scribble, scribble, scribble
selected TEXTS, published and unpublished


Or, the Death of the Author on the Installment Plan

First published as "Let's Get Digital" in The Voice Literary Supplement, March 1993

I became a writer the day I bought my first computer, and that, by no coincidence, was the last day I knew with any certainty what a writer was. 

When I was four my father--nudging me toward a career he was well on his way to failing at--gave me a tot-sized typewriter for Christmas. From then on, I knew that to write was to claim a kind of patrimony, and in later years a host of cultural cues filled me in on the details of the inheritance. It was a title handed down from generation to generation of privileged latter-day artisans, a select few granted access to the costly medium of print by virtue of their ability to shape raw experience into language vivid enough or lucid enough to compel recognition by the inarticulate many. I wanted that title--wanted it with an increasingly anxious hunger the more conscious I grew of the possibility of failure--and spent much of my education preparing to receive it. I read hungrily, wrote dutifully, and by the time I left school had written volumes: poems, plays, stories, a ream or so of essays. I'd even been paid for a few of them. 

But I knew what a writer was, and I didn't feel ready to call myself one. In retrospect, I suppose a little faith and a few more bylines was all I really needed to make the leap, but at the time, perhaps subconsciously reopening that primal Christmas present, I fixed on the means of production as the missing ingredient in my writerly self-image. I knew that the typewriter was ceding its role in textual manufacture to the personal computer, and that the computer demanded a far greater capital investment. But I was willing to make the sacrifice. Twelve hundred dollars for a piece of hardware might have seemed steep; but as the price of a professional identity it was peanuts. I forked the money over gladly, threw the machine in the back of a cab, and came home knowing, at last, that I was a writer. 

What I didn't know was that the same invention that had just confirmed my entry into the writing class had also created a world in which the social and technological structures constituting that class were melting into air. It was a world in which modern definitions of the writer--of authorship, of publication, of intellectual property--were coming into question on a daily and practical basis; a world that continues to grow and to pose its questions while most writers remain only dimly aware of its existence; a world I stumbled into more or less by accident. 

The accident was a modem, a $75 add-on that enabled my computer to pass data to and from other computers through a telephone line. I bought it for professional reasons--to file articles electronically with the newspapers and magazines I was starting to write for--and didn't imagine I'd find any other uses for it. But soon enough those other uses found me: word of modem-accessible message-bases known as bulletin boards reached my attention and piqued my curiosity. I dialed a Long Island number supplied by a friend, connected with a PC sitting in some hobbyist's basement, and saw on my screen a sight now transparently familiar but then tantalizingly new: a menu listing pages and pages of messages, posted by dozens of callers and grouped under topic headings ranging from the general (chat, politics) to the obsessively specific (bowling, Metallica) in a haphazard catalogue of contemporary human enthusiasms. 

I plunged in, and as I moved aimlessly through the texts I felt my curiosity grow. I gradually realized that the messages themselves weren't what drew me in so much as the thrilling and unsettling novelty of their medium: this was public-access publishing, writings printed and disseminated with a single phone call. In tones pitched somewhere between the breezy intimacy of conversation and the measured advocacy of essays, people were writing publicly about their lives and about their cultures and about whatever else writers spin their products from--yet none of these people were writers as I had come to understand the term. Inside the social sphere of the bulletin board it was impossible to define a privileged class of writers, simply because everyone within that sphere was a writer by definition. 

In the following months my fascination with this strange state of affairs led me from one bulletin board to another and showed no signs of flagging. In time, though, it came to mingle with a nagging frustration: my own attempts at participating in this new form of writership seemed to be missing the mark. Trained to write in competition for scarce access to publication, I couldn't help posting messages of futilely aggressive craft, messages that strove to rise above the surrounding dialogue, yet invariably failed to win the recognition I had to admit I was looking for. Suspecting I just hadn't found the right audience yet, I began to explore more sophisticated variations on the humble basement bulletin-board theme. But even in upscale electronic salons like the San Francisco-based WELL and New York's ECHO, where semifamously print-published writers could be found mixing with an emergent digital bohemia, I discovered that no amount of craft could generate the privileging aura that a writer enjoys in print. The problem was not in the audience after all, but in the medium. When finally I gained access to the mother of all bulletin boards--the ``newsgroups'' circulating like a global storm system of text through the thousands of computer networks linked together in the vast and rapidly expanding Usenet--it hardly surprised me that, even faced with a readership of millions spread through dozens of countries, my writerly instincts were no more appropriate than they had been on my local hobbyist's basement board. 

It could be argued, of course, that my failure to get the hang of things arose not because of my professional background but because I had misconceptualized the very nature of online communication. After all, it does approach ludicrous understatement to think of the massively complex webwork of computers my modem had led me into as a glorified publishing industry--which is one reason it's become fashionable to speak instead of ``cyberspace,'' a notion whose cosmic sweep in some ways better describes this new technology. The term migrated out of William Gibson's ``Neuromancer,'' where it names a 21st century virtual dimension, entered into via a neuroelectronic interface, in which the world's data networks unfold before the user as a sensually vivid geography. Though Gibson himself knew squat about computers when he wrote the book, the aptness of his vision to existing networks is immediately apparent to anyone logging on for the first time--one senses, in the imaginary conversational present embodied by the bulletin board's array of messages, and in the computer's ease of mobility through remote chambers of information, that one has stepped into an alternate spacetime. 

I sensed it, anyway, and recognized the pale incompleteness of traditional writing as a model for what happens online. Yet I sensed as well that Gibson in his fertile ignorance had gotten the picture only half right. Cyberspace is a place all right, but it is an insistently textual one--insistently and in fact traditionally, for cyberspace's grand illusion of alternate dimensionality represents not a departure from the nature of writing but a refinement of it. Writing, since its invention, has been a technology of virtual presence, simulating the here-and-nowness of both the writing subject and of whatever conceptual or sensual objects that subject cares to conjure. The technology of cyberspace may dazzle with its newness, but it really only extends the capabilities of an artificial-reality machine older than the Pyramids. 

And if it extends the capabilities of that machine, it extends the perversities as well. For just as old as writing's power to fake presence is its tendency--the meal ticket of contemporary literary theory--to shatter the illusion in the act of creating it, to smear the transparency of communication with the opacity of its own mediating devices; and cyberspace bristles with instances of this tendency. Some are ornamental or playful, like the way the materiality of the signifier leaps forward in the skewed, subculturally assertive typography of young software pirates, who call themselves warez d00dz and wreak havoc on language and copyright laws from the safety of their ``k-k00l uLtRa-eLyTe s00pEr SeKrEt'' bulletin boards. Others are more pervasive and disturbing, like the constant threat of ``flame wars''--arguments that rage out of hand when the powerful rhetorical weaponry afforded by the written word warps minor disagreements into escalating full-frontal assaults. 

But nowhere does the textuality of cyberspace assert itself more forcefully than among the most ambitious online experiments in creating full-fledged virtual environments. Known as MUDs--short for multi-user dimensions--these online hang-outs recast the bulletin board as lived theater, drawing on the venerable hacker tradition of computerized Dungeons & Dragons gaming: callers interact with one another in real-time through self-made personae, exploring together the nooks and crannies of textually constructed caverns, mansions, back alleys, forests. There's a lysergic lucidity to these spaces, a heightening of the illusion of presence to within a hair's breadth of the fully realized ``consensual hallucination'' that defines true cyberspace--and yet the stuff they're made of is the purest literary convention. Simple he-says-she-says dialogue cues organize the communication, environmentally evocative descriptions set the scenes, and the whole experience moves forward line by line in a balanced alternation between the two modes, just like any work of fiction. 

Thus it's done me little good to recognize cyberspace as the proper metaphor for online communication, for rather than proving the irrelevance of my writerly anxieties to this strange new realm of interaction, cyberspace proves at every turn to be just another name for writing itself. Nor does it mean much to point out that the increasing capabilities of computer networks will sooner or later bring other media like sound and video encroaching on the present hegemony of text. Even if these other channels succeed in banishing text from the online universe (which seems unlikely given the unique fitness of the written word to vast realms of interpersonal communication), their digital form will endow them with writing's most significant properties as a medium: its ease of manipulation, of reproduction, and of dissemination. Thus, inevitably, the modemed world--a world you and I will be living in more and more as its current exponential growth pushes it well into the cultural mainstream--will remain in its fundamental logic a written one. 

What will change just as inevitably, however, is the network of social relations that writing both defines and is defined by, and my own encounter with the online economy of textual production tells me this change will be as sweeping as what followed in the wake of Gutenberg's invention. I have seen the writing on the bulletin board, and it promises an irreversible diffusion of authorship throughout the social body, a blurring past all recognition of the line between reader and writer. The structure of written work grows more diffuse as well--the intense coherence of heroic individual efforts gives way to the drifting dialogue of message bases and the trippy collaborative fictions of MUDs. And good luck trying to cull any regulating canon from this woozy corpus. You'll find no center in the haze of ephemerae; even if you do, it will not hold. 

That this set of changes conforms more or less precisely to the implicit prescriptions of the last two decades' most sophisticated and subversive literary theories will, in the eyes of many, be sufficient cause to celebrate it. But my own reasons are more personal. I am happy to have earned the title of writer; it will continue to provide my living and feed my sense of identity. But I don't think I will ever lose the fear that has partially motivated every public word I've written--the terror of exclusion, of the silence to which the traditional writer's audience is by definition consigned. And it gives me no small satisfaction to think that the system of centralized, limited-access publishing that instilled that fear in me will be dwarfed into irrelevance by a wide-open system that, via Usenet alone, already publishes the equivalent of 1000 books a day. 

My inability to find a voice appropriate to this system is of some concern to me, but I'm not sweating it. I imagine de Tocqueville felt the same way in his travels through young America--formed in an old regime, sympathetic to the new, confident he was seeing a better future but unsure of his place in it. And then I imagine too that my uncertainty itself may be enough to guarantee my place in a future where no one knows with any certainty what a writer is--only that everybody is one.