See Above

As we slide beneath the hegemony of technology, I’m impressed by the redefinition of vocabulary it demands.  Because new printing technologies assume, for example, that the XML (one of the many mark-up languages) is primary, directional references in texts are inadequate.  An example might help.  If you’re a human being reading a book, and the author has discussed something a few pages ago, s/he might write “see above.”  Now, it’s not literally above in the sense of being higher up on the same page (but it may be considered literally if the book is closed.   And lying face up).  The pages you already read are above those where you left the bookmark.  I remember the first time I encountered this language; having been raised a literalist (and a naive realist) my eye hovered over the header and I wondered about the accuracy of “see above” or “see below.”  The terminology soon became second nature, however, and I knew it wasn’t a literal reference.

In the days of XML (“eXtensible Markup Language,” therefore literally EML), the sense of play is now gone from writing.  I’ve heard editors explain to authors that, in an ebook there is no above or below because there are no pages.  A time-honored metaphor has been sacrificed on the altar of a tech that sees the world in black-and-white.  You can’t point vaguely in the direction from which you’ve just come and say “it’s back there somewhere.”  I sense, given all of this, that most copyeditors haven’t written a non-fiction book (for this is mostly an academic affectation).  As a human being writing, you get into the flow and you don’t think, “Ah, I mentioned that in paragraph 2749; I’d better say it’s there.”  And the reason you need to know the paragraph number is so the ebook can have a hyperlink.  The argument itself suffers for XML precision.

As someone who writes both fiction and non, I am bound to look at this from the viewpoint of a human author.  I’ve been known to paint and make sketches on occasion.  All of these forms of expression have flow in common.  At least when they’re good they do.   If you want to stop a project cold, just say “Hey, I’m writing!” and watch yourself drop like a cartoon character who’s run off a cliff and just realized it.  I’m sorry, I can’t point you to exact where that’s happened.  It’s in many vague recollections of many cartoons I watched as a child.  If the technomasters aren’t watching I’ll just say, “see above.” 

Goliath and Company

First UltraViolet.  Then Google +.  Well, actually neither of these was first—tech initiatives cease to exist all the time.  Giants aren’t immune to extinction, it seems.  I’ve got to be careful with my confessions toward Luddite sympathies since, as it turns out, tech is king.  Emperor, in fact.  But since tech only works as long as society holds together, I still want paper knowledge in my library.  I don’t own a Kindle and despite what visitors say, I don’t want to “save room” by getting rid of books.  I like books.  I wink at them from across the room.  Sidle up to them when in private.  Get to know them intimately.  Books are a way of life.  If the grid breaks down, I’ll have books to read and candles to do it by.  For a while there I even made my own candles, although most of those were used up in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Just sayin’

You see, my hairs bristle when I hear tech experts complain that “authors should be taught to write in XML.”  Said techies have apparently never written a book.  Ideas, you see, flow.  When you’re in the zone, there’s no stopping to mark-up your text.  In fact, the best, purest kind comes in scribbles on paper with misspelled words and all.  You can hold it in your hands and remember the Muse who had you at the time.  For me the hours of inspiration are before dawn.  I mostly use a computer now, but I can still find myself typing too slow to keep up with manic inspiration, desperate to record my ideas before paid work starts.  Work is the Medea of creativity—both mother and slayer.  Once I login I check out.  I need to wait for another day to dawn.

We’ve invested heavily in technology.  The internet is largely responsible for the globalization against which the world has recently rebelled.  No matter how many times people like me say we love books somebody will say, “Have you considered a Kindle?”  Why?  I bought a house as a place to keep my books.  These little bricks are bits of my mind.  Pieces of my soul!  What we read makes us who we are.  The last person who said the remark about authors learning XML literally sighed with disgust as he said it.  How could, you could feel him thinking, anyone be so backward as to think this is a problem?  I recall Hurricane Sandy.  Sitting in an apartment lit by candles we’d made ourselves, we read old-fashioned books and were eerily content.

Who’s Driving?

Technology has been kind to civilization. At least in some aspects. I often think how easy communication has become. When I was just starting out in the professional world, email was new and not trusted by some academics, and now if you can’t be reached by email you’re not a real professor. Professors are the ones, at least in some sectors, who write books. They share ideas—sometimes quite intricate and entangled—using the delimiters of language that has developed to serve communication. Technology, however, has reached a point where it limits what can be said. I have heard experts say that authors must learn to write in XML, a mark-up language that doesn’t recognize things like pages, or even such simple prepositions as “above” or “below.” We must get away, they say, from outmoded ways of thinking. Or think about this blog. When I list tags, they are “comma separated values” (CSV, but not the pharmaceutical kind). If a book title has commas, it is broken up into separate units, some of them nonsensical as tags. They are, however, what the brave new language demands.

Language is how we express what we mean. Since meaning is often of our own making, it seems that language should allow us to formulate our thoughts, commas and all. We take this incredible tool of language and degrade it in our constant drive to find bigger and better superlatives. Lately I’ve noticed the trend toward calling recognized experts in a field “gods.” I wonder what we will do when that gets old and threadbare. What trumps a god? A Titan, perhaps? Do those who call other human beings “gods” ever stop to think through the implications? The comma represents a pause. I recommend a comma or two before using up the highest superlative the language can support.

Idle worship

Idle worship

As someone who spends a great deal of time writing, as well as reading what others write, I think it is time to push back at those who would limit language. H. P. Lovecraft often utilized intentionally unpronounceable names for his “gods.” Cthulhu has become the best recognized among them in popular culture, but here is a case of a writer having the last laugh from beyond the grave. While those who declare “there is no such thing as a page number” insist that writers hyperlink themselves, those who make their very cosmos what it is do so by breaking the rules. And they did so without having had to become gods.

What I Meant to Say

XML. CSS.  Abstracting.  Separating content and meaning.  Sounds kind of scary to me.  As a would-be writer, plodding my way through what used to be the humanities, I’m sometimes frightened when I hear techies talk about where publishing “has to go” to remain “competitive.”  Since technology drives industry these days, we all need to bow before the image with a head of gold.  What you write on the page has to be edited to make it say what you meant it to say.  Then the meaning has to be excised and converted into XML, because that’s the way ebooks like it.  Page numbers are an artifact, and if your device can’t find the phrase you half remember, don’t go looking for an index.  You see, XML files don’t have pages—they’re just an illusion caused by the limited size of paper.  The meaning lies in the stripped, naked, and shivering content.  Or meaning.  Or something.
So goes the brave new world of publishing.  We live in the days of inferred information and bowdlerization in inscrutable acrostics.  I’ve actually heard techies say, “we need to teach authors to produce what we need.”  Have you ever seen a dog wag so fast?  Or a tale hold so perfectly still?  What do I mean?  Ask an expert.

The blank page of actual paper used to terrorize many a student.  There are few things so transcendent to me as a new, unused Moleskine.  The very blankness of the pages is like unto the whiteness of Heaven.  This is a place where thoughts can roam free, and I can feel the thoughts coursing from my brain to my fingers as the pen traces paths never before seen.  As this blog attests, my writing does not draw the countless masses.  The vast majority of it written on paper will never be seen by another human being.  Thoughts are captured there, mid-flight.  They’ve never been tamed or tagged or abstracted from their meaning.  In the mind of some, I must suppose, that means they really mean nothing.  When I hold them, however, which I can never do with an XML file, I know that some things are simply too important to convert to what someone else declares they must be.