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16 October 2012

The internet is sometimes good, and sometimes bad, but it's always interesting

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On Saturday, when I was on a writers’ panel at a literary festival, we were asked a question from the floor about the effect on the booktrade of e-books, piracy and so on. There was gloom and also some defiance from my fellow panellists. I was ambivalent. The basic truth is that we have little idea what most technological breakthroughs are likely to do to us. The law of unintended consequences is – by its nature – unpredictable.

I must have read hundreds of articles over the past decade about how the internet and social media are killing conversation, and, indeed, human rather than virtual interaction. And yet it’s unarguable that all those solitary hours in front of computers seemed to have generated a hunger for communal activities and an explosion in opportunities to connect with strangers in real life. Every third person you meet is in a book club (there’d all over the place, sports are now watched by crowds in pubs, and in their thousands, people pack out parks and squares to watch concerts and opera on giant screens together.s one in The Archers, for heaven’s sake), and despite the recession, literary festivals are mushrooming and often sold out, lectures on politics, economics, the arts, and life in general are to be found all over the place, sports are now watched by crowds in pubs, and in their thousands, people pack out parks and squares to watch concerts and opera on giant screens together.

This isn’t just about isolation creating a need to connect with your fellow man, although that is crucial. It’s also about how technology has made it so much easier to organise events. Last weekend’s Isle of Wight Literary Festival happened because enterprising locals decided to go for it and the internet made it possible.

Why was I there? Because I know Fidelis Morgan, an actress and writer who has a flat in Cowes and who, with another actress and local – that national treasure Celia Imrie – was one of the inspirations and stars of the festival. Via email and Facebook, Fidelis recruited a clutch of actors and writers easily and quickly. Local enthusiasts dealt with the organisation and admin, but they didn’t need an army to write letters and mail invitations and they weren’t waiting weeks and months for replies. The energies of volunteers could be directed towards finding sponsors, putting the programme together, sorting out the venue and looking after everyone during the weekend. Locals backed it, turned up in large numbers, met new people and want the festival to become a fixture.

The fact is that there’s no longer any need to invent a wheel from scratch. A few clicks, and there are examples to learn from, people to help you and failures to serve as awful warnings.

As for e-books? If anything, despite all the obvious problems they pose traditional publishers, they seem overall to be driving up sales. They’re certainly getting innumerable decent books back into print and however much publishers yelp, it’s good for readers that millions of out-of-copyright books are available free. Having just emitted a curse because my server crashed, I reminded myself that my first pieces of journalism were typed on a manual typewriter, mistakes were corrected with a rubber, I took a carbon copy because I couldn’t afford photocopying and I then addressed an envelope and went out to the post office to send it to my editor.

Progress has been rough for any makers of erasers and carbon paper who didn’t diversify but there are now innumerable products we never dreamt of. As for Royal Mail? A decade ago it was generally agreed that it was doomed. Now it thrives on online packages, many of them from Amazon, which of course is destroying bookshops. I can’t predict the next stage in the cycle, but it’ll almost certainly be both good and bad, and mostly unexpected. Good or bad, unintended consequences are usually interesting.

Ruth Dudley Edwards


Ruth posts articles that interest or amuse her and replies to comments from her eclectic group of friends and followers.

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