Friday, 7 September 2012

Time and the Future

I've possibly gotten a bit off-message of late with all my concern about value, worth and pricing. I've still got lots more to say on those topics, and they do relate to the fact that we now live in the future, which is basically my driving interest in maintaining this blog, but I had an experience recently which cuts much closer to my theme - how things have changed due to technologies that were inconceivable even as recently as when I was born.

It actually started with a bit of a freak-out I had (and I should apologise, publically, to anyone whose toes I trod on in the process of my flailing around) earlier this week. As I may have briefly mentioned before, I'm trying to get a non-Second Realm project ready for publication, and one of the essential stages of that process is getting feedback on it from beta readers.

And I've had a hell of a time doing that. Over the last month, I've sent the story to seven people, and so far, I've had one and a half responses (there are mitigating circumstances - which I understand and respect - in all but one of the outstanding cases). To someone as neurotic as me, this has been quite frustrating. To leave open a question like 'how good is this work I've invested so much time in?' for so long is quite uncomfortable. It's cost me sleep and piled on a level of stress that I could really do without.

That's not a jab at the people who haven't got back to me. As I said, I respect their mitigating circumstances - in all cases, they're going through worse than I am, or haven't had as long as other people who've gotten back to me, or some other legitimate delay has interfered. I'm not here to complain about them.

I'm here because of something someone said to me when I did complain, at least of being stressed because I was struggling to get feedback in a convenient time-frame. I posted my complaint to a Facebook group of authors that I'm a member of, and another member replied (not in an aggressive or critical way) that it used to be a lot worse.

They were, of course, entirely correct. Fifteen years ago, probably even only ten, it would have been unthinkable to get feedback on a story of this length (short novella, 20,000 words) in a month. I am just old enough that when, as a teenager, I first tried to submit screenplays to agencies, in almost all cases I had to submit hardcopies by snail-mail.

Now, there's a debate to be had about whether 'it used to be worse' is a useful or relevant comment in that context, but that's not a debate to have now. I did need reminding how lucky I am to live in the age I do. What I'm interested in here is exactly that fact - how absorbed I've become in the age we live in.

(Sidebar: Yes, not everyone alive today is lucky enough to be a participant in the internet age, and broadening participation in the internet is a very important cause, but chances are if you're reading this, you're a participant in the internet age).

Actually, let's follow the convention of calling the modern age the information age - the age of digital computing - rather than just the internet age. And let me crystallise the issue this way: I literally cannot remember ever having lived in a house without some form of computer in it. For a brief period after my family moved house in 1998, we didn't have a PC, but I still had my N64. That's as close as I can remember to living in a house without a computer.

I may be one of the oldest people to be able to say that. It happened by a slightly roundabout route - my mother went into computing straight out of university, sometime around 1970, but didn't have kids until relatively late (I was born when she was 39, my sister two years later), and she remained the family breadwinner (we were raised primarily by our father). I think it wasn't until after I was born that she acquired a PC remaindered out from her workplace for working on at home when she needed to do so, but it wasn't long after I was born.

The PC in question was an old DOS machine with a monochrome display (black and yellow, if you're interested), probably with an 8088-equivalent processor (I can remember asking whether it was a '286' or a '386' and being told it was more like an '086'). It took 5.25" floppy disks, had no mouse and had a keyboard without separate arrow keys and the insert/home/page up block (you had to use the num pad with num lock off to navigate with arrow keys).

It was nirvana to me when I was six. It had no games and I was almost never allowed to use it, which may have prevented me getting disillusioned by the lack of features compared to the SNESes and Megadrives owned by my schoolmates. When I was nine, mum's work remaindered out a bunch more, similar machines, and she managed to get two, one for me and one for my sister.

So I had my first personal computer in 1996, at age nine. I was already convinced that what I wanted to do with my life was make video games (and I still intend to come back to that). I learned elementary BASIC - and learned not to say 'I know basic BASIC' - though, being nine, I never really achieved much. Ever since, though, I've had access to personal computing.

We first got an internet connection about a year later, when we got our first Windows PC. About the same time I *finally* persuaded my parents to let me have a console (and it had to be the N64 - I wouldn't learn to love the Playstation until much later). I think I sent my first emails before the turn of the millenium (i.e. at no older than 12), and started using web forums and instant messenging just as they were starting to explode, sometime around 2001.

All of this, of course, sounds ridiculously late in life by modern standards. A child in Britain or America whose parents have any kind of financial security will these days have used messenger services and email well before age 14 (this is a good thing). But while I'm not a huge outlier among kids my age, I was definitely ahead of the curve.

My point is this: I'm 25 now. An adult. And I have never lived, as an adult or even as a proto-adult adolescent, in the pre-information age.

And I think it's given me a radically different perception of time (perhaps 'perspective on time' would be better). The commenter I mentioned above said it used to be the case that it could easily take eight months to receive feedback on a piece of work. My eyes popped out of my head. But yeah, when the only instantaneous communication widely available was a phone call, and phone calls - land-line calls, remember - cost money, I see how it could have taken a long time to deal with that kind of information.

On the relatively rare occasions I agree to read something for someone, I make a point of trying to have some basic response to give them inside a week. Maybe just on the first few pages or whatever, but still. Working on The Second Realm, my go-to beta reader (the wonderful Lynne Hunt - who has my eternal gratitude) usually turns my stories around in a week.

EIGHT MONTHS?! I'd explode. I'm not a patient man at the best of times, nor do I handle suspense well. A week or two is bad enough. If I had to wait eight months for feedback every time (okay, maybe the turnaround would be quicker on a short story), I'd probably be psychologically incapable of persisting in the writing game. It would stress and depress me so much to be flying that blind - working without any idea whether I was moving in the right direction - that I'd probably have to give it up.

But there's another side to this, which came up in another discussion in the same group at about the same time. With the increased speed of information transfer (and consumption) has come increased demand. I think we now need to work a lot faster to maintain our platforms. Whatever success I've had so far in platform-building has involved managing to publish a short story every month. The logistics of doing that on the old model would be untenable.

And even then, I'd really like to be publishing something once a fortnight, alternating the Second Realm with other projects. If I was working full-time as a writer (it's a long way off yet), and I knew a couple more beta readers as reliably fast as Lynne, I'd be able to do it, and I'm sure I'd do immeasurably better as a result.

The short attention span of the age that we hear so much about means regular content production is important, and that's only possible because of the tools the age presents us with (this blog, for example). But it means life is speeding up - for some of us, it's already sped up. And Heaven help even me when those kids who sent their first IMs at 8 grow up.

I think it's a good thing, overall, but it does mean we can all look forward to being thoroughly left behind. I'm sure there'll be a limit to how fast we can live (we can after all, only register so many stimuli per second), but we haven't reached it yet, and even when we do, we'll just start learning how to make better and better use of the time we have.

And if you ever see me telling someone 'it used to be a lot slower in my day', just point me back to this post...

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