Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Interview: Robin Sloan

Robin Sloan grew up near Detroit and has worked at Poynter, Current TV and Twitter in jobs that have generally had ‘something to do with figuring out the future of media’. We asked him some questions about his new book Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Book Store - a charming and hilarious adventure that has it all: secret societies, unbreakable codes, underground lairs, cutting-edge technology, the googleplex…and lots of books!
One of the best things about the novel is the collision of old and new technologies. What's important to you about embracing both the old and the new?

The thing I've realised is that you don't have to choose. New technologies and new formats rarely erase the old ones. Sure, there are exceptions—nobody needs a buggy whip, and increasingly, nobody needs a CD either—but in general, the history of media is the history of things piling up and combining in interesting ways. It's a collision, sure, but not the kind where one side gets obliterated; instead, it's the kind where things merge, combine, and you can never really pick them apart again.
You've worked for Twitter and call yourself a media inventor - what does a media inventor do?
It's pretty simple: a media inventor is someone who is primarily concerned with content—words, pictures, ideas—but also interested in designing new ways for that content to be presented. For example: this year I've been experimenting with iPhone apps. The content is still just text, but it's presented in a very different way, using a format that doesn't quite have a name yet. I've been calling it a "tap essay"... and the fact that I struggled to come up with that name is, to me, a sign that I'm going in the right direction.

Actually, maybe that's a sharper, simpler definition: a media inventor is someone who works with formats that don't have names yet.
What's the best thing about writing a Twitter update, a short story, and a novel?

Twitter is great because it forces you to really think about sentences. I've spent more time crafting words -- figuring out new ways to say something, new ways to compose a thought -- in that little Twitter text field than anywhere else.

Short stories are great -- at least in my view -- because they can function like prototypes. They represent a way to get a fairly complete idea out into the world and see how people respond. MR. PENUMBRA'S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE started as a short story, and it was only after it got such a warm reception that I contemplated expanding it into a novel.

And novels are great for a simple but powerful reason: they receive readers' undivided attention for hours, sometimes days.The only other formats with that distinction are probably video games and serial TV dramas. Both of those cost millions of dollars to make. Novels still just take imagination and time.

What about the hardest things about writing Twitter updates, short stories, and novels?

Twitter updates: the knowledge that they have a half-life of approximately three minutes.

Short stories: the knowledge that even today, on the internet, without any of the constraints of print, short stories don't have a huge readership. It's a funny format that too often slips between the cracks.

Novels: the knowledge that I'm going to be sitting here for a long, long time. (But really, that's not so bad.)
What's your favourite thing about bookstores?

No question: bookstores are still the best machines for serendipitous media discovery we've yet invented. Are they efficient? Not really. Do they always work? No. But when they do work, it's magic. You'll stumble across something that no algorithm would ever have chosen for you. You'll pick it up, turn it over in your hands. Flip to a random page. Read one paragraph, then another. Gauge the voice. All of this in a matter of seconds -- faster than you could ever go click-click-click on a website. That's a kind of user interface -- a kind of technology. And it's a really good one.

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