As soon as I suspect a fine effect is being achieved by accident I lose interest. I am not interested in unskilled labor. An accident—that is it. The scientific worker is an even worker. Anyone may achieve on some rare occasion an outburst of genuine feeling, a gesture of imperishable beauty, a ringing accent of truth; but your scientific actor knows how he did it. He can repeat it again and again and again. He can be depended on. Once he has thought out his role and found the means to express his thought, he can always remember the means…With due allowance for the varying mood and interest, the hundredth performance is as good as the first; or, for obvious reasons, far better. Genius is the great unknown quantity. Technique supplies a constant for the problem.
The formula for the well-made play is so easy that I give it for the benefit of any reader who feels tempted to try his hand at making the fortune that awaits all manufacturers in this line. First, you “have an idea” for a dramatic situation. If it strikes you as a splendidly original idea, whilst it is in fact as old as the hills, so much the better. For instance, the situation of an innocent person convicted by circumstances of a crime may always be depended on. If the person is a woman, she must be convicted of adultery. If a young officer, he must be convicted of selling information to the enemy, though it is really a fascinating female spy who has ensnared him and stolen the incriminating document. If the innocent wife, banished from her home, suffers agonies through her separation from her children, and, when one of them is dying (of any disease the dramatist chooses to inflict), disguises herself as a nurse and attends it through its dying convulsion until the doctor, who should be a serio-comic character, and if possible a faithful old admirer of the lady’s, simultaneously announces the recovery of the child and the discovery of the wife’s innocence, the success of the play may be regarded as assured if the writer has any sort of knack for his work.
Comedy is more difficult, because it requires a sense of humor and a good deal of vivacity; but the process is essentially the same: it is the manufacture of a misunderstanding. Having manufactured it, you place its culmination at the end of the last act but one, which is the point at which the manufacture of the play begins. Then you make your first act out of the necessary introduction of the characters to the audience, after elaborate explanations, mostly conducted by servants, solicitors, and other low life personages (the principals must all be dukes and colonels and millionaires), of how the misunderstanding is going to come about. Your last act consists, of course, of clearing up the misunderstanding, and generally getting the audience out of the theatre as best you can.
It’s absolutely impossible to improvise. Making a movie is a mathematical operation. It is like sending a missile to the moon. It isn’t improvised. It is too defined to be called improvisational, too mechanical. Art is a scientific operation, so I can say that what we usually call improvisation is in my case just having an ear and eye for things that sometimes occur during the time we are making the picture.
Yesterday, I canceled my Uber account. Many of you probably already know why, but on the off chance you don’t, I can only quote the original report on Buzzfeed:
A senior executive at Uber suggested that the company should consider hiring a team of opposition researchers to dig up dirt on its critics in the media—and specifically to spread details of the personal life of a female journalist who has criticized the company…
Over dinner, he outlined the notion of spending “a million dollars” to hire four top opposition researchers and four journalists. That team could, he said, help Uber fight back against the press—they’d look into “your personal lives, your families,” and give the media a taste of its own medicine.
[Senior vice president Emil] Michael was particularly focused on one journalist, Sarah Lacy, the editor of the Silicon Valley website PandoDaily, a sometimes combative voice inside the industry…Uber’s dirt-diggers, Michael said, could expose Lacy. They could, in particular, prove a particular and very specific claim about her personal life.
Since the story was first reported by Ben Smith, who personally witnessed the remarks, both Michael and Uber chief Travis Kalanick have publicly apologized. But I frankly don’t trust them. And while my feelings have more than a little to do with the fact that I’m a freelance writer married to a journalist who has covered Uber in the past, they’re also reflection of larger, more troubling questions that should concern more than just members of the press and their families.
First, I should go on the record as saying that I love the service that Uber provides. It’s convenient, cheap, and has the potential to change people’s lives for the better: I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it’s the most innovative startup concept of the decade. If anything, though, this only makes the underlying point more stark, which is how toxic values—encouraged by the culture in which they emerge—can poison even great ideas. There’s the unstated assumption, for instance, that you can draw an equivalence between a reporter covering a corporation’s business practices and that same corporation “fighting back” by investigating the reporter’s personal life. This isn’t some theoretical consideration; there are documented cases of companies doing exactly this. What really startles me, though, is Uber’s lukewarm reaction. In a series of tweets issued in response to the report, Kalanick stated that Michael’s comments did not fairly represent the company, but he also made another curious statement: “His duties here at Uber do not involve communications strategy or plans.” This seems calculated to partially absolve Michael, or the company itself, but it only makes the lack of action harder to understand. Michael, who is not involved in communications strategy, made remarks that had an instant chilling effect on the very journalists on whom Uber depends for fair coverage, and he was careless enough to make them to Ben Smith, one of the most famous media figures in the country. As John Hodgman notes in a blog post on the same subject: “If this isn’t a fireable offense, are there any?”
The fact that Michael seems unlikely to face any additional consequences for his comments makes it clear that deep down, Uber itself doesn’t seem to think that they’re particularly offensive, and that this is just a fake controversy stirred up by reporters looking for attention. (If I had any doubt at all about this, I’d only have to reread the tweet from another Uber executive, since deleted, sharing a photo of employees celebrating after Kalanick’s apology, with the hashtag #HatersGonnaHate. That’s the moment I decided to cancel my account.) And this reflects a fundamental cultural problem. Last week, I noted that the unforgiving conditions of venture funding force startups to compress the process of testing new ideas into punishing, probably unsustainable timelines. Along with everything else, this kind of corporate Darwinism leads to a weirdly insecure, adversarial relationship with the media. In many cases, a company’s brand is all it has: money is raised for an idea that may be years away from delivery, and in the meantime, a reputation has to be spun out of nothing. Press coverage plays a huge part in shaping that narrative, so a startup with nothing but a sales pitch for an app is more likely to rage against a negative story than, say, General Electric, which has more important things to worry about. And when half of your perceived value as a company stems from what journalists have to say about you, it’s easy to conclude that if a reporter isn’t your friend, she’s your enemy.
I’d be tempted to say that it’s similar to how writers feel about critics, if it weren’t for the crucial difference that most writers don’t have the resources to bully or intimidate the critics they don’t like. And Uber stands only at one end of a continuum that extends way, way down to some of the ugliest recent developments in tech culture. If nothing else, they’re drawing from the same talent pool: the current startup market has evolved so that those who are most attracted to it are likely to share a common set of principles, including a sense that any criticism amounts to a personal attack, which can only have a freezing effect on innovation in the long run. Still, it isn’t difficult to see why Uber feels so threatened. Unlike most startups, they have a sensational core idea and tons of revenue, but their entire operation is predicated on trust. When their image suffers, that trust is diminished, and we’re less likely to order one of their cars. The fact that they maintain minimal infrastructure of their own, which is a big part of what makes them so exciting, exposes them to competition from shrewder rivals. And maybe they’re right to be worried. Enough customers have started canceling their accounts because of Michael’s comments that Uber has started to respond with a boilerplate email stating that his views don’t reflect that of the larger company. When I canceled my own account, I was halfway hoping to get the same reply. Instead, it only said: “Sorry to see you go!”
When you create general excitement amongst your viewers, something has gone wrong with the film.
If you were to ask most writers what they thought of distraction, they’d probably say that they needed a lot less of it. I’ve noted elsewhere that in theory, writing a novel is easier today than ever before: whether you use Microsoft Word, Scrivener, or even WordStar, the physical act of putting words down on a page has never been more straightforward. We have software to check our spelling and help us outline our stories; the process of revision, even at the most granular level, is close to seamless; and even if we write our works by hand, the range of other conveniences at our disposal can’t be denied. Online research gives us access to information that would have been difficult, if not impossible, to find in the past, to the point where authors like Jonathan Franzen have argued that the idea of research itself has been permanently devalued. In terms of looking for inspiration, we have whole libraries of quality content available for free, with more being added every day, all of it searchable and retrievable from anywhere. If all that stands between us and decent work is a series of practical obstacles, these hurdles have been gradually filed down, until almost nothing separates us from the performance itself.
In practice, of course, that isn’t the case. A decent novel takes about the same amount of time to write today as it ever did, whether you’re an accomplished hack or a diligent artist. (Whether a novel takes six weeks or six years to complete is more a function of the author’s personality, and this fact hasn’t changed since the days of Anthony Trollope.) Elsewhere, I’ve said that this can partially be explained by a variation on Blinn’s Law, which states that the amount of time it takes to render a single frame of animation remains constant, even as technology advances. Animators have a certain baseline level of patience that doesn’t change much; if the hardware becomes faster, they simply ask their computers to do more and more. Word processing software, in turn, might seem like it saves time, but whatever a writer gains in the process is offset by the many little revisions and corrections that he or she might have skipped on a typewriter. Whether or not such infinitesimal changes make any difference is debatable—they’re often touches that even the most diligent reader wouldn’t notice—but it means that the minimum time a novel has to percolate in a writer’s head will pretty much stay the same.
Another part of the explanation lies in the increased possibility for distraction that technology affords. Writers have always found ways to procrastinate, but the temptations we have these days seem qualitatively different, thanks largely to the very same innovations that have granted us so much potential freedom. It’s often pointed out that the most successful forms of online content—Wikipedia, Reddit, Twitter, even the web itself—arose less out of an overarching vision than from a set of convenient tools that allowed users to easily shape the results from the bottom up. Publishing a picture or a comment is so effortless that it can almost be done without thinking, which turns the screen in which we spend much of our lives into a jungle of ephemera. It includes a lot of garbage, but with a few basic filtering mechanisms in place to separate the good from the bad, we end up with an incredibly seductive menu of constantly updated diversion. For writers, the process works in both directions, with the ease of generating content colliding with the ease of consuming it, and the two halves meet on the laptop. And because we spend so much time there, we’re more vulnerable to it than people whose jobs require them to occasionally get out of the house.
Writers all develop their own ways of dealing with this, often taking the form of a conscious rejection of technology itself, whether it’s Franzen’s computer with the Ethernet port glued shut or Michael Pollan’s writing shack. Most of us find ourselves somewhere in the middle, with the time we spend on actual work alternating uneasily with checking email or clicking through the newswires on The A.V. Club. And the first step to living with distraction is acknowledging that it has its place. Obsessive singlemindedness can be as dangerous to a writer as its opposite; every meaningful project includes elements of delay, avoidance, and postponement. The form it currently tends to take is a little more insidious, since it can’t be distinguished at first glance from much of what we do when we’re being productive—as any office worker knows who has ever quietly switched over from a spreadsheet to ESPN.com. But it’s impossible to cut ourselves off from it entirely without separating ourselves from the useful tools that it simultaneously provides. And if nothing else, we can take consolation in the fact that when you average out the forces of acceleration and distraction, we end up more or less where we’ve always been.