J. R. R. Tolkien

THE ROAD GOES EVER ON AND ON

“The Road goes ever on and on Down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, And I must follow, if I can, Pursuing it with eager feet, Until it joins some larger way Where many paths and errands meet. And whither then? I cannot say” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The […]

On Being Obsolete

I was declared obsolete about 5 years ago. I had been getting progressively less relevant for a while, but after the dot coms went down in flames, the high-tech world changed dramatically. Venture capital disappeared and with it, the exciting little start-up companies that had been my bread and butter for decades.

Tech writers were replaced by automated systems. No one cared anymore whether or not the material produced was useful. Now that tech support had been exported, the same thinking was applied to documentation. It was declared unnecessary. Need help? Just call tech support on the other side of the world. Let your customers wait on hold, get disconnected multiple times, and finally, let them talk to someone who knows nothing and will provide dangerously incorrect information. Never provide a call back number so if the solution doesn’t work — and mostly, it won’t — make them go through the whole thing again. What could go wrong with this? Who needs writers?

An office.

A lot has gone wrong with this and much to my personal satisfaction, though rather late for my career, companies are discovering that people who buy expensive gear really do want documentation. They get downright irritable when their $5000 camera doesn’t have a  manual.

I never intended to be a technical writer. I was going to be a “real” writer … great novels … literature. No idea what I would write about, but I would write, that was for sure. I did write many books, but just one novel. Everything else would be information and/or instructions and highly technical at that. For a gal who barely scraped through basic algebra and never finished a single physics or chemistry course, I picked up a lot along the way.

I started out with high literary hopes. I was an editor at Doubleday in the mid 1970s. Those were the halcyon days of publishing. We actually read manuscripts and were given TIME to read. People belonged to book clubs. Everyone read. There was TV, but you didn’t have 1000 channels and depending on how good your antenna was, you might not get much of anything except snow.

At the beginning of 1979, I moved to Israel and set up a life in Jerusalem.

It turned out that the only kind of writing done entirely in English rather than Hebrew, was technical writing. I wanted to earn a living, so if technical writing was what was available, I would be one. I moved from typewriters to computers and did so with a song in my heart. From the first time I discovered electronic cut-and-paste, I knew I’d found my milieu. I became part of the development team for DB-1, the first relational database. DB-1 was first developed in Israel at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. IBM bought the product and proceeded to market it. It revolutionized the information world … and with the slightly later creation of data object linking, the guts of the Internet we all take so much for granted today was created.

I rode the high-tech wave until I became officially obsolete having been informed that “no one reads manuals.” Which is why I can’t figure out how to change the ISO setting on my camera. I can’t find the menu. The manual, probably produced by an automated process, doesn’t explain how to find anything and there are a frightening number of menus and layers of menus within menus, but I hope someday I will find the setting. I wouldn’t mind finding the metering control either. And a few other things.  But I digress …

Thus I designed my downfall because simultaneously with databases, I worked on “artificial intelligence” (aka “bots”) systems. They were rough but the technology evolved very fast.

The office.

AI came of age in the 1990s and replaced people in a lot of areas. The most common example and possibly the most annoying is the “telephone tech support robot” … that stupid automated voice-activated telephone system that sends you into apoplectic fits as you attempt to get past it to talk to a human. Personally, I have found that shouting “Agent, agent, agent” at every prompt and repeatedly hitting zero usually gets me there. But they are getting trickier about that. Eventually, we will never be allowed to speak to a real live human being on the telephone and if we do, he or she will be about as helpful as the robot was.

The switch from human to “bot” has been particularly pernicious in the world of publishing. I enthusiastically helped build this world in which I am now obsolete, so  the irony is not lost on me.

Modern authoring goes kind of like this: You write a book. You figure you’ve completed the hardest part and all you have to do is show it to someone who will read it. He or she will like it or not, and maybe you’ll have to show it to a bunch of people until finally, you get published.

Actually, the hard part is just beginning. You are now in a world controlled by “bots.”  Gone are human acquisitions editors who read manuscripts and might notice that a manuscript, with some effort, could be a great book.  Publishing houses do not accept manuscripts or even proposals directly from authors. You need an agent. Agents also use “bots” to search emails for key words, buzz words. If they do not find the words for which they are programmed to search, your inquiry goes to the cyber version of the circular file. If you don’t grab the interest of a piece of software in 500 words or less, you are not going to find an agent or publisher.

Max Perkins would never find a job In publishing today, Thomas Wolfe wouldn’t get a reading, much less mentoring. Would anyone publish Hemingway? William Faulkner? Or for that matter, J.R.R. Tolkien? There are far fewer publishers than there used to be, probably because there are also fewer readers. Those halcyon days really were “of yore.”

My office by window light

Fewer publishers, fewer books being published  and that means that those wonderful old brick and mortar bookstores have virtually disappeared. Here and there, one survives, but where once there were many, now they are fast becoming extinct. In another generation, I’ll bet there will be none at all. Bookstores? My town doesn’t have one. There’s a Barnes and Noble 20 miles away at a mall, but it’s not a “real” bookstore anymore. In all of New England there are probably fewer than a couple of dozen honest-to-goodness bookstores and that includes Boston.

I wrote a book. It was nothing earth-shattering. Not bad, but unlikely to rock the literary world. The point is I sent (via email) proposals, sample chapters, letters, whatever they specified. I sent these inquiries, proposals, etcetera to countless agents and publishers. It turned out marketing was the critical component to getting published.  The quality of the book never entered the equation. My book was never rejected. No editor so much as glanced at it.

I flunked marketing. When at last I was able to get an introduction to a real live agent, he died a couple of weeks later, before I had the opportunity to meet him. I took that as a Sign and self-published. At least I had the experience — and specialized software — to put together a press-ready book.

I love the Internet, but miss people. We no longer get to look one another in the eye. We can’t read each others’ faces, judge meaning by intonation or body language. We can’t hug. We don’t get to ‘pitch’ ideas. Not every person can fit their ideas into 500 words or less to be read by a robot. It’s an entirely different skill set than authoring. Ironically, I am one of those who has no knack for marketing myself, even though I wrote marketing material for others. I just can’t market my stuff. It’s different when it’s your own.

It’s a strange world. It’s no less strange than the fantasy worlds about which I read in my favorite novels. Exactly where do reality and fantasy separate? At what point do technology and magic separate?

This is the world I helped build so how dare I complain?

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