E-mailing, cell-phoning, Web surfing, uploading, downloading: It's enough to short-circuit your brain. These books offer help in getting around cyberspace and navigating the Digital Age. LONGER PLEASE..............XXXXXX
Communicating on the Web or via e-mail, it's easy to feel that you've landed in a linguistic Wild West where anything goes. Is it too taxing to capitalize the first letter of every sentence? More and more e-mailers (this one included) just don't bother. Feel constrained by using italics for emphasis? Substitute asterisks -- italics don't always transfer between e-mail programs anyway. Oppressed by dictionary-sanctioned spellings? Online, it's a lite, brite, shiny new world of lexicographic liberation.
Which brings us to Principle 7 of Constance Hale and Jessie Scanlon's Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age (Broadway, $13): Be Irreverent. "Provocative writing demands out-of-the-box thinking," write the authors, Wired magazine staffers. "In this age of interactivity, writers and editors should aim to elicit response. Know your audiences well enough to violate journalism's cardinal rules and to toy with conventions. . . . When we say `Be irreverent,' we encourage you to do the following: Welcome inconsistency, especially in the interest of voice or cadence. Treat the institutions and players in your world with a dose of irreverence. Play with grammar and syntax. Appreciate unruliness."
I can hear the purists out there muttering about declining standards and the impending collapse of the English language. Take heart. In a tricky time for writers -- who "must navigate the shifting verbal currents of the post-Gutenberg age" -- this cyber-Strunk & White aren't blindly in love with everything new media. "When does jargon end and a new vernacular begin? Where's the line between neologism and hype? . . . How can we keep pace with technology without getting bogged down in buzzwords? Is it possible to write about machines without losing a sense of humanity and poetry?" Put more pithily: "At Wired, we write geek and we write street. We insist on accuracy and literacy, but we celebrate the colloquial."
Wired Style kicks off with 10 principles for our times, several of which writers in any age would do well to mind: "The Medium Matters" (e-mail isn't a letter isn't a book isn't a webzine), "Play With Voice" ("Good writing is not data. We turn to literary journalism not just for information but for context, culture, spirit, and color. . . . The voice of the quirky, individualist writer"). Others -- e.g., "Play With Dots and Dashes and Slashes" -- target digital communication specifically.
Most useful, for those who don't know ROM from RAM, is the second section of the book: an A-to-Z lexicon of technohistory and cyberterminology. (Hyphens are discouraged in cyberspace.) Hale and Scanlon know the virtues of brevity, and their definitions are wonderfully clear. ROM: "A storage device whose contents cannot be altered, ROM most often refers to the chips that hold a computer's built-in instructions. These chips are used in everyday appliances like cars, gas pumps, and microwave ovens." RAM: "Your computer's short-term memory and the simplest route to faster processing. (It takes about 10,000 times longer to read from the hard drive than from RAM chips stored on the CPU.)"
CPU -- central processing unit -- has an entry too, as do "killer app," "JPEG" and "cybersquatters" (who "squat" on Internet domain names, hoping to turn a profit on them later -- or just wishing to annoy corporations or celebrities whose names they've staked out). As long as they keep updating it, Wired Style stands a good chance of being the netizen's Fowler's.
Wired Style gives you a handle on where we are now, and how to get around cyberspace without embarrassing yourself by saying "DOS system" (DOS stands for disk operating system, so "DOS sytem" is redundant). But what does the future hold? Will we all be ever more in thrall to our computers? Will we all be wet-wired -- I refer you to William Gibson's "Johnny Mnemonic" -- by the year 2100?
The series "Prospects for Tomorrow," edited by futurologist Yorick Blumenfeld, attempts to gaze into the crystal (digital?) ball and see where we're headed. In Where's IT Going? (Thames & Hudson, $12.95), Ian Pearson and Chris Winter, British Telecommunications veterans, do a little educated daydreaming about the future of information technology.
Networks, they believe, will become increasingly "lifelike," leaning more heavily on the principles of biology than the abstractions of mathematics. "Most biological organisms display a number of properties that are immensely desirable in networks, such as autonomy, multivariable load balancing, robustness to component damage, self-healing . . . " Imagine a computer chip embedded in your living room wall, able to sense and respond to your mood by altering the lighting and music. Imagine clothes that monitor your health as well as keeping you warm, dry and stylin'.
The "living machines" of the future will be "smarter," more adaptable, do their jobs better and -- in Pearson and Winter's optimistic scenario -- make our lives easier. The impact -- on behavior, creativity, the physical environment -- will be profound. Here some downsides begin to emerge, depending on how much of a Romantic one is. What if everybody, not just those artistically gifted or driven, could make a movie, write a symphony? "Suddenly, it becomes possible for the computer to tease out from the most incompetent practitioner his own masterpiece. Not that the rest of the world would agree, because this is art, perfected for that specific person at that specific time." Groups of people could decide on the sort of art they wanted and create it, ignoring everybody else's aesthetics. What about synthetic acting? (No more multimillion-dollar contracts for the likes of Julia Roberts and John Travolta -- now there's a happy thought.) Coming soon to a screen near you.
Back to the Present
If the future's too much to contemplate, there's plenty to think about in the present. Staying plugged in to pop culture -- not just cyberculture but the whole mad carousel of trends, icons and personalities -- can exhaust even the hardest-partying scenester.
Good thing the editors of New York-based Paper magazine, the hippest of the hip (for a taste, visit www.papermag.com), are on the job 24/7, weeding out the uncool and making sure their readers are clued into the must-have, must-see, must-do things of the moment. For those who need a one-volume injection of cool, there's From Abfab to Zen: Paper's Guide to Pop Culture, edited by Kim Hastreiter and Davis Hershkovitz (D.A.P./Paper Publishing, $24.95). Some of this stuff dates as fast as it can be written about, thank goodness. (No lambada -- "If it were any hotter, it wouldn't be dancing!" -- today, thanks.)
But Courtney Love, Debi Mazar, Tommy Hilfiger, Rupert Everett and Spike Lee are still very much with us, and likely to be for a while. Low-rider bikes have become cult classics. Performance art? Well, people still makes jokes about it, so perhaps it remains a vital genre. Drooling men still thumb through the Victoria's Secret catalog. And moshing, "what you do in the pit if you're a headbanger at a hardcore show," still bruises ribs and elbows at many a rock concert. Xtreme sports? Included. Spike Jonze? Here, though the book went to press before his first feature film, "Being John Malkovich," hit screens. Platform shoes? They get a quick, tasteful mention -- in keeping with the '90s epidemic of attention-deficit disorder, all the entries in From Abfab to Zen are soundbyte-sized.
Put out by the people responsible for those excellent, budget- and hip-minded travel guides, House (Rough Guides/Penguin, $9.95) sets off in pursuit of a specific pop-cultural phenomenon: House music. The guide's author, Sean Bidder, notes that House "can be widely defined as electronic music with a rhythm set in 4/4 tempo. While this definition neatly distinguishes House from the abstractions of Techno and the breakbeat foundations of Trip-Hop and drum 'n' bass, it fails to acknowledge the genre's most compelling attribute: its fundamental ability to inspire by bonding emotive, synthesised melodies to locked rhythms. It's this marriage of melody and groove which has formed perhaps the most exciting dancefloor proposition since the birth of disco itself."
House grew out of disco in the '70s, when New York DJs such as Walter Gibbons and Larry Levan started messing with disco singles "to construct repetitive, hypnotic mantras built to fire up the dancers at clubs like The Paradise Garage (the club which would give House's R&B-soaked cousin its name, garage)." Bidder has organized the guide around the DJs, bands and record labels who've given House its groove, and he recommends recordings for each -- Brit-born Gerald Simpson's "Voodoo Ray," for instance, is "the definitive British Acid House track."
Jennifer Howard's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.