Pages from Working On My Novel. Photo: Penguin
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Artful procrastination: Cory Arcangel and Jonah Peretti on a book of tweets about writing books

What do you do if you have a novel to write? Go to Twitter, and tweet about the work you're not doing, of course. Artist Cory Arcangel's new book is a compilation of those who couldn't resist tweeting the words "working on my novel".

Cory Arcangel is a Brooklyn-based artist whose work combines film, music, video games, the internet and performance art. Originally a student of classical guitar, Arcangel moved into studying the technology of music, and his work since the turn of the millenium has sought inspiration from the machines that fill our lives.

He has hacked a Super Mario Bros. cartridge to remove all of the game’s graphics except for its fluffy white clouds; he’s produced a glockenspiel accompaniment for Bruce Springsteen’s album Born to Run; and very recently he helped recover lost works that Andy Warhol had produced using an Amiga 1000 in the mid-80s. He now has a book out, called Working On My Novel. It’s a compilation of tweets, found on twitter by searching for the phrase “working on my novel”, and retweeted by Arcangel’s account of the same name. From such a simple premise comes an amusing and sincere collection of procrastinations and distractions - especially familiar to those of us who know the power of Twitter all too well.

I spoke via Skype to both Arcangel and his friend Jonah Peretti, the founder of the viral website Buzzfeed - himself no stranger to the idea of compiling the tweets of strangers for comic effect. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity.

I’m told that you two are friends, which means I have to start this by asking Cory - why didn’t you publish this on Buzzfeed, as a listicle?
Cory Arcangel: Oh, that is a great first question. Because, actually the first time that I published anything related to this idea… I mean, basically, when I thought of this idea I was working as a Buzzfeed editor, right Jonah?

Jonah Peretti: Yeah.

CA: And I, as one of my posts, I posted just a link which was to a URL which was a live search on Twitter for the phrase “working on my novel”. So actually it was published first on Buzzfeed. But this was very early Buzzfeed, so maybe - Jonah, correct me if I’m wrong - it was before Buzzfeed was the Buzzfeed as we know it.

JP: Yeah, it was a period of Buzzfeed where we were in a little office in Chinatown in New York, and we had maybe a dozen people, and it was really a lab. And the reason Cory was in the office was that I’d find interesting friends and say “hey, do you want to come one day a week and publish on Buzzfeed?” Cory was one of the friends who took me up on it.

CA: Yeah. And the thing I remember the most is you had some kind of coffee there. I hadn’t started drinking coffee yet, and you all had some kind of crazy... remember there was some thing about somebody getting a certain brand of coffee they’d bring? And I’d have two cups of it and I’d just, like, I was on the roof the whole time. And this idea came out of one of these coffee frenzies.

And why specifically “working on my novel”? Were you working, distracted, on a novel at the time?
CA: Well…

Or it’s fun to laugh at people distract themselves on Twitter.
CA: It was 2009, so it wasn’t brand new, but it was newish in culture. And I was just trying to wrap my head around it. And Jonah, am I right, that was still the era of the blog, I think?

JP: Yeah, blogging was still big. Facebook was still a simple social network, it didn’t have content on it, it was just a way to connect with your friends. Twitter was a lot smaller. In terms of watching Cory over the years, he often plays with things and gets an idea and then does something many years later with the idea. If the idea sticks with him for five years then it’s probably a good idea, and he should do something. I think this is another example of that with this book, which wasn’t like he thought of it and did it the next week and, “oh, this is an easy idea, I’ll just round up a bunch of tweets and have a book”. This is something he’d been thinking of for many years.

CA: Yeah, five years, from beginning to end. It went from, as Jonah was saying, all of a sudden we had micro. People were tweeting sentences, and that was a new thing, and I was trying to figure out what... I mean, it’s hard to remember, it’s hard to think about now, but what does it mean that it’s new, and that, of course, it seems perfectly obvious to contrast it to the novel. That was the first thing that came to my head.

It seems like a funny rejoinder to the discussion about the idea of using things like Twitter for 21st-century fiction. The novelist David Mitchell, for instance, is tweeting out, bit by bit, bits of his new new novel.
CA: I don’t know if it’s a response to that, but I definitely think of it as a novel. A novel novel. And it’s fiction - we decided it was fiction - because we had a long conversation and we purposely made it in the Penguin default novel template. So it really feels like a novel, smells like a novel. But, you know, I do really think of it as a real book.

When you had that long conversation about why it’s a novel, do you think it has a narrative for instance?
CA: The long conversation at Penguin was whether it was fiction or non-fiction. We could have gone either way, but fiction to me seemed more poetic. But yeah, there is a narrative, and if you have the book there are these tea kettle drawings [that] serve as the chapter markers between different sections. So there’s a kind of "chill" section, there’s a culture section where people are talking about the kind of culture that they surround themselves with while writing the novel, there’s a kind of punchline section, that just says “working on my novel” page after page. There is a desperation section, where people are getting really stressed out, and then there’s the triumph section, where the books ends up. The book kind of ends on a high note, a kind of creative triumph.

JP: What I would say is that the book itself is a triumph. A literary triumph.

CA: [laughs]

JP: Another thing I find so interesting is that so many of the interesting things that have come out of the web have come out of procrastination. I think it’s probably true in art as well, but my whole career is based on procrastination - writing my master’s thesis and discovering, accidentally, the viral web, and I think the relationship between procrastination and doing meaningful work is pretty interesting right now, and it’s sometimes the things that people dismiss the most that are the most valuable generative activities.

CA: Yeah, it’s funny Jonah you say that, you know, there’s a really great artist in New York named David Hammons, and he has this great line where - I can’t remember it exactly - but it’s something like he makes his best stuff while he’s on his way from one end of the studio, like… I’m ruining this story, but the idea is that he’s in his studio going from point A to point B, to complete a task, it’s what he does on the way, by wasting time, is where all his good ideas come from. So I think there’s something about procrastination, or when you turn off your mind, it’s kind of like when you relax.

There are a lot of great artists who talk about walking being conducive to creativity, and I guess that’s a kind of procrastination as well. And this is just going for a walk along the internet, in a way.
CA: Yeah, forced procrastination.

JP: It also reminds me of your line of surfwear, which is - I don’t know if you know about this project - but it’s clothes and apparel for when you’re lying in bed surfing the internet. Which is, essentially, lifestyle products created by Cory to improve the art of procrastination.

CA: [laughs] Yeah, to make it more comfortable.

A promotional shot of models in Arcangel Surfware clothing on a bed with Arcangel Surfware sheets. Photo: Cory Arcangel

I think I’ve seen these. These are the Photoshop colour swatches.
CA: Yeah, the Arcangel surfwear, yeah.

I saw, and briefly coveted, the duvet cover.
CA: Yeah, that was the piece de resistance, the bedsheets, which actually was a lot harder than I ever imagined.

Really? I’m interested to hear how hard it is to create a duvet cover.
CA: Well there aren’t so many factories that make that kind of thing. Most of them are in China, and while some are made in the United States, there’s not, like, a factory in New York that makes them. And there isn’t like a Zazzle [a site where users can upload images to be printed on t-shirts] for them or whatever, you know.

So in the course of trying of trying to create a line of products that celebrate procrastination, you actually had to do a lot of work.
CA: That’s the thing actually, and I’m sure Jonah knows about this, for this book I had to write a spider that actually recorded Twitter, the “working on my novel” mentions for two years, because Twitter doesn’t - or at least at the time - didn’t have an archive. And then I had to write a content management system to administer the permissions, and keep track of whether people wanted to be in the novel or not, so actually the book took quite a bit of work, and it actually took quite a bit of software. And staring at Excel spreadsheets. It’s often things that look easy sometimes aren’t so easy, but often some things that are easy are also very easy.

And also, a compilation of things like this is also resulting in a book tour, for instance, so from a very simple procrastination idea you’ve created a lot of work for yourself.
CA: Yeah, that’s the story of my life.

In the news recently there were these recovered Andy Warhol artworks, which were produced on an Amiga 1000 PC in the mid-80s. I found this a really interesting story, of recovering works on a dead format and bringing them to life again. I was wondering if you’d mind talking about that for a bit.
CA: That was another long-term project that I’d done over the last couple of years. That was in collaboration with several organisations - one was the Carnegie Museum, one was the Carnegie Studio for Creative Inquiry, and also the Andy Warhol Museum, and also the Carnegie Mellon Computer Club, so a lot of people were involved, and I was just kind of the email writer, basically. And making sure I cc’d everbody. And the short story is, yeah, Andy Warhol had an Amiga. The Warhol Museum had his archive of all his Amiga disks, and his computers, because Andy Warhol was a totally crazy horder.

I can believe that.
CA:I don’t know if you know, but he never threw anything out his whole life, basically. So the Warhol Museum has his archive, but it’s like half a million objects or something. They’re still going through it, and thus they had never done his disks, you know, they had never looked at them. So I kind of arranged with this great computer hacking club at Carnege Mellon called the Carnegie Mellon Computer Club to look at his disks and see if there’s anything on them, and it turns out yeah, there’s a bunch of drawings by him.

JP: And the other thing I think is amazing is that it turned out those were the greatest works Andy Warhol ever did.

CA: [laughs] I wouldn’t say they’re the greatest, but they’re masterpieces, do you know what I mean? Especially this one he did of Marilyn Monroe, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, he scribbles all around it. They’re really amazing, they’re much better than my computer stuff.

I saw that fascinating video that was discovered of him doing it on TV, in the 80s, and he was drawing Debbie Harry live on TV. That was a really interesting relic, I guess.
CA: Yeah, that’s why he had an Amiga, because Amiga hired him to be the spokesman for the launch. And they basically shoved the Amiga onto him with an engineer and sat him down for, I think, a couple of months preceding that launch, and taught him how to draw. And that resulted in the video, and we think - but nobody really knows - the files were basically him practicing for the launch. It’s super fascinating, and it was a really amazing project, especially with this computer club. I don’t know if you have a chance to look into their work, but it’s really brilliant.

And those artworks are now going on tour?
CA: Not that I know of. In terms of my involvement in the project, the end state was they were published. They don’t actually exist, they’re just digital files. So I don’t know how they would go on tour, though I’m sure somebody could figure it out. I mean, in a way, when they were published online they went on tour around the world in five seconds.

Exactly.
CA: In fact, Jonah, you know what I did the other day? I was looking for the original Buzzfeed post of Working On My Novel, and I found it on archive.org.

JP: Really?

CA: Yeah, I’ll send it to both of you. It’s kind of amazing, on archive.org the whole website loads as it did, the post looks exactly like it did in 2009.

JP: Yeah, they don’t capture everything, but it’s a pretty amazing service.

CA: I think they definitely don’t capture everything, so I was really surprised that somehow they got it. I think as sites get more dynamic, it gets harder to capture stuff.

It does, especially social media and forums and so on where it’s kind of impossible to grasp the flow of conversation in those mediums.
CA: Yeah, totally.

Going back to the idea of Working On My Novel having a narrative, it’s just occurred to me, do you consider Buzzfeed to have a narrative, and be a work of fiction, as a whole?
CA: Oh I love it Jonah, go for it.

JP: Well, Buzzfeed is more things than people realise. We do news content, which is definitely not fiction. We have two reporters in the Ukraine right now, we did our first reporting from inside Baghdad recently, we have an investigative journalism team that’s covering all kinds of things, a breaking news team, so a whole bunch of news which is relatively new to us as a company. We weren’t doing that when Cory was hanging out with us in those early day. And then we’re an entertainment company that makes lists and quizzes, and that, I think, is fiction in the broadest sense, of fun, entertaining content, and there’s a lot of storytelling to it. And then we also do a lot of life content, or lifestyle content, things like DIY and food and things that are focussed on improving peoples’ lives, which is more service oriented content. So I’d say those are the three broad categories. And then our video operation in Los Angeles - we’re on a three acre studio lot, we’ve been building that out, and we’re doing a lot of work on the future of fiction and where will storytelling go, and that’s led by Ze Frank, who’s another very interesting guy who was doing a lot of great early stuff on the internet.

I remember loving a lot of his work. But this makes me wonder, Cory, does this mean that you could print off the fiction bit of Buzzfeed and remix that, or repurpose that?
CA: Oh you know, it’s so funny, it was so much work to do the book, I can’t even… [laughs]

A lot of work to document this procrastination.
CA: I’m sure in a couple of years, after the dust clears. But right now I can go in the other direction, the thing that’s fun about a book is it’s really locked down. And I live, and I’m sure Jonah also, you know, you really live in this digital world which is basically a temporary performance. Everything is so ephemeral. It’s so fun to lock something down onto a piece of paper, because it’s so different from what I’m used to have been doing for the last 20 years.

Like archive.org actually, I realise. It’s like your own personal archive.org.
CA: As a piece of archival technology, a book is really unbeatable.

The battery never dies.
CA: Yeah, yeah, totally.

JP: Gotta be careful of fires.

CA: Yeah, was just going to say. Like the Alexandria Library or something, the one Achilles heel of a book, it’s fire.

So let’s hope there are no fires. Or EMPs either, because the entire ephemerality of the internet will disappear as well.
C: What is EMP?

Electro-magnetic pulse.
C: Is that a real thing?

It is. It’s a side effect of nuclear explosions, which is obviously a cheery topic. But yeah, you’ll be laughing when you have a book and everyone’s complaining that their tablets are dead.
C: Actually, the book is available on Kindle, which I have to take a look at. That sounds cool to me.

J: It’ll be great in the post-nuclear, post-apocalyptic world that we’ll be able to read about people procrastinating on their novels. Civilisation has survived!

This piece forms part of our Social Media Week. Click here to read the introduction, and here to see the other pieces in the series.

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Now listen to an edited extract of Ian, Cory and Jonah's conversation on the NS podcast:

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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