My life on the borderland between text and tech started in adolescence as a sci-fi nerd, dreaming of a future that started to come true around the release of the first Star Wars film, and has since been outstripping most fancies from that era year on year, hand over fist.
As a writer and editor, though, I only got into electronic text by chance when I took a job editing and localizing entries for the first generation of Microsoft’s Encarta CD-ROM encyclopedia in the mid-1990s, when multimedia, never mind the Internet, was only just getting going. I spent the next five years struggling with buggy Access-based content management tools and insane release cycles while writing on the side.
Then come 1999, with the dot-com revolution in full swing, I suddenly found I had an unusually marketable specialization. A few months later I was in Hong Kong.
Night editor duties on the South China Morning Post website got old very quickly, so I spent the next four years supporting dot-coms and tech companies in the crazy glory days of doorstop-thick issues of Fast Company and pilgrimages to Sand Hill Road before becoming managing editor at the Asian Venture Capital Journal.
Around that time, I also got seriously into digital print. Physical books in Hong Kong were undersupplied and overpriced by ripoff vendors in a stitched-up island economy. Online, I had access to a far wider range, at the original prices. That started getting me strongly evangelical about e-books, a stance I’ve kept to this day. In an Asia on fire with greed and pursuit of material gain, they were my lifeline to culture. It didn’t help when publishers started to cotton on to global rights and distribution issues, and shut off access to the editions I’d hitherto bought problem-free. That only pushed me more strongly towards the Gutenberg galaxy of free classics available anywhere, to anyone, for nothing.
Now I feel kind of vindicated as having come out on the winning side, with the vested interests that formerly sequestered human knowledge and expression mostly fighting rearguard actions, but the fine old conflict is by no means over, and new issues and abuses are cropping up all the time. Barbara Tuchman wrote about the crux of this matter so well that it’s worth quoting her in full:
“Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are engines of change (as the poet said), windows on the world and lighthouses erected in the sea of time. They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print.”
For a long time, publishers and media rights holders strove to restrict and monopolize all those functions. Many are still trying. I am writing here at TeleRead to help put that right, to make sure it doesn’t happen again, and to try to ensure that what lies ahead aspires to the best standards of the past.
That may all sound very grandiose and self-regarding, but if you can fight for a great cause while having fun with funky gadgets (that Do Cool Stuff), why not do it?