"Tom," no one recently said to me, "it looks like you're really enjoying blogging! Why don't you have your own blog?" Thanks for not actually asking, no one. I have been enjoying blogging here at Powell's, except during the writing of two blog posts I threw out because they stank like fish hidden under a burned truck tire.So why don't I have a blog, as any sensible young writer should? It's a long story. Also, I'm no longer that young.
One of the things that's frequently come up during the process of publishing and promoting Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter concerns the assumption, floated by those who don't know me well, that, because I'm interested in video games, I'm also interested in technology. Indeed, I wound up on a (thankfully, really interesting) panel in Chicago that addressed the troublous matter of technology. My panel cohorts were Jack Fuller, author of What Is Happening to News: The Information Explosion and the Crisis in Journalism, and Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, both deeply intelligent inquiries into what, exactly, the Internet is doing to our culture and our minds. I think I was there in order to provide a "Yay, Technology!" counterpoint to Jack and Nicholas's more somber concerns.
As our audience and my fellow panel members quickly discovered, I have little enthusiasm for technology in and of itself. I like games not because they're technological but because I'm old-fashionedly excited by their storytelling potential and moved by their aesthetic possibilities. I use a Mac because they're easy. My cell phone is Paleozoic. My girlfriend has standing orders to smother me in my sleep if I ever begin Twittering. I know nothing about computers, or, really, about how anything mechanical works, and I've often thought about writing a comical short story about a man like me cast backward in time — to the seventeenth century, say — who finds himself utterly incapable of explaining how the marvelous devices of the twenty-first century function; his only meaningful contribution is to sing a few Beatles songs for everyone. The only reason I'd ever want a Kindle would be to test its Frisbee readiness. I don't have a website. And I don't blog.
I'm thirty-six, which plants me along a rather odd cultural seam. I'm old enough to remember a world without the Internet (I didn't send an email until I was in college, and didn't have a personal email account until I was 27), but young enough not to have known how important it was to pay close attention to the landscape as it changed around me, or how dearly it would affect me. In the late 1990s, when I began publishing, the only writers who had websites or blogs were either tech-savvy or unusually forward thinking. Because I grew up reading magazines and regarded the mere act of publication as promotional effort enough, I simply didn't understand that the world as it was could be meaningfully altered — much less that it would be. By the time I woke up to this, I worried that a blog or website would seem like a late-to-the-party desperation move. (Yes, at one point in my life, I actually believed that someone other than my mom tracked my machinations that closely.) My bigger worry, though, was that a blog or website would give me another thing with which to piddle away my time, which I already managed to do quite well by staring at walls. Plus, there was the whole mortifying possibility that I'd start a blog, work hard to fill it up with interesting material, and in effect be forced to attend a daily version of my own funeral in which no one came, no one commented, and no one cared. (I've rectified that fear while blogging for Powell's this week. My posts have not exactly stirred the commentariat.) Plus, no literary blog is ever going to be better than this one.
I'm hardly a technophobe, though I accept that whatever is happening to us right now is probably going to have some scary cultural ramifications down the line. I also think we'll deal with it like we've dealt with all cultural sea changes: by lamenting the loss of the things we love and grabbing tightly the new, invaluable things we've gained. Well, maybe we won't deal with it so well. But our grandchildren will, for the simple reason that they'll have to. As Nicholas Carr points out in The Shallows, as human culture shifted away from a literary experience based not around oral recitation but private, silent reading, many intelligent people believed this would spell doom. So we lost epic poetry, but gained the novel.
It may be that, as things like video games increase in their sophistication, and some measure of interactivity becomes not a new-fangled storytelling experience but the very foundation of the storytelling experience, the movies and novels we today cherish as irreplaceable will seem as venerably archaic as Virgil. But what if these future interactive experiences happen to be really good, moving, and powerful? Can we not assume that, one day, the Tolstoy or Melville or Eliot of the video game will appear? I don't want to live in a world without traditional literary experiences; indeed, I regard that possibility with horror. I know, however, that I regard it with horror only because I don't understand how I would process life without traditional literary experiences. But here's the thing: the only difference between me and someone who believed that human culture could not endure without, say, epic poetry, is that I am alive and he is dead. In Galatea 2.2, Richard Powers writes, "Everyone who ever lived had lived at a moment of equal astonishment." And, I would say, equal dismay.
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Tom Bissell (Xbox Live gamertag: T C Bissell; PlayStation Network gamertag: TCBissell) is the author of Chasing the Sea, God Lives in St. Petersburg, and The Father of All Things. A recipient of the Rome Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Bay de Noc Community College Alumnus of the Year Award, he teaches fiction writing at Portland State University and lives in Portland, Oregon.
Books mentioned in this post
Tom Bissell is the author of Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter