Thursday, 23 July 2009

The Selected Words of TS Spivet

The Selected Works of TS Spivet by Reif Larsen, Harvill Secker £17.99

Tucked away on the inside back cover of The Selected Works of TS Spivet is a url which takes you to a curiously eccentric website, decked out to look like a collection of sepia photographs and scratched movie clips, in which you can learn more about events and characters in the book.

You might, for example, listen to the music on TS Spivet’s sister’s iPod, or explore his father’s shrine to Billy the Kid.

It’s a curious discovery in a book which -- in both its physical appearance and in its content -- celebrates the gloriously old-fashioned art of map-making with pencils and pens, compasses and theodolites. Its 12-year-old narrator, TS Spivet, rejects the creation of digital mashups in which he could superimpose the complex material his works contain onto Google maps. Such an approach would make him feel like an operator; working traditionally makes him feel like a creator.

The book is a physical delight -- presented as a facsimile of TS’s work, with side panels in which maps, drawings, diagrams and footnotes spider every page.

In this context the website seems to be something of a multimedia joke; a Heath Robinson affair with handles to wind and slow-to-load flash sequences, where you scroll through text by pulling on a rope. Nevertheless, it points to what may be the future of multimedia book publishing, in which the printed page is no longer enough to tell a story.

All of which makes the story told in print even more poignant.

TS Spivet is a compulsive map-maker of extraordinary genius. He maps the people he meets, the places he sees: “everything that I have ever witnessed or read about”. He maps facial expression, particularly insincere ones.

Map-making brings him fame, and is the reason for the great journey that forms the spine of this book. The Smithsonian, unaware he is just 12, awards him a hugely prestigious prize and asks him to come to Washington.

So he sneaks out of his family’s ranch near Divide, Montana, jumps a freight train and begins an epic 2,000 mile journey; as challenging for a boy as the trek west of the pioneers, yet conducted in modern comfort. The train is carrying luxurious Winnebago Cowboy Condo mobile homes, and TS is able to camp out in one.

The journey is one through present and past, and the book is many things -- not least a Huck Finn-style adventure and a celebration of the American West -- told partly through maps because, for TS: “A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected.”

Once the Smithsonian’s officials have overcome their shock at TS’s youth, they set him to work, saying: “Remember, you are America’s illustrator now.” It’s a measure of Reif Larsen’s success that we might say the same about him.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

No Time To Think

No Time to Think: The menace of media speed and the 24-hour news cycle
By Howard Rosenberg and Charles S Feldman (Continuum $24.95)

If the Cuban Missile Crisis were to erupt today, would the world survive?

It’s a question that goes to the heart of No Time to Think, and particularly to what its authors describe in their subtitle as the “menace” of modern media.

In 1962, when surveillance showed nuclear missiles trained on American cities from its near neighbour’s territory, there were no 24-hour rolling-news channels and web sites with voracious appetites for instant news, comment and analysis; no millions of bloggers ready to pass snap judgements on the actions of government; no rapid-reaction political spin teams designed to exploit this media landscape for their own gain.

For a week, President John F Kennedy was able to keep the missiles’ presence secret while a private dialogue with Krushchev defused the crisis. He was not pressured to follow his first, instinctive reaction – an air strike to destroy the missiles.

Ted Sorensen, special counsel and intimate adviser to President John F Kennedy, says in No Time to Think that today’s media pressure would have made it impossible to keep the missiles secret, that there would have been public panic and congressional pressure, and that the first choice of military response would have been followed.

He concludes: “in all likelihood…the result would have been a nuclear war and the destruction of the world.”

So, No Time to Think argues that the internet and 24 hour news channels are a force with the power to destroy the world.

It’s a powerful argument – and one that deserves a considered response. So let’s consider it while we review the rest of No Time To Think’s attack on modern media.

Rosenberg and Feldman believe the standard of modern news reporting is poor, and identify two culprits: speed and citizen journalism.

The need for speed means that news is reported before it is clear what has happened, and before events are understood. Coverage is trivialised: “The public’s right to know has been supplanted by the public’s right to know everything, however fanciful and even erroneous, as fast as technology allows.”

And then there is the citizen journalist. Rosenberg and Feldman see “a modern reformation that preaches a new-media theology, one that elevates amateurs to exalted status with little halos glowing above their golden heads.”

What they leave out in all this is the public’s practised ability to choose what, and how much, news they consume.

In a succinct and illuminating historical analysis of the need for speed in reporting, they chart the golden hour of the fresh-minted CNN as its coverage of the first gulf war. As they point out, audiences fell off dramatically once there was no war to screen.

So it’s clear that, when we have no need for 24 hour news, we choose not to watch it.

Rosenberg and Feldman see the outpourings of citizen journalist bloggers as a “tsunami” of questionable information. But saying there are too many blogs is like saying there are too many books in a library. Readers – of books or blogs – use cataloguing devices to select what they need.

Most bloggers don’t see themselves as professional journalists. Just as, when there was a piano in every parlour, it didn’t follow that there was a concert pianist in every home.

The citizen journalist will get the audience he or she deserves. Last week [January15] an ordinary passenger on a ferry diverted to rescue passengers in the New York plane crash took a snap on his iPhone, uploaded it to the internet, and saw it reproduced in newspapers around the world because it was of unique journalistic value and interest.

But what of the one really serious assertion in No Time To Think: that the internet has the power to destroy the world?

Rosenberg and Feldman fail to make the case. They cite no examples of knee-jerk, media-fuelled military reactions that might provide a modern-day contrast to Kennedy’s measured response over Cuba.

If anything were to have proved a catalyst for such calamitous reaction, surely the attacks of 9-11 would have done so. But they did not. Rather, the response, in the shape of the War on Terror, was formulated over some months.