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Common wisdom has it that technology is shrinking our attention spans and narrowing the kinds of stories we seek on the Web. But what if new devices and platforms like e-books and tablets are actually creating entirely new forms of writing? New York Times tech reporter and suspense writer Matt Richtel joins us to explore how new technology is breathing life into the short story genre, and discusses how he uses real technology stories to inform his fiction.
- Matt Richtel Technology Reporter, New York Times; Author, "Floodgate: A Short Story" (forthcoming)(Harper)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. It used to be so simple. Before the rise of e-books, a prolific author would come up with an idea, take a couple of months to commit it to paper or word processor and pump out one book a year. But the times they are a-changing for the 21st-century storyteller. In the era of e-books and other digital distractions, consumer options are expanding, even as our attention spans seem to be narrowing.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd publishers are demanding extra content, stories and novellas in between all those annual titles. This story may sound like a tale of woe, a kind of digital sweatshop for poor writers, but Matt Richtel says new technology actually may be breathing new life into an old genre: the short story. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning tech journalist, but he also writes high-tech page-turners, suspense novels and short stories that take real tech stories and prevent -- present them in slightly fantastical, slightly (word?) us to light.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe joins us from studios in San Francisco. Matt Richtel is a technology reporter with The New York Times. He won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on distracted driving. He's also written about the ways technology affects and perhaps even rewires our brains. His most recent work of fiction "Floodgate: A Short Story" comes out next week. Matt Richtel, thank you for joining us.
MR. MATT RICHTELWell, thank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIOver the last five years, the short story of...
RICHTELWait, Kojo, Kojo.
RICHTELSorry. I have to interrupt. I have to write a short story to get to my publisher. They've escalated the -- can I just take 10 minutes to whip something out?
NNAMDINo. But I can give you 30 seconds if you've got...
RICHTELThat -- OK. Less than 140 characters, thy will be done.
NNAMDIExactly right. Over the last five years, Matt, the story of e-books has been told mostly in terms of numbers, in terms of how many e-books are selling in comparison to the old-fashioned print books, in terms of how much we're willing to pay for a digital version of a book or how publishing companies may be colluding to keep prices up. But you argue that something else is happening with digital storytelling. How are these new tools changing the way in which we tell stories?
RICHTELYeah. I mean, they're absolutely changing the ways in which we still tour -- tell stories. See, I was...
RICHTELI was. Yes, I was writing the story and talking simultaneously but not while driving. It's changing how we tell stories. It's changing why we tell stories. This is a -- what I'm -- what we're discussing today is both the -- an issue of the muse and the market, and they are -- you know, they're colliding right now. The market, for a bunch of reasons we can get into, is dictating that we accelerate the pace of publication, that we try to stay in the public consciousness.
RICHTELAnd so rather than writing merely a book a year, which you made it sound so simple in your introduction is, you know, is -- I know you were partly kidding. It's pretty tough.
RICHTELAnd now to stay out there, we're also being asked -- or we're agreeing readily to put out a short story in the middle of the year. So that's the market force. The muse force is, you know, a lot of us who are kind of muse-bit have a stack of ideas by the side of the bed.
RICHTELAnd this new e-publishing medium allows us to give rise to bring life to these things that might have otherwise wound up on the bedroom cutting room floor. And that's what gave birth at least to "Floodgate." For me, I had an idea, and now, I have both permission and market encouragement to write it.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number if you'd like to join this Tech Tuesday conversation with Matt Richtel. Do you own an e-book reader? Have you bought a short story recently? Are you taking advantage of a short story for 99 cents that you can get from Kimble? 800 -- Kindle? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using the #TechTuesday, or go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there.
NNAMDIToday, Matt, authors, publishers engage in a furious competition for our attention, not just against other publishers but against online news sources, social media, streaming video. A lot of people believe that all these distractions are the enemy of long-form storytelling. But there seems to be some evidence that this technology is also feeding a hunger for expanded narratives. Could this technology also be encouraging us to explore longer reads?
RICHTELYeah. I think absolutely. I mean, there are ways these forces are -- clearly, we haven't seen on balance what they're going to wind up doing. But for all the problems, if you will, that they create, look at some of the, again, for want of a better word, positive influences. For instance, you go on -- I go on the Kindle now, and I check out the beginnings of a bunch of stories and decide which ones that I want to buy. Now, conceivably, I would have done that in a bookstore, but I can read even more in a calm setting and decide which I want to buy. That serves me well.
RICHTELIt serves the publishers and writers conceivably well that you can buy with a push of a button. So there's an impulse quality to this, a timesaving -- gosh, I -- all due apologies to all my neighborhood bookstores in San Francisco that I love, but, you know, you don't drive to the bookstore now often. You click, and you look, and there you go. So all that winds up creating a big macro forces that allow us to search for quality and embrace quality. And when quality is there, it seems to often be -- the market seems to gravitate to it.
NNAMDIYeah. That one-click feature is bankrupting me as a matter of fact. Can you give us a sense of how this technology is affecting authors? Your colleague at The New York Times, Julie Bosman, wrote an interesting story about this very topic in May, and she spoke with some big-name authors, like the British thriller writer Lee Child, creator of the Jack Reacher stories. Is this affecting blockbuster airport bookstore authors differently than it's affecting, say, up-and-coming scribes?
RICHTELYou know, you'd like to think -- hello?
NNAMDIHi. We can hear you very well. Can you hear us?
RICHTELOK. All right. I've lost you a little bit. You'd like to think in some ways that the folks who are at the airport -- Lee Child, Steve Berry, Lisa Gardner, Lisa Scottoline and so on and so forth -- would say, well, I'm putting out a book a year. I've done very well. I'm not sure that I need to do any more to foster my career, but so heavy is both kind of the paranoia and market forces that even these big folks who sell lots and lots and lots, hundreds of thousands of books, feel compelled to put out short stories.
RICHTELAnd I love -- you brought up Julie Bosman, my colleague's story, and I love this quote by Lisa Scottoline who says, "Today, the culture is a great big hungry maw, and you have to feed it." So even these folks who once put out a book a year and could sell many of them are -- live in some fear that if they don't publish more often, they will be forgotten among -- amid the white noise. Again, to your point, part of that's -- if you want, if -- for want of a better word, bad news because that's a lot of people writing on a gerbil wheel. And how good can quality be?
NNAMDIYeah. We were going to get to...
RICHTELOn the other hand...
NNAMDIGo ahead, please.
RICHTELSorry. Go ahead...
NNAMDINo, go ahead.
RICHTELYou know, on the other hand, it is giving us back this pulp medium that I -- some of the stuff is just wonderful. I would cite a story that I stumbled onto recently through all these little -- you know, you follow this click. If you like this, you might like this. I started the story. There was a story called "Wool" that was 99 cents. And it's pretty pulpy and quite well-written. And I learned later that it had been optioned by Ridley Scott.
RICHTELAnd I -- as my understanding, is that since we have no audience, no one will quote me on it, so I can't get -- possibly get this wrong in public. But my understanding is that this is a -- this author didn't start with a traditional publisher, put it out there, found an audience electronically and created a huge buzz. That opportunity certainly existed in some way before but not to this extent, not in this big universal fashion.
NNAMDIWe now know that author's name is Hugh Howey. If you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. Have you bought a 99-cent short story recently? Do you own an e-book reader? 800-433-8850. Here is Brady in Charlottesville, Va. Brady, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRADYHi. I'm curious to know if your guest believes that this new pressure to put out short stories in e-book format has had any effect on the subject matter of the stories that are being written. Do they tend to be more tech oriented or more traditional genres, fiction? What does he think?
NNAMDIWhat do you think, Matt?
RICHTELI think that's a great question, and the short answer is no in the sense that what really ultimately dictates that is the personality and psyche of the writer. But there is a way in which, I think, this technology very much has affected how stories get written. And that is that oftentimes you see shorter chapters. You see a desire to get to information more quickly to create cliffhangers earlier in the story.
RICHTELAnd I think there's a way in which this actually will yield if it hasn't already. Some digital Shakespeare, the person who can captivate both quickly and efficiently but also very astutely, for the -- there's a way in which, having said that, a lot of that -- a lot of those influences make for rotten fiction. If you try to do something too quickly as a writer, you wind up making shortcuts that bludgeon the reader. But at some point, we're going to find, if we haven't already, those folks who can do it so eloquently, and it's going to be masterful.
NNAMDIAs an author, Matt -- and thank you for your call, Brady. As an author, you write techno thrillers that sort of riff off very interesting tech stories you often find yourself covering. Does this new compressed timeline for producing books mean it's easier to produce books that are ripped from the headlines, so to speak?
RICHTELWell, in that respect, yes. I mean, I'm reminded a little bit of, you know, how -- like something like "Doonesbury," which you read the -- now, Trudeau seems to have some prescience, but, you know, you see something one day. And the next day, it's in the comic strips. Same thing with fiction now, you can move pretty quickly that, again -- I keep saying that said because there's -- this is a seesaw conversation.
RICHTELThere's a one hand, and on the other hand. And on the other hand, where it becomes troubling is, the pressure to do this just divide an already divided brain. I mean, there's really -- a lot of my research the last few years into technology, the brain really comes down to understanding the limitations of the brain, and you can only write so much quality stuff and then take the time to market it unless you, you know, do some sort of Dr. Frankenstein thing with your brain and would, you know, doubling your brain in a jar, which I haven't figured out.
NNAMDIWell, let's talk about "Floodgate" specifically, and since you mentioned the seesaw analogy, on the one hand, this is the kind of classic murder mystery. On the other hand, it's also a story about a technology that may or may not already exist. It features a down-on-his-luck former journalist working for a tech-savvy political operative who stumbles on a potentially game-changing software program. Can you give us some context and read us an excerpt, please?
RICHTELYeah. So this is -- you know, hopefully, it's fun and pulpy and fast moving but also has some real substance behind it. And I don't want to give too much of the twist away. But in this scene that I'll read briefly from, there's -- our main character -- you described him well -- a hostile, out-of-work journalist who once leveled an editor for changing an adjective. Editors, if you're listening out there, that is not a premeditated threat.
RICHTELAnd he finds the body of his boss, Fred Sanderson, lying in a pool of blood and takes from his boss a very sought-after computer thumb drive and puts it in a computer, and then this little -- should I read this little section?
RICHTELOK. Everyone recline. Here comes the reading portion. "I look up from the file. I glance outside seeing emptiness and quiet on the residential street, but feeling self-conscious nonetheless. I feel like I'm holding something smoldering. It's starting to make sense, particularly in light of the things I'd overheard Fred say about politics. He hated hypocrisy and insincerity. He said that the reason that politicians can't solve real problems is that they can't move on platitude. He wanted to use technology to bring truth to politics.
RICHTEL"I think sitting here squeezed into this car, looking at this incredible document, that maybe he's figured out a way to do so in the most extraordinary and maybe most insidious way in history. What I'm looking at are the Internet search terms of all the people running for higher office in the United States. Somehow, Fred has managed to tap into their computers and record hundreds, maybe thousands, of their individual searches looking for behaviors and habits that might make them unelectable.
RICHTEL"No, that's not right, I realize. It wasn't that he was finding search terms that prove what makes them unelectable, but rather what makes them human. Fred was going to expose the widespread commonality of people who cloak themselves as icons of moral purity."
NNAMDIThat's Matt Richtel reading from "Floodgate." 800-433-8850. Matt Richtel is our guest this hour. If you have called, stay on the line. We're going to take a short break, but we will be coming back to your calls and emails. You can shoot us an email to email@example.com, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using the #TechTuesday or simply go to our website. Is the technology itself changing the style of writing? You can go to kojoshow.org and make a comment there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our Tech Tuesday conversation on storytelling in the digital age. We are talking with Matt Richtel. He is a technology reporter with The New York Times, who won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on distracted driving. His most recent work of fiction is called "Floodgate: A Short Story." It comes out next week. Matt joins us from studios in San Francisco.
NNAMDIYou can join the conversation by just calling 800-433-8850. Do you have a favorite author whose books you snatch up immediately? Have you noticed a relationship between quantity and quality? 800-433-8850. Back to "Floodgate" for a while, Matt. This story is fiction, but there are some very interesting true stories that underpin it. For example, during a landmark obscenity trial in Florida in 2008, a lawyer representing a man accused of selling pornography successfully introduced Internet searches into evidence. Can you tell us about that case?
RICHTELYeah. Just -- this was a -- this happened in 2008. And we put it on the front page, and it was quite remarkable. Essentially, his client was accused of violating obscenity laws by selling pornography, and very broadly the -- what dictates whether something is obscene is determined by the community standard. So it was once the case that the 12 jurors would sit and say, well, this seems to violate what our community digests, if you will, consumes. So the attorney went, and he said, well, let's go find out what this community actually does digest and consume. So does that make sense so far?
NNAMDIYes, it does.
RICHTELOK. So he goes on the Internet, and he -- and I'm just going to -- I'm going to read here 'cause I can't remember these terms, and I don't want to mess him up. He went to -- he went and looked, used Google Trends, which is a publicly accessible technology, very simple, that says what kinds of terms are people searching for relative to other terms. In other words, it doesn't say, you know, 10,000 people were searching for orgy.
RICHTELBut what it does tell you is that they were searching for, as he discovered, orgy more than apple pie or watermelon, which he said were kind of, you know, American terms. And he did so for the communities where this case was taking place. In other words, he was attempting to show that whatever you think about our community, I can show you what this community actually does.
RICHTELNow, I'm about to let the audience down a little bit in the sense that I just contacted him the other day to find out this attorney, knowing I was coming on the show to find out how that trial turned out, and I have not heard back from him. So I'm not sure how it played. I mean, what got it on the front page for us is simply the notion -- and this is what we're talking about more broadly -- is that the internet is creating what I like -- what I think of as a mirror. And it is -- go ahead.
NNAMDINo, you. Finish, please.
RICHTELOh, sorry. You know, it is in a way that was never before quantifiable. We are learning things about ourselves, about our truths, about who we are, about what we do, I think, partly because on the Internet, many of us sit home, feeling we're in private. We, if you will, let our hair down. We don't imagine anyone is looking. And so we're not only behaving in a way where we're not putting on a public face, but then secondarily or maybe primarily, depending on how you look at it, that creates a massive database of information.
RICHTELSo on the more innocuous side, you can see something like Google Flu Trends. I've heard doctor friends say they will go look there before they go to the CDC to find out if people are searching for cough, cold medicine, to understand what the waves of flu symptoms might be. Pretty remarkable, right? I mean, quantifiable in a way never before doable.
NNAMDIAnd, indeed, it can point out the difference between what we say publicly are our standards and what our searches show privately are our standards might really be. There's also the very real question of who owns our search histories and whether the things we end up doing online will come back to bite us. Have we seen examples of people, oh, being blackmailed or intimidated by people who get their hands on our behavior online?
RICHTELYou know, I haven't -- I got to answer that specifically. I haven't covered that case, and I'm -- that story. I'm sure it's out there. But let's take the example -- a few months ago, there was a hack into a major pornography site. If memory serves, it was Digital Playground. And hackers got a hold of credit cards and names. You can imagine the scenario, just like the one you described.
RICHTELBut let me give you one that actually happened, and I'm going to refer to searcher -- and forgive me, I'm going to read for a second.
RICHTEL4417749. So in 2006, in a piece of journalism that was just one of my favorites over the last decade even, a couple of my colleagues looked through some searches made public, about 650,000 searches made public -- maybe it was more than that, maybe it was millions -- by AOL. They were anonymous searches put out by AOL purportedly for -- or AOL's stated reason was for research purposes. And so you could see, you know, the number of the searcher I said, and then you could see this person's searches, which included "numb fingers," "60 single men," "dog that urinates on everything."
RICHTELBut then the searches got more specific: landscapers in Lilburn, Ga., homes sold in Shadow Lake subdivision, Gwinnett County, Ga. Well, thanks to some terrific journalism, two of my colleagues went and discovered -- they did a bunch of deduction. And they found the searcher, Thelma Arnold, a 62-year-old widow, and they called her. And she said, those are my searches. And more than that, they -- she went -- they went on to describe these medical conditions that she'd searched for.
RICHTELAnd this is where things get even another level interesting, as if they need to in the story, that she wasn't searching about her own medical conditions but about those friends who she wanted to say -- assuage, who had an issue. So you can see how insidious this is. We search, we think, in private. Something that gets out there that seems anonymous or innocuous gets discovered, and then a whole level of misdirection gets created where maybe this woman doesn't have these conditions that one may -- might make an inference about.
RICHTELMay I connect that to "Floodgate?"
RICHTELSo "Floodgate," the name is drawn -- Watergate, I'm thinking of the story as Watergate on servers, you know, an epic political scandal in which our -- the searches of politicians become made public. And there's a bunch of twists and turns in the story, and it's ultimately sort of character and emotional based. So, you know, I hope I've not given up too much in the way of a movie trailer doesn't give up way too much.
RICHTELBut you can see where it's not all that farfetched. And you can see where it would be both terribly misleading because you might -- someone might be searching, and you wouldn't know what they were searching about, but also create a kind of reckoning, a mirror if you will, between what people say on the stump and what they do at the -- I was looking for a play on words. It didn't come to me -- what they do with the computer.
RICHTELAnd, look, we've already seen this to some extent. And I -- again, I'm going to -- I'm not going to try to get their names, but a handful of politicians and a growing handful who say one thing but then their texts betray them or their emails betray them. It's creating a kind of massive database of evidence and a really interesting scenario going forward about whether we understand who we are. And we're beginning to understand who we are, and we must confront who we are.
NNAMDIAll of which make "Floodgate: A Short Story" seem like an intriguing read. It comes out next week. It's Matt Richtel's most recent work of fiction. He is technology reporter with The New York Times who won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on distracted driving. Going to go to the telephones now, here is Richard in Rockville, Md. Richard, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MR. DICK ROSANOHello, Kojo. Thank you for taking the call. Can you hear me OK?
NNAMDIYes, we can.
ROSANOGreat. Actually, my name is Richard. I go by Dick Rosano, so that might make a connection. I've been a wine and food writer for years for The Washington Post and others. The question I have for your guest is I just myself published my third book. It's an e-book, though. And it's my first time publishing an e-book, and I admit that I had to go through a little bit of a thought process to push myself over the edge and accept moving from print as in my other books to this new book, "Tuscan Blood," actually that is published as an e-book.
ROSANOAnd I wanted to ask your guest to reflect for us and your listening audience on how it felt to move from a world that we've known in print to a world where everything seems like it'll be electronic. How does it feel emotionally and professionally? And I'll take my reply off the air.
NNAMDIWell, before you take the reply, I'd like to know how it made you feel emotionally and professionally to publish your first digital work.
ROSANOWell, actually, first of all, the publication of a book for a writer is always a gleeful event. So when "Tuscan Blood" just recently came out, felt great about that. That may have overshadowed any misgivings about it going electronically. I keep being asked by friends and associates, well, why did you do that? And I had to explain to them that I believe that that's where the future is. I may be old enough to remember all the print media, but I guess I'd better keep myself young enough to accept that that's where we're heading.
RICHTELYeah. First, Dick, congratulations. And, you know, look me up and drop me a line. Let's talk about it because it's about a four-hour conversation, and I'll try to be succinct. I like putting the emphasis on emotion. And just to set the stage for it, in this case, this is -- "Floodgate" is an e-book, 99 cents, and there's a real market reason for it. It's aimed by the publisher -- we started to get at this earlier -- at setting the stage for the next print book in January.
RICHTELThere's -- this is the real naked kind of marketing part of this conversation. What they do is they sell "Floodgate" online. At the end of "Floodgate," they put an excerpt from the next print book. They want you to buy it there. It's -- this is very much in some ways a marketing vehicle. So I haven't had to confront, Dick, the full notion of going exclusively digitally. But I do agree it's a really interesting emotional thing for a writer and reader.
RICHTELFor a writer, I've been contemplating -- I've been thinking about asking Harper Collins, will you send me a nice printout of the cover of "Floodgate?" It will be the only material proof that I have that anything got published. And there's -- so there's a kind of thing about seeing your book on the shelf. I mean, I don't know what I'd put up on the shelf now, a thumb drive, maybe a one and a zero to remind myself it existed.
RICHTELThe other part that it is a very mixed blessing -- and I imagine that Dick can sympathize/empathize -- is that we have much less control as writer and publisher over the sales process than we did before. So as if it wasn't enough of a lottery ticket historically that you put your book on the shelves and hoped people saw it, at the very least during that previous era, what you had was, you had the publisher having control over the distribution system. They would put us in airports. They would put us in bookstores. We knew people would see us.
RICHTELNow, with Amazon, there is some combination of Amazon, iTunes controlling the shelf space, which is very limited, if you will, combined with this other grassroots crowdsourcing thing where things bubble up to the top, like "Wool," based on what people like. We can't control that anymore. So, you know, you walk in to publication both excited and enervated knowing that you don't know how something is going to sell, and you have that much more trepidation today.
NNAMDIRichard, thank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. 800-433-8850. Dick Rosano was talking about his latest book, "Tuscan Blood," and how it affects writers. But, Matt Richtel, talk about -- a little bit about how it might affect us as readers. The rise of the e-book from a reader's perspective has changed the way we consume stories. Now, with the click of a button, we can download one or two or a dozen books and take them with us wherever we go.
NNAMDIWe also kind of developed attachments to characters that can now be satisfied with short works that fill in the back story that is only hinted in the longer novel. Is this changing our expectation as readers?
RICHTELI don't think it is quite yet, but I think it's destined to. I mean, I think we're going to be very demanding. We're going to be able to say no very quickly to something. We're going to be able to say yes very quickly to something. I have some hope that quality will rise, at least among a certain audience. I think quality is a very iffy term. It means different things to different people. But I'm not so convinced that quality dies. I think readers will become more demanding. I just want to say -- may I just say one thing quickly about the -- not having a material item, meaning a cover?
RICHTELI think there's another -- Dick alluded to this kind of ethereal notion of not having a book -- as a writer, you don't have a book. I've been thinking a bunch about when you don't have a cover as a reader. And I don't just mean not have a book, which is something you can own and hold and show off on a bookshelf that reflects on you in a certain way. I mean, I will concede that having a shelf full of books not only is a teaching tool for my kids. It's also something I want to project to my visitors in my home, look, I'm a reader.
RICHTELAnd we've lost a little bit of that. And we've also lost the idea of showing in public who we are through the covers of our books. I wonder if, at some point, someone's not going to come up with a way to put on the back of, say, your Kindle that you're reading "War and Peace" so you can show that you're more important than the -- well, let's say, the guy who's writing -- reading "Floodgate."
NNAMDII'm so much smarter than you. Yes.
RICHTELSo much smarter than the "Floodgate" reader.
NNAMDIWell, speaking of the "Floodgate" reader, Kathy from McLean, Va. would like to be a "Floodgate" reader. She asked how to search for "Floodgate" on the Kindle. She's tried in books and magazines and by author and couldn't find it.
RICHTELKathy, thank you for asking this in a public forum. You have -- tell me where you want the check. It's very simple. It's "Floodgate," and my last name R-I-C-H-T-E-L on either Amazon or Barnes & Noble for the Nook or the Kindle. And what you will do is you'll find the page. And now, even though it comes out next week, you can pre-order it, 99 cents. It'll be on your digital doorstep then.
NNAMDIAnd any time you run into Matt Richtel after that, you can say, remember that time I gave you a buck? 800-433-8850.
RICHTELWait. Hold on. Don't make me do the math about how much I receive of that.
NNAMDIWell, as we talk about this new publishing schedule, Matt, one is reminded of the days of Charles Dickens, when authors wrote stories in serial form every day or every other day in the newspaper.
RICHTELYeah, totally. Totally. Yeah.
NNAMDIAre we heading to some kind of hybrid of the serial and the traditional story?
RICHTELWell, I think it's already happening, and I mentioned -- I keep going back to "Wool," so that guy probably owes me a buck. But, you know, he wound up serializing. And, actually, the stories got a little bit longer and a little more expensive, and the characters developed. And I think that opportunity certainly is out there. People are already trying lots of versions of this, and, really, in the end, it comes down, to some extent, to quality. I mean, the medium is there to permit it. People are going to gravitate to what works.
RICHTELI said earlier -- and I don't think it bears enough emphasizing -- that it's really easy, as a writer, to fall into very bad habits when you write short stories. And I think actually this conversation owes an apology to, like, John Updike in the New Yorker. We're not talking about short stories that are so subtle you see the slightest character movement, you know, the virtual "Catcher in the" -- or the veritable "Catcher in the Rye" where the character just evolved step by step, moment by moment, throughout the story until you suddenly realize what's happened.
RICHTELThese are kind of blunt force pulp stories. That said, they can be very good when well done through staccato dialogue, through interesting character, through the weaving of character and narrative. And, in fact, I would say -- and I've tried to do this 'cause I was pretty muse-bit on this story -- that every word counts. Every word, in effect, is evidence of both a greater kind of storytelling and also the narrative if you do it well in a pulp story.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, if you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. The number is 800-433-8850. Our guest is Matt Richtel. He's a technology reporter with The New York Times. His most recent work of fiction is "Floodgate: A Short Story." It comes out next week. You can also join us by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using the #TechTuesday. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Matt Richtel. He is technology reporter with The New York Times, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on distracted driving. He's also written about the ways technology affects and perhaps even rewires our brains. We're also talking about his most recent work of fiction. It's called "Floodgate: A Short Story." It comes out next week. I'd like to go directly to the phones and talk with Jake in Washington, D.C. Jake, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MR. JAKE NAUGHTONHi. Thanks so much for taking my call.
NAUGHTONMy name is Jake Naughton, and I'm the multimedia projects coordinator at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
NAUGHTONI just wanted to share some ways that we're using tablets and e-books to change nonfiction storytelling as well. We just launched a new series of interactive multimedia books for the iPad that we used with this -- with Apple's new software. And both books feature long form, around 10,000 to 20,000 words, looks at systemic crisis presented in a really beautiful and immersive way. They've got photography, and they're well designed, and there's video and poetry.
NAUGHTONAnd they focus on statelessness, and then also one looking at the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. And as an added bonus to all of that, all of the proceeds go directly to the contributors. And so, for us, it's a way of experimenting and looking at different ways that we can provide a space for people to consume this long-form journalism on important topics and trying to generate a new revenue stream for journalists.
NNAMDINew kinds of storytelling, Matt Richtel, trying to make the long...
RICHTELOh, Jake, I'm so glad you brought -- sorry, Kojo. I'm so glad you brought that up. I stepped on you.
NNAMDIOh, never mind me.
NNAMDIGo ahead, Matt.
RICHTELMay I address that?
RICHTELI mean, Jake is just -- is dead on, and we are seeing -- it's one of my favorite topics 'cause I think we're seeing some really interesting stuff happen in journalism and nonfiction-telling. You know, I remember when -- just to -- I think we were -- let's see. I'm sure no one from The New York Times is listening, so I won't get in trouble for this. You know, I think we were a little bit holier than thou -- who am I kidding? -- you know, on a mountaintop as journalists for a long time. There wasn't a lot of competition.
RICHTELI remember years ago when we -- when the Times first got color, someone said, oh, the Times got colored pictures. I said, don't worry, the writing will remain dry and lifeless. But that has really, really changed in the last four, five years. And just to give you a specific anecdote from the distracted driving series that you've alluded to…
RICHTEL...kind of a poor man's version of this, when we were doing these big, long stories, 4,000 words, 5,000 words, we were -- which is long for a newspaper article, we really played with the idea of -- if -- for want of a better word, cliffhangers. We set up narratives at the beginning, and we tried to close them at the end. And I remember when we were going through it, my editor and I, who's a good friend and a wonderful editor and writer, we wondered if we'd make it through the gauntlet at The New York Times because we were taking some chances and playing with narrative structure.
RICHTELAnd we did so because we understood that keeping people's attention is very hard. I think we did it to, I say, a poor man's version of that. I also was benefited by virtue of being a thriller writer in that I thought a lot about keeping the readers' attention. Well, that -- we have gotten so much better at that as a paper. There was a story that just -- it made my mouth water and my eyes mist. It was done so well as part of the series that the Times has done on what's happened with manufacturing of Apple products in China.
RICHTELAnd I realized, as I was reading this -- I don't know how many words, five, 6,000 words. I think my colleague, Charles Duhigg, was part of it. And there was a character introduced at the beginning who was injured in a fire, and I believe we found out, like, 6,000 words later what had happened to that -- that the character, the protagonist, if you will, for want of a better word, had died.
RICHTELBut his story was carried through the article. So, going back to what Jake said, we are all learning that we need to do things to keep reader attention, whether fiction writers or nonfiction writers -- I can tell I'm on a long-winded soapbox. I'll jump off and just leave it with this -- I think it's for the good because if we can deliver powerful, fair, balanced information, but do it in a seductive, entertaining way, that's a high mark.
NNAMDIJake, where can people find information about that project?
NAUGHTONIf they visit our homepage, which is pulitzercenter.org.
NNAMDIOK. Thank you very much for your call and for sharing that with us. Let's get back to the implications of "Floodgate" by going to Ed Tinus in Whaleyville, Md. Ed Tinus, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MR. ED TINUSThanks for taking my call, Kojo and Matt. Appreciate this. I'm not a lawyer or a politician, but I'm sitting here at (unintelligible) today actually. And I heard the short reading of "Floodgate." And I thought, well, what a coincidence. And I'm calling really to offer maybe a new storyline, anybody who's free to go out there and grab it. I'm a candidate for the United States Senate in Maryland, come this November.
TINUSI'm seeking the office through the technological age that really piqued my attention when he read the short thing about "Floodgate"...
NNAMDIYou're planning to make all of your searches public?
TINUSWell, it was interesting 'cause he grabbed my attention when he said he went online, that he stole the information and looked at what he was doing. And it was more sinister than that. But, no, I'm not doing anything sinister, but it was an interesting subject. But my campaign is basically about direct democracy with seeking a public vote on every issue, utilizing the new technological age that we live in today, by having a form available for the meeting house of yesterday to be anew again and just seek everyone's vote on every issue and, you know, have people communicate with each other again.
TINUSAnd what somebody would vote on, as far as the citizens of Maryland, I'm going to see to it that the state of Maryland, as a sovereign state, carries that through for the citizens of Maryland. I want us to be back into the U.S. again.
NNAMDII don't know. Matt Richtel, how do you feel about that? There are those who feel that that's what's hindering efficient government. In California, you make it available for voters to participate on every vote, on every single issue, on every conversation. Well, I'll leave the conclusions up to you, Matt Richtel.
RICHTELYou know, I want to be careful 'cause I'm not a political reporter per se, and I try to be careful about stuff I don't cover or know a ton about. But I do want to observe -- thank you for the question. It's an interesting idea about -- I would put it under the broad rubric how technology is changing politics, and that is just a fascinating issue. And the forces, again, are really colliding. It's -- on the one hand -- on the other hand, for instance, you know, it's very hard for any backroom politicking to go on these days.
RICHTELAnd the -- either the candidate or soon-to-be candidate alluded to the idea that that seemed to suggest that's a good thing. Maybe it is because, you know, things are transparent, and we're out there. On the other hand, you hear a lot of stuff -- and I don't cover this stuff so I'm just laying it out there -- that backroom politicking is how things get done. It gets very hard for people to not get exposed the moment they say something or do something or vote on something. I don't know how those things work themselves out, but it's very -- it's a very powerful notion, how technology affects politics.
NNAMDIEd Tinus, thank you very much for your call. Good luck to you.
RICHTELThank you, Ed.
NNAMDII'd like to shift gears a little bit here and talk about technologies that are perhaps a little less benign than the e-book. It's August, and many people are either in the midst of their vacations, or they're about to go on one. You recently wrote, well, a fascinating piece about a family vacation that morphed into a week of stress, and you laid blame squarely on technology or, really, on your own inability to de-link from technology. What is vacation sabotage?
RICHTELVacation sabotage is where you take your family with your toddlers three time zones away, they get up at 4:00 in the morning, and, to somehow compensate for this -- don't ask me how I did this math -- I started using my device all the time. Maybe I thought it would -- well, I do know that it's kind of an adrenaline thing. One thing spiraled to the next. And a week later, I'd spent a bunch of money and was exhausted and couldn't wait to get home, and that is, in a nutshell, vacation sabotage.
NNAMDIIn many of your reported pieces, you seem to be very interested in the way our brains are being stimulated, doped up or rewired by technology. How do insights from neuroscience explain why people cannot wind down when they're on a vacation?
RICHTELYeah, I mean, this is a thing I've spent the last three or four years doing, and you're right. I mean, I'm fascinated by it, and now I think a lot of people are sort of coming to an idea that I've been -- that I've tried to learn about it. And that has to do with these devices are not merely information providers. They are highly stimulating, even creating neurochemical interactions. Why is it hard to wind down? Well, if you get a constant stream of pings and buzzes, what happens in their absence is you begin to crave them.
RICHTELSo you go on vacation, and you say, I'm going to put my device down. For a bunch of reasons, that's hard as it is. You think your boss might need you. You're expected to get back to your friends. But on a much more kind of primitive, primal level, those pings and buzzes are acclimating you, habituating you to adrenaline burst, and in their absence, you feel bored and you crave more. You can see the cycle.
NNAMDIYou have some interesting tips for having a truly relaxing vacation, some of them involve turning off the iPhone or the BlackBerry. But many of those tips involve preparing one's self mentally to relax. The first tip, prepare now. What do you mean by that?
RICHTELYeah. I was -- this has hit me -- this is one of those things -- you say it as a journalist, but I really find it to be true. The thing you say is, I never know what I'm going to find when I start reporting this story. I think there's a belief out there. We know exactly what the story is going to be when we start reporting, and almost never is that the case. And the first surprise I had in asking experts how do I avoid vacation sabotage is they said start today.
RICHTELI said, what do you mean today? They said, months before you go on vacation, acclimate yourself, habituate yourself to the idea of relaxing. And what they meant was disconnect not just from your device but from your life, 20 minutes here, five minutes there, breathe. They cited evidence, one researcher, about what's happening with vets who come back with PTSD. May I just cite that evidence?
RICHTELOK. So they took vets in coming back from the Gulf and Afghanistan, and they said do some breathing exercises, very simple. Eyes closed, breathe in and out, not meditation. They didn't want to get too, you know, hippie-ish. And the vets did it, and what they found out is they discovered an almost immediate reduction in their startle response, how quickly and how vigorously they would sort of respond to a noise or an input.
RICHTELNow, if that's happening for those guys, the lesson, according to the experts, is begin to do some meditation, some breathing, anything now so that when you go on vacation, you are, in effect, less wired up. You have trained your body to be less startleable or excitable.
NNAMDIWell, here is Kirk in Gaithersburg, Md. on the same topic. Kirk, your turn. You only have about a minute.
KIRKHey. I was just going to comment in that for my small business, Concrete Jack, we switched to cloud-based everything and gave all of our crews that works all over the Mid-Atlantic tablets, and everything is cloud. And it's awesome in the business functionality it gives you. But, at the same time, I find myself, when I'm on vacation, logging in to this cloud-based system because no matter where you're at in the world, you have 100 percent live access to everything that's going on. That just makes it, like, from a business perspective, it's so much better in the functionality it gives you.
NNAMDIFrom a vacation perspective, not so much.
KIRKYeah, yeah, exactly. I'm going on my honeymoon in two weeks, and I'm thinking, listening to this show, I was like, oh, my gosh, I've got -- it is going to be so hard to (unintelligible).
RICHTELYeah, could I...
NNAMDIMatt, please help Kirk to save his marriage before it even starts.
RICHTELKirk, never in bed, Kirk. The -- no, I will -- there's -- I want to say two things about this. One...
NNAMDIYou got 30 seconds.
RICHTEL...you know, I've -- OK, 30 seconds. You know, anybody running their own business, you got to do what you got to do. But let me just tell you what the research says. The research says, if you can disconnect and truly find moments of peace away from technology and filling up your brain and analyzing, you will be that much more effective when you return. You must rest your brain. And those who can do it will be at a competitive advantage when they get back from vacation.
NNAMDIKirk, good luck...
RICHTELJust say nothing of your marriage, Kirk.
NNAMDIAnd, Kirk, we will print -- we will post -- link a copy of Matt's article on vacation sabotage at our website, kojoshow.org. You may want to check it out before you head off on your honeymoon. Matt Richtel is a technology reporter with The New York Times. He won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on distracted driving. His most recent work of fiction is "Floodgate: A Short Story." It comes out next week. Matt Richtel, thank you so much for joining us.
RICHTELThank you again, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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