Thursday, May 27, 2010

Paradigm Shift

Elizabeth Zelvin

The term “paradigm shift” was coined in 1962 by Thomas Kuhn in a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It means change so fundamental that it is impossible to go back to old ways of thinking. Kuhn meant it to apply only to science. For example, as Wikipedia puts it, “Once a paradigm shift is complete, a scientist cannot, for example, posit the possibility that miasma causes disease or that ether carries light.” I would add “that the human species began 6,000 years ago and is not descended from earlier primates.” In fact, those who still insist on such beliefs are not scientists. Physicist Stephen Hawking tells the wonderful story about the little old lady who speaks up at a lecture about the earth, which is now known to be a sphere revolving in space and rotating around the sun, rather than standing on the back of a giant turtle which is standing on the back of another giant turtle, etc. “You can’t fool me, young man,” she says (or words to that effect). “It’s turtles all the way down.”

I have written two short stories about the voyages of Columbus and am doing research for more. I’ve already learned that contrary to popular belief, most people in 1492 knew that the earth was round, not flat. Columbus based his quest for the Indies on his belief that the distance across the intervening “Ocean Sea” was not as great as everybody else believed. In 1633, Galileo was forced to recant his observation that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than being the still center of the universe around which all else revolves. His post-recantation mutter, perhaps apocryphal, “And still it moves,” is the antithesis of “turtles all the way down.” Sometimes paradigm shifts take a long, long time to become complete.

Nowadays, the concept of the “paradigm shift” is applied broadly to describe times in which everything changes. The Industrial Revolution was a paradigm shift. World War I was a socioeconomic paradigm shift that shook up class structure, human mobility, and a host of basic assumptions. So was World War II. Remember the guy in the movie The Graduate who says, “Plastics!” with such gravity he’s clearly attempting to convey the secret of the universe? Before the War, people used glass bottles and wooden picnic forks and metal buckets and...you get the idea.

We are going through a paradigm shift now. When did it start? It’s hard to say, but think about the technology in early episodes of Star Trek, or re-read some science fiction novels from the Eighties or even the Nineties. The World-Wide Web has something to do with it, and so does the miniaturization of electronic devices, which for some reason an awful lot of writers failed to imagine. Can anyone deny that everything is changing? I for one was profoundly surprised when vinyl records disappeared from record stores. Now these stores, as well as video stores, are themselves becoming obsolete as more and more people download music from the Internet and get their movies from Netflix. Now I take discussions of the possible demise of printed books in stride. A calligrapher friend tells me that in her circle, they have the same discussions about handwriting. I’m not surprised, because my son, now pushing 40, went straight from printing to the computer keyboard, leapfrogging over cursive. I’m beginning to get used to people blurting all their secrets on cell phones on crowded buses, because it isn’t going to go away. I wish I’d had my GPS twenty years ago. And I use the Internet constantly to network and promote my books, do therapy with clients all over the world, and keep my friendships strong and current. I don’t yet do texting or own a Kindle, but I’d be a fool not to consider the possibility that at some time within the next ten or twenty years, I may have to join the party unless I want to become not just a Luddite, but a hermit.

52 comments:

P.A.Brown said...

Our world is changing faster than it ever has before. Sometimes I think we're all in the middle of some vast sociological experiment and the end is not in sight. There are still some Luddites out there who are still denying that the changes are going to profoundly change us as writers. A recent article in PW walked about JA Konrath and how he is moving away from his traditional publishers to ebook only. Some agent poo-pooed what he was doing as a 'fluke'. This guy is clinging to a past that is fast disappearing and I imagine his shock, when it comes, will be equally profound to him.

The world is changing, and not all of those changes are going to be pleasant ones. And there is nothing any of us can do to stop it. Those of us who adapt or at least try to, will probably survive, those who try to cling to the past, will not.

And we will have to adapt, even when we haven't a clue how it will all end up.

Morgan Mandel said...

I like to cover all the bases, so any book of mine will be available in a variety of media. I'd be foolish not to have it any other way.

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E. B. Davis said...

Gradual change from one medium to the next will actually be good for writers. Remember some of those albums we bought in vinyl, then in 8 track, then in cassette, and then bought yet again in CD (and sometimes again by downloading the MP3-4). A book isn't quite the same as listening to music, but if the book is of great value to its owner, multiple buying in different media translates to multiple sales. We already have audio books and Kindle (and its competitors) along side print books, the future possibilities are endless. What is important is keeping the profit to the artist as good or better than whatever the current or concurrent medium(a).

Robert Walker said...

What kills me is how stubborn people can be in the face of the inevitable -- change. All life is about evolving and growth and change, and those who cannot bend with the wind are saplings that will be snapped. This is the theme of how many novels over the years? The hero of Things Fall Apart kills himself in the end why? He could not face change, accept change, or deal with change. And so when I bank on getting 44 novels up on the virtual shelves of the Kindle Store at Amazon, I am betting on those who welcome change, and am stunned at those who balk at it without ever holding a kindle in hand. That aside, my move to publishing on Kindle has been extremely good for this and many another midlsit author as I am earning three times more than what I was earning for the past several years with traditional paper publishing. For more details check out Kris Tualla's blog on Google.

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Karen said...

I think the pace of change is accelerating as the years pass. And catching up is difficult! I remember going back to engineering school when I was 38 and sharing a classroom with kids who had grown up with computers. I'm dragging myself into the 21st century now, and though I've learned to use all the features of my cell phone, it's not a smart one, so I have quite a ways to go. And I finally put up a website, just this week (www.karenehall.com if you're interested in a peek), but now I can't figure out how to post my second blog. It makes me smile and shake my head. At least I'm trying -- lots of my friends can barely use a word processor much less a spreadsheet or a database, or write code in HTML. But it IS an exciting time.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Great comments from everyone so far. My tech skills are in that middle range where some of my older friends think I'm a wiz and my computer-savvy family thinks I'm just past Neanderthal. But I've been composing on the keyboard (vs pen and yellow pad) since way before electric typewriters. And I do think the printed book will eventually fade to the level of, say, cassette tapes now.

Julia Buckley said...

Great post, Liz. I'm just amazed at how rapidly all the change is happening.

Tony Burton said...

I don't mind a shifty paradigm or two, but it's a little disconcerting when a LOT of them start to shift at once! I am a technology guy. I worked for years in the computers and software industry, so computers don't bother me so much. It's the other things, the social paradigms, that really worry me when they begin to bend and change so much.

jenny milchman said...

I'm one of those Luddites who doesn't own a cell phone, adores print books, and also brick and mortar stores. It's not an age thing--I'm young enough--but more a lifestyle one. We also don't have TV, Wii, or game devices for our kids.

Yet I do embrace the changes simply because if technology meets fiction, more people will probably read fiction, and anything good for writers and stories is a good thing overall.

I hope children always know the scent of a book. Can find the most delicious title amongst a long array of spines. And curl up between stacks with that title. I realize these musings aren't exactly unique.

I just hope they're *enough* not unique that as the headlong rush toward the future occurs we also preserve the above.

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