Op-Ed: The act of writing in the age of numbers
The IBM technicians used a crane to lift the machine through the window of Len Deighton’s Georgian mansion on the outskirts of London in 1968. The Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter, the IBM-MTST, weighed 200 pounds. Deighton used it to write “Bomber,” a prototype of the techno-thriller told through multiple perspectives. The invention was fantastically convenient for “Bomber’s” format: Blocks of words, tracked by numbered lines, could be recovered and integrated with each other, and the saved text could be printed off in as many copies as desired. The IBM-MTST was the beginning of the transformation that turned all acts of writing into acts of word processing.
The history of word processing is new enough that I can remember its development: the alien green of the $5,000 machine my father brought home in 1984, which counted characters and not words; I was at college when word count for essays went from a very general attribute (“Write a decent-sized paper”) to a very specific one (“Write a 1,500-word paper”) and then back again (“Make it between 1,400 and 1,600 words”) lest overeager students actually attempt to make their papers exactly 1,500 words long.
Less than 50 years after Deighton’s innovation, every piece of writing comes chaperoned with figures: Facebook likes, number of retweets, number of comments, the position on Reddit, the position on the most-emailed list. You, gentle reader, will judge this essay not merely by the quality of its prose or the vigor of its argument but by whatever numbers it happens to attain. Relevance has become nearly identical with its quantification. It used to be that a given essay was “widely discussed.” Now that width has specific dimensions. Text now is a shade-grown plant; it blossoms under a canopy of numbers.
Numbers are not mere chaperones to contemporary writing, though. They have reached into the core of what it is and how it works. In the Aristotelian framework, the three orders of rhetoric have always been logos, ethos and pathos, with logos at the center, the most important aspect of the argument, the truth of it. Numbers have taken over the role of logos.
The debate about whether an argument is valid almost always comes down to whether its statistical methodologies are valid. A writer with a god has an opinion; a writer with studies might be onto something. Who can disagree with the numbers? “You are entitled to your own opinion. You are not entitled to your own facts” — the final argument of our time. If you want to write about something, you must first turn that something into numbers. The mathematician John von Neumann’s dream of complete input — “Let the whole outside world consist of a long paper tape,” he said in 1948 — has been realized in Google’s plan to convert the whole outside world into data. That will be a world we can pretend to be true.
Several mysteries that once attached to the whole numinous and vague business of writing have been eradicated by the advent of precise numbers. I can remember the time when the sales figures of books were little more than a sophisticated estimate. Now everybody knows who is reading what when and for how long. The popularity of any given piece of writing can be compared with the popularity of any other product: with pornography or sunglasses. Every writer today is called to face this total equivalence of significance over and over again.
The problem of literary quantification, which seems utterly contemporary, has in fact run through the entire history of English literature. It was there right at the beginning.
After the Norman Conquest, the Anglo-Saxon tradition, in which verse operated on a structure of repetitive alliteration without meter, slowly gave way to Latinate versification, in which stressed syllables held a given number of positions in any line.
English literature begins with the regulation of meter, the government of the tongue, the gradual but continual intrusion of numbers into speech. The critic Samuel Johnson and the poet John Dryden debated which poet was the first to bring numbers into English poetry — Chaucer or Gower? — but they agreed that this moment constituted the origin of literature: words numbered.
The response to the commingling of words and numbers has been consistent. Every great English poet has fiddled with the underlying numerical orders of speech so that they seem less obvious. The development of Pindaric verse structure — an alleviation of overly restrictive metrical structures — took over 300 years. Free verse, too, was an escape from the numbers, or rather a better way of hiding them. The key has always been to camouflage the numbers. To speak naturally, with underlying organization. To stay furtively mathematical: the half-glance from the side, attentive inattention, precise nonchalance.
How will we find our nonchalance around numbers today when every piece of writing wears its numbers on its sleeve?
The most insidious problem with the numerical valuation of writing is that the relevance of numbers collapses the moment they have been expressed. A piece hovers on the most-emailed list for two days; but memories of a text do not linger in statistics. The currency of any given piece of writing is visible for all to see, but the transience of that currency is also visible. When the numbers are gone, they may as well have never been.
Nonchalance — not caring about the numbers, or to be more accurate, pretending not to care about them — is in a sense a requirement of our moment: It’s the only way to carve a path between mere virality and irrelevance, between publishing an article strictly for the numbers it generates and stepping out of the network altogether.
Deighton loved his IBM-MTST, although he was deeply afraid that a power outage would destroy his work before it had been saved. For his next word processor, an Olivetti, he custom-tailored a source of electricity that would keep the machine running in case of a power outage. The numbers, from the moment of their assertion, brought on the fear of the loss of the text.We are less and less writers; we are more and more word processors. We will never know how much has been lost and how much has been gained in this metamorphosis. Nobody inside historical change ever does.
Our moment is really not so new. The confrontation between words and numbers has been disguised, but literature has always been the distortion that occurs when words meet numerical patterns. To play with words now is to do what the word players have always done: Ride the distortion as far as it will go, while looking as if you don’t notice.
The importance of resistance to mere quantification is obvious. All but the dumbest of engineers understand it. “Not everything that can be counted counts,” Einstein wrote for the bumper sticker, “and not everything that counts can be counted.” We must insist, with vigor, on the mystery. John von Neumann’s paper tape cannot hold absolutely everything. But there is also hope and opportunity in the struggle: Calculation, as it races forward, reveals the frontier of the incalculable.
Stephen Marche is a novelist and a culture columnist at Esquire magazine. His most recent book is “The Hunger of the Wolf.”
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