Tao of the Zentropist

May 17, 2009

Writers Facing the Double-Edged Blade of Technology

It’s hardly an original observation to acknowledge that technology is a double-edged blade, capable of delivering enormous benefits to users when properly employed, yet also facilitating the destruction of careers, professions, cultures and even economies as either an intended or unintended consequence of its utilization. Certainly, the “flattening” of the world which Thomas Friedman has persuasively written about for several years now could not have happened without the build-out of technological infrastructure during the 1990’s, which has in turn facilitated the off-shoring (a sub-set of traditional “outsourcing” to freelancers) of many jobs which were once performed domestically.

This off-shoring trend has been great for low-cost nations such as India and China and parts of Eastern and Central Europe, but not so great for developed nations such as the United States, where for better or worse, many of us have grown accustomed to a certain standard of living. Some might call it opulent, some might call it irresponsible (and in hindsight, clearly unsustainable), and arguments about carbon footprints aside, many Americans, irrespective of educational levels or actual skills, have come to feel entitled to a rather free-wheeling approach to spending money and accumulating material goods and comforts.

Like many others, I’m a member of the business social network LinkedIn, and belong to a number of “special interest” groups. While the global recession is hurting a lot of people in a lot of nations, there’s a lot of bewilderment and pain evident among white-collar professionals, many of them well-educated, suddenly realizing that somewhere offshore, there is a counterpart willing to do the same work for less money. Sometimes for far less money. This has impacted the professional writing and communications/media community (i.e. journalists, copywriters, marketers, consultants, authors of fiction and non-fiction alike) especially hard from what I can see. For anyone dealing primarily in intellectual property or work that does not depend upon a physical component necessitating locality (such as one form or another of manual labor or public/private service), the Internet is at once both a channel and tool to cultivate new opportunities once ignored due to distance, yet also increases competition exponentially.

Understand that capital, like energy, follows the path of least resistance. Those who grew comfortable pulling in solidly middle class, if not upper tier incomes, and more often than not assumed debt loads to finance these lifestyles, have been completely sand-bagged upon learning that they are indeed replaceable. Such knowledge ranks right up there with the realization of one’s mortality and seems to carry the same intensity of emotional baggage.

Writing has always been a profession that many people devalue and largely dismiss, since after all, anyone that has any degree of literacy “can write,” so those that earn a living doing this are not typically viewed as performing a service which is magical or mysterious. Brain surgery is mysterious. Building a bridge or building is mysterious. Even composing a symphony is mysterious. Writing a script or novel? Hah. Swing a dead cat in Los Angeles or New York and you’ll take out an aspiring screenwriter and/or novelist without doubt.

Blogging and “Internet journalism” are rapidly displacing traditional media in terms of audience reach and relevancy, and with the apparent decline in journalistic standards and integrity, the line between professional and amateur journalist is increasingly blurred.  Journalists and other writers accustomed to being paid by the word for print publication are now horrified to discover that rates that in some instances could formerly exceed $1.00 per word for a particular piece of work are now dropping to mere pennies per word, since in a universe where one’s work is now simply “content” and SEO (search engine optimization) is more important than a clever turn of phrase or providing the reader with insightful analysis or thought-provoking ideas, most publishers don’t correlate high quality output with traffic. Rather than pursue or encourage excellence (and pay rates in accord with this outcome), there’s a marked tendency to settle for “good enough,” which is a rather low-lying bar these days.

Writers that wish to “fight back” face an uphill battle, but not one which is unwinnable. Creating and marketing the writer “as a brand” is an absolute necessity, and using digital media to find and connect with an audience is vital to the successful prosecution of this strategy. The plethora of digital channels for delivery of one’s work has lowered the barriers to entry, and is likely going to make many traditional publishers largely irrelevant in the coming years. To be sure, there is still prestige associated with having one’s work published in print by a major name (be it a newspaper, book publisher, etc.), but as more consumers turn to digital channels to consume “content,” I suspect the distinction will fade. Portents of this are already appearing. For example, Amazon’s popular Kindle book-reader will allow bloggers to post their work directly to the unit, which in turn gives equal weight (in terms of presentation) to an undiscovered writer working in obscurity as it does to a best-selling author with a major publishing deal. The difference between them (which is clearly not insignificant) is audience reach, and the willingness of readers to pay for the enjoyment of accessing that writer’s work.

If this global recession teaches us anything, the lesson that we can take nothing for granted must be first and foremost. For those that use the written word to connect with others, whether through articles or columns appearing in traditional print media, advertising, film and television, or digital media, we must be cognizant that if we wish to earn a living from our work, we had better deliver a meaningful or otherwise valuable experience to the end user/consumer, or we will quickly be rendered irrelevant.  After all, plenty of others are more than willing to take up the mantle, and far too many will happily do so for free…

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