Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Who needs a computer anyway?

There was a post on Good Morning Silicon Valley today referencing an article in the Sydney Morning Herald about the fact that half of the top ten books in Japan in the last 6 months were written on cellphones. As usual when exploring cultural trends, the Japanese tend to be out there first. Not everything starts in Japan, but if you want to look for unexpected societal implications of technology, Japan bears a look.

As someone who started using computers during a compulsory statistics course while at university, the journey from punching holes in cards on a keypunch to writing novels on cellphones is quite extraordinary. What I have also noticed is that the time to progress from one dominant method to the next has compressed beyond recognition.

If you consider that writing and paper go back thousands of years, printing goes back hundreds of years, the typewriter was invented just over a hundred years ago (1868), and the Teletype was in mass use in the 1950's, there is a pace of change that is exponential.

Within my own family, my grandparents had a discipline of writing letters to the family on Sunday nights. Each of them had portable typewriters that had traveled with them all over the world. I also learned to type on a mechanical typewriter, but it was the IBM Selectric that greeted me by the time I started work. Within 5 years, AES word-processing machines started to show up, and it was only 10 years later that PC's had completely replaced stand-alone typewriters and word-processors.

My dominant method of writing and communicating has been the PC and email. Although I did use typewriters and carbon paper when I first joined the diplomatic service, I rapidly shifted to PC's and WordStar, when I started assembling my own computers in the mid '80's. This was the time of the first modems running at a glorious 300 baud, and the advent of the free Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) with their forums and messaging.

For my children, only two years apart in age, I can see a difference already in their approach to written communications. The eldest grew up with instant messaging and gaming, and she barely uses email. For the youngest, email is already a thing of the past. She lives exclusively on her cellphone, using SMS for written communications.

Which challenges the whole idea of "the written record".

Our ideas of permanence and persistence are not keeping up with the change in technology. Carving marks on rocks gives you a pretty permanent record. Papyrus has lasted for milennia. Paper, if made acid free, last hundreds of years. But now we have thermal printing, laser printing, and ink jet printing, all with lives measured in tens of years. Our written record is becoming ephemeral, lasting only temporarily.

While electronic records seem permanent, the reality is that the storage media - disk, tape, optical disc - are fragile and easily corrupted. More importantly, even if the data survives, there is a dependence on the continued existence of computers, operating systems, and application programs in order to access the data. Although we are awash in information, our historical record is surprisingly delicate.

What has replaced persistence is presence. I don't care what you said in the past, I just want to know if you are online. Services such as MSN, Yahoo Messenger, ICQ, and Skype have changed the rules of the communication game from content to contact.

There is an assumption that there is no record - what I say to you will disappear when we stop talking. Nothing is permanent. This accelerates with SMS, in which even the device being used to communicate, the cell phone, is viewed as a fashion item rather than a communication channel. Replaced on a whim, the record of messages is erased without a thought.

The same behaviour can be seen on social networks such as Facebook and MySpace, where pictures of people doing things they would probably rather forget about are routinely posted. There seems to be a genuine sense of surprise when warnings are given that these photos may come back to haunt one later in life.

After all, isn't stuff supposed to go away when you disconnect?

In Japan, cellular storytelling is all the rage

Justin Norrie
December 3, 2007 - 10:29AM

It seems improbable, even at this early stage, that 21-year-old Rin (a nom de plume) might one day be granted a place alongside Fyodor Dostoevsky in the pantheon of literary giants.

The nursery school teacher from Kokura, in Japan's south, is celebrated for her skill with stichomythia and crude colloquialisms but not, like the great Dostoevsky, the extent to which her writing illuminates the darkest machinations of the mind.

For the time being at least, however, she is entrenched alongside the Russian master in Japan, where the two have become major best-sellers of fiction this year.

A new translation of Dostoevsky's classic The Brothers Karamazov, released in July, has surprised its publisher by notching up more than 300,000 sales already - but it is Rin's rather less challenging Moshimo Kimiga (If You ...), a 142-page hardback book about a high-school romance, that has caused the bigger fuss.

"I typed it all on my mobile phone," Rin explains matter-of-factly over the same device. "I started writing novels on my mobile when I was in junior high school and I got really quick with my thumbs, so after a while it didn't take so long. I never planned to be a novelist, if that's what you'd call me, so I'm still quite shocked at how successful it's turned out."

So successful that one volume of her book, which began its life in a series of instalments uploaded to an internet site and sent out to the phones of thousands of young subscribers, has sold more than 420,000 copies since it was converted into hardcopy format in January.

Remarkably, half of Japan's top-10 selling works of fiction in the first six months of the year were composed the same way - on the tiny handset of a mobile phone. They sold an average of 400,000 copies. By August, the president of Goma Books, Masayoshi Yoshino, was declaring in a manifesto that he was determined "to establish this not simply as a fad, but as a new kind of culture".

Conservative literary academics in Australia who have been huffing about the "radical" study in high-school English courses of SMS messages as "text" have cause to be anxious.

In just a few years, mobile phone novels - or keitai shousetsu - have become a publishing phenomenon in Japan, turning middle-of-the-road publishing houses into major concerns and making their authors a small fortune in the process.

Usually they are written by first-time writers, using one-name pseudonyms, for an audience of young female readers - who, in Japan especially, consult their mobile phones so regularly that the habit could be mistaken for a tic. The stories traverse teen romance, sex, drugs and other adolescent terrain in a succession of clipped one-liners, emoticons and spaces (used to show that a character is thinking), all of which can be read easily on a mobile phone interface. Scene and character development are notably missing.

Koizora (Love Sky) by Mika has sold more than 1.2 million copies since being released in book format last October. The story, about a high-school girl who is bullied, gang-raped, becomes pregnant and has a miscarriage in a saga of near-Biblical proportions, will soon be made into a movie.

Mayumi Sato, a 37-year-old editor at Goma Books who turned Rin's episodic melodrama into a bestselling book, says it is also her favourite of the new generation. "I was actually crying at one point while I was working on that one," she says about the story of a high-school girl's fight against HIV.

"It might seem strange that young readers are going out and buying the book after they've already read the story on their mobile. Often it's because they email suggestions and criticisms to the author on the novel website as the story is unfolding, so they feel like they've contributed to the final product, and they want a hardcopy keepsake of it."

Maho no i-rando (Magic Island), a site that has free tools to help readers create their own mobile phone novels, has accumulated nearly 1 million works since it was set up seven years ago.

Predictably, the surge in popularity of crude, cellular storytelling has raised eyebrows in academic circles.

Toru Ishikawa, a professor of Japanese literature at Tokyo's Keio University, points out that Japanese mobile phones allow their owners only a limited selection of kanji, the Chinese characters regarded by Japanese as more intellectually demanding than their native syllabary. "The size of the screen also necessitates that [authors] use short, simple sentences with basic words. If that's how you measure the quality of literature, then yes, the prevalence of writing like this will water down Japanese literature.

"But it could also encourage writers to be inventive with language in new ways. Language must always evolve."

Rin says she often reads more challenging Japanese classics and acknowledges that her work is deliberately aimed at young people.

This story was found at: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2007/12/03/1196530522543.html

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