BOOKS MAY 7, 2013
It is very easy to sound like a cheeseball when talking about social media. This is especially true if you’re talking about how it’s changing the world, or how it’s making all of us more creative, or how it’s opening up previously unimaginable ways of relating to others. There are lots of people who talk this way, and for the most part, they are cheeseballs.
Margaret Atwood, 73, the Booker Prize-winning author of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” is not one of these people. But she walks a much finer line than you’d expect, especially since she is known primarily for her work as a conjurer of dark, dystopian fiction about the future. This is because over the past decade or so, Atwood has emerged as an unlikely booster of the Internet, along with many of its most fashionable accessories. As such, she has punctured a number of stereotypes, most obviously that of the cautious old lady and that of the distinguished, technophobic author. But she has done something more important, too: She has found a way to be enthusiastic about new technology that is neither tacky nor disingenuous. At a moment when the jargony pronouncements of web gurus are starting to sound increasingly ridiculous and out-of-touch—see the determined thrashing they’ve endured recently at the hands of New Republic contributor Evgeny Morozov—Atwood’s cheerful attitude toward all things digital is a reminder that loving technology doesn’t have to be the province of the lame.
Atwood has not merely taken to Twitter—though she has, with intensity. She has also lent her support to a start-up devoted to staging virtual book tours, and promoted it on the crowdsourcing website IndieGogo.com by pledging to name a character in her forthcoming novel after anyone who donated $10,000. She has written short stories for Byliner.com. She recently published the final installment of a serialized novel about zombies co-written with a novelist who moonlights as an iPhone game-developer, for the YouTube-style ”social reading” website Wattpad. The plot of her forthcoming book, “MaddAddam,” is going to involve the internet, because as she put it in a phone interview recently, “How could it not?”
Through it all, Atwood has written essays and given interviews about all the fun she’s having trying out all this stuff. In so doing she has become something of a poster child for how modern authors are supposed to conduct themselves online. The fact that she has done so without becoming a preachy dullard is not an insignificant achievement—one that holds out the possibility of rescuing a certain kind of techno-optimism from the jaws of windy internet evangelists.
Growing up in the northern woods of Canada in the 1940s, Atwood didn’t have much in the way of gadgets. As she describes it in her 2012 essay collection on science fiction, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, “not only were there no electrical appliances, furnaces, flush toilets, schools, or grocery stores, there was no TV, no radio shows available except for those on short-wave Russian stations, no movies, no theater, and no libraries.” Even so, she remembers being mechanically inclined all her life—the kind of person who, when confronted with a clock, would take it apart to see what was going on inside.
There are people who like to know how things work and other people who actually don’t care,” Atwood said recently, by phone from France. “And then there are people who like to tell other people that this or that particular thing is going to fix the problems of the entire world. And they’re always wrong. But there will always be those kinds of people. I’m not those kinds of people."
The main difference between Atwood and your run-of-the-mill techno-utopian might be that she thinks of technology as something ancient, rather than something new—a sort of eternal force in the world that absorbs and amplifies fundamental human desires. She mentions in passing that language was the first technology mankind ever invented. Another early one: over-arm throwing, which she defines as “the gesture you make when you’re throwing a baseball, when you bring your arm back behind your head and hurl forward.” Defining technology so broadly lends her enthusiasm for it a kind of earthy dignity: It makes clear that in trying her hand at Twitter or Pinterest or Dropbox, Atwood is not in pursuit of mere novelty or hype, but cool new ways to do very old, basic things.
“What did [over-arm throwing] mean for human beings? It meant they could kill at a distance,” she says. “And it was an equalizer amongst members of a group. It meant you could shoot me as well as I could shoot you, even though one of us might be David and the other is Goliath.”
The internet, which she calls “smoke signals in another form,” is not so different, in her conception—both “help the weak in their struggle against the strong,” and diminish the importance of physical distance. Atwood’s tendency to draw these parallels might be the core of what makes her such an appealing thinker on technology: She has a pronounced and uncommon inclination to see what might otherwise appear minor or frivolous as part of a long, continuous story.
“We are in the early days of web invention,” she says. “Whenever we invent a new thing, there’s a flurry of activity where people try all kinds of stuff with it. People open the toy box and they play with the toys in astonishing ways. And as with any new technology, people are mesmerized by it at first.” Back when radio first appeared, “people were glued to it in the most amazing way.” And when television appeared, people would “get TV dinners and put them on TV trays and sit in front of the TV with their mouths open watching whatever was on.” Nowadays, Atwood says, we can sit inside a bar surrounded by screens and barely notice. She predicts it’ll be the same with the internet: The toys will go back in the chest, and things will normalize. Once that happens, she says, we’ll be able to look back, and this phase we’re going through right now will all of a sudden be the past.
When Atwood first made headlines on tech blogs in 2006, it was for helping to invent a special “LongPen” that authors could use to sign people’s books from thousands of miles away. The gadget resonated in part because it was around that time that people in publishing were starting to worry about how new technology would be changing their industry—and when some of them, mostly people in publicity and marketing departments, stepped up and declared their intentions to figure it out before it was too late. These self-declared ambassadors to the future—I’m thinking in particular of one web-centric book publicist who told me proudly in 2009, while I was on the publishing beat at the New York Observer, that she’d been “running down the halls screaming ‘fire’” for years before people in her industry finally started listening—registered for corporate Twitter accounts, started sending galleys to web-dwelling “book lovers” in hopes of sparking word of mouth, and wrote blog posts with hokey discussion questions at the end to encourage readers to interact with them. For years, these excitable people organized brown-bag lunches about how to take advantage of the emerging social web and sent notes to their authors imploring them to start tweeting. It all felt small, and worse, undignified—and the fact that this flailing about was portrayed as necessary for the publishing industry’s survival made it that much more squalid. Which is why it’s so remarkable that Atwood, whose LongPen could reasonably be seen as very silly, managed to avoid—and continue to avoid—looking and sounding desperate.
Though many of Atwood’s fellow literary giants would probably regard a lot of what’s she’s gotten into as a waste of time—or worse, a betrayal of serious literary values—she comes across as so fluent in and so genuinely enthused about everything she’s trying that it doesn’t stick to her. It’s almost like she hasn’t even considered the possibility of simply checking out and doing things the way they used to be done—a luxury she has certainly earned after writing over 50 books. Instead she’s judging an online poetry contest on Wattpad called the Atties, and is psyched beyond belief that five of her own poems published on the site have so far clocked 120,000 reads. She also tweets with gusto—and though much of her feed is devoted to retweeting boring announcements sent to her by fans, she’s consistently good when narrating her own life. (“Goofed off on plane, watched Les Adieux a Ma Reine, causing me to discover this TERRIFIC blog on period costume,” she wrote back in February.)
So what saves Atwood from cheeseball status? What gives her grace? Maybe it’s just that unlike many of her fellow tech boosters, she doesn’t try to validate her enthusiasms by proclaiming that everything is changing and nothing will ever be the same again.
“Being human remains about the same,” Atwood says. “I think it rearranges brain patterns temporarily, as all of our technologies do. But when the lights go out, and you can’t get your internet, how long does it take you to remember how to light a fire? Not very long. Not long at all.”