Between Form and Technology: Learning to Write for the Digital Age

Pranav Kuttaiah
8 min readJul 20, 2021

What exactly does it mean to be a writer in an age of complex, overlapping digital publics and shrinking attention spans? There are lots of ways of thinking about this. At the moment, the way I see it is that my form has to be a kind of “dabbling” — an ability to jump, switch, move, meander, and muddle not just between various ideas, but also across forms and lengths of final outputs. I write my newsletter, my blog, my academic work, my Instagram posts and my book in bits and bobs — letting ideas settle where they feel the most at home. But having such a range of avenues for varied audiences is a challenge — because writing (or any other art form) is the combination of two ingredients that are pulling in opposite directions at the current moment.

One side of the artistic process is what I’d call the “grammar” of it. I don’t mean this in the literal sense of “grammatical ability” — but rather in learning the tropes, styles, conventions, forms, words, phrases, methods and so on that have been expounded, established and played with by the greats. As an artist, one needs to be somewhat acquainted with the history of a form’s evolution, the styles you personally like, where you place yourself in that world and the ways you can refine or polish your own skill in conversation with the tradition. This is done by rigorous study and practice — there is simply no way around it.

The other side is something that we can call the “infrastructure” of an art form. This includes physical implements — canvases, books, journals, paintbrushes, laptops, iPads, synthesizers, instruments, cameras, softwares and so on — as well as methods and mechanisms of dissemination and patronage like access to the internet, grant money, exhibitions, publishers, producers etc.

Most people who think of improving their work focus insistently on the “grammar” side of it. We expound most of our creative energy, generally, on trying to replicate the mastery of craft of somebody whose work we admire. To delve deeply into a discipline is to move further and further away from the generalist; to become embedded in the silos of a small set of experts and critics.

The true magic of great art is, however, its ability to hold both — appeal to the highest and most complicated debates and discourses in a field, while also offering a totally unfamiliar novice the ability to share in some part of its beauty and identify a sliver of themselves with it. As John Berger once wrote, “what any true painting touches is an absence — an absence of which, without the painting we might be unaware. And that would be our loss”.

We are often fooled into thinking that this delicate balance can be achieved through sheer focus on the “grammar” of the art form. People who are overly schooled in a particular artistic tradition are often those who end up being “purists” — ritual custodians who scoff at those seeking to use their initial training as a springboard for their creativity. In the end, my favourite artists are usually those who unshackle themselves from a closed “grammar” and find ways to flesh out a relevant philosophy that also addresses the changing “infrastructure” of art.

Years ago, as a media studies student, I read the cultural critic Marshall Mcluhan’s famous words: “The medium is the message”. I didn’t quite understand it at the time; indeed I’m still only tentatively beginning to unpack it as a piece of theory. Across history, technological changes have often forced art forms to adapt, evolve, innovate, explore and redefine their form, their dissemination and their publics. Traditionalists do try to cling on to vestiges of a “true way”, but are usually swept up in the tide of history.

Arguably the most profound historical change in recent memory in terms of an impact on the arts is the transition from feudalism to capitalism. It’s a change whose ripple effects can be seen in many semi-feudal societies like India. This transition not only affected the infrastructures of the arts — introducing the printing press, the lithograph, the radio, the camera, the computer — but also, rather more importantly, its sources of patronage.

Artists in feudal societies relied mostly on the patronage of kings and feudal lords, and trained new recruits in their traditions through guilds or cloistered orders and sects. Art forms were thus largely passed on through rigorous, lifelong study — binding a person to a tradition through life and limb. “Trained” artists thus engaged in work for extremely limited audiences — and mostly to legitimise the wealthy as connoisseurs. These types of artists had entire days, months and years at their disposal to hone their craft without fear of starvation. As a result, they developed sophisticated systems of artistic notation, ways of teaching, codified structures and well-defined syntaxes of practice. Nonetheless, they were still privileged feudal intermediaries who scorned the peasantry for the most part.

There were of course, other artists who were involved in resistance to feudalism — people’s poets, revolutionary bards, provocative pamphleteers, irreverent mural painters, seditious satirists and so on. Most of these individuals rarely had any connection to the artistic academies and guilds. As a result, they simply did not have the privilege to pontificate eternally on their craft. They were working people involved in manual toil, who used art as spiritual transcendence or as an effective mobilising tool. The distinction between these two groups was clear both socially and economically — though as we’ll later see, artistic exchange (and theft) often prompted their interaction with one another.

Capitalism and modernity have played a large role in shattering this neat binary. To be sure, there are still very closed art markets and spaces that cater exclusively to the hyper-elite and keep money in circulation among a small group of people. But overall, the collapse of empires and the centring of the cold calculus of profitability has profoundly democratised art. The guilds have had to teach outsiders their techniques to survive. Art forms rely on popularity, and so must necessarily compromise, dilute, and wean away their bogus forms of purity. At the same time, resistance has also been commoditised, branded and sold — turning many street art forms into multi-million dollar industries. An artist today isn’t simply as good as their mastery of craft, but are indisputably measured also by the wideness of their reach.

One of the side-effects of this shift in both politics and technology is a kind of “convergence” of forms. Today, visual and musical artists (especially those with a political bent) have to — arguably more than ever — explain their work and its meanings in explicit ways. This phenomenon is rather upsetting to me personally — as I generally believe that it’s the work of important artistic truths to be unconscious, and of interpreters, critics and writers to dig them out. Moreover, emerging modes of guilting and shaming (deploying social and moralistic — rather than economic — currency) have also meant that visual, poetic or humour-based artists have to deploy lengthy, carefully worded disclaimers and caveats to anything they wish to share.

But just as these artists are forced into verbosity, writers — the original artists of the vocabulary — are also required to merge and adapt their craft with other aids. Those like me who write on Instagram are competing with brands, advertisements, graphic art, memes, jokes, videos and more over people’s limited energies. I had to think very carefully in that last sentence, in fact, over the word ‘people’ — because the subject that social media acts upon is in fact stripped of a personhood; hollowed for a moment into just a consumer. Perhaps this is the moral duty of the new age writer’s praxis: to breach the fortress and offer solace; to string together a rhythm that breathes a bit of humanity back into a consumer. After all, those who don’t write on Instagram are competing with, well… Instagram itself.

This isn’t to say that we must do away with books or more “traditional” infrastructures suited to the writer — far from it. We must nurture that too. But the question of legitimacy of form must be something to be reworked. We must find ways to better credit, legitimise, and support the art of the status update, tweet or Instagram story. A relevant experiment in this regard was the book “Caste Is Not a Rumour”, a collection of the online writings of Rohith Vemula.

Some years ago, while reviewing the book and ruminating on Rohith’s suicide note, I wrote these lines: “Vemula’s note was indeed a remarkable piece of literature — displaying eloquence, vision and clarity of thought far beyond his years. But what was truly striking about it was the brevity for such a power-packed document — in a world where most academics and writers feel like they’re taking pages and pages to make a point, his every line; every sentence was packed with the punch of precise thinking and lived experience. It was this format that Rohith had perfected — the art of a paragraph-length rumination that was worth more than many unreadable academic works.”

Now yes, I do see the irony of saying this in a long, meandering essay. But my purpose here isn’t so much to “make a point” — it’s to try and analyse the sources we should study to try and make our points in better ways. A 21st century writer must be attentive to the way other artists are adapting, fusing and toying with the idea of dissemination. In constructing a writing canon — it isn’t enough any more to simply read what others have written. We must learn how and where to strategically place our writing in the flurry of images, sounds, videos, interactions and other forms of constantly interacting and mutating technological frictions.

Sure — we can also safeguard spaces for those of us who have the time, energy and good faith to meditate over a book — one of modern life’s few remaining pleasures for those who can afford it. But we must also find new icons of form beyond traditional wordsmiths from whom we can draw our inspiration in order to forge a writing praxis for this day and age.

We must analyse why A.R. Rahman introduced jazz and western background score overlays to traditionally melody-based film music. Or why Andy Warhol fused Byzantine iconography with consumerist culture to philosophise about the fickleness of fame. Or how Reshma managed to convert a singing style imbibed with the rhythms of her nomadic ancestors into a popular art that could travel and touch linguistically disconnected people over the radio. Or why Kanye brought autotune and Nina Simone samples into a gangster rap dominated hip-hop sphere to try and retain its prophetic message while also selling out stadiums.

It’s in this spirit of trying to be a better writer for my time and generation that I hope to turn my attention in another essay towards a 20th century debate in Indian classical music. However, it isn’t as simple as only focusing on one’s art. To get to the debate, I also need to take a detour through politics — particularly the politics of what it means to locate oneself in a historical, geographical or socio-political tradition. And it’s to that question that I’ll try to turn in the next part.