3| Writing Technologies / Digital Wor(l)ds

 

Like electricity, once introduced, electronic literature seemed to instantly be everywhere; for, unlike electricity, the wires that brought digital writing into our homes could also carry it back out— and to everyone— in the form of email, blogs, Facebook pages, book reviews (as well as reviews of music, movies, cameras, blenders, and washing machines, for that matter). A single writing-bot will generate more content daily than can be read in multiple human lifetimes. There are thousands, if not millions, of writing bots composing text as you read this introduction, and while you are not reading this, for they never sleep. To a large degree, the digital world is a world of writing.

 

The writings that make up the present body of digital literature is as varied as the digital world itself: it is as site-specific as works created for the Cave media-lab where readers wearing 3D glasses can be immersed in a 3D interactive book that surrounds them as though they are moving through a landscape of words and images; it is as global as the Unknown’s hypertext novel by the same name that has been visited by over a million readers from some 87 countries. Digital writing is narrow for the constraints imposed upon authors by the web protocols and authoring tools they all must use (the reason so many web pages look alike), though simultaneously more various than print could imagine.

 

Yoked to the computer as digital writing is, and given the fact that the lifespan of an operating system is about five years, digital writing is forever in need of reinventing itself in terra incognita: by nature it is a kind of perpetual avant-garde. Yet, compared to the 5,000 years of writing, e-writing is practically history-free (and still awaiting its Shakespeare— who will also have to marshal the skills of a Mozart and DaVinci), though there was a time (circa 1992) when the appearance of a new web page was an event— and seemed to be the culmination of a process that could be traced back through the birth of WWW (1991), back through Day 1 of the Internet (1969), back through OuLiPo and teletype, Gutenberg and every other revolution in writing technology there has ever been. E-writing is both a medium, practice, and delivery system. As such, works of digital literature are

enmeshed with every aspect of “book” culture—from the initial composition, to publication and marketing, to buying and selling. Indeed, the ever-deepening penetration of electricity into book culture is what allows online platforms (such as Amazon) to actively destroy formations that had developed over decades and constituted traditional book culture: the division between readers and writers, for example; or the importance of a literary reviewer; or agent; or publisher….

 

“Born digital” was the phrase originally used to distinguish electronic literature from other kinds of writing by underscoring the fact that it originated in digital form and used the computer as an integral component of its experience. But as it becomes easier and easier to apply the term to many kinds of writing (and art, and music, and indeed, most cultural products), it seems as though emphasis falls back to its second term. That is, electronic literature is, above all, literature, even if the ways in which it is literary are as varied as the ways in which it is electronic.

 

Electronic literature includes work that is partially generated by the computer though published in print, such as Cory Arcangel’s Working on My Novel, a printed collection of tweets containing the phrase of his title gleaned from the Twitter stream; or Google-sculpting, in which words harvested from the web are collaged into poetry. E-writing includes Toxi•City by Roderick Coover and Scott Rettberg, which combines narrative and software to generate a new feature-length film about life under global warming every time it is shown. Digital writing includes programmable or animated poetry where moving fonts visually inform meaning as it does in Brian Kim Stefans’s The Dreamlife of Letters, the way Futurists and Fluxus poets turned the display fonts designed for advertising to poetry. Nick Montfort’s “Round” calculates the value of Pi, then replaces digits with words or a line break, creating a poet-bot that slows as it chugs along, until it grinds down to glacial speed. There are online video poems and hypertext novels published on DVD such as Stuart Moulthrop’s Victory Garden, a story of war whose form— a web of linked passages— helps express how the origins of (the first) Gulf War are ever receding, its end always just over the horizon (a story that is even more relevant today, at the time of this writing, than it was 25 years ago when it was published). There are app poems such as Stephanie Strickland and Lawson Jaramillo's Vniverse, a spatially arranged iPad book. As Rita Raley points out, data-streamed or networked works of literature are more about the “control of property, technological systems, and public speech” than close reading. See for example, Mark C. Marino and Rob Wittig’s “Occupy MLA,” an improvisation performed on Twitter during the Modern Language Association's annual convention in which anyone could join in (over 500 people did), satirizing the growing class divide between adjunct and tenured professors.

That is, e-lit is a body of writing that may or may not be hypertextual, interactive, networked, visual, audible, programmable, and created to be read in places as specific as a museum’s gallery or as dispersed as cell phones scattered around the globe. Indeed, even a quick survey of e-lit in English reveals a global nature, with works in this section originating at points from South Korea (“Nippon”) to London (What We Will). E-lit, then, asks us to reimagine the literary landscape in terms other than nation or region, as Jessica Pressman notes, pointing out that it also causes us to rethink print, previous forms of literary critique, and indeed assumptions about fundamentals as basic as what we mean by a “story,” or “writing,” or “reading.”

 

By nature then, most e-writing is conceptual: writing that creates a space for writing in the metaphoric sense, as N. Katherine Hayles puts it, as well as the literal sense of the space of the page. As delivery system, it can reinvigorate issues of presence in poetry: it may be hard to grasp Charles Olson’s concept of projective verse by reading a printed text, but the way he made his body part of the poem jumps out in readings that were unavailable until they were put online. The same might be said for the reader of Aya Karpińska’s “nobody knows but you,” using a Playstation controller and body English to spin the words of this interactive poem. Sound or performance poetry that could only be experienced by the few lucky enough to be in attendance at, for example, Steve McCaffery’s performance of the “White Pages,” are now readily had via a number of online archives (see especially UbuWeb, PennSound, and the Electronic Poetry Center). Even more so are the experiments in writing made possible by the medium, e.g., Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse’s virtual pop-up book Between Page and Screen, which uses QR codes to make text rise up from the page.

 

​​While poetry might have once been written either for the page or the stage, in the digital world the page is the stage. Sometimes it is the backstage also: the unseen machine code that makes visible the literary performance on screen. As such, it marries several of the aesthetics other sections of this anthology highlight, especially the visual and audible. Instead of a table of contents. Tal Halpern’s novel Digital Nature presents readers with statuettes on a desk, Freud’s desk. The statuettes are linked, as Freud believed they were, to mythologies that

carry deeper psychological truths. In Halpern’s retelling, diary entries, postcards, butterfly specimens, a children’s book, and numerous other pieces form a powerful hypertext novel about race, imperialism, and the tension between sexual desire and its civilized façade. Unlike the interactivity that is normally associated with e-lit, the multimedia fictions of Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries sets streams of words to music: jazz drumming in “Dakota,” jazz piano in the bi-lingual “Nippon.” The result is a multimedia literature where sound-image form a flowing whole that has its own grammar and syntax. John Cayley’s What We Will is a novel only in an expanded sense of the word. Unlike film or print novels, viewers/readers navigate through a drama that is neither theater, video, nor text, but uses elements of each to tell the story of a day in London. Domenico Vicinanza translates live Twitter streams and other Big Databases into concerts of electronic music.

 

Reading these works, it’s easy to think of a library of printed books as a vast Victorian collection of beetles. Like those collections, like perspective painting, like Dante’s chaining rhyme scheme or Whitman’s free verse, the digitally- driven work of art is a system for knowing that is inherently an argument about how the world is made up. Many of the inherent characterizations of digital works— malleability, ease of recombination, dependence on the image, interactivity, linkage and therefore indeterminacy, dispersal of Origin, of Author/ Authority, erosion of genre boundaries as well as boundaries between nations, man and machine, or the personal and private— many of the characteristics associated with digital writing seem also to characterize our historical moment. That is, digital reading and writing feel normal. So normal that that’s what writing has become: creating and transmitting ideas in a form that is visual, linked, interactive, and accessible worldwide.