Two sides to every hyperlink

Opinion by Dr Sue Gillett

For the pre-internet fiction writer, with imagination as staple source of material, it was possible, theoretically, to proceed from the first written word to the last without needing to leave the desk.

This was not the case for the non-fiction writer. Being obliged to represent what really happened, they had to track down and cross-check the facts, winnowing these carefully from the multitudinous different versions, the red herrings, and the downright falsehoods.

If my hypothetical pre-internet non-fiction and fiction writers had automatic step-counters strapped to their ankles, I'd be putting my money on the non-fiction writer to take out the prize for the greatest distance travelled.

Today, however, the result would be a tie. The new non-fiction writer, with the help of Wi-Fi or broadband, can cover as many information miles as the writer of fiction can roam in imagination, without taking a step.

Let your cursor do the walking

So what happens to all the time that is saved by staying at home instead of walking to the library? Is it spent meandering in the labyrinthine circuitry of the internet, seeking or evading content? Or is it more time available than ever before for the exercising of creative ambition?

Either way, with time on her side and a global library in her pocket, the non-fiction writer has never been closer, potentially, to her story-spinning cousin. As author Ander Monson writes, the internet has trapped us all, collectively, in its powerful, metaphorical pull:

Living now, being blasted by tweets, all these little narratives, is to experience the past. I mean the distant, darkened past: the labyrinth, the one built by Daedalus to house the Minotaur [a dangerous, mythical beast that was a threat to all who entered its labyrinth]. I can't think of a more potent symbol of our collective daily experience: trying to find the line of ascent in a wall of information; the trail of URLs I click through in my morning's misinforming.

Two sides to every hyperlink

 Ask anyone how the internet has changed the way they write and it is more than likely that the first words they reach for will be - fast, instant, accessible, easy, at my fingertips, blog, updates. They might also throw in words like fun, sharing, friends, chat, surf, browse, scroll. Less enthusiastic respondents might pepper their answers with qualifiers and complaints – overwhelming, distracting, time-wasting, full of crap, narcissistic, shallow, overload.

Depending on your disposition or mood – in particular your openness to accident and surprise, your navigational aptitude, and your reaction to getting lost in a maze – the chronically propulsive (and compulsive) nature of the internet can be experienced as creative, stimulating, inviting, liberating; or, crowded, noisy, vertiginous, paralysing.

When we factor in the exposure to an extended audience that writing for the internet provides, the responses tend to split further between those who leap at the opportunity to be read by anonymous, far-flung audiences – blogging has been the catalyst for many a diarist and private scribbler to become a self-published non-fiction writer – and those who, foreseeing stalkers, identity-thieves and scammers, cling to their privacy.

Between these extremes are writers such as Roxane Gay who consider and measure the risks before:

More carefully [thinking] about what I say, and when and how I say it, because I don't want to mindlessly contribute to the void.

Online, almost anyone has access to disclosed intimacies … The vulnerability of on-line exposure is infinite. Then internet is as permanent as it is ephemeral. Everything is archived somewhere, lurking. My disclosures won't go out of print. They will never be truly erased.

Quilters, sleuths, tools and pancakes

At best, the internet can be a constantly renewing source of ideas for those writers who, like crafty quilters, can happily pick and choose, thieve and reassemble scraps of fabric in new designs. The analogy is especially apt for the creative non-fiction writing performed by memoirists who must work with the unstable information supplied by memory, conversation, uncategorised fragments.

At its worst, however, the internet can be a mess of unfiltered, unordered and unverified information, making it all too easy for the gullible and innocent to be duped by untruths masquerading as the real thing. As Ryan Wittingslow writes:

greater ease of both creation and transmission means it is easier to spread information that is spurious, misleading or just plain incorrect … The signal-to-noise ratio has suffered in favour of the latter.

While the scale of "noise" is unprecedented (in terms of speed, volume and reach), the activity of separating truth from lies, fact from fiction and honesty from deception, is a perennial one. It takes a cautious, vigilant turn of mind to routinely regard information as guilty until proven otherwise. The trouble is that this sceptical approach doesn't come naturally to most people. We're hard-wired to trust, to believe what we read.

Perhaps the writer of non-fiction, like a sleuth or a scientist, is more experienced at being suspicious of appearances than the rest of us. The internet might throw up information willy-nilly, but for the writer accustomed to trawling through remote archives and hunting down arcane footnotes, the twisting trails through cyberspace present only a variation on a familiar practice.

More ominously, some writers speculate that the internet is not only affecting our habits of research and writing, but changing the fundamental nature of the human self along with society. In the 1960s Marshall McLuhan told us that the medium was the message. Harvard sociology professor Daniel Bell followed in 1973 with his technologically determinist thesis about the social consequences flowing from the invention of the microchip.

Expanding on Daniel Bell's formulation of "intellectual technologies" – tools that extend a human being's mental abilities – American writer Nicolas Carr writes:

The process of adapting to new intellectual technologies is reflected in the changing metaphors we use to explain ourselves to ourselves. When the mechanical clock arrived, people began thinking of their brains as operating "like clockwork." Today, in the age of software, we have come to think of them as operating "like computers."

Playwright Richard Foreman has a related anxiety:

… today, I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self – evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the "instantly available." A new self that needs to contain less and less of an inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance as we all become "pancake people" – spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.

If McLuhan, Bell, Carr and Foreman are on the right track, then neither sleuthing nor quilting may be enough to save us – as writers or as readers – from the dark side of the internet.

Ways of looking

This is a rather gloomy conclusion, I concede, so I shall give the last word to a American Charles Yu, author of How to live safely in a science fictional universe: a novel (2010):

Just as we learned how to look at paintings, so too have we developed ways of looking and being in cyberspace. We're trying to understand a metaphor that exploded into the world, one that we inhabit. That's what we're grappling with. We're trying to draw maps of unchartered invisible territories. Put that way – as a cartography of psychological terrain – it sounds like a familiar exercise, like a decent definition of what it means to be a fiction writer.

It probably takes a writer to be able to see the internet as a metaphor - which is not to deny its real existence and its real effects. Writers understand the power of metaphor to influence the way reality can be received, experienced, processed, digested, managed, accepted, and transformed.

It is a good thing then that writers of fiction and non-fiction have become adept at crossing into each other's domain.

First published on The Conversation on Thursday 5 June 2014.

Dr Sue Gillett is Senior Lecturer in Strategic Communications and Arts at La Trobe University. She has been a program co-ordinator for the Bendigo Writers Festival since its inception and received the Vice-Chancellor's Service Award for this work in 2013.

Image credit: Herbert Percival Bennett (State Library of Victoria)