Poetry, Technology and the Internet

Technology has provided people with better education and more leisure, giving more people enough skill and time to write. The range of writers' experiences has been extended by TV and cheap travel but the craft of writing has hardly been affected by technological progress. Though it's true that Caxton made texts more easily available, Biro made writing easier and DTP made it possible for writers to produce books themselves, distribution methods have remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years.

The early pioneers of DTP met a lot of resistance. Critics said that

Yet as soon as the price was right, most writers found DTP invaluable. In the early days there were many articles on its benefits (and endless humorous pieces about spell checkers). A sure sign of the shape of things to come is the current glut of articles about The Internet.

So what is the Internet and is it useful for poets?

The Internet is an international network of computer networks, a means of transfering files and information. About a million computers (about 20 million people) are connected. Usage doubles every ten months. The Internet could be a boon to writers. Many are using it already. Amongst the facilities offered are

Resources

As texts come out of copyright they're being scanned in and made available on the Net. Works ranging in popularity from the Bible to (for example) Merry's The Picture of Paris (1790) can be read and searched as easily as files on your own machine. It's as if your machine contained a huge library of books.

Publishing

Just as the DTP revolution helped to democratize and demystify printing, so the internet does the same for distribution. It's easy to 'publish' your book -- if you put a copy of your files in the right place then anyone on the internet can look at your work as easily as they can look at their own files. Various literary magazines already exist on the net -- one or two even pay! Of course the magazines are free, but since the publishing and distribution costs are minimal, the magazines are far cheaper to run than paper magazines. Their readership is also far higher -- a new magazine is likely to be downloaded by well over a thousand people in the first fortnight alone. Letters electronically mailed to the editor can be added to the current edition, rather than subsequent ones. Typos can be immediately corrected as well. It's too early to predict what implications all this will have for books, but remember how quickly classical LPs disappeared once CD players became sufficiently cheap?

Workshops

What do you hate about workshops? Their infrequency? The chore of traveling to them? The lack of a text in front of you? The lack of time for considered comment? The people who go to them?

The internet and e-mail offer a way for distant writers to keep in touch, exchanging poems and comments at their leisure. The distractions of the local writers circle disappear. You can e-mail to a small, scattered coterie of friends or, if you're brave, post poems to a computer 'bulletinboard' for all to read and comment upon.

I've been wary of computer hype in the past, but recent improvements in speed, cost and especially ease-of-use of the internet have already turned last year's wild prophecies into fact. Non-computer-literate people are joining in and contributing material, helping to correct the non-humanities bias on the net. I think that the Internet's affects will be more pervasive that those of DTP. Internet use will improve many people's writing, and (or should I say but?) will also encourage more novice writers to 'publish'. I don't think the quantity or quality of the best writing will change. There will be a growth in 'hypertext' (non-linear, multimedia writing), but otherwise I think that style will be unaffected. The biggest changes will be in publishing (especially of the specialist magazines) when a critical mass of readers and writers have joined the Net. With the cost of an internet connection already down to about 10 pounds a month (plus the price of a modem) and with the available material increasing so rapidly, I think that these changes will happen sooner rather than later.

This article first appeared in Acumen 21, Jan 1995


tpl@eng.cam.ac.uk

Back to list of articles