The Blind Giant

25 April 2012

Here’s what happened…

A few years ago, when I was a first time novelist coming into an industry I’d known as an observer for a long time, I got into a discussion about the Google Book Settlement. In the US, that wouldn’t have been much of a thing – lots of people were talking about it. Here in sleepy Analoguesville, though, I was unusual. The majority of writers, agents, and publishers were either keeping quiet about the GBS, hadn’t heard of it, or didn’t understand it. The amount of bad information around was shocking. The indomitable Gill Spraggs, who has been on the right side of pretty much every unwinnable social battle in the UK in the last four decades, was shouting at the top of her lungs about it, but precious few were paying any attention. (Incidentally, when I say her battles are unwinnable, I mean that they’re unwinnable until you have a few people like Gill on the strength. After that, things change. Slowly, but they do.)

So I talked about it, blogged about it, and soon enough I ended up – through Twitter, if you please – on the Channel 4 News sitting opposite Krishnan and Tom Watson and feeling like a massive fraud. And that was it. I went into a bunch of address books as one of the dudes you call for a soundbite on digital book stuffz in the UK. Down the line, when FutureBook was created, I got asked to join in the fun there, and then last year my phone rang and Roland Philipps from John Murray said: “let’s have lunch.”

I’ve known Roland for a long time; he was my father’s editor for years. And one of the things I know is that when he says “let’s have lunch”, the lunch in question will be very delicious. And he is a friend. So I went. And across the salad, Roland said: “do you want to write a book for us about digitisation and technology? And people. Sort of like Negroponte’s book, but for the new millenium.”

Wow.

If you didn’t read it at the time – and these days, alas, many people are young enough that they weren’t reading books about technology in 1995 – Being Digital was something of an epochal work. Looking back, he got plenty of things wrong, but it was still definitive – and hugely successful. So, you know, no pressure.

I was scared out of my mind by the very idea. So I said yes.

Because one thing I knew: I was going to learn from taking on this book, not only about the topic, but also about the craft of writing. And boy, did I ever.

The timeframe was ludicrously tight: put together a bunch of disparate ideas, find an overarching sense of identity for the book, reference as far as possible where my opinions came from (though it’s impossible to provide the kind of exhausting proofs which properly scientific books have) and turn it all around in a few months. It had to be that fast, because even working on a broad sketch rather than a drill-down, and even trying to stay clear of specific dates and technologies and looking at the big trends, I was in danger of being out of date before the book could be printed. No time, no time, no time. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. In effect, I did NanoWriMo for four months in a row, while editing another book (Angelmaker). And it nearly caused my brain to pour in thin streams of goo out of my ears.

So what’s the book?

I think in novels what you do is you sketch your own identity. You convey a kind of wafer thin slice through your own head and hold it up to the light. I said yesterday that fiction is a sort of counterfeit of human life animated by the willing accomplice who’s reading your story. In this book I have tried to do the same with the world. It’s a slice through a dozen things I think are going on, currents in the general mishmash of the world. There’s a whole huge discussion about agency in social science and history: how things happen in the world. There’s some of that in there – the relationship between culture and individuals and technology and science; how each influences the next. There’s a discussion of the London riots, the revolutions of the Arab Spring, the nature of deindividuation; there’s some brief stuff about the publishing industry and how it’s maybe a microcosm of UK politics. I’ve addressed – with considerable trepidation – the scientific question of the plastic brain and how it is or is not affected by Internet use. I’ve gone off into the wilds to talk about copyright and privacy, design and humanity. It’s a huge canvass embracing any number of fields and disciplines of which I am not a master. It is speculative rather than safe, and I already know I’ve made mistakes. What I hope, though, is that people will embrace the attempt rather than find reasons to decry the inevitable screw-ups: I hope I’m wrong in interesting ways.

More anon.


9 Comments to “The Blind Giant”

  • Tac Anderson said on April 25th, 2012:

    I just stared reading it this morning (having received it in the mail yesterday – thank you) and so far the intro is good :)

  • Foz Meadows said on April 25th, 2012:

    Wooo! *applauds*

    Can’t wait to read it!

  • Donald Max Henzi said on April 25th, 2012:

    I saw your tweet this morning and started reading the above text. The introduction sounds promising, and as I like your fiction very much, I’m sure that you will also master a non-fiction theme. In my opinion the period in which we live, offers unprecedented opportunities, socially, technically and economically, as they hardly ever were granted to people before. The technological possibilities are almost without limit. Unfortunately, most of the people, mainly our business and political leaders, don’t take their chances and responsibilities. The result is, as I call it a “Wertlosgesellschaft” where human beings are becoming more and more puppets of power and money hungry giants. What makes us to slaves of progress.

  • […] In addition to recently publishing a massive new novel, Harkaway has also been working on this nonfiction book about “the relationship between culture and individuals and technology and science” and a whole lot more. I’m a bit stalled with his novel, but even so, this piques my interest. Here’s more about it. […]

  • Adele Kirby said on May 3rd, 2012:

    SOLD.

  • invincible said on May 10th, 2012:

    Well I read this book in detail from word to word which I only do sometimes if I get into the book. I must say that beginning of the book is good say 1/3rd of the book but then middle part starts to slip away and last is an utter gibberish. I lost track whether I was reading a non-fiction or fiction because the reality seemed far far away from authors view. Completely disagree with the fact that we should use twitter more, I mean really? I just cant believe that the author suggest to get more involved with these social media bubble, when we all know its soon coming to an end. Talking about revolution in middle east, and the power of twitter. What did twitter achieve, we all know it was happening out there but what did as an individual you did? Apart from talking about it. These things have been happening back in the days and people used to hear it from messengers (human) but that didn’t do much at that time. People died in middle east or they got revolution if that’s what they call it, but western world or twitter or facebook brought nothing apart from repeating the same story over and over like a sky news channel. I agree with the fact that it’s the relationship we build with technology that can make it good or bad but not the technology itself but I just cannot agree with someone telling us to get more involved with it or not. Personally, for me technology is a tool, a means to finish a process, like a car to get from a to b. I don’t talk to my car and certainly don’t get my feelings involved with it. From the Cuda, I think only making sour dough is worth doing, rest is rubbish. Perhaps the author should stick to writing fiction than non-fiction. His mind is everywhere. One thing though, it will only take a few days work to hack twitter, will people still trust what’s on it. Infact now a days, a lot of users are “bots”  or automated feeds so cant talk about making relationships on social media. Probably 1/3 of twitter is already automated.Vineet

  • Kurt said on January 14th, 2013:

    I’m a Harkaway reader and from the same generation–or a subset introduced to technology at a very early age–so this book resonates. I just bought the ebook (from Google Play) and, when I downloaded the epub version for “offline” reading, was gift(shaft)ed with a DRM-locked file. [redacted] there’s no need for the DRM. I want to be able to read it easily on my Nook, my computer, or just print pages if necessary–without limitations. Selling a DRM book (your publisher’s choice) seems antithetical to the topics in Giant. This note isn’t meant to bash Nick Harkaway, it’s just a very tired “oh fuck you” to the publisher. Cheers to your book, boo to your publisher.

    On a side note, I do like the Harry Potter-style Captcha phrase I’m required to type before releasing my comments into the wild.

  • Nick Harkaway said on January 14th, 2013:

    *sigh* God, how drab. Sorry. (I haven’t used Play yet – I probably ought to experiment with it a bit, but I already have so many different ebook standards in my life… – but is what you describe not as much some kind of Google issue as it is a publisher one? I mean, given that the book is DRM’d, which I know is annoying and a bit pointless, shouldn’t it work anyway because you bought it?)

    DRM is an endlessly vexing issue in publishing and the curious thing at the moment is that some seem to think they’ve ‘won’ by simply refusing to discuss non-DRM at all until it goes away, while outfits like Tor etc are happily removing it and doing fine. I don’t feel bashed (thanks for worrying) but I do feel fatigued by the discussion. I’ve been having this conversation in various directions since 2008, and it never seems to change – except that ultimately it will.

    Forgive me cutting a small section of your comment; I don’t want you getting grief because that section gets someone into a tizzy. And I’m not sure where you’re based in the world, which is relevant to how much grief you can get.

    Anyway – thanks for dropping by!

  • Kurt said on January 14th, 2013:

    Google seems to leave it up to publishers. Regardless, I resolved the problem in 5 minutes (with no particular glee). Sorry to dredge up the DRM topic–but thanks again for your work and the dense, zany, intellectual, and moral professionalism in your [redacted] and [redacted]. (Okay, sorry for the redacted jokes and thanks for your thoughtfulness above. All adjectives listed above fully apply.)

    Note: I’m in the US, in Portland, OR (blocks from Powell’s City of Books).

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