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“The insistent conquest of a new technology”

March 3, 2012

Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller

The Artist is a joy, but it has a serious theme: the fall from grace of a master when the technology underlying their art changes and power shifts to younger artists who embrace the new mode. In the film Jean Dujardin plays a silent movie star who dismisses the new “talkies” as a fad, but finds himself dumped by the studio, who favours those who adapt to the new medium such as his former protégé, played by Bérénice Bejo.

Rick Groen, in The Globe and Mail, says that the film “uses old technology to dazzling effect to illustrate the insistent conquest of a new technology.”

This reminds me of the state of books and writing, now being insistently conquered by new technology, which is replacing paper books with electronic forms and demanding that writers connect with their readers in digital ways, such as author platforms and social media.  Writers face what Groen describes as the “rapidly evolving technology that liberates and enslaves but, either way, issues a non-negotiable demand: Learn and adapt or fade into irrelevance and die.”

Will writers who dismiss the new technology “fade into irrelevance”?

Certainly the rush to ebooks seems unstoppable. And as a reader I can see why. I’ve always enjoyed browsing in bookshops, and I love being surrounded by thousands of books in my study. But now I’m a convert – I browse the ebook sites more often than bookstores, and recently, for the first time, I took no paper books on an overseas trip. Instead I loaded my ipad with the equivalent of a suitcase full of books, including the Lonely Planet guide. The new technology is great.

It is content – the story – that matters, not the container (see Is the Digital Revolution Good for Writers?) In the transition from silent films to talkies, the format may have changed but cinema story-telling continued. We should be clear-eyed: as Groen says, technology can enslave as well as liberate, and many would consider the pressure on writers to use digital means to promote their own work as negative. But we can also be alive to the greater opportunities for story-telling that the digital revolution (like talkies) can give us.

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