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Gutenberg in a Flying Saucer

Harlan Ellison explains why he has a web page, why he doesn't hate computers, and why technology can be the artist's most dangerous enemy.



Since putting my Harlan Ellison World Wide Web Page, "Ellison Webderland", online at the end of August 1995, about every fifth e-mail I have received has either cautioned me of Ellison's wrath when he discovers the page exists or expressed amazement that Ellison has a web site when, after all, everyone KNOWS he hates computers.

While I appreciate the well-meant warnings, the fact remains that the web site exists only with Harlan's knowledge and permission, and that if I were hiding it from him or if it existed with his disapproval or even at his sufferance, I would nuke it without a second thought. To correct this misunderstanding, and for my own selfish reasons, I wanted to get some kind of statement from the guy saying that yes, it's okay that he's on the Internet, and no, he doesn't think computers are the direct spawn of Satan.

I approached this task with some trepidation, given that the only previous quote I had from Harlan on the subject was "I don't hate the Internet, it's just that it's the same fucking assholes who were fucking illiterates before, it's just now they have COMPUTERS". This is not the kind of thing you want to place on your web page's header. Sooooooo....I asked for a more palatable quote. I got a lot more.


I wanted to put some kind of quote from you on the page, because a lot of my mail is "Why does Harlan have this thing on the Web, he hates computers".

People are always trying to prove that you are a hypocrite. They ask you questions, the answers to which.... "Have you stopped beating your wife, yes or no?". This is a game people play. They want you to be consistent throughout your life.

The great art critic and philanthropist Bernard Berenson once said "Consistency requires you to be as ignorant today as you were a year ago". Now, once upon a time I was doing a book review of a very bad, very popular novel Love Story by Erich Segal, and people were very upset with me (I was on TV talking about it), and they kept saying, "Have you read it?" and if I said "No, it's such a piece of shit I wouldn't read it", they would say "A-ha! Well then how can you comment on it if you haven't read it?". Well, in fact, I read it.

So then when the movie came out and I was talking about how much more awful the movie was, that the movie would not only make you puke but give you diabetes as well, I went to see the film. I despised the film, it was a horrible film, but nonetheless, I did it.

When I reviewed television, people said "If you hate television so much, how come you've got a television set in your house?". Stephen King even said "You know, Harlan's got a big TV.". Yes, that's right. I try to be courant. I try to know what it is I'm talking about. I am not like many people who give you an opinion based on some sort of idiot hearsay or some kind of gut feeling you cannot validate. When I give an opinion, I do my best to make sure it is based on information.

So people get on me, and they say "If Harlan hates the Internet so much, what is he doing here?". Well, whether or not I like the internet has about as much validity as a question as whether or not I like television. Nothing I do is going to stop television. Nothing I do or say is going to stop the Internet. I may not like the Internet, I may feel that it is my role in terms of the Internet to keep people alert to the dangers of the Internet, which I see, or the misuses of the Internet, which many people see, and which I talk about.

But whether or not I like the Internet does not make me a hypocrite for having a web page. I have a web page because you, Rick Wyatt, called me and said "Would you like a web page?". And I said "Yeah, why not? What does it hurt for me to have a web page?". Whether I like it or not has nothing to do with it. I don't even have a computer! So I don't even have to look at it! And if someone doesn't like my attitude, they really oughtta get off my web page immediately!

When people say "Ellison hates technology", they are putting words in my mouth. I have never, ever, espoused a position of hating technology. Even "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream", the original short story, is not anti-technology. What it is anti is anti-misuse by humans.

Well, it's cautionary. I think there's a difference between something that's Luddite, or truly hateful, and something that's cautionary. Anybody has a right to be concerned about a technology that has the capability of producing such sweeping effects on our lives.

Absolutely. Where would we be without those who say "Be careful! Be careful!". You constantly have people telling you you don't have to be careful. These are the people who want to sell you all of the machinery. They want to sell you the new PC, they want to sell you Windows, they want to sell you software, they want you to believe that you cannot live your life without this stuff. Well, in fact, you can! You can live your life very well.

It is not that I hate the technology. What I hate is them telling me that I am not entitled to work at the level of technology that best serves my purpose. Form follows function. If writing something creative is best served in your venue by using a quill pen, standing up at a lectern, then you do it. If it works best using a Pentium, then you do that. I operate at a level where I can best produce material using a manual typewriter. It fits my need. I get pleasure out of it. I get no pleasure from using a computer.

In order to do what I want it to do it has too many dials, it has too many things, too many toots and whistles that I have no use for. If somebody would produce a simple typewriter, an electronic typewriter that was silent, that I could use on airplanes, that would show me a screen of 8 1/2 by 11, like a regular page, and I could store it and print it out as a manuscript, I would buy one in a second! I have nothing against that, that would be a kind of a PC I could use.

But you notice, they won't do that. They have the capacity and the intelligence and the technology to do it, but they haven't done it. Now why haven't they done it? They would rather have you have a screen of the other size, which is not adaptable for doing a manuscript, because they want to retrain the world. Well, I don't feel like being retrained in that way.

I learned what I needed to know to do what I have to once. It serves me very well. I produced every story I've ever produced on a typewriter, and that's what intend to continue to do.

What offends me is that I can no longer find typewriter ribbons, that there is no one around that can repair my typewriter, that I've had to learn to do it myself. Which is fine. But I will not be one of those people who loses the ability to tell time on a clock with hands because I've had digitals all my life. I will not be one of those M.I.T. students who cannot use a slipstick because I've got a little PC that will do it for me.

I will not become a person who has lost the ability to create the art of the past. That's the way I feel about it, and it has nothing to do with hating technology. I don't. I hate the uses that technology is put to.

Well, also, one uses the level of technology that is appropriate. The main advantage of having a computer is to be able to go back and change stuff or to re-arrange your paragraphs, which is, from what I've heard, just not your style.

See, that also bothers me. When PCs first started being used by writers, I said "This is not a good idea". Using PCs for doing term papers, or scientific treatises, for lists, for stuff like that, it's fine, but NOT for creative work. Because all I've ever heard, and I've heard this from many many writers, now I'm no longer alone in this philosophy, in saying "Gardez Vous", you know, "Be careful" - what I've heard now is many writers saying yes, it has made them write in a more slovenly fashion. They are not nearly as alert to the fact that they're going to actually have to do the physical labor of changing something. All they know is that if they do it wrong, all they have to do is press a button.

What this means is that we have nothing but long, windy novels that are three times the length that they ought to be. We have trilogies and tetralogies that are idiotic, that are chewing the cud a million times over, and the only thing I've ever heard in aid of using a computer over a typewriter is it makes it easier. You know, "If I get ten pages into my story and I discover that that isn't where the story begins, that it should begin here, all that I have to do is hit the button and it'll just, you know, start me there."

And I think to myself, "You really shouldn't be a writer. You ought to be out on a hillside, planting trees, serving the common weal". Because a writer would KNOW that that wasn't where the story began. You wouldn't have to GO ten pages.

Making it easier, I think, is invidious. It is a really BAD thing. Art is not supposed to be easier! There are a lot of things in life that are supposed to be easier. Ridding the world of heart attacks, making the roads smoother, making old people more comfortable in the winter, but not Art. Art should always be tough. Art should demand something of you. Art should involve foot-pounds of energy being expended. It's not supposed to be easier, and those who want it easier should not be artists. They should be out selling public relations copy.

That's also one of the disadvantages of the Internet, then. It becomes remarkably easy for anybody in the world to become not only a writer, but a publisher, and a salesman...

That's right. When they say "Gee it's an information explosion!", no, it's not an explosion, it's a disgorgement of the bowels is what it is. Every idiotic thing that anybody could possibly write or say or think can get into the body politic now, where before things would have to have some merit to go through the publishing routine, now, ANYTHING.

And all you're getting is an explosion of useless crap, which added to the other useless crap that was being done originally, only makes it that much worse.


Webmaster's Closing Thoughts:
You'd have a hard time arguing that Theodore Sturgeon's oft-repeated Law, "90% of everything is shit", doesn't apply to the Internet. In this case, in Harlan Ellison's opinion, the tip of the iceberg doesn't poke out of the water even THAT much. 90% was perhaps not enough even when applied to media with some modicum of filtering and control. While my opinion is closer to Sturgeon's measure than Ellison's, every day I spend surfing the web makes me revise my personal estimate toward's Harlan's.

It is my belief, and my hope, that eventually the glut of web sites will force many more efforts such as The Point (which presents its viewers with only the top 5% of web sites in their estimation) and provide a superstructure, with the attendant selective services and agents, that will provide the kind of critical control and screening that will allow people less patient and perservering than thee and me to waste the best hours of their lives in a quality fashion. I also hope this insulation does not come at the expense of the neophyte trying to publish their personal homepage or of the net-surfer who WANTS access to that other 95% or who doesn't particularly agree with the opinions of the meta-sites.

Until then, we're going to have to put up with it and wait for the great Information Iceberg to drift to warmer climes. The personal publishing house. Gutenberg with a flying saucer. I don't know when we're going to get our shit together, but one thing's for sure: until we do, the most you're going to see of Harlan around these parts is pages like this.

The cheese stands alone, and it doesn't surf.


Picture: Selection from cover art to I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream, Ace Paperback 08/93, Artist: Barclay Shaw



harlanellison.com is maintained by Rick Wyatt - webmaster@harlanellison.com