. You analyze and tear them apart. I let them act out their conflicting roles and help them to put the parts back together again.'”
Audiences engage with social media, where and when they are. Instead of all eyes on the institution in a grand auditorium, it’s a theatre in the round where the audience sees your back, and easily cross communicates within its own organic self at lightning speed. The increased speed cannot be negotiated with. It’s part of the deal.
It often means that your audience can tell when you are not being straight with them. But on the other hand, far fewer people expect you to have all the answers ready. What excites people is the possibilities that meaningful partiticipation hold. The space where authority lies is shifting, from you out there to us in here.
From pure competition to collaboration based on the pursuit of common and meaningful objectives. Instead we see the bewildering circularity of Twitter (which has the same proximate scientific memory of water) and the increasingly shared misery of a series of Facebook echo chambers.
Instead, we need to marry the quickness of the net with the found and reflected social purposes of much larger networks of individuals using these new socialist neural networks to bring about….
…new thinking and/or a more in-depth understanding of a desired outcome, e.g. a solution to a problem, a definition of a shared process.
It also increases productivity and ownership of the outcome, results in fewer conflict and power struggles, promotes better decision making, and heightens creativity.
This willingness to confess professional or even institutional ignorance creates a useful space for playfulness and creativity. As my friend and colleague John Kellden often points out, “in a network, the best place to store knowledge is in other people..”
“It is this open activity, this dynamic blend of receptivity and creativity by which every animate organism necessarily orients itself to the world (and orients the world around itself), that we speak of by the term ‘perception’.”
— David Abram
NB: Thanks to John Kellden for his input and inspiration. On Saturday 28th April I’ll be working with a small group of between 6 and 12 writers in Derry by the Irish Writers Centre in an all-day public workshop at the Playhouse. Cost is a modest £/€25.
(Please do spread the word to anyone who you think would be interested.)
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty