Journalism

Industry Standard

March 10th, 2003

In 1439 Johann Gutenberg took on an apprentice to help him produce a book on his new printing press. Twenty copies of Ovid’s Metamorphosis were carefully run off and left to dry before being bound in vellum. The apprentice was a forger by trade, and Gutenberg had employed him for his quick mind and light hands. As the apprentice painstakingly changed the type page by page, he asked Gutenberg how anyone would be able to tell which of the Ovids was the original. Gutenberg was baffled. He tried to explain that the books were identical – that any number of them could be produced, all original and all copies. His apprentice grew heated. Did Gutenberg take him for a fool? There was always an original, and afterwards copies, and no doubt forgeries, that was how the market worked.

The more Gutenberg tried to explain, the angrier the apprentice became. If all these books were equally valuable, all were equally worthless. Why not throw in a piece of the True Cross or a shard of the Madonna’s fingernails? The trade in fakes was buoyant. Gutenberg could make his fortune if only he would be sensible and stop telling his customers that he could print any number of Ovids.

Of course, Gutenberg didn’t make his fortune, he went bankrupt. The eight Bibles seized from his workshop were sold off as art objects, not as prototypes of mass production.

What the story illustrates is two completely different ways of thinking. Gutenberg knows that what he’s doing will change the future. His apprentice can only understand the new invention in terms of the past.

It’s a common error. We describe the world to ourselves by means of what we already know. Any new situation or new experience is explained by analogy to something that’s already there. This is how children learn, interpreting life though cross-reference, rapidly expanding their file of useful templates. The value of education is to provide us with as many of these templates as possible – not just knowledge as in facts and figures, but a method of interpretation that includes much more than facts and figures. This is particularly important now that we know that the hard-wiring of the brain is completed by the age of seven. After that, our tastes, enthusiasms, prejudices, indeed our whole working model of the universe, is in place. The only way past this is to keep challenging the brain’s assumptions. Education begins where evolution ends.

The error in this winning combination of neurological programming and human endeavour is to believe that it is enough. In most circumstances it is, but when the big things happen, everything we think we know has to be re-ordered. When the big things happen, even the cleverest of us, the most sophisticated, start gibbering away like Gutenberg’s apprentice, either denying the enormity of the change, or using a language – and therefore a way of thinking – that has already been outdated by what we are trying to describe.

Right now this is true of the Internet.

Every week I meet people who tell me that the Internet will make no difference to our lives in the long run. These are the types who were particularly pleased when the NASDAQ crashed. Every time there is another dot com fatality – Boo or Boxman – or Lastminute loses yet more of its stock value, they rub their hands together like an undertaker waiting for the phone to ring. There are quite a number of writers, agents and publishers in this unofficial union, as I discovered when I tried to get support for a collective action against Mark Hogarth, a Cambridge academic who had registered the names of one hundred and thirty authors.

It is true that I wanted to set up my own website and none of the others did, but it was a bit of a shock to find that world-class writers like Martin Amis, Louis de Bernieres, Sebastian Faulks, even Robert Carrier, who has more media- nous than most, were completely uninterested in their domain names. Joanna Trollope, who is a charming and intelligent woman, wrote me a nice letter to say that she too thought cyber-squatting the business of the modern highwayman, but it was not worth spending time or money on the matter. Her agents, Peters Fraser and Dunlop, agreed. Meanwhile, the academic had flagged an auction in Newsweek and was planning to sell the names to ‘authors, agents and speculators.’ His going rate was between £30-50,000.

For years now, I have had my contracts drawn up by the IP lawyers, Bird and Bird, and on their advice I lodged an ICANN complaint against Hogarth. Our case hinged on whether an individual could establish common law trademark rights in their own name. No such case had been tried before, although a number of celebrity suits were pending. My lawyers and I were hoping that the Julia Roberts decision would come in first, but this was delayed, and suddenly I was going to be the benchmark decision. On May 23rd, 2000, the independent counsel appointed by the World Intellectual Property Organisation, found in my favour and Hogarth was ordered to hand back the domain. As Frances Gurry, legal head of WIPO put it, ‘The Jeanette Winterson case is a ground breaker.’

You might think, after this solo effort, that the other writers on Hogarth’s hit list would have rushed out to reclaim their names. Not so. The attitude towards the Internet among the majority of well-known writers is one of rather superior apathy.

Why should this be so? To put it bluntly it is a mixture of ignorance and fear. David Mamet has claimed that the Web marks the end of culture. V.S. Naipaul rails against the dumbing down of just about everything – from Oxford University to the BBC, and in part blames the computer age. There is nothing new in this sort of fulminating – it happened when the telephone was invented and we were warned that the art of letter writing would wither away. It happened to poor Gutenberg whose printing revolution was viewed either as worthless or as Satanic – the Ottoman empire did not allow books to be printed until the seventeenth century – the Pope condemned the printing press as the evil technology behind Luther’s Reformation. Even now, devil-free as we think we are, media pundits who should know better, describe the Net in apocalyptic language. When it has wrecked world economies with fool’s gold, it will wreck civilisation.

What are we to make of all this?

The answer, I think, lies in those templates of experience. Anything really new, really different, isn’t conceived out of what’s there, but out of what’s not there. We all know the stories of Archimedes leaping out of his bath, Newton and his apple, Harrison and his clocks, Einstein and his strange vision in the Alps, James Lovelock dreaming one night that the earth should be understood as a living organism and not as a solid belch of minerals and gas. Call it lateral thinking, call it a vision, or inspiration, it cannot be justified by an appeal to common sense. Common sense did not help Alan Turing crack the Enigma code. Genius did.

I am convinced by the genius of the Internet. I am convinced that it will transform all our lives, and for the better. It is human beings, not their inventions, who do good or ill to the race and the planet. How we use our tools is what matters, and this is a moral question which cannot be answered by pointing to any one thing – say nuclear power or Internet technology or digital TV – and blaming it for our current problems. The Net doesn’t force us into becoming a twenty-four hour society of misfits and workaholics any more than it threatens reading, love-making, conversation or family life. Nobody needs to answer their emails in the middle of the night and the kind of person who does that would just as surely be lying awake worrying about tomorrow’s board meeting, or cleaning out the fridge.

Writers who find Internet technology boring or sinister, usually point to its language as an example of its barbarism. This is just wrongheaded, when the Net is responsible for an amazing number of neologisms and coinages – exactly the kind of freshness that language needs. I love treeware (written manuals) meatspace, (the world not the web) webspace, navigational mode (my up days) crash mode (my down days), quicktime, realtime, hard drive, mouse prints, not to mention how ‘virtual’ has become part of our lives and the way ‘e’ has become a new vocabulary tool.

In my recent novel, The PowerBook, I used Navigation for chapter headings such as Open Hard Drive, Special, Quit, Really Quit? Restart, Save, etc. I used them as they would be commonly understood and also as imaginative vantage points for the themes of the book, which explores what it means to be a carbon-based human in a silicon world.

This is the real challenge of our time. When people ask me if the book is a gimmick or if it could have been written in a different way – say without the e-mails or the webspace – I have to say no. The Internet is here, and if creative people don’t get involved in shaping it and interpreting it, then it really will become the soulless, faceless, dehumanising system it’s caricatured to be. In any case, my creativity is fed from the creativity of others, and just now, the Net is one of the most exciting places to be.

In the early twentieth century when the camera was coming into popular use, landscape and portrait painters complained that it was going to put them out of business. Who would want a brush likeness when it could be done easily accurately and cheaply with a camera? Picasso had a different view. He believed that the camera freed up painting from the obligations of representation. The painter would be free to be a poet.

I feel the same about movies and TV. They free up the novel from too much reality. Writers can use their fiction to explore the strange intersection between reality and imagination, between virtual worlds and material worlds, which is just what is needed now, when the technology impacting on all our lives is positioned right on that curious borderland of matter and dream.

That borderland has always been art’s territory. Real writers, painters, musicians, (not the jobbers), take us through the everyday seeming-solid world into a limitless space where, for a time, we are freed from the problems of gravity. This is not art as consolation, it is art as confrontation – we understand our own smallness by suddenly becoming as huge as the picture, the opera, the world of the book. When that happens, the usual templates we live by become irrelevant. Our little universe grows a tiny bit bigger. We see past our own shadow.

I want to see past my own shadow. I don’t want to interpret the world only by means of what I know. Internet technology is a new kind of language and a new kind of thinking, for an artist that is incredibly exciting – or should be. If we are seeing the end of one kind of culture – say the word culture of the book – then we will be part of the beginning of a different kind of culture, probably interactive and multi-media. This doesn’t worry me, art is communication, and the Net is a fabulous communicating tool.

It is also a creative tool, and those who complain that the Internet will kill the book, do not recognise that there is no murder, only a transformation of the book, both as artifact and as idea.

There is no need to assume that standards will fall, and new dark ages will descend upon us. We can make of the Internet what we will. The future is up to us. The trick is not to take an analogue mind into a digital world.

The Industry Standard 2000.