Writing for Free: Like it or Not, the Information Revolution is Making us Generous

Word of Osama bin Laden’s death fired through social media networks before being reported by official news agencies, who rightly awaited the formal announcement. We used to get news from newspapers, poems from literary journals, and novels from bookstores. Now, all can be accessed with a flip of our laptops or phones, much of it for free.

It would be freer still if Google had its way. Although Google’s plan to scan, index, and make every book available online was struck down in court last month, we all know that sort of accessibility will eventually come to pass. Why? Because it’s doable. Just as few people at the turn of the last century understood that they were living in the midst of an Industrial Revolution, few of us today have awakened to the reality of the information revolution that is transforming the way we work, learn, read and, yes, write. The old image of the solitary writer at work on her singular creation is being replaced by a new, more interconnected model.

Education expert Will Richardson suggests that the future of writing is “connective writing” or the ability to publish in a variety of media with the intention of sharing and creating dialogue. Payment is not part of this equation, although gratification certainly is. A blog entry which involves hypertext and commentary quickly morphs into a collective creation. For example, I share authorship of this essay with writers represented in the links, as well as you who choose to comment. Not only are writers’ paychecks becoming obsolete, but our bylines are blurring, as well.

In a recent interview with Leonard Lopate, scientist James Gleick suggested that the standard technology of bookmaking is becoming irrelevant. Ironically, he was on Lopate’s show to talk about his new book. Entitled, The Information, it illustrates how information technology has changed the nature of human consciousness. It’s natural to be afraid of change. Plato feared that writing would lead to the diminishment of human beings because we would no longer rely on memory. Even if we did lose some mnemonic skills, we certainly got something out of the deal, too. Technology comes with costs and rewards. As writers, the price may be a thinning wallet, but the gain is the opportunity to share our work more widely and rapidly than previously imaginable.

For example, Random House today announced that an e-book of essays about Osama bin Laden written by contributors such as former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III and White House aide Karen Hughes will be published on Monday, just a week after bin Laden’s death. No doubt those writers will be compensated, as they should, but for each of them there are thousands of others writing passionately on the topic for free. If we were not getting something out of it, we would not be doing it.

Take me, for example. My recent blog interviews, radio pieces, and even short stories have been gratis. However, I’ve also been fortunate to have published a novel and magazine articles that paid. For this, I am grateful. Since these sales are unpredictable, however, I continue to teach part-time. Most days, this does not feel like a burden. I enjoy my students. Aspiring writers themselves, they know that the new writing landscape is not solely about bylines and paychecks – though these have their place – but also about sharing. As with music, dance, and art, if your goal is financial windfall, you are probably in the wrong profession. (J.K. Rowling and Ree Drummond exceptions noted.) Like it or not, technology is breaking down our old approach to writing and nudging us toward generosity. The new paradigm wants us to be altruists. That is, altruists who can hypertext.

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