Margaret Atwood On How Tech Influences Creativity

The author behind your favorite thought-provoking, dystopian parables talks with Co.Create about mediums, messages, and more.

Margaret Atwood On How Tech Influences Creativity
Margaret Atwood The Handmaid’s Tale

In the latest thought-provoking, dystopian parable from noted words-genius, Margaret Atwood, society is experimenting with becoming a prison. The entire population of the unsettling community of Positron, as depicted in The Heart Goes Last, spends half the time as prisoners and half the time as guards. It does not go great. Considering that the story also involves sex-robots and other misfit gadgetry, the central premise serves as an apt metaphor for our occasionally adversarial relationship with technology. Mostly, it seems as though we’re the ones in charge, but sometimes it feels like the other way around. Are we influencing technology or is technology influencing us?

Margaret AtwoodPhoto: Larry D. Moore

Obviously, the answer is: both. We’re like chefs who need ever more food to sustain ourselves while making increasingly elaborate food for others. One element of this symbiotic relationship Margaret Atwood is especially interested in, though, is the impact new technology has on creativity. The paradigm-shifting author doesn’t merely write about the future, she has also helped bring about changes to how we write in the future. As the creator of the LongPen, she’s made it so that authors can sign books from great distances; and as the first contributor to the Future Library project, she’s become a pioneer of writing novels intended strictly for later generations to read. A master at building future worlds in fiction, Atwood is also doing so in reality.

One can only guess which creative processes storytellers in 100 years will utilize. Just looking around, however, one can observe the way we approach artistic endeavors now evolving before our eyes. With The Heart Goes Last new in stores, the author/poet/hero spoke to Co.Create about how the medium shapes the message, the lost art of focus, and whether anyone need even bother trying to optimize imagination.

Technology Influences, But Doesn’t Dictate, How You Communicate

Margaret Atwood is known as an early adopter. However, that doesn’t mean she automatically uses any new technology that comes down the pike. Being a selective early adopter means communicating with the tools one feels comfortable with, and avoiding others.

“I don’t trust the cloud,” she says. “Everybody knows that Moscow has gone back over to typewriters. Anything on the internet potentially leaks like a sieve. So we are currently exchanging scripts by FedEx because we don’t want them to be leaked. Anything you absolutely do not want to be leaked, unless you were a master of hackery and disguise, you should transfer and store some other way, especially since Mr. Snowden and what we know. We kind of suspected it before but we didn’t realize it was quite so extensive.”

The Medium Shapes The Story You’re Telling

The Heart Goes Last

Once you do use the latest social media or video distribution platform, it’s going to have an effect on what you create.


“Any new technology or platform or medium is going to influence to a certain extent the shape of what gets put out there,” Atwood says. “On the other hand, human storytelling is very, very old. To a certain extent, technology shapes the bite-size of how you’re sending it into the world. For instance, people put writing on their phone in short chapters. So Proust would not have done well with that. We develop short forms because we’re limited in characters but we did that with the telegram. ‘6:15 Paddington, bring gun, Sherlock Holmes.’ Or better, ‘Holmes,’ actually.”

Technology Influences The Substance Of Stories

Every new possibility creators can use to make stories, the characters within those stories can also use them for other ends.

“Every time there’s a new piece of tech, it influences what you can put in a plot,” Atwood says. “So as soon as cell phones appeared you couldn’t have certain communication problems anymore. You couldn’t have that scene, you had to think of a way of handling the person’s cell phone going missing or being tossed into a bush or, in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, you have to grind up the sim card and stomp it underfoot. It’s getting harder and harder to function without a cell phone, without all these different cards and passwords that we have. And writers are turning that to interesting account, for instance the fact that some people exist under the radar and they don’t have a digital footprint and that makes them really pretty invisible.”

You Can’t Optimize Imagination

One of the major purposes of technology is to improve even areas we never knew needed improving. Everything must be bigger, more powerful, and faster. But not everything can be improved that way, though.

Oryx and Crate

“I don’t think the imagination is subject to efficiency,” Atwood says. “If anything, daydreaming is very useful for it. In fact, daydreaming is very useful for any kind of productivity because it creates a blank space and allows the mind to come into that. So what people seem to need most coaching about in the area of creativity is not ‘optimizing’ their imaginations–it’s their confidence. And that’s because we’ve been brainwashed into thinking that we are all specialists of some kind, and that you can’t really be a writer unless you’ve got something like a master’s degree. Obviously, we want dentists to be trained, but writing is human storytelling and everybody does it.

“So the problems in creativity are not how do we get humans to be more creative–people are more creative. It’s how creative people can actually make a living doing what they do in an economy such as ours that values money above all else. What is the price, the money value, of John Keats’s ‘Ode To A Nightingale,’ apart from the manuscript, just the poem itself, what is its value? There isn’t one. Because it’s not in that economy.”

The importance of Focus In a Distracting World

Coding appears to be the way of the future, and kids are learning to do so at an early age. But coding requires great focus, the challenges of which have become more difficult than ever.

The Handmaid’s Tale

“Oddly enough, teenage readers prefer paper books–except for the kind of reading they do on the iPad, which is interactive. I don’t know about the toddlers, though, they seem to like both,” Atwood says. “There is something about the tactility, there is something about the eye/hand/brain coordination that is very grounding. And there is something about the instantaneous nature of things on tablets that is very speedifying and can be pretty distracting. I think one of the things that kids are gonna have to do is learn how to focus. Adults need to learn how to do that too. But any new technology quote “freaks people out.” The radio did that too once. Give people enough time and they’ll adjust.”