How Will Self Led Me to a Greater Appreciation of Sustainable Design

Recently I read “The Printed World in Peril: the age of Homo virtualis is upon us,” an essay by Will Self in Harper’s Magazine. After he devotes some time to describing the declining role of literature in our world, Self says his essay is about “the impact of the screen on the page,” a subject of great interest to me and the real focus of my Digital Gloss project. He says that he has been concerned about the effects of technology on reading and writing for over ten years and has often been excoriated by his readers and fellow writers for having such a negative point of view about what he calls “the tyranny of the virtual.” Self goes on to say that he is not impressed by people who quote sales figures that prove print book sales are still going strong and e-book sales are declining because the printed books sold “are not the sort of difficult reading that spearheads knowledge transfer but picture books, kidult novels like the Harry Potter series, and… spin-off books by so-called vloggers…” Self also says that the decline in e-books is occurring because the screen isn’t a good way to deliver long reads and those long reads can’t really compete with video, games, social media, and “all the other entertainments the screen affords.”

Like everyone, I play a number of roles as I go about my life – sometimes I’m a writer and sometimes I’m a reader and sometimes I’m a designer, among other things. And in all these areas of my life I have noticed that the rise of the screen – particularly in regard to social media and smartphone usage – seems directly correlated to people’s inability to focus and tendency to read distractedly. (See “Why you should read this article slowly” for a compelling description of the ways that screens affect our reading habits.)

Earlier this year I was appalled when I read “Welcome to the Post-Text Future” by Farhad Manjoo, in the New York Times. Manjoo says, “The defining narrative of our online moment concerns the decline of text, and the exploding reach and power of audio and video.” Text won’t go away altogether, he says, but audio and video show signs of becoming “the universal language” as text fades into the background. The internet was once a text-based experience because computers only understood text, but now they have multimedia capabilities, and Manjoo says that it’s now easier to communicate with machines using images and sounds than through text (think of speaking to Siri). He believes that, “The haze of misinformation hanging over online life will only darken under multimedia,” but there’s no turning back.

As a writer and reader I want to ask: Is this really true, and is there nothing we can do to prevent this distracting and problematic multimedia trend? As a designer, I appreciate Alex Crowfoot’s perspective when he cautions in “Designers, stop designing for yesterday’s planet,” that we should “Minimise data.” He goes on to say that this is important in a climate-change-challenged world because “It has been estimated that streaming just an hour of video per week for a year requires more energy use in the server farm than two domestic refrigerators.” And then he says that much of that energy comes from burning coal. As designers we can be part of the solution by making lighter weight pages and giving careful thought to the problem of data transfer when we use video. So just read that sentence again: “It has been estimated that streaming just an hour of video per week for a year requires more energy use in the server farm than two domestic refrigerators.” Crowfoot doesn’t source that claim, however, and I wondered where that information came from? Could this in fact be true?

So I searched on the term “streaming an hour of video per week for a year uses more energy than two refrigerators” and I found a five-year-old article at Salon called “Your Netflix habit uses more energy than your fridge.” In this article Lindsay Abrams says, “It may come as a surprise, but it takes a lot of energy to keep ‘the cloud’ up in the air (or, you know, housed in giant data centers). According to a report posted online by Mark Mills of the Digital Power Group, the ICT (information, communications, technology) ecosystem — which includes the cloud as well as the digital devices and wireless networks that access its services — is approaching 10 percent of the world’s electricity usage, or the same amount of power we used to light the planet in 1985. Streaming an hour of video per week it says, uses more electricity in a year than two new refrigerators.”

Abrams also tells us that the original study probably overestimated the amount of energy streaming video requires and underestimated the amount of energy that comes from renewable sources used, for example, by Google and Apple. It turns out that the Digital Power Group was sponsored by the coal and mining industries and so the study was inclined to emphasize that coal is key to energy production. But the cloud uses a lot of energy nonetheless, and the proliferation of multimedia means that it will need more and more. So I have decided that, as a concerned reader, writer, and designer, I will argue that designing smaller, lighter websites and using less multimedia content online will not only use less energy in our climate-change-challenged world but will also contribute to a renewal of our ability to focus and really read. Sustainable design and attentive reading have something important in common. Thanks, Will Self, for leading me to that conclusion.

Why I Decided to Blog Again

Two years ago, right around the time I last posted on Digital Gloss, Jeet Heer at The New Republic waxed pessimistic about the fading of the once-important blogosphere. He seemed to believe that the demise of Gawker marked the end of what he called “the utopian promise of blogging.” At the height of the blogging craze, Heer said, some people believed that we were witnessing the birth of “a world where everyone could be a writer and find an audience—an interconnected network where, in true McLuhanesque fashion, a divided world would become a unified global village.” But then, to show that this utopian vision has not been realized, Heer said that the Japanese now have a word for blogs people have neglected or have stopped updating entirely: ishikoro, or pebbles. “We live in a world of pebbles now,” he said. “They litter the internet, each one a marker of writing dreams and energies that have dissipated or moved elsewhere.”

Farah Mohammed, in an article that appeared in JSTOR, provided solid information about what a powerful phenomenon blogging once was. She said, “According to Drezner and Farrell, in 1999, there were an estimated 50 blogs dotted around the internet. By 2007, a blog tracker theorized there were around seventy million. Yet, a popular question today is whether blogs still have any relevance. A quick Google search will yield suggested results, ‘are blogs still relevant 2016,’ ‘are blogs still relevant 2017,’ and ‘is blogging dead’.” The problem, she acknowledged, is that not enough people are interested in even the most popular blogs and are more likely to turn to Twitter for Facebook for the kinds of information they once gleaned from blogs. Mohammed quoted author Gina Bianchini who discouraged new bloggers: “2017 is a very different world than 2007. Today is noisier and people’s attention spans shorter than any other time in history… and things are only getting worse. Facebook counts a ‘view’ as 1.7 seconds and we have 84,600 of those in a day. Your new blog isn’t equipped to compete in this new attention-deficit-disorder Thunderdome.”

Jia Tolentino, a blogger at The New Yorker, said blogging seemed to be disappearing from the internet, but “so, consequently, is a lot of online freedom and fun.” She mourned the loss of sites like The Awl which she described (along with the women’s site Hairpin) as follows: “Both sites became known as intentionally modest showcases, like Joseph Cornell boxes for writers—places where outsiders and the unpracticed could find something that is becoming more and more elusive: a smart, sympathetic, loyal audience, and an opportunity to sound exactly like themselves.” About her own experience she said, “Before I came to The New Yorker, my only professional writing experience was at blogs, places where a piece like this one, about disappearing blogs, would’ve been either eighty-five words or three thousand, and the lede would have been abrupt and vividly unprofessional, like a friend grabbing you by the collar at a bar. “

In an interview that appeared at Nieman Lab Jason Kottke, who has been blogging since 1999 (when there were according to Drezner and Farrell about 50 blogs on the internet), described what’s happened to blogging over that nearly twenty year time span:  “One of the compelling things about blogs, for me, was that you had individual people presenting links and information that were a little view into what that person was interested in, and what was interesting about this person. As blogs got bigger, things like Gawker and Engadget and all those sorts of blogs took off — commercial blogs with teams of people doing it; it wasn’t so much an individual thing anymore. I like the personal curation and filtering, and where you find that these days, for better for worse, is Twitter and Facebook.”

Blogs do seem to be going the way of the floppy disk and the cassette tape, and nothing seems to be able to stem the tide. Just last summer NPR shut down its Two-Way blog, and NPR blogger Bob Collins said in a post that announced the blog’s demise :  “We don’t like to see news blogs disappear, but it’s an inescapable fact that the days are numbered for them in core media.

“Mainstream news organizations have had a very difficult time squaring the more personal nature of blogs, their willingness to amplify the work of newsroom competitors, and the reader community they create with the traditional practices of newsrooms.”

And so having given some background from around the web about the fate of the blogosphere, I will tell you the reason for this post. Today I was getting ready to delete my Digital Gloss blog because I haven’t posted on it for nearly two years. But, as Farah Mohammed says a number of people have done, I entered the term “death of blogging” into a search engine, and I came up with half a dozen articles that sparked my interest. And because I wanted to present some links to interesting articles and add some personal comments, which is more than I can reasonably do on Twitter, I decided that all this negative talk about blogging doesn’t mean I can’t continue to blog. After all, blogging is more than curation, more than finding some cool articles and pointing them out to the three (or fewer) people who might be listening. A blog post is a very effective journal entry, a way to remind myself of what was important to me on, for example, September 9, 2018. And of course, the word blog is a shortened form of the term “web log,” not a description of cutting-edge journalism or award-winning creative non-fiction. So here I am, once again, writing in my online journal and using Twitter to tell others about my post. It might not exactly be a “Joseph Cornell box for [a] writer,” but it’s actually been quite satisfying.

On the National Writers Union’s New Website and Solidarity Among Writers

home_pageOriginally, I planned to begin this post about the National Writers Union’s new website by saying that, though I have been an NWU member since 2001, I continue to pay my dues out of union solidarity and because I want to be a part of the labor movement. In truth my freelance work involves only occasional writing jobs, and a lot of the writing I do is for my own blogs. As a result I don’t think I’m as much of a “professional” writer as some of my fellow union members are.

But when I described my proposed opening to my partner Greg, who is also an NWU member, he said it was rather a weak and idealistic explanation for why I stay in the NWU. So I asked him why he keeps paying his dues each year, and he said, “Because I’m not a fool. I think that everybody who knows what’s what also knows that it’s important to be part of an organization that advocates for your profession/ trade/ line of work, and freelance writers are no exception. I would certainly also argue that being part of a trade union allows you to be part of a larger struggle, and there’s strength in numbers. But I’m trying to be practical here and not just idealistic.”

I liked his answer, and I agree with it. I guess I justify my union membership the way I do because I sometimes feel a little underwhelmed by my own writerly resume. Other writers in the NWU have many published books to their credit (as does Greg) or have had their freelance work appear in lots of major publications that pay in dollars per word. As for me, most of what I’ve had published is short, literary fiction that only occasionally pays anything, and then it’s usually an honorarium. So I identify myself within the union as being a part of the Biz Tech division, which incorporates business and technical writers, as well as “all other writers who are not book authors or journalists.”

In any case, I decided to write a piece about the NWU because a few days ago (July 13) they rolled out their new website, which has been in the works since the 2013 Delegate Assembly. There’s much to like about the new site, including a “Hire a Writer” page that will allow you to search the union’s “talent database” to find a union writer appropriate to the job you have in mind. Or, if you are an NWU member, you can add your profile to the database and possibly pick up a freelance job through the new site.

But what I liked even better about the site is that it contains some real messages of solidarity, encouraging writers of all types and skill levels to join and giving them good reasons to do so. Part of the answer given to the question “Who Can Join?” which is given a prominent place on the home page is the following: “The National Writers Union (NWU) represents all types of writers working in print, electronic, and multimedia formats… As writers’ work moves online, we will continue to support all writers. All are valuable economic participants whose labor as creators is the driving force behind the new age of digital content.”

OK, I thought, that sounds very welcoming and inclusive. Then I went to the Frequently Asked Questions page and looked at the answer given to the question of why a well-published and experienced writer should join the union when it’s “open to both professionals and writers just breaking into the field.” Because, says the reply, “[i]n our experience, more established writers aren’t treated less well when less experienced writers demand better treatment. We all gain.”

And finally, in answer to the question of why a writer who writes for pleasure and considers herself to be an artist, not a worker, should join the union: “Yes, some of us write for pleasure and don’t depend on writing income to support ourselves. Yet our writing has value: since publishing is a profitable business, we deserve to be treated with respect and consistency and to receive a fair share of the proceeds. We all need to ask for what we deserve so that we don’t become a society where only the wealthy can afford to write.”

If I had to make one criticism of the new NWU website, I would say I was disappointed that it’s not a whole lot more vibrant-looking and colorful than its predecessor. So many members asked for more of an eye-catching design that I was surprised to see the same old limited palette of blues, greens and greys and a continued lack of photos and graphics. But the message of solidarity and the reminder about “strength in numbers” lets me know that I’m making the right decision when I pay my dues and continue to be a member of the National Writers Union.

Manifesto for a Reader-Centered Universe

Recently I decided to make reading a higher priority. I started doing book reviews. I got a library card at a nearby community college library that still has lots of books. I joined Goodreads. I wrote this manifesto at the height of the excitement over e-books and new publishing technology, and I still stand by it.
One of the most challenging and frustrating things about being a writer in the 21st century is the fact that there seem to be more writers than readers, and probably the most annoying thing about the buzz over digital publishing is that the focus is on the technology, rather than on the human element.

We refer to Kindles and the like as e-readers, yet they are passive objects, and the real reading is done by me and billions of other humans like me. This isn’t simply a matter of semantics. As we go down, level by level, from the legal fictions of corporate persons who produce the e-readers and the publishers who make e-books available; through the bookstores and libraries, where we are at last face to face with other humans; and finally encounter individuals in the act of reading, we see that one phenomenon is most important: a human reader interprets a script or other text produced by a writer in order to understand something that a writer or group of writers produced yesterday or a thousand years ago.

Once you make your way past the corporate persons and the bureaucratic entities and you begin to reach the level of other human beings, you realize the true importance of the reader. We are not just consumers: we are the goal, the grail, the intended endpoint of all that is written! If it weren’t for us, gentle readers, people like you and me who read newspapers and magazines, books and academic articles, whether online or on paper, over the internet (or perhaps we are distracted or not literate or can’t see and we must listen to them being read to us in audio books or by screen readers), in whatever form we take in the words that were written by writers, we readers and auditors are the intended audience and what the whole process is about. We must not let them forget that.

A reader, an auditor, the intended audience of the written word is a human being. And an e-reader is a device, not a reader, any more than your speech recognition software really hears you. As we begin to try to automate the process of putting writers’ words into “print” and making them available on the internet for download to e-readers, we have to remind ourselves that reading is an active process and it means nothing and affects nothing without the willing cooperation of readers, human readers. And if you think that how we say this doesn’t matter, then you’re not being a very good reader, dear reader. But if you care about being a reader (auditor) of the words of writers and care how they are presented to you, you deserve to be treated very respectfully and with the full knowledge of your worth and importance. As a writer, as a publisher, and as a web designer, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a reader-centered universe.

Should Writers Get a Little Help from Their Governments?

[posted by Alice]

Earlier this year more than 9,000 writers took part in the 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey. Results were reported at, among other places, Publishers Weekly (“DBW 2014: Survey Finds Most Authors Want to Earn More“) and the Guardian (“Most writers earn less than £600 a year, survey reveals.”) According to the survey, 54% of traditionally-published authors and almost 80% of self-published writers are making less than £600 or $1,000 a year. Only a tiny number — 0.7% of self-published, 1.3% of traditionally-published — are making more than $100,000 a year from their writing. Most of the writers told the survey-takers that getting their work out there was more important than making money, but living the writing life isn’t sustainable if there isn’t any financial reward. How can a writer keep going if she can’t sell her books?

A few days ago I read an article that showed that not all writers have to rely on making money from book sales. Edward Nawotka in Publishing Pespectives (“German Writers Rely on Readings, Fellowships for Income“) reported that many young and aspiring German writers, like those interviewed for the above-cited survey, make money from bookstore and event readings and from fellowships. In Germany people pay to hear writers read; cities have writers-in-residence programs; and there’s something called The Artists Social Program which offers writers discounts on their health insurance.

That sounded remarkably good to me until I found an article called “The Norwegian Government Keeps Book Publishers Alive And other reasons it’s the best place in the world to be a writer,” and I learned that Norway has the best of both worlds. Just an example: “So long as a new Norwegian book passes quality control, Arts Council Norway purchases 1,000 copies of it to distribute to libraries — or 1550 copies if it’s a children’s book.” So writers are guaranteed to sell many copies of their books, and the country also lends other kinds of support to writers. Well-known artists receive a guaranteed income, usually until retirement, and others are eligible for 1-5-year work grants.

So what does all this mean? Does it mean that the United States and Britain don’t value literature as much as Germany and Norway do? Or does it just mean that small rich countries with languages that are not widely spoken (like Norway) have governments that are more willing to subsidize the nation’s literature? Obviously, I don’t have the answers, but it does seem that the U.S. and Britain have more of a market-oriented approach, forcing writers to depend on how many books they can sell, and Germany and Norway give writers a wider range of ways to make an income (and help popularize their work). And it isn’t a simple matter that rich countries can afford to subsidize writers. Norway does have a higher per capita GDP than the United States, but the United States has a higher per capita GDP than Germany does. In any case I think that forcing writers to depend on book sales might not be the best way to insure that we in the U.S. have the thriving literary culture we deserve.