Writers and technology

The writer and poet Jonathan Davidson said this to me ages ago and I have stolen it regularly since: writers went digital first. Everything is digital now and if you’re a writer you can feel like the world is changing – but we’re not left out, we’re not left behind, we just went digital so long ago that we’ve been here, we’ve done it. The world is finally catching us up, that’s what’s happening.

It was back in the 1980s: word processors came out, we saw them, we said we’re having that and we never went back. Not one of us. Not ever. There are writers who prefer pen and paper but there are no writers who don’t have a computer and a word processor.

Yet we do keep this strange duality in our heads: it’s as common to find a writer who is genuinely afraid of technology as it is to find one who isn’t but is actually a rubbish writer. Stop looking at me like that.

I’m in pain here. Four days ago I agreed to take off my Apple Watch for a week and write about what happened. This is for MacNN.com and next Tuesday there will be a feature and it will tell you what I missed, what difference it made. It just might not include all of the wailing. I’ll want to at least try to look professional there.

Here, I’ll tell you. I’ve wailed.

The thing is, more is going on. I don’t have my Apple Watch – well, I do, is right next to me on a stand but I’m not wearing it or switching it on for another THREE ENTIRE DAYS – but I do have a new iPhone 6. Only, I didn’t want to buy it.

I didn’t buy the iPhone 6 when it came out last year because I couldn’t afford it then and I wasn’t sure what it gave me that my existing iPhone 5 didn’t except for a larger screen that is more difficult to hold. This is the first time since 2007 that I wasn’t interested in buying the next iPhone and I still wouldn’t be. But my iPhone 5 finally died, a trooper to the end but a trooper that had been through wars. I try to take care of things but I don’t half use them too.

I can’t run my business without a phone and it can’t now be run without a smartphone. I’m hardly going to switch to Android: it’s cheaper but you really do have to be interested in technology to enjoy those. So where buying a new iPhone has been genuinely fun and even, I’ll say it, exciting, this time it wasn’t. This time I left one speaking engagement, went into the Apple Store, spent the minimum time and the minimum money, came out with an iPhone 6 and went on to my next meeting.

Technology as a writer’s essential tool but no more than that. And that’s probably right. Technology is a bit boring. I am glad to tell you that eight days on I’m coming to really like this phone but I have this second, this very instant, realised that I’ve left it in my kitchen. Hang on.

Right, I fetched it and a mug of tea. Do I go on as much about tea as technology? Nearly.

But there is something else. I’m working with a company on a thing and just seeing how they work and some complex problems they’ve got, I know a software tool that would help them. For their size company, it’s free too. Yet I don’t know how to convince them to try it: it’s more software on top of the tools they already have and don’t especially like.

Nobody there, I don’t think, would rush to try it just for the fun. Most would loathe the idea of taking on something new when they are stretched to a limit already. Some would be actively against using yet another piece of software.

There is an attitude across companies, across people who like this stuff, that here is a tool, it does this, you need that, it will work, off you go, what’s the problem? Perhaps usefully, perhaps empathetically or perhaps just pointlessly, I think software is amazingly personal and that no size fits all. What works for me won’t for you and vice versa.

I said you need to enjoy technology to like Android phones. I think that’s true and it’s the same with PCs. If you enjoy fiddling and setting up something or other and solving problems then it’s all hog’s heaven and a for a short while that was me. I clearly remember the feeling of true accomplishment when I got a new hard drive to work in my PC. Every night for a week, that PC open on my desk and my working hard to understand it. I learned a lot about jumper switches, to this day I swear it’s where I learned to swear. But the satisfaction when it switched on. That was great.

Only, not long afterwards I installed a new hard drive in my Mac and it just slotted in, worked right away and I got back to what I was writing.

You can tell that I preferred the Mac, you can guess that I preferred writing to fiddling and you can assume I never bought another PC again. But sitting there that day, so long ago now, I think what I realised was that writing is down to me. My effort, certainly, and my talent, hopefully, are what make the difference between the blank screen and something to read, something to perform.

Whereas fitting a hard drive and installing Windows drivers is down to following other people’s instructions and learning to swear because those instructions are wrong. At the very best, there is a creativity in puzzle solving because Microsoft or whomever can’t be bothered to write down what you actually have to do. But it’s not a creativity that satisfies me in the long run, it’s not a creativity that counts.

I’m going to tell that company about this software but I’m going to tell them what problems it will solve rather than how it works or what you do with it.

After all, nothing else matters. It’s a quick shorthand to tell you that OmniFocus is an application that I depend on, that my working life runs through my iPad, and I will discuss the difference between Microsoft Word 2016 and Drafts 4 at length. But it is our work that matters and whether these digital tools help us do it. The right ones just help me so very, very much that it’s hard not to be enthused by them and it’s impossible not to be glad I tried them.