Thursday, September 26, 2013


Recently, I have been a bit remiss in writing my column, which, reassuringly, is titled Me Publica, or “I Published”, as a Spanish speaker would say. Indeed, if you could bask in past glory without having to continually exert yourself for yet another piece of writing, you could say I have had my share.

But as many writing coaches will tell you, unless you read and write a lot on a regular basis, you cannot be a good scribe. It’s not like you learned to swim or ride elephant years ago, and surprisingly, even without constant practice you can still steer these things.

Without its regular use, writing habit can be lost. You may have to sweat every time to decide on what to scribble, to give shape to your ideas, to find the right words, or the right turn of phrase to write something that passes for editorial review, public taste or your own ego.

But in today’s age of gateless mind-casting or blips of thought on Facebook, 140-character posts on Twitter, or staccato stream-of-consciousness blog posts, one gathers the impression that everybody is acutely busy writing something so important that the whole world should stop to notice these digital releases and share them with others. Just keep sharing. And seriously, it appears sharing has replaced writing, and liking has superseded reading.

Some scribes appear increasingly diffused, straddling between the long or windy traditional writing and the short and pithy contemporary trickling. A large section of them still exhibits their gusto for the old, thorough school and are occasionally devoured by the clickeratti to the core of their writerly identity. Do these wordsmiths continue to craft something in the traditional linear, article-length format, with painstaking details, facts and context so that it will be shared or liked and perhaps hardly read?

Ask scribes you know why they write, and the usual answer is: santusti (satisfaction), and that is personal. Others cite social influence or change. Money is rarely the motivation because you cannot imagine making a decent living in Nepal even if you work full-time as a writer for news outlets. When you decide to give writing a big-time focus to make it your sole bread-winner, you begin to spew verbose and gobbledygook to cover more column inches, running the risk of becoming a robowriter.

In his book, Speaking Into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (1999), John Durham Peters contrasts the old sacred world of personal dialogue with the new sexy or pervasive world of new media or its content. But new media also come with real promises, earning the attention and loyalty of many users. Yet, they conjure a new spirit world opening a realm of the living dead, he suggests. Thus, uncertainties linger over the future of media or their implications for writing practices.

Sure, automation or robotism are about technological processes, but for people trained in linear thinking of the rational world, they are also about human efficiency, regularity and predictability of skills, routines and habits. In this rather flattering view, prolific columnists like CK Lal, Khangendra Sangraula, Kishore Nepal, Yubaraj Ghimire (alphabetically listed) and others are widely perceived as robotic. Several journalists I contacted invariably named these people as incredibly productive, with a machine-like rhythmic appearance. In yesteryears, we saw journalists like MR Josse or P Kharel serving as examples of robotic regularity in their writing. They still write, though less frequently or visibly than before.

Robowrite, in a positive sense, should serve as a source of inspiration for gifted but languid scribes. Many promising would-be writers appear like a transient shooting star and they are gone for good in no time, either because they cannot keep up with the routines of the profession or the demands of the marketplace. Others disappear simply because they lack the institutional culture that nurtures and supports a life-time of work.

Elsewhere, with a long tradition of modern journalism, we see more examples of robowrite. Some of the world’s longest running columns have been around for over 80 years. The majority of columnists in Nepal survive barely a few years and those who outlast a decade or more do so through sheer personal determination or passion for the craft.

Robotism is not just a matter of incredible volume or regularity. It also serves as a means to the projection of the self-image of a writer. Sometimes you come across an individual who will remind you that he has already written “thousands of articles” or “several dozen books”. And you wonder if he or she is some sort of a humanoid machine to be able to deliver quality products in such volumes.

As technology forces the old press to adapt to the new online environment, and as real-time content overflows in a form of micro journalism even outside the field of traditional news business, increasingly robowrite manifests in several other forms, technical as well as cultural.

The other day, as I was casting around for my column ideas, I skimmed some information about how my work could be made easier. Already, there are some companies that use robots, a set of algorithms which collect information from data-rich fields such as sports, technology, and businesses and turn them into stories. In April last year, Steven Levy wrote in Wired magazine that GameChanger, a software by Narrative Science, a lab working on robotic journalism, helped produce nearly 400,000 news accounts of games in 2011, and the number in 2012 was expected to top 1.5 million.

One may ask whether journalists or media writers are becoming endangered species sooner than expected in this “century of data”, as technophiles call it. Soon, as newspapers begin to vanish, journalists, too, will disappear, at least in their present avatars. With data as primary raw material we can visualize the future of massified content comprising perhaps charticles or graphicles rather than articles.

I do not necessarily have any fetishistic attachment to humanoid robots, but I wish they really helped me write my column. There is nothing wrong in using them as tools to make my work easier, or offer predictability in my frequency and volume. The Machine-generated stories or columns will still require human revision and makeover.

Some people will be bothered, of course, especially those who still regard pen-and-ink as sacred. Remember the qualms about the use of email in many workplaces and the shunning of calculators in some schools in the early phases of these new media tools.

No doubt, technology has fostered a rather negative view of automation. Such a view is embedded in our culture. It is rooted in the view of new technology as being inherently profane. It also has been feared as a domain of the “living dead”. How many of us remember our grandparents or even parents shunning machine-manufactured products simply because they wanted to preserve their unbroken natural sanctity that they thought they had maintained since generations?

Today’s youth have embraced new media without much trepidation or hesitation, increasingly making these pithy writing platforms the epicenter of opinion formation. The old school also seems to be gradually drawn to this switchboard.

The irony is that robotic does not always mean sane or orderly. The disruptive and attention-seeking new media tools or platforms motorize chaos and clutter of information and constantly transpose strings of vitriol and emotions. It has now come down, for instance, on Twitter, to @brb_laaldhwoj vs @KanakManiDixit or @prateekpradhan.

Digital droppings, even with humans behind, foster the perception that they are motorized, appearing with more intensity and frequency. Meaning is exchanged for instant heat, and context for clickathon.

Thus, even with easy access to new media tools, and their potentials for interactivity and reciprocity, true meaning and context remain beyond everyday reach. The sacred and the profane continue with each new media. Robowrite, based on existing technologies, leaves no time to dig deeper. Speed is the rule of the game and constant appearance the essence.

Published in Republica, September 25, 2013