Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Muse In the Machine: The Writer's Relationship with Technology

Thirty-thousand years ago, an early creative artist painted stories on the walls of Chauvet caves in France. The available technology affected the story. With no film or written language, the muse spoke through hand prints, animal paintings, tripled images to evoke movement, and the shape of the cave rock itself. Visual images necessitated the development of metaphor to reach for abstract concepts. Collaboration happened over hundreds, even thousands of years. The risk involved included the threat of maulings by bears or death by rock slides.

As spoken language evolved in complexity, the muse, no longer bound by visual images, could enter more and more abstract terrain. Ballads, epic poems, the shared memories of entire cultures - all became her playground. The oral tradition was a collaboration of the community, ever shifting and changing, and utterly ephemeral. There was no "final copy." There was rarely an "author." Intellectual property was a foreign concept. Plots and characters were shared freely from one creative artist to the next, albeit dressed in ever-changing robes. The audience was always a community, rarely if ever a solitary individual, and their reaction - love it or hate it - could be gauged immediately because the writer was the performer.

As civilization advanced, so did the writer's technology. Human beings could imprint stories onto stone tablets using written language. Lengthy tomes required a commitment we can only imagine. Yet, entire epic poems survived intact from this age. But written language had to be learned and taught. Enter the gatekeepers, determining which stories would survive to be shared with communities not yet born.

In the Middle Ages, the gatekeepers became protectors, guarding the efforts of past writers from the desecration of the small-minded and honoring the sacred side of the muse, copying works in the hope that the audience might grow.

The printing press. BAM!! The muse engages with the masses on a scale unheard of in the past. The power to preserve thought for the future is popularized as never before. The size of audience to be reached explodes. And the gatekeepers become those who own this new and powerful technology, for they can now determine how many copies exist, how soon they are made, what they look like, how much they cost.

And now the digital age. Like an A-list celebrity, the muse is being mobbed from all sides. Anyone and everyone has a forum. The communal creative energy of the oral tradition has combined with the preservative power of the written word and the popularizing capacity of mass production on an unprecedented level. Written, visual and oral storytelling can coexist and commingle in new ways. The role of the gatekeeper is transforming and mutating daily.

What will be the latest progeny in the tempestuous love affair of muse and machine, writer and technology? When everyone has a forum, can the audience hear anymore? When everyone is artist, performer, and gatekeeper, who is left? Will this new age foster interaction and creation or narcissism? What will survive to the future when all is said and done? What will the next age be?

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