I’ve been talking a lot about Tom Wolfe recently. But I’m not quite the same kind of writer as him. Tom Wolfe is the master of literary nonfiction and one of my literary heroes. His main theme is – and always has been – status. It’s how he analyses and explains humanity, through the lens of status. And it’s true, a lot of what we do is determined by how we think it affects our status with other human beings. Our career, our relationships, our friendships, the clothes we wear, the things we say, who we choose to marry, the TV shows we watch, what we buy. It’s all driven by status. Put another way: we do things to ‘fit in’ and because we think it makes us look good in other peoples eyes. Which, for an individualist like me, is not a very attractive theory. But it happens to be true in life, for all of us. It’s why Tom Wolfe, Michael Lewis and other such brilliant writers will always have an abundance of material.
Although I find status fascinating, it doesn’t drive me as a writer. To prove that, I always point to the first tagline of Read/Write Web (as my blog was titled back in 2003). It was this: “Richard MacManus explores the two-way Web.” The keyword there is ‘explores’. I’m driven by knowledge, experimentation and application.
One of my current exploratory obsessions is genomics. I was reading in bed this morning (being a man of leisure at this point). It was a book about genomics, called ‘The Genome Generation’. It was authored by an Australian scientist and she does a great job of explaining the basics of genomics. She uses computing metaphors, which resonates with me a lot. For example: “The human genome is about the same size [in terms of code base] as Microsoft Word, but it makes a human that walks and talks.” Wonderful!
I’m interested in genomics currently because it is in many ways the next frontier in technology. I like exploring frontiers. But this frontier isn’t ruled by status, unless I choose to write about squabbling scientists. That doesn’t interest me at all, even though such human in-fighting often leads to breakthroughs and changes in scientific thinking. No, I’m interested in exploring and then telling a story about what genomics (and other related topics I’m also exploring) really means and how it will change society.
So back to Tom Wolfe. His next book is in a similar domain. It’s going to be titled ‘The Human Beast’ and he will tell the story of evolution. I think he’s interested in the impact of evolutionary theories on the status-sphere. It’s something he is a master of, naturally. So I will be very keen, as always, to read the resulting book.
As for me, I’m an explorer of knowledge – specifically, technological progress – and how that impacts and changes society. That’s what drives me as a writer.