Creatives in profile: interview with Lunar Poetry Podcasts

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David Turner, founder of Lunar Poetry Podcasts. Photo credit: Thom Bartley 

It’s no secret that the team here at Nothing in the Rulebook are always looking out for new and exciting creative projects. So when we stumbled upon the work of the exquisitely excellent Lunar Poetry Podcasts, we immediately wanted to introduce all our fine readers to it, too.

Founded in October 2014 in south-east London, Lunar Poetry Podcasts features discussions, interviews and live recordings with poets in the UK and further afield.  Now based in Bristol, the podcast recently agreed a deal with The British Library which will result in the entire series being archived in their audio archive.

It is an honour to bring you this detailed interview with the founder of this fabulous podcast, David Turner.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos.

TURNER

I was born in London, went to secondary school in The Fens and rejected a job offer from The Royal Signals before serving an apprenticeship as a Bench Joiner. This opening sentence can be read, equally, as an explanation and/or an excuse for not having any formal background in Literature.

After my most recent stay in a secure psychiatric unit, in 2014, I founded the online series Lunar Poetry Podcasts in lieu of a place on a creative writing course. In 2018, along with my wife, I founded a second podcast series, a poem a week – as I definitely didn’t already have enough to do!

I’m a poet, though widely unpublished, drawing on my working-class upbringing and experiences as a frequent user of the mental health services, both in south London and the south of Norway.  I can often be found standing in solidarity alongside the good folk of Poetry On The Picket Line.

My ethos? – If the door has been opened for me then I’ll be holding it open for others… or kicking it off its hinges.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

TURNER

Anyone living with a mental illness in the face of social pressures to present themselves as a survivor.

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INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a bit about Lunar Poetry Podcast – what inspired you to first set the podcast up; and how has it developed from then?

TURNER

In the summer of 2014 I began writing reviews of live poetry events for Lunar Poetry Magazine and even with a generous word count of 1500 words it was impossible to cover all of the topics that I wanted to discuss. In the autumn of that year I suggested to the editor, Paul McMenemy, the idea that I could record and publish three conversations with poets and see how popular they proved. My first three recordings were with Pat Cash (founder of Spoken Word London), Helen Mort and three spoken word artists in Stockholm.

Very early on I was attracted by the idea of building a platform that would provide a space for writers who weren’t afforded that space by other mainstream outlets, to talk about their creative process.

Since 2014, the series has developed from a series of interviews conducted solely by me into a series involving guest hosts guiding conversations with editorial autonomy on subjects they feel are important.

INTERVIEWER

What does it take to pull together a literary podcast?

TURNER

At the beginning you only need a basic understanding of what a podcast should be; this knowledge will grow over time and will be specific to the podcast that you’re making. In terms of making a literary podcast my advice would be the same as if you want to be a writer… read. Read. Read.

Basic requirements: a mic, a recorder, a hosting platform. I started off recording into my iPad Mini using a Blue Yeti mic and uploading to YouTube – this isn’t technically a podcast as YouTube doesn’t offer the opportunity to download and doesn’t produce a RSS Feed.

I now record into a Zoom H6 recorder, usually using Røde Lavalier mics, I edit in Reaper (cleaning the audio with iZotope Audio plug-ins), and host all episodes on Soundcloud which then shares with iTunes, Stitcher Radio and Acast.

Pulling together a literary podcast also includes emails… millions of fucking emails!

INTERVIEWER

How do you plan and prepare for each new episode?

TURNER

This has change a lot since 2014. I used to make extensive notes, even going as far as writing loose scripts for each episode. With time and gained experience, though, I’ve come to trust my instincts and ability to guide a conversation and I tend now to go into recordings with few or no notes. I like to be familiar with any collections that may be discussed in interviews but not to the point where my opinion of the work becomes the main focus.

When producing episodes with guest hosts most of my prep involves gauging how confident they are and either reassuring them that everything will turn out fine or simply giving them an outline of how I want the episode to shape up.

On the day of the recording I try to make sure I eat beforehand and stay hydrated as suddenly feeling faint during an interview is a horrible experience.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any other podcasters you listen to regularly for new ideas? Or any like-minded websites that you’d recommend checking out?

TURNER

Page One Podcast is a beautiful insight into the reading habits of a huge number of writers and artists. I absolutely love the Radio 4 podcast, Only Artists. I tend to listen to podcasts as a break from the literature stuff and the four podcasts I’m currently listening to regularly are – The Adam Buxton Podcast, Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Podcast, Imaginary Advice and The Wire: Stripped… you know, because I’m a 36-year-old white man.

Websites? And Other Poems, Proletarian Poetry and Hotel.

INTERVIEWER

What does the average day look like to you?

TURNER

Up until last week I worked full-time in a caravan factory, repairing damp caravans but I mutually agreed with the employment agency that that particular zero-hours contract wasn’t working for either of us. I’m now on an endless battle to not lose myself on YouTube while I look for part-time work that will allow me to pay my rent and produce the podcast.

A day of editing involves: coffee, a run-through of the audio (usually 90 mins total) on Reaper which takes around three hours, lunch and then another run through the audio on Reaper (another three hours). I’ll do this twice for each episode before reaching the point of wanting to dig my eyeballs out with a teaspoon.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think a podcast should be for? Why are they important?

TURNER

I’m really trying not to sound like a knob here but a podcast should fulfil whatever the expectations are of the listener. If the listener wants to be distracted or find some form of escapism then that’s what the podcast should deliver. Similarly, if the listener wants in-depth engagement with political debate then this should be the producer’s goal.

I don’t believe that podcasts are inherently important, though what they do that is different from the radio, for example, is allow producers to focus on niche subjects in a way that isn’t available to mainstream media channels. I suppose this in itself is what is important, and a number of podcasts have proven that there is a desire from listeners to engage with nuanced and focused programming.

INTERVIEWER

Obviously, the rise of the internet has seen a big culture shift in the way we communicate. What role do you see podcasts playing in this new “digital era”?

TURNER

I understand very little about this digital era outside of the very narrow thing that I do so can’t really answer that. I think, in general, podcasters aren’t very good at answering that question as what most of us do is force an analogue process out through a digital platform. Two people who certainly could answer this question more deeply (or at least have the experience to think about it properly) are Matthew Plummer-Fernandez and Alison Parrish.

INTERVIEWER

When there are so many podcasts, and so many different voices speaking at once – how do you try to make your voices heard – how do you cut through the babble?

TURNER

This is probably the point at which social media and promotion are at their most important. Trying to identify where there may be opportunities for cross-promotion, for example. Did the conversation cover mental health issues, and would mental health charities be interested in sharing the episode? Did your guest talk about their class identity and would specific unions or organisations be interested in promoting the discussion?

I was also lucky enough to be invited to record four live interviews at this year’s Verve Poetry Festival. Presenting the podcast series to a live literature audience was a wonderful opportunity and I saw a definite spike in listening numbers immediately after the festival.

I’m also hoping to have a table at this year’s Poetry Book Fair with the aim to just hand out loads of fliers and chat to visitors about the series.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the main challenges you face?

TURNER

Raising awareness of podcasts in general and getting other literature/poetry organisations to realise the value of series like LPP.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

TURNER

The ability to negotiate a way around the question, “why the fuck am I doing this?”

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for the podcast? Any exciting projects or episodes in the pipeline?

TURNER

I’m currently in the process of negotiating a paid mentoring project in which I’ll support some young literature producers, here in Bristol, in developing and producing their own podcast focusing on BME poets in the UK.

2018 will see me continuing to archive LPP’s entire archive within The British Library’s Sound & Drama Department. This is a really exciting opportunity as it’s still unusual for podcasts to be archived in this way, and I’m really happy to have enabled over 200 poets to get recordings of and discussions around their work housed in an internationally famous institution.

There’s another brilliant project in the pipeline which I can’t talk about just yet but has so far involved compiling a list of poets in sort of a fantasy poetry league-style team sheet before emailing them all an invitation. More on this over the next couple of months on our website.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in six words?

TURNER

It’s certainly possible, though ultimately pointless.

INTERVIEWER

What are your 5 – 10 top tips for aspiring podcasters?

TURNER

  • Join the ‘Podcasters Support Group’ on Facebook
  • Remember that you will never feel ‘ready to start’
  • If you can’t afford your own mic/recorder then ask someone if you can borrow their equipment (while they supervise). Podcasters are a very friendly bunch.
  • Your podcast artwork needs to be 1500×1500 in size in order to be accepted by iTunes.
  • The best way to record a remote/skype/international interview is for your guest to record themselves and then send you their audio. It is an unnecessary stress to rely on two internet connections for a clean recording.
  • LISTEN TO YOUR GUEST. LISTEN TO YOUR GUEST. LISTEN TO YOUR GUEST.
  • Make the podcast that makes you happy.
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Creatives in Profile – Interview with Nicholas Rougeux

Nicholas Rougeux

Creativity, in all its myriad different forms, can take us to the edge of the world and look beyond. It can inspire, inform, influence. Used in the right way, it can help us look at the world differently; making the ordinary extraordinary and encouraging us to see beauty and elegance in the unexpected.

In an era of big and open data, perhaps one of the most interesting artistic movement to emerge in recent years is that of data visualisation, which can describe, depict, and represent facts and truths about ourselves and our surroundings. The artistic representation and visualisation of data in this way thereby allows us to picture not only what we can readily see, but also the things that aren’t visible. In this way, it can be seen as a natural extension of artistic ‘Realism’ – or the representation of reality as it is; an act of mimesis.

Nicholas Rougeux is a creative at the forefront of this artistic medium. A Chicago-based self-taught web developer and artist, Nicholas has mapped the punctuation in books – stripping out the words of literary classics in the process – as well as charting mesmerising maps of the world’s highway interchanges; creating constellations from the opening lines of famous novels; and exploring the hidden art of subway tracks.

It is an honour to bring you this detailed interview.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

ROUGEUX

I’m a web designer in Chicago and lead a fairly ordinary lifestyle. I was born in Ohio and transferred to Chicago when I was younger and this has been my home ever since. I’ve always been interested in the web from its early days and have had a website for my projects as long as I can remember. The early years of the web weren’t too pretty and neither were my sites but maintaining an online presence for nearly 20 years has taught me many things about art, technology, and everything in between.

INTERVIEWER

Is digital art your first love, or do you have another passion?

ROUGEUX

I’ve always been fascinated with digital art and have been in front of a screen for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of using DOS programs on those giant 5.25” floppies to color pictures or draw random designs. I also got hooked on creating pixel art by immersing myself in Mario Paint for the SNES. Eventually I “graduated” to MS Paint when Windows came around and progressed from there. Any free time I’ve had has been spent in front of a screen playing in some kind of graphics program.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

ROUGEUX

Any artist or really anyone who’s passionate about their work. Seeing someone create something they love and really getting into it is always inspirational—whether it’s someone creating digital art or making something physical like a car, leather bag, or a sculpture. Everyone immersed in their creative process is who inspires me.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

ROUGEUX

I’m mostly self-taught. I don’t say this to sound pompous. When I was growing up, there weren’t many resources beyond fumbling around with design tools or scouring the web for interesting art. Being an only child, I had a lot of time to myself when I was growing up so I spent that time exploring the tools I could get my hand on.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the key challenges you face as a web developer and designer? Do you see the two as being distinct from one another or innately entwined?

ROUGEUX

I think of myself more as a web designer than a developer—though I like to tell people I know just enough about code to be dangerous and I’m great a breaking things. Designing and developing can easily go hand-in-hand. Knowing something about both can be very beneficial. I do mostly design and front-end development (HTML/CSS) so knowing how a page will be structured is very helpful when designing a layout. Similarly, having knowledge about design helps me plan how markup and styles can be structured to accommodate for design changes that may get made in the future.

INTERVIEWER

Could you describe the relationship you see between art and data?

ROUGEUX

I’ve always seen data as more tools in a toolbox—just a very versatile set of tools. Data can easily be seen as something boring and simply informative but as with most things, there’s hidden beauty if you know where to look. The challenge is finding where that is and knowing what to do with it when you find it. Everything has data just as everything has color, shape, etc. They’re other attributes to use.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility in your role as an artist?

ROUGEUX

To be honest, I don’t think about it much but I do strive to be truthful in what I create. Using data makes that possible and even easy. By creating something based on data, I’m forced to stay within the confines of what those data have to offer.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific audience in mind when you begin working on new projects?

ROUGEUX

I don’t like to limit myself to any one audience other than those that find curious things interesting. I’ve discovered quite a few interesting audiences with each project I create.

For example, one of my earlier projects was a simple poster showing outlines of all the US National Parks. This was little more than a weekend project and I didn’t give it much thought after posting. I was surprised when I learned that there was a group of people with the goal of vsiting all the national parks and several of them found this type of poster intriguing. I knew that national parks were interesting but had no idea that there was a community so passionate about them. Similarly, when I created my Interchange Choreography project, I learned that quite a few people love reviewing, exploring, and even creating fantasy interchanges in programs in Sim City-like games. I had no idea such a group existed.

I’ve learned that if I found something even remotely interesting, there’s a good chance that there are others out there that find it even more interesting so it’s worth exploring. The possibilities are limitless.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a little bit about how you began your career?

ROUGEUX

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been putting my work online for almost 20 years so the web has always been second nature to me. In high school and college, I was always in creative classes like art, architecture, computers, etc. When it came time to start a degree, I chose web development and design and was fortunate enough to get a job while still in college at a small web firm in Chicago. I’ve been with them ever since.

INTERVIEWER

What advice can you give to aspiring creatives who are interested in pursuing a similar pathway?

ROUGEUX

Stick with what you love doing. It sounds cliché but it’s true. There isn’t one guaranteed way to get what you want but if you keep doing what you enjoy, things tend to happen naturally and that seems like the best course of action—at least it has for me.

INTERVIEWER

Your project, ‘Literary Constellations’ provides a fascinating and unique visualised insight into both literature, and writing in general. What do you think using and presenting data in this way can tell us about the craft of writing?

ROUGEUX

Honestly, I don’t think it can tell us much about the craft of writing other than there’s no pattern or consistency to how to write a great story. Trying to read too much into it likely won’t result in any deep revelations—though if there are any, I’d be very pleasantly surprised! This project was something of an accident that I stumbled on when exploring different types of data. I’m just pleased that it came together so nicely and that people enjoy the images.

INTERVIEWER

Keeping with the literary theme for a moment, if you had to draw up an essential reading list everyone should read, which books would make the cut?

ROUGEUX

This is a tough one to answer because I haven’t read the books that most people would probably include in their list. While I enjoy reading, it hasn’t been something I live to do as much as others. Rather than recommending any one set of books, I’d recommend that people read anything that piques their interest—whether it be the classics, adventure, fantasy, sci-fi, etc. Quite often, the “best” books are those that no one recommends and you happen to find one day while perusing a bookstore.

INTERVIEWER

How do you view the relationship between digital art and – for want of a better term – ‘traditional’ art?

ROUGEUX

Art’s art. Digital art is just the latest iteration of the ever-evolving term. Form of art—digital, traditional, and everything in between—informs the rest. I don’t put much weight on the different forms of art because it’s all fascinating.

INTERVIEWER

What are your thoughts on some of the general trends within the digital art industry at the moment? Is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining?

ROUGEUX

If I could predict the future, I’d be very rich. Since can’t, I’m not! I don’t consider myself anywhere near knowledgeable enough to try to predict could be a trend or future-defining. However, I’m fairly certain that the constant of “content is king” will continue to be true. How something looks can often be irrelevant if the underlying content isn’t interesting, useful, or informative. This is why the first thing I do for any project is to look for interesting information. Once that’s found, it’s just a matter of finding an interesting way to represent it—though I know that’s no small feat!

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

ROUGEUX

First I have to think of them! I’m ways looking for interesting data from anywhere about anything. I have a few things in the back of my mind that am mulling over but they haven’t blossomed into anything concrete yet. Until the next big thing comes along, I continue to update existing projects like adding new songs to my Off the Staff project in partnership with the OpenScore project from MuseScore, which visualizes the notes in famous classical scores like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Beethoven’s 5th Symphony; adding new covers to my color analysis of The New Yorker covers; or adding posters as people request them for others.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

ROUGEUX

I’m a terrible writer. How’s this?

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for aspiring artists?

ROUGEUX

  • Explore unfamiliar topics. You’d be surprised what you learn.
  • Experiment with any tool you can get your hands on. You never know when it may come in handy for its intended use or something else entirely.
  • Share early ideas. It’s hard but getting feedback early is very revealing.
  • Be grateful. The world is a big place so be happy when someone takes the time—even if it’s a few seconds—to check out your work.
  • Stay grounded. The world’s not going to take notice of everything you do so keep plugging along and build your body of work.
  • Keep the old stuff and the “bad” stuff. The first version’s usually the worst so iterate often but keep the old stuff. You can draw inpriration even from your own old discarded ideas that you once thought were ugly.
  • Be patient. Sometimes ideas come out of no where like a bolt of lighting and sometimes they take forever. Give them time to germinate and give yourself time to refine them.

 

To see more of Nicholas Rougeux’s work, visit his website.

Electric literature – five digital projects that make you think about books in an entirely new way

 

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Digitally mapping literature: the project ‘Mapping Emotions in Victorian London’ takes data from readers and primary texts to create a graphical visualisation of emotions in fictional Victorian London. 

Here’s a new one for you – what if we were to argue that literary scholarship and the general study of literature no longer requires you to actually read any books? Instead, the same results could be achieved by using computers to crunch “big data” and stores of literary information to provide new insights into the way we think about books, literature, and stories.

This obviously flies in the face of the standard understanding of literary study that for centuries has insisted upon the close reading of texts. Yet it is not a unique argument.

We’ve previously considered whether, with the rise of Apps and digital programming influencing the way we publish stories, the future of literature may be electric. And there is now an increasing number of groups and individuals who believe a similar approach could be taken towards academic literary theory. Indeed, they term this “computational criticism” – that is, the analysis of literature in a statistical way using computational models and digital programming.

Why now? Simply, because modern digital technology permits it. Since Google developed an electronic scanner capable of digitising books in 2004, the written words of all literature can be turned into data – and computers can scan and process this information to pick out trends and identify new areas of insight. They can create graphs, tables, and visual representations of this data that is – arguably – more engaging and interesting to consider than a 100,000 word treatise on the relationship between Kafka’s shoes and modern anti-establishment sentiment (please note: this may not in fact be an actual PhD thesis title – but there are some great ones out there, see for yourselves).

Of course, the idea of visually representing literature as data is not new. One of the great masters of the written word, Kurt Vonnegut, proposed mapping the plots of stories, as well as character development arcs, onto graphs. In 1952, the satirist’s work Player Piano predicted a dystopia in which giant computers have taken over the work of the human brain – and in his later lectures on the shapes of stories he opined “there’s no reason why the shapes of stories can’t be fed into computers.”

Needless to say, this topic has drawn some controversy among the literary establishment. Harold Bloom, one of the best-known literary critics and Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University, has described the idea of digital literary theory as “absurd […] I am interested in reading; that’s all I’m interested in.”

Others are, however, more receptive to these ideas. Jonathan Franzen, for example, says: “The canon is necessarily restrictive. So what you get is generation after generation of scholarship struggling to say anything new. There are only so many ways you can keep saying Proust is great.”

“It can be dismaying to see Kafka or Conrad or Brontë read not for pleasure but as cultural artefacts,” Franzen continues. “To use new technology to look at literature as a whole, which has never really been done before, rather than focusing on complex and singular works, is a good direction for cultural criticism to move in. Paradoxically, it may even liberate the canonical works to be read more in the spirit in which they were written.”

We’ll let you decide for yourselves what you think of this new world of literary study. Below, you’ll find five of our “picks” of digital projects in the humanities. Let us know what you think in the comments section at the end!

 

  1. Mapping Emotions in Victorian London draws on annotations made by readers on passages of Victorian novels, to generate an “emotional map” of London. You can navigate the map online, exploring the emotions of the readers, as well as the underlying fictional passages, to discover the ways in which London was constructed, navigated and represented emotionally in its fiction.
  2. BookLamprecognises how similar one book is to others in the same genre. Simply type into BookLamp’s search bar one of your favourite novels and it will return a data-driven list of 20 more titles that you’ll like.
  3. VisualEyes, developed by the University of Virginia, is a web-based tool that uses data to digitally map, graph and chart important historical events, searching through vast online databases to pinpoint where concepts first appeared and how they spread across the world.
  4. ‘A View of the World Through Wikipedia’is a time-lapse video made by Kalev Leetaru, a researcher at the University of Illinois, charting how writers have expressed generally positive or negative sentiments towards the places they have written about. Leetaru has done similar analyses with books, social media and online news in a project entitled Culturomics 2.0
  5. The Circumstance art collective in Bristol is an interactive online model: a combination of a print book and an urban-walking app that overlays an imaginary world onto the physical.

 

 

 

 

The app and the paperback: is the future of literature electric?

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Faber and Touchpress have launched a “groundbreaking” new mode of publishing, which explores the future of digital reading after ebooks.

Novelist Iain Pears has worked with the two media organisations to create a new reading experience which combines the traditional paperback novel with the new digital opportunities of the smartphone or tablet app.

His new work, Arcadia, has been conceived to be read as an app first and book second, with the application written using specially-commissioned software and developed for readers by Touchpress and Gaver, the partners behind multi-award-winning apps such as The Waste Land and Shakespeare’s Sonnets for iPad.

The e-novel gathers up ten characters in three different worlds, and presents them as a skein of coloured, intersecting lines. Short bursts of text propel the characters onward, or across into another storyline: the choice depends upon the reader.

But this is not your standard “choose your adventure” type model of writing – or reading. This interactive fiction enables every single individual reader to experience the story differently. The author controls the story universe, but how readers reave the three tales – pastoral utopia, 1950s Oxford and dystopian future – is deeply dependent on the individual turning the page (or, in this case, putting fingertip to touch screen).

“There are readers who are ‘acrossers’ and others who are ‘up and downers’,” says Henry Volans, director of Faber Press, a division of the app’s publisher, Faber & Faber. “It’s meant to be a rabbit hole that encourages all sorts of reading.”

Where will this rabbit hole end?

The Circumstance art collective in Bristol is set to follow a similar interactive model of app and primary text (or primary app and secondary text, as it may be, depending on your viewpoint), as the group prepare to publish a new version of “These pages fall like ash”: a combination of a print book and an urban-walking app that overlays an imaginary world onto the physical.

Some remain cautious of suggesting anything even more interactive could be produced, however. Lincoln Michel, of the website Electric Literature, says it is hard to imagine a truly digital novel because “we already have digital narratives – they’re called videogames”. Meanwhile, British novelist, Naomi Alderman, points to the intimate nature of reading, echoing the thoughts of many other readers and writers throughout the centuries: “There’s nothing like a novel to take you into the individual consciousness of a writer. But there are things that are choice-based that only video games can do.”

Human beings have always been story tellers. Part of the reason for our species’ success has been our ability to communicate – and in fact has been key to the rise of the digital era we currently live in. What we may be catching the first glimpses of is a new digital environment that begins to break the page. As Tom Abba, a scholar or digital narrative at the University of the West of England says: “We’re trying to nudge the reader into a new kind of relationship with the story.” In other words, the traditional models of reading are changing. The future of literature may be electric.

We’re breaking up: how technology is dampening our creativity

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Reading the wonderful exchange of letters between Pulitzer Prize winning author, Willa Cather, and her friend and fellow writer, Sarah Jewett, one is struck immediately by how rare such thoughtful examples of communication have now become. Where once it was common to place such great thought and care into penned – or pencilled – correspondence, we now find ourselves changed by our electronic, immediate communications.

Why is it that our personal identities seem to shift when moving between these mediums? And what does it mean for us as individuals, and as a species?

These questions have in part been answered by Rebecca Sonit, one of the most incisive thinkers and exquisite essayists of our time, in her essay “We’re breaking up: Noncommunication in the Silicon Age”. Indeed, Solnit believes this shift and change began at a very specific point in the summer of 1995. She writes:

“On or around June 1995, human character changed. Or rather, it began to undergo a metamorphosis that is still not complete, but is profound — and troubling, not least because it is hardly noted. When I think about, say, 1995, or whenever the last moment was before most of us were on the Internet and had mobile phones, it seems like a hundred years ago. Letters came once a day, predictably, in the hands of the postal carrier. News came in three flavors — radio, television, print — and at appointed hours. Some of us even had a newspaper delivered every morning.”

Newspapers every morning! An unbelievable concept for so many of us living in our digital bubbles.

Some here might logically play the part of Lawrence Robertson – the fictitious CEO of USR, the massive Robotics conglomerate of I-Robot – who asks “Would you ban the internet just to keep the libraries open?” And sceptically suggest that worrying over technological progress has been the past-time of thinkers since time-immemorial. Italo Calvino, after all, bemoaned newspapers themselves as a worrisome distraction from what was really important: and one twelfth century Zen monk railed against books because they were “annoying”.

On the shredding of the fabric of time

Yet at the heart of Solnit’s argument is a discussion of the far more insidious effects of our modern communication technologies on the human psyche. These subtle changes, she argues, are beginning to shred the very fabric of time – or, at least, our perceptions of it – and beginning to blanket our daily lives and dictate the rhythm with which we live:

“Those mail and newspaper deliveries punctuated the day like church bells. You read the paper over breakfast. If there were developments you heard about them on the evening news or in the next day’s paper. You listened to the news when it was broadcast, since there was no other way to hear it. A great many people relied on the same sources of news, so when they discussed current events they did it under the overarching sky of the same general reality. Time passed in fairly large units, or at least not in milliseconds and constant updates. A few hours wasn’t such a long time to go between moments of contact with your work, your people, or your trivia.

[…]

The bygone time had rhythm, and it had room for you to do one thing at a time; it had different parts; mornings included this, and evenings that, and a great many of us had these schedules in common. I would read the paper while listening to the radio, but I wouldn’t check my mail while updating my status while checking the news sites while talking on the phone. Phones were wired to the wall, or if they were cordless, they were still housebound. The sound quality was usually good. On them people had long, deep conversations of a sort almost unknown today, now that phones are used while driving, while shopping, while walking in front of cars against the light and into fountains. The general assumption was that when you were on the phone, that’s all you were.”

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger.

Solnit considers how correspondence changed from the thrilling event of receiving a letter — “the paper and handwriting told you something, as well as the words” — to the task-oriented pragmatism of fielding a demand or relaying one for the recipient to field:

“Letters morphed into emails, and for a long time emails had all the depth and complexity of letters. They were a beautiful new form that spliced together the intimacy of what you might write from the heart with the speed of telegraphs. Then emails deteriorated into something more like text messages… Text messages were bound by the limits of telegrams — the state-of-the-art technology of the 1840s — and were almost as awkward to punch out. Soon phone calls were made mostly on mobile phones, whose sound quality is mediocre and prone to failure altogether (“you’re breaking up” or “we’re breaking up” is the cry of our time) even when one or both speakers aren’t multitasking. Communication began to dwindle into peremptory practical phrases and fragments, while the niceties of spelling, grammar, and punctuation were put aside, along with the more lyrical and profound possibilities. Communication between two people often turned into group chatter: you told all your Facebook friends or Twitter followers how you felt, and followed the popularity of your post or tweet. Your life had ratings.”

But, says the content marketer, the SEO optimiser, the social media specialist, the digital executive, the blogger, the vlogger, the Instagram star, the Twitter hero (incidentally the new cast of the upcoming Breakfast Club sequel) – But, but there are so many benefits of our modern communication technologies! They are democratic! We can create our news ourselves! We self-publish, self-publicise! We spread ideas! Railing against change is as futile as Cnut trying to hold back the sea.

It’s true that there are a great many benefits – or at least, perceived benefits – of our modern communication technologies. Not least of which (of course) is this site itself (not to brag or anything), which without the immense power of the Internet would simply be a group of creative giraffe-aficionados writing long letters to each other that may never be read by more than a dozen souls. But perhaps there are costs to these new technologies that outweigh their benefits. Consider, as Solnit does, the following:

“Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the nuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat. I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deeper zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.”

Digital isolation

A familiar concept in this digital era is the strange isolation that modern communication models create for individuals – distracting them from real life and real-lived conversations and human communication. This is perhaps best depicted in the increasingly familiar sight of a group of people seated together at a restaurant, each staring into their phones instead of conversing with one another.

But what do such scenes mean? Perhaps we are only just realising that human beings are less interesting in person than they are online. Or perhaps it is symptomatic of a restlessness which has seized so many of us – a fear of missing out on news or updates; or else caused by a new era in which we are continually distracted from real life. Solnit suggests it is “an anxiety about keeping up, about not being left out or getting behind.”

Of course, the tragedy here is that, however discomfiting such anxieties are, the sense of missing out is in fact essential to a full life – and indeed a creative life. As psychoanalyst Adam Phillips notes in his book “Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life”:

“Our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live. But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are.”

And something as simple as heading outside to sit quietly by ourselves and embracing boredom can in fact enhance the creative’s ability to produce new art, new thought, new ideas and formulate better answers to the questions they contend with as they attempt to write their novels, or paint their masterpieces.

Yet the new mediums of the digital era seek to disable this, and distract us. Our time no longer comes in large, focused blocks, but rather in fragments and shards. As Solnit notes: “We’re shattered. We’re breaking up.”

She continues:

“It’s hard, now, to be with someone else wholly, uninterruptedly, and it’s hard to be truly alone. The fine art of doing nothing in particular, also known as thinking, or musing, or introspection, or simply moments of being, was part of what happened when you walked from here to there, alone, or stared out the train window, or contemplated the road, but the new technologies have flooded those open spaces. Space for free thought is routinely regarded as a void and filled up with sounds and distractions.”

When we are constantly driven to check our social media apps for notifications, and compose the shortest and most succinct emails and social media statuses, which, by design, must be created almost without thought or any real deliberation or consideration – we are distanced from the ability to think hard about something for the length of time necessary to ponder important questions. We can no longer contemplate the essential mysteries of the universe – or express these creatively – when we are too busy trying to write a funny tweet about Donald Trump in 140 characters or reply to Jeremy in HR with an email that treads that fine-line between snappy and rude.

Such a scenario was perceived way back in 1948 by Henry Beston – a rather adroit bridge-builder between humanity and nature – whose bewitching work “Northern Farm” features a timeless meditation on the relationship between humanity and technology:

“What has come over our age is an alienation from Nature unexampled in human history. It has cost us our sense of reality and all but cost us our humanity. With the passing of a relation to Nature worthy both of Nature and the human spirit, with the slow burning down of the poetic sense together with the noble sense of religious reverence to which it is allied, man has almost ceased to be man. Torn from earth and unaware, having neither the inheritance and awareness of man nor the other sureness and integrity of the animal, we have become vagrants in space, desperate for the meaninglessness which has closed about us. True humanity is no inherent and abstract right but an achievement, and only through the fullness of human experience may we be as one with all who have been and all who are yet to be, sharers and brethren and partakers of the mystery of living, reaching to the full of human peace and the full of human joy.”

The context of reality: straight outta context

The loss of our sense of reality, which Beston touches upon, of course can be traced through the many existentialist writings and musings of essayists and commentators, writers and artists throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

In 1980, for instance, George W.S. Trow penned his seminal essay, ‘Within the Context of No-Context’, a terrifyingly prescient doomsday prophecy about the corrosive effects of electronic media.

Of course, what is so worrying for a modern reader of Trow’s essay is just how prescient the essay is. It predates the blogosphere and social media. It’s pre 24 hour News, pre-reality show. Yet Trow still sees cognitive and psychological destruction at the heart of ‘new media’, which Trow suggests exists solely to “establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no-context and to chronicle it.”

Just as the television Trow derides holds “no history”, so too do modern forms of communication and new digital technologies bring with them nothing constructive, but rather only destructive: the annihilation of cognitive thought and well-argued expression in favour of those curt emails and meaningless social media status updates. In this world, it is reality, as well as our own minds and thoughts, which is fractured, which is lost.

Reclaiming reality

To reclaim reality, and once again piece together our lives and sense of time, which have been fractured by the new digital technology, perhaps the answer is to slow everything down. To contemplate and articulate the value of the real world outside electronic chatter and distraction. To find alternatives. To put the world and our lives back together again.

As Beston writes, this may begin outside:

“Oh, work that is done in freedom out of doors, work that is done with the body’s and soul’s goodwill, work that is an integral part of life and is done with friends — is there anything so good?”

So, if you’re still reading this, close your internet browser and throw your smartphone in the nearest stream. Quit your office job and see if the local farmer has any jobs going. You never know, it might just give you the ideas and freedom you need to finish writing that novel you’ve been working on.