Will the Internet change the way we write?|
Yes, writing has always changed with
new technology. For example, we have a growing channel-surfing mentality.
A writer has to grab people early. Readers who dont see something early
on, move on. But some fundamental things will never change. People like
storieswith beginnings, middles, and ends. Real life doesnt have many
beginnings and ends; its mostly a series of middles, strung out one
after the other. We pick up stories to experience beginnings and ends.
So storytelling has always been the same thingsomeone by the campfire,
saying, Come on, Ive got an interesting story to tell you. But the
techniques by which you get people to that campfire and keep them from
drifting off into the night, always change.
Is this a true revolution?
This is a subset of a revolution that began
in the 1840s with the telegraph, but technology has always changed writing.
When Homers poems were not written down and were recited in rhyme to help
people remember them, their content was somewhat different than when they
were written. When writing first emerged, everyone simply assumed that
people would read out loudthat reading was another form of talking. That
someone would read alone was revolutionary. In his Confessions, St.
Augustine has a great description of someone who reads silently. Augustine
just cant get over itthat someone just sits there and reads and nothing
comes out of his mouth. How can that be?
The Internet is a true revolution, but its
not revolutionary that a format for language and writing changes.
Will people read serious writing on a screen?
I think the Internet is going to be a
very sophisticated free mail-delivery system. People will not read long
things on the screen; theyll print them out and read them. So writing
that is strictly electronic will be a limited type of writing. But it
will be the realization of what has been a dream and a goal in
communications for generations, to have no economic relationship
between distance and cost.
Have readers simply developed a shorter attention span?
Not necessarily. Movies are not getting
shorter. Books arent getting shorter, and book sales in this country
keep going up. Books that are being read by people in their 20s are not
getting shorter. A recent survey showed that younger baby boomers, who
grew up in an electronically saturated environment, are reading more
than older baby boomers. The more we get involved in electronics, the
more we get involved in books. These things are additivethey dont
replace each other.
Have you been writing for an electronically aware audience?
Ive been writing for a graphically
aware audience. To me one of the great and positive challenges of
writing for NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC is that your words are on the page
among these stunning, world-class, attention-grabbing photographs. If
youre going to get your story read, youd better do writing that grabs
people in a way that survives in this environment.
Is the English language changing because of the electronic media?
Sure. One of the reasons people like e-mail
is that you dont have to call someone up and say, Hello, how are you?
No formality. You dont worry about your spelling, and you can write with
bad grammar. You dont have to have complete sentences. It can be short
When the telephone came in, you had a social
behavioral revolution as extensive as anything the Internet can foster.
Suddenly people were not communicating face-to-face, but through voices
coming out of a wire. Did that change narrative technique? Did that
change the way characters acted in novels? Of course.
The next question is, if you have this
change, so what? Is it promoting different values, leading you to different
truths, or is it forcing you to adapt just like you adapt to changing
How will the magazine format survive on the Internet?
It will be on the Internet, but it will
be something different. Go back and look at what was done with television
at first. They would focus fixed cameras on a stage play and they would
put that on the air. On radio they would read the newspaper, or they
would take a stage play and would take the exact dialogue and stage it.
These efforts failed. Every technology evolves to its own; its market
driven. All kinds of predictions were wrong. When TV came in people
thought movies were finishedthere would be no more movies. But you can
say with certainty that the Internet is a new technology with new
capabilities, and we will have to find new uses for it.
So you cant just put NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC on online as is?
You cant any more do that than you can
put your camera on a Broadway play and expect people to sit at home and