Obit.: Microsoft Word 2008 (2008 - 2015)

Today I farewell a friend, a singular (sort of) witness to countless hours of my work over a keyboard over many years.

Actually, ‘friend’ is pushing it a bit. Let me start again.

Today I farewell one my essential tools of trade—vale, Microsoft Word 2008:

You survived seven years’ worth of hardware and software upgrades (an eternity in technology). And only now I lose you, just when things had been going so well and I had begrudgingly accepted your quirks and customised your most obscure settings and templates, and in the course of my work ceased to really notice you much at all.

A writer’s choice of word processor is very individual and a certain degree of fussiness (some might say “fartiness”) is surely to be expected. Some writers like to move around between different kinds of software. Some demand no formatting or scoff at the folly of fake pages. Others just fall into habits. And while experimenting with writing techniques and technology is part of my brief, for the straight up job of getting text out of my head my go-to software was one of the most feature-bloated and clunky bits of kit Microsoft had seen fit to bestow upon us since Clippy first observed that it looked like I was writing a letter.

Two years ago, I experimented with writing on a typewriter and discovered how profoundly the tools with which we write affect how we go about what we do. At the time I said:

I’m a cut-and-paste writer. This sentence has been cut-and-pasted at least half a dozen times in the creation of this essay. My approach to writing is to throw sentences down, and use a little C & P magic to fashion them into something with flow and form.

Cut and paste, find and replace, dictionary and thesaurus, header and footer, line and paragraph formatting, and the keyboard shortcuts to all these are a feature set to which I’ve grown extremely accustomed and without which I find it difficult to get rolling.

I never loved Word 2008, but I never hated it either and, when I needed to produce text, it did the job. At least until recently.

For the record, I do like to keep my software up to date. And there’s good reason for this. The most common software updates patch annoying bugs and fix security holes that would otherwise threaten your system and your data.

But once in a while, software companies like to shake things up. They get bored with the features and layout and set about radically redesigning it. Sometimes these redesigns are for the better. Sometimes a redesign needlessly screws around with the interface. When the new version of your word processor takes a flawed but organised toolkit and turns it into an interminable forest of tabs and obscure unlabelled buttons, you can either take it on the chin and upgrade anyway or stick to your guns.

It’s fine to say ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ for a while at least, but all software has a hard use-by date.  Even the software companies that stay in business can’t support all their products indefinitely. It’s hard to imagine Redmond continuing to publish regular security updates for Microsoft Bob (look it up).

Really—unless you’re willing to encase your computer in amber, resolve never upgrade anything again and never connect it to a network—at some point, the software simply will stop working with its operating system.

So it was with Word 2008. It always had a fickle, skittery streak to it, but my recent OS upgrade sent it into a tailspin. It crashed when I try to save. It crashed when I did a word search. It crashed while starting up. Sick of losing work in progress, I took to obsessively hitting ‘save’: an old, old habit dredged up from when I stored master copies of my documents on floppy disks.

There’s a paradox in this need to constantly save: when your writing flows freely and you become immersed in your story, pausing to save your work is (and should be) the last thing on your mind. So the crash that takes your work with it (to some unrecoverable digital hell) is almost guaranteed to happen when you feel like you’re doing your best work.

For a while I tried to find a balance between saving and writing. I swore (a lot). I shook my fist, even. But then I would reopen the application, tell it not to send diagnostic information (what good would it do?) and try and get back to where I was, all the while saving, saving, saving.

It couldn’t last. The bond of trust between writer and software had irrevocably broken. It was always going to end this way, but I had hoped to get maybe just a little more time from it.

I have now begun the difficult process of finding a replacement and although nothing feels quite right, there’s no turning back. So, Word 2008, for the moment, while you remain in my applications folder for now, soon I will have to let go completely and send you to the big crash.

Thank you for your tolerable familiarity.

But how do they find a story?

I visited Atlanta earlier this year and took the opportunity to do a tour of the CNN studio, because why the hell not. As part of the tour, our group walked along an elevated gantry where we could see the working newsroom below. It's an impressive space with enough workstations for maybe a couple of hundreds of journalists at a time. Although it wasn't particularly busy that day (slow news day maybe), there was still a buzz about the place, a sense of just how frenetic it must get when shit really goes down.

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On seeing the floor, an older lady asked the tour guide a question: 'So how do they actually find stories?'

The guide kind of waffled something about how stories are selected for inclusion on air, but it clearly didn't satisfy her.

'But how do they actually find a story in the first place?' she asked her husband as the tour guide moved us along to the next gawking opportunity.

'I don't know,' he replied. 'They must use Twitter and Facebook.'

I'm not a journalist (despite more than once being introduced in public as one), but I have a professional interest in how journalism and news works. Of course social media has become an essential tool for journalists and has had a profound influence not just on how we get our news, but what the content of that news is (sometimes to its detriment). But it is still one tool of many in getting to the truth of a story.

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So the conversation I overheard at CNN has stayed with me.

And I've continued to be struck by the thought that this older couple couldn't conceive of 'journalism' without social media.

I wonder if the way we consume news is beginning to affect our perception of how it's made, that – thanks to apps like Twitter, Facebook, Periscope and the like – we assume that the devices used for consuming content are the same as the devices made for creating it.

I don't know what this might mean, but as I think and plan and imagine where we're going with 'the book', it's a thought that refuses to go away.

In any case, the next time someone asks:

'Where do you get your ideas?'

I think I'll respond:

'Twitter and Facebook.'

Not well fitted

An interesting discussion took place a little while back on the Big Ideas program on Radio National. Paul Barclay spoke with musician Lindy Morrison (formerly of the Go-Betweens) and writer Phillipa McGuinness about the future of copyright in the digital era. The discussion, not unreasonably, circled around the challenges facing musicians and other creative professionals in an environment where downloading, copying, and streaming digital files take precedence over the purchase or borrowing of physical artefacts.

As Barclay noted, one in three adults and half of 18–24-year-old Australians are actively engaged in downloading movies, music, and, yes, even books (sometimes).  Is it possible to protect the intellectual property of the creators of these works?  And if not, what does that mean for these industries?

These are enormous questions and McGuinness and Morrison both articulated strong and impassioned arguments that copyright is not the preserve of faceless corporations or industry bodies and that deliberate copying of content represents actual pain to real people and a danger to industries already financially constrained. I won’t argue their points, which were fair and reasonable, but I did notice that the discussion neatly sidestepped a couple of major problems with our basic assumptions of copyright, its purpose and benefits.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have form here. I did take part in a public debate called ‘Copyright is Dead, Long Live the Pirates’. And, although I didn’t entirely agree with the provocative title, I was on the affirmative team.

Rather than rely on the sensationalism of yet another premature declaration of death, let's put it this way:

Copyright as a concept is not well fitted for the digital world.

I know, it's not as catchy.

Regardless of how it was initially conceived and for whom it was initially intended to benefit, modern copyright has evolved into a mechanism intended to allow authors to benefit from original works by granting them control over it for a period of time. It means that creators of an original work should expect fair compensation and acknowledgement when their work is bought and sold, adapted, referenced, and so on.

I have no problem with that.

But although copyright is about more than a simple set of rules governing the ability to make copies of a given work, to my mind, the fundamental notion of the copy is central to its disruption at the hands of digital media.

Copyright was created with the medium of print in mind. To create a print copy of an existing work takes dedication, resources, time, and money. Copyright is an effective system in the physical world because, for an audience, the path of least resistance to obtaining a creative work is to buy it (or borrow it, which opens a whole different can of worms). Even with modern home scanning and printing technology, no one wants to go through the interminable process of making their own copy of anything in print. The payoff is not worth the effort, not when the local bookshop has good coffee and Amazon has a buy-it-now button. Under a system predicated on physical objects, readers buy books and some of that money reaches writers. It’s anything but perfect, but broadly speaking it kind of works.

Things are very different in the networked world of ones and zeros. The ability to make perfect copies of information is a basic function of computers. One of the reasons we all switched from vinyl to CDs was because digital music was sold to us as the perfect copy, the perfect reproduction of the sounds made in the studio. And it’s not just fidelity that makes digital copying so attractive; it’s also ease of use. So easy in fact that we’re no longer conscious of the volume of information we copy in any given day. The act of viewing information transmitted through the internet results in a bloom of copies that proliferate through the world. Not only that, we expect our content to be available on all our devices simultaneously. In the digital environment, making a copy of any given set of data is not just easy; it’s as natural as taking a breath.

This, for me at least, is the essence of copyright’s digital disruption. In the digital world, making a copy has become the path of least resistance. The copyright system simply cannot conceive of this reality and instead attempts to shoehorn digital content into behaving more like physical artefacts in order to fit more neatly. This is why we get ‘features’ like geoblocking and DRM that treat the audience as criminals first and readers second.

Copyright should be assumed to benefit artists, but all too often we see artists pushed aside in favour of other beneficiaries.

An extraordinary absence from the Big Ideas discussion was the impossibly sad case of Men at Work’s ‘Down Under’ and ‘Kookaburra’. Briefly, the 80s hit was found to have plagiarised the beloved 1932 song by Marion Sinclair, a court decision that many have said contributed to the death of Greg Ham, one of the artists involved.

Without getting too bogged down in the specifics of the case, it does prompt the question: who benefits when an artist’s copyright continues for fifty or seventy years after their death?

Protecting artists is one thing, but protecting ‘rights holders’ who bought the copyright from the estate of the dead artist seems to be something else entirely. Is this what copyright should be about?

Sadly, I don’t have solutions to these or to other problems surrounding copyright in contemporary Australia. But I do feel strongly that our treatment of intellectual property should be based around respect first for both artists and audience. The wishes of any other party should come a distant third.

if:book’s major project this year, Rumours of My Death, specifically digs through forgotten corners of Australia’s Public Domain to find authors and works that can continue inspire in 2015. The project asks three contemporary authors (myself included) to ‘collaborate’ with another writer’s work drawn from the Public Domain to create a new contemporary ‘remix’, an entirely new work that draws on its source material.

The Public Domain contains creative work that we all own; it is a gift from the artist to future generations and is the best reason I know of to continue making creative works in the hope that it will be accessible and valued (in ways that don’t have dollar signs attached).

My team won that debate, by the way.

Listen to the RN Discussion.

Read about Rumours of My Death.

More quotes from Flansburgh

It was great to chat recently with John Flansburgh from They Might Be Giants. Our conversation ran longer than the allotted time and we managed to cover a lot more than could fit into a proper published piece. So here are some quotes from the cutting room floor.

On the mechanics of Dial-A-Song and releasing a song a week this year.

We had a big plan to be super organised about it and, for a while, it held. We’ve been able to map it out for a couple of months at a time. We do have to do a lot in advance because you can’t just get a song up on iTunes overnight. So if you want to make it available you have to be organised to some extent. 

That being said, this week's song we finished last week. And the video we’re posting tonight, I finished working on this morning.

We don’t enjoy being stressed out. It’s not he the He-Man songwriting challenge part of it that we find interesting; it’s more the idea of working freely and needing to be light on your feet. It’s music easier to write a song if you’ve already just written a song.

On working to constant deadline.

The fact that it’s a year long meant it was something we felt up for. It would feel like a strange chore to have to do this in perpetuity. Although if you are a songwriter, that’s kind of what you do anyway.

We’ve done a lot of incidental music jobs and those are even stranger because if you're writing for a television show, they don’t want one song, they might want ten, twenty unique tunes a week, essentially each one a song. There’s a trick to that too, but it’s very very tough work.

On the importance of the running order in creating an album from Dial-A-Song songs.

We're just compiling the third album from Dial-A-Song now for release early next year.

I grew up with albums, so for me the album format is still important. It’s very odd to have this split use reality: songs that have to work on their own that then have to work within another context.

For a song like 'Let me Tell About My Operation', the sonics are kind of startling. It as recorded much like a song from the 1950s, a much more organic recording, a small number of microphones. It has a different quality to other songs we've done this year. And I imagine in a album context where you hear a lot of electronic stuff throughout, to suddenly find yourself listening something so different and organic, I imagine it comes across as something of a fresh breeze. That was kind of the idea behind the sound of that song.