Saturday, January 07, 2006

Paper or Plastic: A New Frontier?

Unga-bunga! From the dawn of civilization, people have been writing poems. It all started when Ug the Cave Man and Uga the Cave Woman used their prehensile fingers to share tanka pictographs with each other by carving poems in the dirt. Since then, we've gone through many stages in terms of writing utensils for poetry -- paint made of berries for cave walls, the use of papyrus, quill pen and paper by romantic candlelight, etc.

Now we have computers. Computers scare a lot of poets. You have to understand that knowledge of poetry and knowledge of computers do not go hand in hand. I can sympathize. Computers scare me as well. Things happen so fast. E-mails and blog posts seldom allow for enough contemplation. You're on a first date and then, boom, before you know it, you're married with three kids, a two door garage, and a mortgage the size of Premonitions: The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry. But, like it or not, I'm here to say that the computer is here to stay, just as the Internet and blogs are more likely than not here to stay.

That leads to one initial question: In the future, will poets generally write poems on paper/in notebooks or type them out on computers? My guess is that we are heading towards the latter. That is, I can envision a future, maybe twenty and thirty years down the line, in which only a distinct minority of poets will use paper to write initial or subsequent drafts of poems, and all writing and revising of poems will occur on computers.

You might be scoffing. You might be one of those poets who writes everything initially by hand and shuns the idea of typing out poems on the computer. Well, scoff, if you must. I can't stop you. We (still) live in a country with no federal prohibitions on scoffing.

But I think that those of us over the age of 21 should wake up and take a look around. Over the past decade, I've witnessed the world of computers and the Internet infililtrate the world of young people. I didn't use a computer much when I was a kid. Kids are using computers regularly now. When I was a teaching assistant for a summer school class of first graders a few years back, they were already typing away on the computer. I didn't use e-mail on a regular basis till I was in my junior or senior year of high school. For many teenagers nowadays, e-mail, IM, and blogs are a regular part of their lives and have been their whole lives. That is, they have never known any differently. To draw a parallel here, it is like trying to imagine a world without television sets, which is very difficult to do.

I'm not sure whether this phenomenon is good or bad. At least a few of my friends have lamented at the costs of the new technological age -- less face-to-face contact with people, fewer phone conversations, greater alienation, etc. At the same time, there are benefits as well -- easy communication via e-mail, the nonintrusiveness of such communication, it is a plus for people who like to write, etc. More relevant to the point of this post, a lot of younger people actually don't know how to write substantively or stylistically well on paper, especially in cursive in terms of style. It may come as a surprise to you, but it shouldn't. With more time spent on computer instruction and regular use of computers, writing on paper naturally seems more unnatural. At the same time, the computer skills of younger people are well-developed, and in general, will be more well-developed than those of a previous generation.

My guess is that most poets under the age of 21 have already given up pen and paper for keyboard and computer monitor. Go to -- where there are many Asian-American poets under the age of 21 -- to check out the phenomenon for yourself. This is the year 2006. We are at the cusp of the computer/Internet age, and I think that more poets should more seriously consider the different ways in which this change may drastically affect "how" we write poems.


Blogger Onigiriman said...

As a 50 year old geezer who used to hold senryu poetry contests on Xanga (no more time), I must say the reason to write poetry on a computer rather than on paper, is similar to the reason for blogging: narcissistic fame. If anyone wanted to keep things private--whether a poem or a journal--then writing on paper or a non-online computer would be the way to go. But in our me-me-me world of the 21st century, we all want to be noticed. Everyone I know who would rather not be known, who values their privacy, does NOT keep up a blog. So while the Internet and computers are here to stay, whether one shoose paper or plastic is based on one's narcissistic tendancies... or maybe I'm being too pessimistic.

8:52 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey, well, you are definitely up to speed with computers, the Internet, and blogs. In a way, I may be preaching to the converted here -- that is, people who are reading this blog, or blogs in general, probably don't tend to be computer-averse. (By the way, I think the blog title, "Memoirs of a Riceball," is cool.)

10:56 PM  
Blogger Lyle Daggett said...

I think there are a couple of related, but different, questions here. I agree that computers are slowly consuming the means of communication in the world (though at present they're not nearly as pervasive in some parts of the world as in others). Another, separate, question, is whether this is a good thing.

The fact that a technology is possible -- the fact that human beings are capable of doing something -- doesn't necessarily mean that the technology is a good one.

An extreme example -- but just to make the point as forcefully as possible: the concentration camps of the 20th century, in which millions died, were (at least in a sense) a technology.

Or, another example, the atomic bombs that laid waste to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

One could argue, in the above examples, that it was the particular social and political agenda behind the technology, and not the technology as such, that was responsible for the millions dead. This, however, is just the point. Technology (like everything else human beings do) exists in a social and political context.

A slightly less stark example, but still to the point, is the technology of automobiles, which are a major contributor (though certainly not the only one) to the erosion and destruction of the environment of the earth. One could also name coal burning industries, nuclear power, etc. Again, the fact that human beings are capable of making and using a technology does not, in itself, mean that the technology (or its use) is a good idea. One could certainly argue that the thoughtless, indiscriminate use of some technologies is a very bad idea.

I'm not necessarily advocating going back to living in caves and foraging for firewood. The important thing to keep in mind is that every technology involves choices with consequences. It all comes at a cost. The arguments both for and against paper and computers can each be compelling. Paper kills trees; computers can kill thought.

We don't have to speculate about what can happen when a new technology is introduced too quickly into an ecosystem or a culture, or without sufficient forethought. We have, tragically, ample historical examples of this.

To answer the questions of paper vs. silicon, we need to come to grips with other quesions, such as:

What kind of world do we want to live in? What kind of species do we want to be? In what state to we want to leave the earth after we're gone? What gives life the greatest meaning for the living?

I don't pretend to have final or definitive answers for any of these questions, but these are questions we need to ask.

6:55 PM  
Blogger vinhthekid said...

i feel like everyone here seems to be making this too big of a question. and i'm wondering if this same question was asked when the typewriter first came into prominence? Other than an aesthetic feel, what /really/ is the difference between writing on paper and writing with the computer.

I write most of my poems with my computer. I have a poet's notebook I use to keep notes and to occasionally scribble down lines and play with stuff when inspiration hits me, but my serious stuff is written using the best available medium... my computer. it is simply easier for me to type it up, make sure i never loseby saving it, allow myself to read it easily and change it easily and to have a quick and easy spell checker.

does the argument between paper and silicon really bear merit, especially in the age where computers are just as portable as notebooks? oh... and im one of those under 21 poets on xanga.

8:54 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Lyle, yeah, I think that it's useful to ask whether it's a good thing that technology generally and computers specifically play an increasing role in our lives.

If I'm answering yes, it could be because I don't know any differently. I've grown up with computers so much a part of my life. So has Vinh. It's difficult for me to imagine a world without "silicon" playing an important role.

And Vinh, the question of whether the argument of silicon vs. paper bears merit is itself an intersting question. Maybe it doesn't. Maybe it really won't matter, because, like you say, computers are now so portable, and more and more people have access to computers. Of course, there are lots of people who still don't have access -- in the US and the world. But even so, maybe computers will eventually be like tv's (in the sense that practically everyone has at least one) and so the question won't be asked anymore. Like, it's tough for people to imagine a time when tv's weren't a part of society.

1:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For me, I use both the paper and the computer notebook to do my writing. The tools I write with depend on different factors like time, place, situation, etc. At work, if a line for a poem pops into my brain, I'll type it into an email and send it to my private account; if I'm at home and surfing the Net, I'll open up a word document and type it in there; if I'm walking down the street and I immediately get an idea, I whip out my notepad and write it down before I forget; if I'm in a coffeehouse, I always have my notebook at the ready.

Also, I follow a pretty predictable pattern when I write and edit a poem: I usually free write on paper, then I transfer it to a word doc on the computer, then I print it out and do a lot of editing with a red pen, then I transfer the edits to the word doc and do even more edits on the computer, etc., etc., until I think I have a finished poem.

I say use whatever means necessary to write the poems you want to write. Don't limit yourself to just one medium.

11:34 PM  

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