On Research: How did it ever get done before the Internet?

How the hell did writers ever do research in the days before the Internet? A lot of cultural and technological development took place to get us where we are today.

I’m not exactly a digital native – I remember the days before Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google. I remember the days before the web, and email. I remember using a 2400 baud modem to log into local Bulletin Board Systems located on private desktop PCs all over town, just to stay abreast of local chatter.

Back in high school, I remember that we were taught how to use the card catalogue to look up books by their call numbers. It seemed to take a long time and a lot of searching to find one or two 20 year-old books, and then, more searching in each volume to find the information you were looking for in the first place. I just cannot imagine how much time and effort a writer would have to take in order to do research for a book, back in the days before the Internet.

The difference in time and effort spent on research today is like the difference between walking somewhere and teleporting there.

Finding Informed Opinions

When I need to make requests of various experts, but I don’t know to whom I should make my queries, I can just bleat a tweet out into the twitterverse, or send a few quick emails. Within 24 hours (maybe just an hour or three) I will have at least a couple of useful leads. Answers.com and other “Ask an Expert” sites are all over the web too. People will bid to answer your esoteric questions for relatively cheap rates. And, there are also a boatload of free message boards where amateur experts, aficionados and historians share information on a multitude of topics. No phone calls, letter writing or travel required.

Consult that Encyclopedia Britannica

When I’m looking for third-party researched data on general topics – like the kind of information I’d look for in an encyclopedia – I just go to Wikipedia, and if necessary, corroborate the information with other online sources.

Go There and Research Stuff in Person

Thanks to Google, Bing and others, I can get street-level and bird’s eye views of many places on the planet. This can go a long way towards informing any descriptions that I’d want to add to a story.

Of course, no street photography can give you the sounds, smells, temperature and tactile impressions that come from live human experience. By the time we manage to virtualize those sensations, we’ll be in the era of virtual travel, and reading textual descriptions will be largely irrelevant.

How Will Narrative Change?

At the point in our future where virtual environments become predominant, I think that narrative – the “story” – will be something that you as the reader/participant construct in your mind as you experience the writer’s virtual world. In that scenario, the writer will be a facilitator – a guide – and you will be the one creating your own narrative as you take your own steps through the story.

This is similar in evolution to how the hyperlink changed the idea of informational linking between books. Back in the pre-Internet days, a footnote in one book would refer to a passage in a different book, and to experience that second book, you’d have to go find it and read it. Hyperlinks transport your mind from the body of one book to the body of the next book with nothing more than a mouse click.

Share

Comments are closed.