Dystopian Present

“Why?” my sister asked, standing in one of the surviving brick-and-mortar bookstores, waiting for her tweens to pick out something to read. “Why is the YA section all dystopian science fiction?” She was more annoyed than curious, concerned that her children were being limited to a narrow vision of alternative worlds. But it got me thinking…

Her theory was that this is a trend based on simple market-driven economics: the success of The Hunger Games spawning imitators. My theory goes beyond the cash to the human desires that wrest it from our hands. We (not just the kids; we’re all reading this) are drawn to the stories that help to explain our lives. Previous generations were drawn to Westerns or kitchen sink dramas. A few years ago, we were still believing that, in a magical battle between good and evil, good would ultimately win (thought to ponder: if Harry Potter had not been introduced until 2007, would he have made the same emotional connections with his public as he did by debuting ten years earlier?).

I’m wondering if dystopian futures are compelling to us today because we’re living in a dystopian present. For over 200 years, the American Dream relied on a sense of limitless possibility. But right now, nothing seems possible. Our politics are broken. Most of us live from paycheck to paycheck. The social contract has more riders than a rush-hour subway. And nothing is punished as consistently as good behavior.

Is it surprising that we’re drawn to big stories with protagonists who are imprisoned by what seem to be unshakable contraints? Look at a tiny slice of dystopias on offer: Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Justin Cronin’s Passsage and Hugh Howey’s Wool (the success of which makes me, dare I say it? at least 50 shades happier than other self-publishing phenoms). These are epic tales of societies born of disaster, societies which have since outgrown and perverted their initial purpose. What was refuge has become cage. Their protagonists are people of large spirit who can no longer bear such empty survival and are prepared to risk death for an hour of life.

No happy endings in these fictional worlds. Sacrifices are great. Walls come down, only to be replaced by new walls. The best we can hope for our heros is that they experience a moment of joy or love along the way, and end with the peace of having at least tried. Is that the new American Dream?

An Agile Mind

Like most writers of fiction, I spend most of my waking hours in a job where I’m doing something else. In my case, I write user assistance materials for software (yeah, that’s right; I write “Help.”) And since you ask, no; I don’t have a technology background. This is a career I wandered into, under the heading “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” (thank you, John Lennon)  I’ve learned by doing; and by listening, watching, reading and asking questions.

There are always new challenges to keep me on my toes. But imagine my surprise when the latest challenge turned out to be an old friend.

The shop I work in is in the process of adopting the popular “Agile” approach to software development. Right now we have a kind of coach in house, to shepherd us through the transition to this new work culture. Since Agile is all about cross-functional collaboration, even I’m included in the training exercises. I’ve been training with the Product Managers, which is great for me because I rely on their documents to do my job.

Last week, our coach introduced us to the “User Story,” a method for looking at the various elements that might be needed in a new piece of software. The User Story is a simple statement of a task that a particular user might want to accomplish. In fact, we were told to make it so simple that we could write it, using a felt-tip marker, on one side of an index card. The other side of the card is for specific features that make it possible to perform the task. The Story stays simple, because it will ultimately be grouped with other Stories to become the “Theme”of the software product.

Experienced project managers and business analysts are more used to looking at either the very big picture or the very very small.  Given the practice example of a piece of banking software, my coworkers came up with broad statements like “as a bank customer, I want an online portal so that I can do my banking any time, anywhere” and followed up with long lists (taped to the card) of all the specific buttons and tables that would have to be included for every possible banking experience.

What I wrote was: “I want to move a specific amount of money from savings to checking every month,” and the back of my card had only the details that supported that one activity.  The coach was astounded.  How had I, the one with no training in gathering software requirements, written such a good User Story the first time out?

Simple. What he calls a User Story, I call a scene. Think of a film. Each individual scene in a film has a specific goal for at least one of the characters. Actually, the same thing applies to narrative fiction as well. Some writers start at the beginning and work straight through to “The End”, but others (and I think we’re in the majority) set down our scenes. And if you’re powering through the idea for a new story, you may very well be jotting down notes for your individual scenes on index cards (or virtual cards).

It turns out software development is learning what artists already know. You work on the small pieces, and the big picture takes shape when you string them together.  It’s an approach that works in a lot of areas of life. No one ever listens to artists, but now that technology has taken the idea and blogged it and certified it and meta-tagged it, maybe it’ll spread. So don’t be surprised in the next few years if you start to hear about Agile Government or the Agile Diet.  When you do, remember: it’s just another common sense approach to breaking down a problem; and the writers were there first!

The New Fossils

In my role as technical writer, I was drafting some instructions for a new application when it struck me that the Save icon on so many applications is still a line drawing of a floppy disk. And that there are a lot of people using computers today (like my nieces and nephew, for example) who have never actually used a floppy disk, but who know this image means “Save.” Which means it took about 20 years from being invented to becoming ubiquitous, to reaching the point where it only lingers as a symbol whose origins are already half lost in the mists of time.

I think a lot about the things that have gone extinct in my lifetime. I don’t mean big things like the Western Black Rhinoceros or the country called Czechoslovakia. Plenty of other people think about things like that. I mean little things, like the Thistle-colored Crayola crayons I used to love (now “retired”), and the idea that the plot of a story could hang on a missed phone call. Extinctions of idea and artifact are part of the flow of civilizations. It just happens so much more rapidly since the last quarter of the 20th Century.

So I’ve decided to start writing things down as they occur to me. And I hope you’ll join me. Think about the things we’ve already lost, and things that are surviving only through conscious preservation (either sincerely, or as some kind of ironic retro style statement).

Here are a few to start with. I’m posting this as a blog today, but as the list grows, I’ll make a page for it somewhere else on this site:

Speaking of missed phone calls, as I was doing earlier, when was the last time you used a telephone to have a real conversation? It’s all texting now, which is another reason land lines are dying out. And when they finally do, how dated will all those films and books seem when they mention “the phone rang” or “give me a ring?”

Which reminds me: When was the last time you got a personal letter? I mean on paper, though with everyone communicating almost exclusively on social media, emails of any length are just as endangered.  There’s a poignantly hilarious moment in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress where a character moons over the only written relic she has of her ex-boyfriend, a mis-spelled “be back soon” note he left on his way to a beer run. Along the same lines, photo postcards from vacation spots are probably living on borrowed time. As are paper greeting cards, which are turning to increasingly desperate measures to stay alive (Hallmark has opted for sound chips and pop-cultural tie-ins, while Papyrus favors glitter and other embellishments that self-consciously reference hand made). After that, you won’t be surprised that I’ve got greeting card shops and the post office/mail carriers on my list of endangered businesses and occupations.

Once upon a time, as those over 45 and Mad Men viewers know, even small offices had highly trained professional secretarial staff.   Chicken vs. Egg conundrum: Did the decline of correspondence and telephone communications cause the end of this profession? Or, in a world where nearly everyone holds an MBA and has to be their own secretary because few companies can afford all those MBAs and still have have money to hire support staff, did the lack of these professionals help to cause the decline in communications?

Okay, here’s an obvious one.  A coworker’s son found a NYC subway token in the loose change jar and wanted to know what kind of foreign currency it was.  It just occurred to me that the punch-style can opener falls into the same category of “huh?!” for his generation.

Another thing I took for granted that this boy will never know: every town once supported an entire range of specialized repair shops. It’s ironic that now that we’re all “green” and determined to recycle, no one can make a living doing this anymore. People who can still fix a television or a blender seems to only be doing it in the basement, as a hobby.  The man who re-heels those of my shoes that can still be re-heeled (so many shoes are now made to be worn out and tossed) is pushing 90 and when he dies, his shop dies with him.

Question: do you “turn the page” of an ebook? Oh, the interface can make it look that way, and probably will continue to do so until everyone’s made the transition away from paper. But what are you actually “turning?” And can we refer to “liner notes” when music is no longer purveyed via anything than can be lined? This is probably the appropriate place to note the passing of the disk jockey (not just the disk), that professional class of taste arbiters and educators who made listening to music an  interactive experience. And don’t forget dedicated “record stores,” which primarily continue to exist (even electronically) only as departments in stores that retail electronics or books. The brief lifespan of the video store (almost equivalent to that of the floppy disk) also bears mention.

All the talk of books makes me think about typesetting, a profession reaching back to Gutenberg. I had a lovely conversation with a third generation typesetter, a man who’d started his own apprenticeship at age 16 and spent his life working at his venerable calling. Until one day it simply didn’t exist any more. Now, at age 61, he was driving cabs to the airport, because his newspaper’s print shop had closed.  When I was in school (and I’m thinking of a college life-sketching class, not just kindergarten fingerpainting), we used newsprint for art projects. You can still buy large blocks in the art supply stores, but as newspapers disappear, will newsprint? And all that keeps it in production is the needs of art students, will we still call it “newsprint”?