We seem to be approaching a critical point. Advances in printing technology, then digital storage, have left us with an almost endless ability to record, store, and view data. Prior to this, libraries had to decide which records to keep and which not to, because storing literally everything they came across was simply impossible. On the upside, the ability to store endless amounts of data mean that we can record practically everything with practically no effort, saving the world incredible amounts of work. The problem now is what exactly we do with that data.
In the past, walking into a good library almost guaranteed that you wouldn’t find a bad book. In the process of selecting, libraries had to discard what they felt wasn’t important or interesting, meaning that every book would interest at least one reader, no matter how obscure or specialist it was. The internet has no such qualms. In its power to store vast amounts of information, some problems emerge.
The first problem is the fact that as we store more of the useless, we have watered down the useful. Imagine a library dedicated to your favourite genre of books (let’s say sci-fi/fantasy). Now imagine that the library has every sci-fi/fantasy book ever written, and we begin to see the scale of the problem. At best, walking into a library like this would mean spending your time in the “most popular” section, with books that everyone likes. At worst, you will have to spend ages running between sections looking for the books that you like. But then, what if you’re looking for a good book to borrow? Whether you go at it in an orderly fashion, or pick and choose at random, you may have to read through a thousand books before you find a good one. When you have almost infinite data, even the best sorting system in the world can’t differentiate what is interesting from what isn’t, and you are left with a homogenous ghoulash from which to pick your meat.
Now, imagine what happens if you were a writer, with the daunting task of creating a book that will stand out among the others. You look into this library and see walls of books stretching into infinity, covering every kind of sci-fi/fantasy from every possible angle. Your fingers start to tremble, and as you stare into the abyss you find yourself asking two questions: “Will what I write ever be discovered? And worse, has someone already written what I wanted to?” These questions bring up the next two problems.
As the library grows ever larger, each book, no matter how good on its own, begins to lose its significance – even seminal works like Lord of the Rings fade into the darkness as readers wander confused between shelves. As you bring in more data, readers may spend their entire lives in the library without ever discovering the truly excellent books. And this is a depressing thought.
The next problem is how an author can leave their mark on a vast library like this. How do they know their fresh ideas haven’t already been explored by others, making the new work redundant? Will the new author’s works forever be compared against that of others? Imagine writing what you thought was a fresh new book and having reviewers calling it “a cross between Huxley’s Brave New World and Adams's Mostly Harmless”. Even though those may be two excellent books in the author’s mind, will he really be happy when he realises that his idea was covering old ground? Even more disturbing, does he have any new ground on which to work?
Referencing and quotation are some things I'm also guilty of. In that sense, I have undermined the originality of my own work by comparing it to something already established - If what I wrote was truly original, I'd never have to compare it with anything else, simply because I wouldn't be able to. Referring to past works is an easy way of establishing a landmark in the shifting desert that is our history, and a truly original writer should ideally start with a blank slate, with nothing to compare against so as not to be influenced - so perhaps our most creative works were when we first picked up a crayon as a child.
As a casual blogger, I feel a twinge of concern when I think a post isn’t fresh enough or won't be read by enough people, and I can only imagine how bad it is for someone who makes a living out of making things new and original. But some are compelled to write, simply because the path they take to compose means they can look deeper into themselves. If all else fails, Marcus Aurelius always has something practical to say:
Whatever is in any way beautiful hath its source of beauty in itself, and is complete in itself; praise forms no part of it. So it is none the worse nor the better for being praised.Perhaps the best way to approach writing then, is not to make sure what you write is unique, but to make sure it is beautiful. And perhaps that will save us from being overwhelmed by the oncoming tide of endless information.