Thursday, December 14, 2006

Software as amanuensis

John Freeman has a great interview piece with Richard Powers at the Independent:

As a young novelist, Powers's most powerful influences were James Joyce and Thomas Hardy, but it was coding that gave him an education in how to put a book together. "I think that discipline gave me many ways of thinking about form and structure as a fiction writer," he says. It is useful to remember that William Vollmann, who won the National Book Award last year, also began his career writing computer code. Their back-to-back wins are seen by many in New York circles as a kind of changing of the literary guard. Powers, however, believes that their rise in popularity reflects a shift in readers' acceptance of a new way of telling stories. "This idea that a book can either be about character and feeling, or about politics and idea, is just a false binary. Ideas are an expression of the feelings and the intense emotions we hold about the world. One of the things that Capgras really reveals is how dependent upon feeling idea is in order to be reliable at all."
Powers also believes that technology is a primary conduit for how we tell our stories. He wrote his previous novel The Time of Our Singing on a wireless keyboard, sending his words across space and on to the screen. The Echo Maker was composed using voice recognition software. Powers dictated the words onto the screen like a 21st-century Henry James, software as his amanuensis. "We build our technologies as a way of addressing all our anxieties and desires," Powers says. "They are our passions congealed into these prosthetic extensions of ourselves. And they do it in a way that reflects what we dream ourselves capable of doing."

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