Thinking in Public: Creating in the 21st Century – Part I
Lets engage in a quick thought experiment. Think back to when you were in high school, working on a paper in your senior English class. Perhaps you are trying to write a paper about similar motifs which Shakespeare used in “Hamlet,” “King Lear,” and “Othello.” Maybe you are trying to put the finishing touches on an essay that asks you to analyze the underlying causes of American involvement in World War I. You might even be ready to rip your hair out as you try to compose a college application essay that discusses an event which changed your life. Hopefully you have a similar experience in your mind. Now, think about what the process of creating that document, whatever it might have been, entailed? Think about what is was like as you sat there, typing away on either a typewriter, word processor, or computer. For most of us, this scenario calls to mind hours of sitting perched in front of a desk, consuming massive amounts of caffeine in the form of your favorite coffee, with our fingers hitting the keys (sometimes rapidly and sometimes slowly). Now, I am going to ask you to do your best to think about who you were thinking of as your audience? This may seem bizarre, but I assure you that this is not some sort of composition class trick question. Have you thought about who your audience was for the work that you selected as part of this thought experiment? I am going to go out on a limb and venture an educated guess that the audience for most people would be one person – the teacher who gave you the assignment. Possibly a slightly larger group of three to five people in the case of the college application essay. Now, as we approach the end of our thought experiment, think about the machine that you were using to create your document – typewriter, word processor, or computer – and ask yourself, what is the relationship between the equipment that you used to create your document and your thinking about what kind of life your document would have after you had completed it?
I am hoping that this post is the first of several posts that will make it possible to explore the shift that has occurred (and is still occurring) between writers and their audience.
For many readers, the man in the picture posted above needs no introduction. Hunter S. Thompson remains a vivid example of prolific writing. Thompson, the author of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “Hells Angels,” and “The Great Shark Hunt” may seem like a strange example to bring into a discussion of authors with a limited author. After all, Thompson had, and still does have, a large audience who reads his work.
The clip above, from the 1981 film, “Where the Buffalo Roam,” does a good job of illustrating the perception which many people have of Thompson, that of a rambling, ranting, drunk, drug using writer, however, what I find striking about this scene is how well it presents Thompson in the familiar model of the writer, working in isolation. In this scene Thompson, just like the high school student of the past whom we focused on in our thought experiment, is working alone, secluded from the world as he sits at a desk, typewriter at the ready. Chances are this does not seem strange to most people, in fact it would seem that this is in keeping with our understanding of what happens when someone sits down to write – that is to say that writing is (and has traditionally been seen as) an activity that originates out of isolation. Thompson, much like any writer who came before or after him, works in isolation because the very idea of composing something is synonymous with being in solitary confinement. When the writer sits down at the typewriter the understanding of what the ultimate fate of the document will be would look something like this
This would logically point to the creation of a document and the consumption of a document as something of a static process, with the writer sitting alone typing and the reader sitting (or standing) with the finished book in their hand as their eyes scan over the text on the page. Not only would this be logical, it would be accurate, since this is the only option that paper based reading and writing leaves open to either party. However, what if we imagined Hunter S. Thompson working with something other than his typewriter?
What would it be like to imagine Thompson creating a video essay? What might a podcast of Thompson speaking be like? An initial response might be that Hunter S. Thompson would still be Hunter S. Thompson, no matter what machinery he used. However, I would call attention to Marshall McLuhan’s famous (some might say infamous) phrase, “the medium is the message.” If the medium of composition was the typewriter, word processor, or a software program like Microsoft Word, what would happen when these were replaced by YouTube videos and blogs?
To be continued…