At the invitation of MAL curator Mél Hogan, on Monday February 11th conceptual artist Joel Swanson gave a talk about the art project he’s working on in and for the lab on the history of computer keyboards and what symbolic or cultural meaning there might be in the presence or absence of certain keys. (In fact, Joel has already done some work with keyboards by way of his ultra-minimal, conceptual piece called “Spacebar” from 2012.) Here is the video of Joel’s artist talk in the lab:
I’m very keen to see what Joel comes up with as I am fascinated with some of the keyboards in the lab, including an original keyboard for the Apple Macintosh from 1984 which famously has no arrow keys so that users were forced to use the mouse.
As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, the lab also has Commodore 64 computers which for example, came with both a ‘Commodore’ key that gave the user access to an alternate character set as well as four programmable function keys that, with the shift button, could each be programmed for two different functions.
By contrast, Apple II computers came with two programmable function keys and Apple III, IIc and IIe computers came with open-Apple and closed-Apple keys that provided the user with shortcuts to applications such as cut-and-paste or copy.
I hope this is the first of many more artist residencies in the lab!
Thanks to the generosity of people at the Library of Congress such as Trevor Owens, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview media archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst on the LOC’s blog The Signal. I especially wanted to talk with Ernst not only about his Media Archaeological Fundus (MAF), which bears a strong affiliation to my Media Archaeology Lab (MAL), but also about whether he sees a connection between his archival approach, the MAF, and preservation. Ernst responded by explaining that the emphasis in the MAF is more on training and “enforcing” media research through excavation and even a mathematical mode of thinking than on preservation. In terms of the latter, then, it’s no surprise that Jussi Parikka points out on his blog that “Ernst is very reluctant to call this ‘Digital Humanities’: it’s media studies!” While DH is certainly deeply invested in doing and making as thinking, as (and as a response to) theory, I think that Ernst is still coming out of a Kittlerian project to “drive the spirit out of the humanities” and in this sense, no matter how inclusive DH becomes, perhaps media archaeology will steadfastly remain media studies, not DH.
You can find the entirety of the interview with Ernst here. As always, comments welcome.
I was fortunate to have the chance to think through the relationship between the field of media archaeology, the Media Archaeology Lab, and digital preservation/stewardship thanks to this interview with Trevor Owens on the Library of Congress blog, The Signal, called “Media Archaeology and Digital Stewardship: An Interview with Lori Emerson.” The invitation to talk with Trevor was particularly fortuitous because Matthew Kirschenbaum had been here at CU Boulder the week before, discussing these very same issues in a faculty seminar he led called “Doing Media Archaeology.” You can read the interview here – I’d be interested in hearing comments you might have, especially about the possibility of a hardware/software resource sharing program.
The Media Archaeology Lab was fortunate to have a visit this week from Kevin Kane, a talented student at the University of Colorado Boulder, who took a series of photos of some of the MAL’s holdings. We are working on compiling a complete, detailed catalogue of the lab’s complete holdings – until then, hopefully these photos give you a sense of the lab. Enjoy!
This picture captures most of the MAL’s fully functional Apple computers, from an Apple 1 replica to an iMac G4.
The MAL’s collection of PCs – from left to right: Kaypro II, Commodore 64, Vectrex, Compaq Portable, Commodore Amiga 500, IBM 5150, NeXT Cube.
The MAL has a substantial collection of Apple IIe’s – some are fully functional and others are in need of repair. Also notice the Mattel Aquarius computer on the third shelf.
The MAL also has a modest collection of games and software, particularly for Apple II, Commodore 64, and Commodore Amiga.
MAL’s growing collection of early e-literature.
Finally, the MAL has a collection of analog machines including this beautiful Califone record player from, I think, the 1960s.
Below is the introduction that Derek Beaulieu and I wrote for Writing Surfaces: Selected Fiction of John Riddell that Wilfred Laurier University Press is generously publishing in April 2013. Please do pre-order a copy through your local independent bookstore. The collection is, I think, a perfect instance of literary experimentation with media archaeology.
Introduction: Media Studies and Writing Surfaces
Writing Surfaces: The Fiction of John Riddell brings an overview of the work of John Riddell to a 21st-century audience, an audience who will see this volume as a radical, literary manifestation of media archaeology. This book is also, in the words of the promotional material of Riddell’s 1977 Criss-cross: a Text Book of Modern Composition, a “long-over-due debut by one of our most striking new fictioneers.”
Since 1963 John Riddell’s work has appeared in such foundational literary journals as grOnk, Rampike, Open Letter and Descant as part of an on-going dialogue with Canadian literary radicality. Riddell was an early contributing editor to bpNichol’s Ganglia, a micro-press dedicated to the development of community-level publishing and the distribution of experimental poetries. This relationship continued to evolve with his co-founding of Phenomenon Press and Kontakte magazine with Richard Truhlar (1976) and his involvement with Underwhich Editions (founded in 1978): a “fusion of high production standards and top-quality literary innovation” which focused on “presenting, in diverse and appealing physical formats, new works by contemporary creators, focusing on formal invention and encompassing the expanded frontiers of literary endeavour.”
Writing Surfaces: The Fiction of John Riddell reflects Riddell’s participation in these Toronto-based, Marshall McLuhan-influenced, experimental poetry communities from the 1960s until roughly the mid- to late-1980s. These communities, and the work of contemporaries bpNichol, Paul Dutton, jwcurry, Richard Truhlar and Steve McCaffery, give context to Riddell’s literary practice and his focus on ”pataphysics, philosophically-investigative prose and process-driven visual fiction. While many of his colleagues were more renowned for their poetic and sound-based investigations, Riddell clearly shared both Nichol’s fondness for the doubleness of the visual-verbal pun and Steve McCaffery’s technical virtuosity and philosophical sophistication. In his magazine publications, small press ephemera, and trade publications, Riddell created a conversation between these two sets of poetics and extended it to the realm of fiction (exploring a truly hybrid form that is poetry as much as it is fiction). Riddell’s work as fiction works to explore the development and accretion of narrative in time-based sequence, a fiction of visuality and media. Writing Surfaces is the documentation of Riddell pushing his own writing to the very limit of what conceivably counts as writing through writing.
While it’s true that the title “writing surfaces” carries with it the doubling and reversibility of noun and verb, reminding us how the page is as much a flat canvas for visual expression as it is a container for thought, the first title we proposed for this collection was “Media Studies.” The latter, while admittedly too academic-sounding to describe writing as visually and conceptually alive as Riddell’s, could still describe Riddell’s entire oeuvre; the term not only refers to the study of everyday media (such as television, radio, the digital computer and so on) but it can—in fact should—encompass the study of textual media and the ways in which writing engages with how it is shaped and defined by mediating technologies. In other words, Riddell’s work is a kind of textbook for the study of media through writing, or, the writing of writing.
The best-known example of Riddell’s writing of writing is “Pope Leo, El ELoPE: A Tragedy in Four Letters,” initially published in April 1969 with mimeograph illustrations by bpNichol through Nichol’s small but influential Canadian magazine grOnk. It was published again, with more refined, hand-drawn, illustrations, once again by Nichol, in the Governor General’s Award winning anthology Cosmic Chef: An Evening of Concrete (1970, the version included here) and in a further iteration in Criss-Cross: A Text Book of Modern Composition with illustrations by Filipino-Canadian comic book artist Franc Reyes (who would later pencil and ink Tarzan, House of Mystery and Weird War for dc comics and was involved with 1970s underground Canadian comix publisher Andromeda). “Pope Leo” relates a stripped-down comic-strip tale of the tragic murder of Pope Leo; the narrative unfolds partly by way of frames within frames, windows within windows, telling a minimalist story in which the comic-strip frame is nothing but a simple hand-drawn square with the remarkable power to bring a story into being. The anagrammatic text is an exploration of the language possibilities inherent in letters ‘p,’ ‘o,’ ‘l,’ and ‘e’ (hence the sub-title, “a tragedy in four letters”)—sometimes using one of the letters twice, sometimes dropping one, always rearranging, always moving back and forth along the spectrum of sense/nonsense: “O POPE LEO! PEOPLE POLL PEOPLE! PEOPLE POLE PEOPLE! LO PEOPLE.”
With a/z does it (1988), Riddell’s writing of writing focuses even more on the investigation of the possibilities of story that lie well beyond the form of the sentence, paragraph, the narrative arc. Rather than playing with the visual story structure of the frame and the verbal structure of the anagram as means by which to create a narrative, with pieces like “placid/special” Riddell first creates grid-like structures of text with the mono-spaced typewriter font and then uses a photocopier to document the movement of the text in waves across the glass bed. The resultant text is the visual equivalent of his earlier fine-tuned probing of the line between sense and nonsense in “Pope Leo.” These typewriter/photocopier pieces record both signal and noise as columns of text waver in and out of legibility. Semantically, these mirage-like texts focus on the words ‘placid’ (the lines of text reminding us of the symmetrical reversibility of ‘p’ and ‘d’ which begin and end the word), ‘love’ (with just the slightest suggestion of ‘velo’ at the beginning and end of each wave), ‘first,’ ‘i met,’ ‘special,’ ‘evening’ and ‘light’ (appearing as a hazy sunset moving down the page), and conclude with ‘relax’ and ‘enjoy.’ The paratactical juxtaposition of the two pages in “placid/special” creates the barest suggestion of a narrative about lovers enjoying an evening together while at the same time each page is in itself an even more minimalist story told through experiments with the manipulation of writing media.
Riddell’s writing of writing that is simultaneously sense and nonsense, verbal and visual, self-contained and serial—that demands to be read at the same time as it ought to be viewed—nearly reaches its zenith in later work such as E clips E (1989). In particular, “surveys” is writing only in the most technical sense with its Jackson Pollock-like paint drippings and scattered individual letters, all counter-balanced by neat, hand-drawn frames.
Just as Riddell’s compositions challenge how writers and readers form meaning, the original publications of many of the selections in Writing Surfaces, and Riddell’s larger oeuvre, were also physically constructed in a way that would demand reader participation. Riddell’s original publications include small press leaflets (Pope Leo, El ELoPE: A Tragedy in Four Letters), business card-sized broadsides (“spring”), chapbooks (A Hole in the Head and Traces) and pamphlets (How to Grow Your Own Light Bulbs). His work also extends into books as non-books: posters which double as dart boards (1987’s d’Art Board), novels arranged as packages of cigarettes (1996’s Smokes: a novel mystery) and decks of cards to be shuffled, played and processually read (1981’s War (Words at Roar), Vol.1: s/word/s games and others). Inside books with otherwise traditional appearances Riddell insists that his readers reject passive reception of writing in favour of a more active role. While outside of the purview of Writing Surfaces, 1996’s How to Grow Your Own Light Bulbs includes texts that must be excised and re-assembled (“Peace Puzzle”); burnt with a match (“Burnout!”); and written by the reader (“Nightmare Hotel”). Copies of the second edition of Riddell’s chapbook TRACES (1991) include a piece of mirrored foil to read the otherwise illegible text.
Riddell’s compositions do not just question the traditional role of the author; they attempt to annihate it. With “a shredded text” (1989) Riddell fed an original poem into a shredder, which then read the text and excreted (as writing) the waste material of that consumption. The act of machinistic consumption creates a new poem—the original was simply the material for the creation and documentation of the final piece. With “a shredded text” Riddell acts as editor to restrict the amount of waste that enters the manuscript of the book. The machine-author becomes a reader and writer of excess and non-meaning-based texts while the human-author becomes the voice of restraint and reason attempting to limit the presentation of continuous waste-production as writing. If, as Barthes argues, “to read […] is a labour of language. To read is to find meanings,” then the consumption and expulsion of texts by machines such as photocopiers and shredders produces meanings where meanings are not expected by fracturing the text at the level of creation and consumption—an act which is simultaneously both readerly and writerly.
Riddell’s oeuvre is almost entirely out of print and unavailable except on the rare book market. Working within the purview of 1970s and 1980s Canadian small presses means that Riddell’s writing proves elusive to a generation of readers who have come of literary age after the demise of such once-vital publishers such as Aya Press (which was renamed The Mercury Press in 1990 and has also ceased publishing), Underwhich Editions, Ganglia, grOnk and the original Coach House Press. As obscure as his original books may be, Riddell’s work remains a captivating example of hypothetical prose; dreamt narratives that have sprouted from our abandoned machines. With no words and no semantic content, we are left to read only the process of writing made product—a textbook of compositional method using writing media from the pen/pencil, the sheet of paper, the typewriter, the shredder, photocopier, to even the paintbrush. The medium is the message.
[February 2013: I've posted an extended version of my MLA 2013 paper here.]
Below is the description for the MLA ’13 special session panel that Paul Benzon, Mark Sample, Zach Whalen, and I will present on in January. We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to pursue together issues related to Media Archaeology.
Media studies is growing increasingly visible within the broader disciplines of literary and cultural studies, with several critical approaches bringing valuable shape and context to the field. Prominent among these approaches is a turn away from media studies’ longstanding fixation upon the new or the innovative as the most urgent and deserving site of study. Drawing on methodologies as diverse as book history, media archaeology, and videogame studies, this work on earlier media technologies has forged provocative connections between past and present contexts that hinge upon disjuncture and nonlinearity as often as upon continuity and teleology. At the same time, an increased attention to the material particulars of inscription, storage, circulation, and reception has developed the field beyond an early focus on narrative and representation.
New media scholars now look beyond screen-based media, to a broader range of technologies and sites of inquiry. This panel seeks to consider unseen, lost, or unwanted histories of writing/media. Each of the panelists focuses on a particular technology that is not only invisible to the broad history of media technology, but also relies upon loss and invisibility for its very functionality. In keeping with this dual valence, our emphasis on loss and invisibility is intended to raise questions aimed at our specific objects of analysis, but also at the deeper historical and disciplinary questions that these objects speak to: how does our understanding of media technology change when we draw attention to objects and processes that are designed to be invisible, out of view, concealed within the machine, or otherwise beyond the realm of unaided human perception? What happens when we examine the technological, social, and ideological assumptions bound up with that invisibility? How does privileging invisibility shed new light on materiality, authorship, interface, and other central critical questions within media studies?
The vexing relationship between invisibility and transparency is addressed head-on in Lori Emerson’s paper, “Apple Macintosh and the Ideology of the User-Friendly.” Emerson suggests that the “user-friendly” graphical user interface (GUI) that was introduced via the Apple Macintosh in 1984 was–and still is–driven by an ideology that celebrates an invisible interface instead of offering users transparent access to the framing mechanisms of the interface as well as the underlying flow of information. Emerson asserts this particular philosophy of the user-friendly was a response to earlier models of home computers which were less interested in providing ready-made tools through an invisible interface and more invested in educating users and providing them with the means for tool-building. Thus, the Apple Macintosh model of the GUI is clearly related to contemporary interfaces that utterly disguise the ways in which they delimit not only our access to information but also what and how we read/write.
A desire to renew critical attention on the most taken-for-granted aspect of computer writing and reading is at the heart of Zach Whalen’s paper, “OCR and the Vestigial Aesthetics of Machine Vision.” Whalen examines the origins of the technology that allows machines to read and process alphanumeric characters. While graceful typography is said to work best when it is not noticed–in other words, when hidden in plain sight–early OCR fonts had to become less hidden in order to make their text available for machine processing. Whalen focuses on the OCR-A font and the contributions of OCR engineer Jacob Rabinow, who argued on behalf of ugly machine-readable type that (although historically and technically contingent) its intrinsically artificial geometry could become its own aesthetic signifier.
The condensation and invisibility of textual information is taken up by Paul Benzon in his paper, “Lost in Plain Sight: Microdot Technology and the Compression of Reading.” Benzon uses the analog technology of the microdot, in which an image of a standard page of text is reduced to the size of a period, as a framework to consider questions of textual and visual materiality in new media. Benzon’s discussion focuses on the work of microdot inventor Emanuel Goldberg, who in the fifties worked alongside and in competition with the engineer Vannevar Bush, a seminal figure for new media studies. Benzon transforms the disregarded history of textual storage present in Goldberg’s work into a counter-narrative to the more hegemonic ideology of hypertext that has dominated new media studies.
Turning to an entirely invisible process that we can only know by its product, Mark Sample considers the meaning of machine-generated randomness in electronic literature and videogames in his paper, “An Account of Randomness in Literary Computing.” While new media critics have looked at randomness as a narrative or literary device, Sample explores the nature of randomness at the machine level, exposing the process itself by which random numbers are generated. Sample shows how early attempts at mechanical random number generation grew out of the Cold War, and then how later writers and game designers relied on software commands like RND (in BASIC), which seemingly simplified the generation of random numbers, but which in fact were rooted in–and constrained by–the particular hardware of the machine itself.
These four papers share a common impulse, which is to imagine alternate or supplementary media histories that intervene into existing scholarly discussions. By focusing on these forgotten and unseen dimensions, we seek to complicate and enrich the ways in which literary scholars understand the role of technologies of textual production within contemporary practices of reading and writing. With timed talks of 12 minutes each, the session sets aside a considerable amount of time for discussion. This panel will build on a growing conversation among MLA members interested in theoretically inflected yet materially specific work on media technologies, and it will also appeal to a broad cross-section of the MLA membership, including textual scholars, digital humanists, literary historians, electronic literature critics, and science and technology theorists.
In 1986 – a year after creating a literary videogame called “SWALLOWS” for Apple //e and Apple //+ – writer Paul Zelevansky published the second volume of his by-now rare artist book trilogy THE CASE FOR THE BURIAL OF ANCESTORS: Book Two, Genealogy. Book Two is supposedly the third edition (which is also a fiction since there was only one edition) of a fictional translation of an equally fictional ancient text that is itself a translation of an oral account of the “Hegemonians” from the 12th-13th BCE that was “attributed to a score of mystics, religionists and scholars, none of whom has ever stepped forward.” (ix) The text focuses particularly on the stories of four priests, each of whom is identified throughout the book with a different typeface which Zelevansky claims makes it possible “to build a reading of the text around a typographical sequence.” (xi) Also included in Book Two is a sheet of 16 stamps – a miniature, layered collage of letters and found objects – as Zelevansky puts it in the “Preface to the Third Edition,” “each stamp has a particular part to play in the narrative. It is left to the Reader to attach them, where indicated, in the spaces provided throughout the text.” (xii) And, finally, enclosed in an envelope on the inside of the back cover, the book also comes with “SWALLOWS,” a 5.25″ floppy disk that is a videogame forming the first of three parts in the book. Programmed in Forth-79 for the Apple IIe or II+ (Forth was a popular programming language for home computers with limited memory), “SWALLOWS” was also integrated into the first section of Book Two through a short text/image version.
Since learning about Zelevansky’s work, I have been working through and writing on “SWALLOWS” as a very early, and important, instance of media poetics. And given what a remarkable work it is, and in an effort to contribute to the effort to preserve our digital past, I have made available the original file for “SWALLOWS” that you can run via an Apple // emulator. The existence of this file is entirely due to the work of Matthew Kirschenbaum and the generosity of Paul Zelevanksy. Matthew Kirschenbaum in fact recently made an argument in The Chronicle for the importance of digital preservation by detailing how he accessed “SWALLOWS” via an Apple // emulator and then provided Zelevanksy with the original .dsk file from which he then created a new version of “SWALLOWS” (with audio and video clips mixed in) called “G R E A T . B L A N K N E S S.”
Below are the directions to download the .dsk file and then run it on an emulator. Enjoy!
- download an Apple //e emulator. I found Virtual ][ works well.
- download an Apple // system ROM image. This zip file also works well.
- download the .dsk file for “SWALLOWS” (via Dropbox) and open the file using your Apple //e emulator
Since I’ve been posting bits and pieces here from or on my book project, Reading Writing Interfaces, I wanted to also post what I’ve been thinking through in the third chapter “From the Philosophy of the Open to the Ideology of the User-Friendly.” Below is the introductory section for the chapter in which I outline my interest in the shift from a philosophy of the open, flexible and extensible to the closed environment of the “user-friendly” Macintosh which continues to influence the shape of contemporary computing.
“Compared to the phosphorescent garbage heap of DOS – an intimidating jumble of letters and commands – the world one entered into when flicking on a Macintosh was a clean, well-lit room, populated by wry objects, yet none so jarring that it threatened one’s comforting sense of place. It welcomed your work.” (Levy 157)
In the Old Testament there was the first apple, the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, which with one taste sent Adam, Eve, and all mankind into the great current of History. The second apple was Isaac Newton’s, the symbol of our entry into the age of modern science. The Apple Computers symbol was not chosen purely at random: it represents the third apple, the one that widens the paths of knowledge leading toward the future. (Gassée 10-11)
The third cut I make into the history of twentieth century reading/writing interfaces is the era of the personal computer that was preceded by Douglas Engelbart, Alan Kay, and Seymour Papert’s experiments with (especially educational) computing and interface design from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s and that began with expandable homebrew kits from the mid- to late-1970s, irrevocably transforming into so-called “user-friendly,” closed, work-stations with the release of the Apple Macintosh in late January 1984.
This chapter, then, concerns itself with two significant aspects of this roughly ten year period: first, the shift from seeing a user-friendly computer as a tool that encourages understanding, tinkering, and creativity to seeing a user-friendly computer in terms of an efficient work-station for productivity and task-management and the effect of this shift particularly on digital literary production. Second, tightly connected to the first, this chapter concerns itself with the rupture marked by the turn from computer systems based on the command-line interface to those based on “direct manipulation” interfaces that are iconic or graphical (GUI) – a turn driven by rhetoric that insisted the GUI, particularly that pioneered by the Apple Macintosh design team, was not just different from the command-line interface but it was naturally better, easier, friendlier. As I outline in the second section of this chapter, the Macintosh was, as Jean-Louis Gassée (who headed up its development after Steve Jobs’ departure in 1985) writes without any hint of irony, “the third apple,” after the first apple in the Old Testament and the second apple that was Isaac Newton’s, is “the one that widens the paths of knowledge leading toward the future.” (11)
Despite studies released since 1985 that clearly demonstrate GUIs are not necessarily better than command-line interfaces in terms of how easy they are to learn and to use, Apple – particularly under Jobs’ leadership – successfully created such a convincing aura of inevitable superiority around the Macintosh GUI that to this day the same “user-friendly” philosophy, paired with the no longer noticed closed architecture, fuels consumers’ religious zeal for Apple products. I should note that I have been an avid consumer of Apple products since I owned my first Macintosh Powerbook in 1995. However, what concerns me is that ‘user-friendly’ now takes the shape of keeping users steadfastly unaware and uninformed about how their computers, their reading/writing interfaces, work let alone how they shape and determine their access knowledge and their ability to produce knowledge. As Wendy Chun points out, it’s a system in which users are, on the one hand, given the ability to “map, to zoom in and out, to manipulate, and to act” but, she implies, the result is is a “seemingly sovereign individual” who is mostly an devoted consumer of ready-made software, ready-made information whose framing and underlying (filtering) mechanisms we are not privy to (8).
Thus, the trajectory of this argument culminates in chapter four, in which I make it clear that the logical conclusion of this shift to the ideology (if not the religion) of the user-friendly via the Graphical User Interface (GUI) is, first, expressed in contemporary multi-touch, gestural, and ubiquitous computing devices such as the iPad and the iPhone whose interfaces are touted as utterly invisible (and so their inner workings are de facto invisible as they are also inaccessible); and, second, this full realization of frictionless, interface-free computing born out of the mid-1980s is in turn critiqued by works of activist digital media poetics. From this perspective, it is, then, no coincidence at all that Apple had actually designed something like an iPhone in 1983; at the same time that Macintosh designers were hard at work, Hartmut Esslinger, the designer of the Apple IIc, built a white landline phone complete with a built-in, stylus-driven touch-screen. (“Apple’s First iPhone”). The Apple IIc was in fact a close relative of the Macintosh in terms of portability and lack of internal expansion slots which made them both closed systems; the IIc was also released in 1984, just three months after the Macintosh.
But while chronologically proceeding from the era of the typewriter, using a media archaeology methodology to understand this particular rupture in media history means that activist media poetics plays out quite differently in the 1980s as it was an era newly oriented toward the efficient completion of tasks over and beyond a creative use or mis-use of the computer. Arguably one reason for the heightened engagement in hacking type(writing) in the mid-1960s to mid-1970s is that the typewriter had become so ubiquitous in homes and offices that it had also become invisible to its users. It is precisely at the point at which a technology saturates a culture that writers and artists, whose craft is utterly informed by a sensitivity to their tools, begin to break apart that same technology to once again draw attention to the way in which it offers certain limits and possibilities to both thought and expression. There are indeed examples of digital media activist poems that also inherit an emphasis on making, doing, hacking but – once again – it seems to me that the vast majority of these works do not appear until both the personal computer and the user-friendly computer whose GUI is designed to keep the user passively consuming technology rather than actively producing it become practically ubiquitous.
As I discuss in the first section of this chapter, activist media poetics in this particular time period mostly takes the form of experimentation with digital tools that at the time were new to writers – an experimentation that, at least under the terms set by Mckenzie Wark’s Hacker Manifesto, certainly could be framed as hacking (Wark infamously writes that “Hackers create the possibility of new things entering the world”  and that “The slogan of the hacker class is not the workers of the world united, but the workings of the world untied” ). However, as I will discuss, work by Invisible Seattle, bpNichol, Paul Zelevansky, Geof Huth, and Robert Pinsky is not working to make the (in this case) command-line interface visible so much as it is openly playing with and tentatively testing the parameters of the personal computer as a still-new writing technology. This kind of open experimentation almost entirely disappeared once Apple Macintosh’s design innovations as well as their marketing made open computer architecture and the command-line interface obsolete and GUIs pervasive.
 Related to this shift from the homebrew kit to the user-friendly GUI-based personal computer is the initial attempt to make computers appear friendly to uncertain, first-time buyers by marketing them as sophisticated typewriters. For example, Don Lancaster’s declares in the TV Typewriter Cookbook that his 1973 TV Typewriter can “convert an ordinary Selectric office typewriter into a superb hard-copy printer” (218); and a 1979 advertisement in Byte magazine for the word processor AUTOTYPE (produced by Infinity Micro) – “a true processor of words – oddly includes images of text in the shape of arrows and trees which could easily be mistaken for typewriter-created concrete poetry. (“Autotype” 169)
 It’s worth noting that, despite Gassée’s hyperbolic rhetoric that I use to help demonstrate the ideological fervor of those working for Apple in the 1980s, his vision for Macintosh was quite different from Jobs’ in that Gassée helped shepherd onto the market three models of the Macintosh (the Mac Plus, Mac II, and Mac SE) that were all expandable instead of the first generation Macintosh which actively prevented users from opening up the computer by, as I describe in the body of this chapter, giving the user a small electrical shock if they did not adhere to the warnings. While these later models of the Macintosh included expansion slots which philosophically returned Apple to the era of Steve Wozniak’s Apple II (whose six expansion slots permitted a whole range of devices for display controllers, memory boards, hard disks etc.), it seems clear that the return of Jobs to Apple in 1997 meant – and still does mean – a return to keeping the inner workings of Apple computers and computing devices firmly closed off to users.
 For example, in 1985 John Whiteside et al wrote in “User Performance with Command, Menu, and Iconic Interfaces” that “interface style is not related to performance or preference (but careful design is)” and further they concluded, “the care with which an interface is crafted is more important than the style of interface chosen, at least for menu, command, and iconic systems.” (185, 190) Such studies have been repeated as recently as 2007 (see Chen et al).
 It is precisely out of a media archaeology impulse that I have created the Archeological Media Lab at the University of Colorado at Boulder – a lab which houses most of the computers I discuss in this chapter, including the Apple II, Apple Lisa, and Apple Macintosh – precisely because their out-datedness very clearly communicates to us now the design ideologies behind both their hardware and software that delimits what can be written, what can be thought. The key to the lab’s success will be to avoid presenting these machines as novelty or kitsch and instead approach each of them as a productive field for understanding our computing past and present.
Below is the text of the paper I delivered at MLA 2012 in Seattle, WA. It was part of the special session I organized on E-literature and the interface; you can find summaries of papers delivered by Dene Grigar, Mark Sample, and Stephanie Strickland/Marjorie Luesebrink here. The full text of Mark Sample’s paper, “Strange Rain and the Poetics of Motion and Touch,” is now available here.
For the last year or two I’ve been focusing most of my research and writing on the notion of ‘interface’ – a technology, whether book or screen, that is the intermediary layer between reader and writing. What I’ve found is that ‘interface’ gives us a wedge to approach the broad and complex question of how the reading and writing of poetry have changed in the digital age and how the digital age has in turn changed the way in which we understand what I call “bookbound” poetry. It seems to me that a discussion of digital poetry in terms of interface – a discussion whose methodology is driven by the field of Media Archaeology – could be a crucial intervention into both poetry/poetics and media studies in that it meshes these fields together to 1) make visible the Human-Computer interfaces we take for granted everyday; and 2) to frame certain works of electronic literature as instances of activist media poetics.
In part influenced by the so-called “Berlin school of media studies” that has grown out of Friedrich Kittler’s new media approach, Media Archaeology is invested in both recovering the analog ancestors of the digital and reading the digital back into the analog. And so the argument I keep trying to make is this: nineteenth-century fascicles as much as mid-twentieth century typewriters and later-twentieth century digital computers are now slowly but surely revealing themselves not just as media but as media whose functioning depends on interfaces that fundamentally frame what can and cannot be said. I am, then, trying to move the definition of “interface” outside its conventional HCI-based usage (in which interface is usually defined as the intermediary layer between a user and a digital computer or computer program) and apply it to writing media more broadly to mean the layer between reader and any given writing medium which allows the reader to interact with the text itself. Moving the fields of HCI and literary studies closer together through a simple widening of the term “interface” does not just signal a mere shift in terminology. Instead, my sense is that a hybridizing of the two fields helps to move the study of electronic literature into the post-Marshall McLuhan, enabling us to go beyond repeatedly pointing out how the medium is the message and take up Katherine Hayles’ well-received injunction for “media-specific analysis” to get at not just particular media, but particularities such as the interface in the individual media instantiations of e-literature.
It also seems to me that an attention to interface – again, made possible through attention to certain works of e-literature – is a crucial tool in our arsenal against a receding present…by which I mean without attention to the ways in which present and past writing interfaces frame what can and cannot be said, the contemporary computing industry will only continue un-checked in its accelerating drive to achieve perfect invisibility through mulit-touch, so-called Natural User Interfaces, and ubiquitous computing devices. My sense is that the computing industry desires nothing more than to efface the interface altogether and so also efface our ability to read let alone write the interface.
One example of such effacement that I like draw on comes from one of the most well-known unveilings of a multitouch interface, during which creator Jeff Han proudly declares that “there’s no instruction manual, the interface just sort of disappears.” Another example comes from the Natural User Interface Group who define NUI as “an emerging concept in Human/Computer Interaction that refers to a interface that is effectively invisible, or becomes invisible to its user with successive learned interactions;” and they use “natural” to mean “organic, unthinking, prompted by instinct.” But just whose instinct is directing the shape of these interfaces? Or, more to the point, why would we – as users as much as creators or writers – want our interactions with interfaces to be “unthinking” so that we have no sense of how the interface works on us, delimiting reading, writing, even thinking? And on this note, I can’t help but to point out that the recent elevation of Steve Jobs to the status of a leftist folk hero comparable to Bob Dylan only underscores the necessity of any work, literary or otherwise, that reveals the ideology of the user-friendly for what it is – what blogger Sarah Leonard calls Jobs’ philosophy of “Paint it White”: as she tellingly points out, “Those iPads sure are frictionless fun unless, it turns out, you happen to inhale while you’re manufacturing them.”
I think that one of the mainstays of innovative writing over the last century has not only been an active engagement with form but also, perhaps more importantly, an engagement with hacking writing interfaces – an approach that treats both writing and media-specific interface as process and product, the two unavoidably intertwined. It is a ‘hacking’ not in the more recent colloquial sense of illegally bypassing computer security mechanisms but rather hacking in its earlier (perhaps original) sense, embodied by the computer hobbyists of the Homebrew Computer Club from the 70s and early 80s who were invested in the communal enterprise of open-source DIY computing. Hacking in this sense has been usefully re-enlivened by Mackenzie Wark who describes it in terms of the activities of class of people who “create the possibility of new things entering the world” (004) and whose slogan is “…not the workers of the world united, but the workings of the world untied” (006).
And so electronic literature’s response to the increasing prevalence of invisible interfaces that prevent any kind of making or doing beyond those surface-level activities which are strictly delimited by the interface: the introduction of an element of failure in digital writing and writing interfaces to turn our attention back to both as, again, process and product. In other words, at the heart of the most provocative and the most successful works of e-literature lies a poetics of failure; that is, by hacking, breaking, or simply making access difficult, they work against the way in which digital media and their interfaces are becoming increasingly invisible – even while these interfaces also increasingly define what and how we read/write. Such an approach is nicely framed as the daring path of the activist by Media Archaeology theorist Siegfried Zielinski:
Few activists…take the more daring path of exploring certain points of the media system in such a way that throws established syntax into a state of agitation. This is poetic praxis in the strict sense that the magical realist Bruno Schulz of Poland understood it: “If art is only supposed to confirm what has been determined for as long as anyone can remember, then one doesn’t need it. Its role is to be a probe that is let down into the unknown. The artist is a device that registers processes taking place in the depths where values are created.” (256)
It is, then, precisely against this unthinking celebration of the value of the user-friendly, against this troubling move toward transparent or invisible computing, that digital writers such as Judd Morrissey create texts such as “The Jew’s Daughter” – a work in which readers are invited to click on hyperlinks embedded in the narrative text, links which do not lead anywhere so much as they unpredictably change some portion of the text before our eyes. It is a work that unties the workings of the hyperlinked web interface whose structure more and more seems to be driven by the belief that clicking is an empowering act of identity-formation, one that emboldens us to access more meaningful information and so become active learners and producers of knowledge…when in fact clicking most often simply takes us to something other, and yet other - with most of these clicks carefully monitored by your favorite search engine that then conveniently sells you back to yourself. Clicking is to empowerment what Steve Jobs is to Bob Dylan.
Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries also have become infamous for their refusal to incorporate interactivity into their works – interactivity which, again, is at the heart of the ideology of the user-friendly. In fact, they reframe their refusal of interactivity in their work as providing the reader with the ultimate control: to in fact click AWAY. They state in an interview from 2005: “the spectator is far from powerless. She is still the one who decides whether or not she will watch the piece, or having clicked on it, whether she’ll click away from it. That’s the same power that she has when she considers any other art and literature. Clicking away is one of the essences of the Internet. It’s no different from deleting. It’s rejection, it’s saying ‘no.’ That’s ultimate power.” But it still seems to me that taking a lack of interactivity to such an extreme that it demands the spectator reject the work altogether is a significantly different gesture, one which throws us back on ourselves, than the mindless/endless clicking that determines most interactions on the Web.
Likewise working against the clean, “natural,” and transparent interface of the Web, in many of Jason Nelson’s game poems, he hybridizes interactive art/video-game/poem to self-consciously embrace a hand-drawn, hand-written, messy, dissonant aesthetic while deliberately undoing videogame conventions (of accumulation, progress, winning/losing, clear moral victories, immersion) through a nonsensical point-system and mechanisms that ensure the most a player ever wins is, for example, a bizarre home video feature Nelson playing with action figures in his kitchen.
With electronic literature framed as one which “throws established syntax into a state of agitation” insofar as it gives an account of the normally invisible, the taken-for-granted that nonetheless defines what can be said, then the unsettling, non-linear work by Judd Morrissey, Young-Hae Chang, and Jason Nelson which also defies close-reading and easy subsumption into any interpretative framework, is activist media poetry par excellence. And, to me, works such as these put forward an argument for the importance of electronic literature as an intervening force in the computing industry’s push to not just push on toward gestural interfaces and ubiquitous computing, but to computing interfaces that work by “reading your mind” or reading electrical brain activity without us having to take any physical action. As the engineers at IBM’s Smarter Planet Initiative declare with the kind of wondrous hush typical of a Steve Jobs-esque unveiling of the unthinkable: “If you just need to think about calling someone, it happens. Or you can control the cursor on a computer screen just by thinking about where you want to move it.”
It has been a great honor to have the opportunity to begin work on the Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media (forthcoming 2014) with my co-editors Marie-Laure Ryan and Benjamin Robertson. Our rationale for this guide has been that the study of “digital media”—the cultural and artistic practices made possible by digital technology—has become one of the most vibrant areas of scholarly activity, and is rapidly turning into an established academic field, with many universities now offering it as a major. While a plethora of books have been published on the various cultural applications of digital technology, we still lack a systematic and comprehensive reference work to which teachers and students can quickly turn for reliable information on the key terms and concepts of the field. This book will, then, present an interdisciplinary panorama of the concepts, tools, and software that have allowed digital media to produce the most innovative intellectual, artistic and social practices of our time.
Especially thrilling is the list of contributors and entries these top-notch scholars have agreed to write. Below is a list of these contributors and their entries (although I should note that there may be a few changes between now and publication). Enjoy and look forward to the guide coming out sometime in 2014:
|Alternate Reality Gaming||Nicole Labitzke|
|Analogue vs. Digital||Jake Buckley|
|Animation/Kineticism||Brian Kim Stefans|
|Artificial Intelligence||David Elson|
|Artificial Life and Media Art||Simon Penny|
|Artificial Life in Historical Context||Simon Penny|
|Audio Culture||Aaron Angello|
|Augmented Reality||Jay David Bolter|
|Authoring Systems||Judy Malloy|
|Cell Phone Novel||Larissa Hjorth|
|Code Aesthetics||David Berry|
|Cognitive Implications of New Media||Anne Mangen and Jean-Luc Velay|
|Collaborative Narrative||Scott Rettberg|
|Collective Intelligence||John Duda|
|Combinatory and Automatic Text Generation||Philippe Bootz and Christopher Funkhouser|
|Computational Linguistics||Inderjeet Mani|
|Conceptual Writing||Darren Wershler|
|Copyright||Benjamin J. Robertson|
|Critical Theory||David Golumbia|
|Cut Scenes||Rune Klevjer|
|Cybernetics||Bernard Geoghegan and Benjamin Peters|
|Cyborg and Posthuman||Raine Koskimaa|
|Dialogue Systems||Jichen Zhu|
|Digital and Net Art||Roberto Simanowski|
|Digital Fiction||Maria Engberg|
|Digital Humanities||Matthew K. Gold|
|Digital Installation Art||Kate Mondloch|
|Digital Poetry||Leonardo Flores|
|Early Digital Art and Writing (pre-1990)||Christopher Funkhouser|
|Easter Eggs||Laine Nooney|
|Electronic Literature||Scott Rettberg|
|Electronic Literature Organization||Marjorie Luesebrink|
|Email Novel||Jill Walker Rettberg|
|Ethics Digital Media||Charles Ess|
|Fan Fiction||Karen Hellekson|
|Film and Digital Media||Jens Eder|
|Flash/Director||Brian Kim Stefans|
|Free and Open Source Software||Luis Felipe Rosado Murillo|
|From Book to Screen||Kirstyn Leuner|
|Game History||Henry Lowood|
|Game Theory||Travis Ross|
|Games and Education||Brian Magerko|
|Games as Art/Literature||David Ciccoricco|
|Games as Stories||David Ciccoricco|
|Gender and Media Use||Ruth Page|
|Gender Representation||Kim Knight|
|Glitch Aesthetics||Lori Emerson|
|Graph Theory||Marie-Laure Ryan|
|Graphic Realism||Rune Klevjer|
|Hacker||E. Gabriella Coleman|
|History of Animated Poetry||Philippe Bootz|
|History of Computers||Jussi Parikka|
|Hoaxes||Jill Walker Rettberg|
|Identity||Steven Edward Doran|
|Independent and Art Games||Celia Pearce|
|Interactive Cinema||Glorianna Davenport|
|Interactive Documentary||Sandra Gaudenzi|
|Interactive Drama||Brian Magerko|
|Interactive Fiction||Emily Short|
|Interactive Narrative||Marie-Laure Ryan|
|Interactive Television||Jens Jensen|
|Interactivity||Peter Mechant and Jan Van Looy|
|Language Use in Online and Mobile Communication||Naomi S. Baron|
|Life History||Ruth Page|
|Linking Strategies||Susana Pajares Tosca|
|Location-Based Narrative||Scott Ruston|
|Ludus and Paidia||Marie-Laure Ryan|
|Markup Languages||Kirstyn Leuner|
|Mashup||Benjamin J. Robertson|
|Media Ecology||Michael Goddard|
|Micro-Blogging (Twitter)||Brian Croxall|
|Mobile Entertainment||Anastasia Salter|
|MUDs and MOOs||Torill Mortensen|
|Non-linear Writing||Astrid Ensslin|
|NPC (Non-Player Character)||Ragnhild Tronstad|
|Old Media/New Media||Jessica Pressman|
|Online Game Communities||Celia Pearce|
|Online Worlds||Lisbeth Klastrup|
|Ontology (in Games)||Jose Zagal|
|Participatory Culture||Melissa Brough|
|Plot Types and Interactivity||Marie-Laure Ryan|
|Politics and New Media||Joss Hands|
|Properties of Digital Media||David Golumbia|
|Quest Narrative||Ragnhild Tronstad|
|Race and Ethnicity||Kim Knight|
|Reading Strategies||Adalaide Morris|
|Relations Between Media||Philipp Schweighauser|
|Remediation||Jay David Bolter|
|Role-Playing||Susana Pajares Tosca|
|Searle’s Chinese Room||Inderjeet Mani|
|Self-Reflexivity in Electronic Art||Winfried Nöth|
|Semantic Web||Axel-Cyrille Ngonga Ngomo|
|Social Network Sites (SNS)||Olga Goriunova and Chiara Bernardi|
|Software Studies||Matthew Fuller|
|Spatiality of Digital Media||Marie-Laure Ryan|
|Story Generation||Pablo Gervás|
|Subversion (Creative Destruction)||Davin Heckman|
|Tabletop Roleplaying Games||Olivier Caïra|
|Temporality of Digital Works||John David Zuern|
|Transmedial Fiction||Christy Dena|
|Turing Test||Ragnhild Tronstad|
|Video Game Genres||Andreas Rauscher|
|Viral Aesthetics||Jussi Parikka|
|Virtual Bodies||Marco Caracciolo|
|Virtual Economies||Edward Castronova and Travis L. Ross|
|Virtual Reality||Ken Hillis|
|Walkthrough||Frederik De Grove and Jan Van Looy|
|Web Comics||Karin Kukkonen|
|Wiki Writing||Seth Perlow|
|Windows||Jay David Bolter|
|Worlds and Maps||Bjarke Liboriussen|
|Writing Under Constraint||Anastasia Salter|