Microwriting

Technologies come and go, and each affects our style of communication. I've been thinking lately about the craft of writing, and what happens to other craftsmen when their habitual modes of expression change. What will Twitter do to long-form writing?

New technologies are often accompanied by proclamations of doom - 'the TV is turning us into couch potatoes'. I imagine that early telephones, allowing people to talk without seeing one another's body language, hyperdeveloped their users' sensitivity to tone of voice. Email wiped out that channel of communication too, leaving some to blather and navelgaze while others learned to use complete sentences. Texting on numeric keypads rewarded economy. Twitter enforces a limit of 140 characters. I'm sure that someone filled with righteous indignation has already proclaimed the doom of long-form English because the new generation of writers has grown up with emoticons, lolspeak, and #hashtags.

When you drive, staying within the lines probably almost comes automatically compared to when you were 17. Repeated obedience to the constraints of the process has worn those necessities into your neural pathways, so the effort is less. And so our new writers have learned to work on numeric keypads or within 140 characters.

Here's another tangent. The startup chime for Windows 95 was written by musician Brian Eno. Eno's avant-garde rock masterpieces often stretched the limits of their media: he put 20-plus-minute songs on vinyl LP sides and he had recently filled a compact disc with a single track. But this job was something different. The following excerpts an interview with him in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1996.
The thing from the agency said, "We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah- blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional," this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said "and it must be 3 1/4 seconds long."

I thought this was so funny and an amazing thought to actually try to make a little piece of music. It's like making a tiny little jewel.

In fact, I made 84 pieces. I got completely into this world of tiny, tiny little pieces of music. I was so sensitive to microseconds at the end of this that it really broke a logjam in my own work. Then when I'd finished that and I went back to working with pieces that were like three minutes long, it seemed like oceans of time.
Oceans of time, for a man who always seemed to want his music to move more slowly. Oceans of words, perhaps, for writers for whom words were free until Twitter came along. I'm confident that they will use their words economically. Ease teaches us nothing. It is only against resistance that we grow strong.