If there was a theme to this year’s 7x20x21 panel, it was this: things are changing; don’t be afraid, but don’t be stupid, either.
From Jennifer Egan’s Powerpoint about integrating Powerpoint into her new novel, to Clay Shirky’s Twitter-friendly sound bites (many of which can be found at #7xBEA) to New York Times tech blogger Nick Bilton’s humorous and enlightened exhortation against “technochondria”—the irrational fear of new technology—a packed room got a few lessons in where words are headed, and where and how they’ll be consumed.
This is the second year of the panel, and, like last year, the event opened with an open bar, much to the surprise and delight of those lined up outside the meeting room. The panel’s format is for seven speakers to each speak for 10 minutes and to illustrate their presentation with 20 slides, which are displayed for 21 seconds each.
Bilton began with a brief history of technochondria, noting the printing press was slagged as “a whore” and that the New York Times worried in 1876 that the telephone would kill live music. He went on to briefly debunk commonly held fears about the impact of technology on reading, noting a study that suggested “our brains were not built to read” and offering the panel’s most striking visual: two brain scans, one of a person reading, and a much more lit-up one of a person surfing the Internet.
Shirky also trotted out the printing press for a brief case study in not confusing “stasis with stability and persistence with permanence” before
segueing to the genesis of the McDonald’s breakfast menu and its unlikely kinship with the lowly fast food milkshake. The lesson, essentially, was to pay attention to what your customers want and how they use what they want—it’s often different from what the conventional wisdom would suggest. “We aren’t in a publishing revolution,” he said, “but a revolution in reading and writing.”
Ed Nawotka, editor-in-chief of PublishingPerspectives.com, also suggested an inversion of conventional thinking, advocating that schools teach “literature in reverse” to involve the kids instead of alienating them with Beowulf. Instead, he said, start with Justin Cronin’s super-buzzy The Passage and trace its literary heritage back to King Lear.
Jacob Lewis, formerly of Conde Nast Portfolio and now CEO of Figment, talked about his company’s vision for an online, on-the-go reading and writing community for teens. The idea was inspired by Japanese youth’s fervent embrace of cellphone novels.
Agent Eva Talmadge and writer Justin Taylor discussed The Word Made Flesh, their book of literary tattoos, as the giant projection screen next to the stage was filled with images of—you guessed it—literary tattoos. Ink inspiration came from Harry Potter, William Faulkner, and just about everything between.