MLA 2013 Special Session: Reading the Invisible and Unwanted in Old & New Media

[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.


theory & practice in a flexible, emergent university (part 1)

[D]igital scholarship is the inevitable future of the humanities and social sciences. . . .  [D]igital literacy is a matter of national competitiveness and a mission that needs to be embraced by universities, libraries, museums, and archives. . . .  How will younger scholars in the humanities and social sciences engage these new technologies and methods? . . .  [I]f more than a few are to pioneer new digital pathways, more formal venues and opportunities for training and encouragement are needed. . . .  A robust cyberinfrastructure should include centers that support collaborative work with specialized methods. (from “Our Cultural Commonwealth: The Report of the American Council of Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences,” 2006)

Through a long series of public and internal meetings, the University of Colorado at Boulder has recently started to think through the shape of a possible future school of Information, Communication, Media, Journalism, and Technology – an ungainly list of disciplines but one that gestures, I hope, to the possibility of a school that thoroughly supports interdisciplinary research and teaching. I also think this possible future school affords me the opportunity to think through what I would like to see happen – what would be my dream job? What sorts of research and teaching would I like to do that I cannot do now?

As one who writes, researches, and teaches between media studies, literary studies, history of computing, and artistic/literary practice, a future school or college dedicated to ICMJT would have to primarily support and stimulate 1) meaningful cross-disciplinary collaboration and 2) a flexible and emergent curriculum that is responsive to rapid shifts in education, technology, and even broader cultural values (regardless of the potential difficulties in creating a new administrative structure to accomodate such research and teaching). As Richard A. DeMillo asserts in From Apple to Abelard (MIT Press, 2011), “The institutions that will thrive in the coming century are the ones whose offerings are in demand in a world where there are abundant choices for higher education.”

And so, ideally, a future ICMJT school at CU Boulder would learn from small-scale successes – centers and labs across the U.S. such as the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, the MIT Media Lab, the Critical Media Lab at University of Waterloo, the Digital Innovation Lab at University of North Carolina, or Stanford’s Program on Liberation Technology – and create a largescale school, I believe the first of its kind in North American, which would also include labs. I imagine this school as one that is structured not by departments but rather by overlapping conceptual groupings (perhaps akin to the units in the Leeds School of Business). Examples of such groupings might be Computer Arts, Communication, 21st Century Studies, and Media Studies (including studies of the book, analog technologies as well as digital technologies). Faculty could, but need not, align themselves (and their labs) with several conceptual groupings as a way to faciliate the kind of meaningful interdisciplinary work I mention above.

While the ICMJT discussion groups have been urged to avoid concerning ourselves with administrative structures, I would like to point out that, since CU Boulder is a Research I institution – one whose faculty research is foremost and which often drives teaching – in order for this new school to be a success, it will have to create new and innovative guidelines for tenure and promotion that reward rather than penalize 1) co-authored publications; 2) substantial digital-based scholarship (such as data visualizations, information retrieval, data mining, and computational analysis) in addition to conventional academic articles and monograph books; 3) innovations in publishing including electronic journals and e-books; 4) and finally, related to the foregoing three items, practice-based work in addition to theory-based work. I would like to place particular emphasis on the importance of practice-based research and teaching in this new school. l believe ‘doing’ media studies (whether one is studying the book, analog or digital technologies) is an essential component of understanding and then theorizing media – theory and practice ought to be equally valued for both research and teaching in this future ICMJT school. In other words, ‘doing’ and ‘creating’ are important not only for innovative research but also innovative (and effective) teaching and learning. As the technology journalist Anya Kemenetz writes, “Workers at every level benefit from an education that emphasizes creative thinking, communication, and teamwork – the very kind of excellence already offered at top American colleges.” With an appropriately innovative ICMJT school, CU Boulder, then, could be a in a position to become one of these “top American colleges.”

As such, I would like to advocate for a core curriculum that involves at least one year-long class that is dedicated to both theories and practices of media literacy (or, I might suggest, ‘fluency’ which implies a much higher level of sophistication and understanding). However, beyond a small handful of core courses, I would very much like to see a wide of range of courses dedicated to teaching or investigating what DeMillo calls “patterns of thought” that cut across numerous disciplines and that appeal to students’ desires to study cultural memes – especially in a way that cannot be captured by way of networks outside the classroom. I am convinced that DeMillo is right in observing that “universities that cling to principled but inflexible curricula are less likely to be able to survive the competitive onslaught that surely faces colleges and universities in the Middle.” Thus, one possible way to establish a flexible curriculum that affords students abundant choice is to develop, within each conceptual grouping, several streams from which students might choose their courses. A curricular stream in, for example, Computer Arts might involve a course first in media literacy followed by courses (possibly co-taught by faculty in the same or overlapping conceptual groupings) in digital art, music, literature, and communication – all of which would tackle the tight interdependence of theory and praxis from different disciplinary perspectives. Such a system has already been instituted by Georgia Tech’s College of Computing as they have created a “threaded curriculum” which allows students to choose any two threads to make a degree.

A prospective ICMJT school at CU Boulder affords us the opportunity to make ourselves into one of the most innovative, forward-thinking, and relevant institutions in the country that could very well attract not only top researchers but also top students who in turn, once they graduate, will surely be highly sought after by employers.

introducing the Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media

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:

Algorithm Bethany Nowviskie
Alternate Reality Gaming Nicole Labitzke
Analogue vs. Digital Jake Buckley
Animation/Kineticism Brian Kim Stefans
Archive Katherine Harris
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
Avatars Bjarke Liboriussen
Biopoetry Eduardo Kac
Blogs Ruth Page
Cave John Cayley
Cell Phone Novel Larissa Hjorth
Chatterbots Ragnhild Tronstad
Cheats Julian Kücklich
Code Mark Marino
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 Digital Editions Claire Clivaz and David Hamidovic
Critical Theory David Golumbia
Cut Scenes Rune Klevjer
Cyberfeminism Kate Mondloch
Cybernetics Bernard Geoghegan and Benjamin Peters
Cyberpunk Lisa Swanstrom
Cyberspace Marie-Laure Ryan
Cyborg and Posthuman Raine Koskimaa
Data Matthew Fuller
Database Christiane Paul
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
eBooks Johanna Drucker
Electronic Literature Scott Rettberg
Electronic Literature Organization Marjorie Luesebrink
Email Novel Jill Walker Rettberg
Emergence Ragnhild Tronstad
Ethics Digital Media Charles Ess
Fan Fiction Karen Hellekson
Film and Digital Media Jens Eder
Flarf Darren Wershler
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
Gameplay Jesper Juul
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
Holopoetry Eduardo Kac
Hypertextuality Astrid Ensslin
Identity Steven Edward Doran
Immersion Jan-Noël Thon
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
Interface Carl Therrien
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
Machinima Michael Nitsche
Markup Languages Kirstyn Leuner
Mashup Benjamin J. Robertson
Materiality Anna Munster
Media Ecology Michael Goddard
Mediality Jan-Noël Thon
Micro-Blogging (Twitter) Brian Croxall
Mobile Entertainment Anastasia Salter
MUDs and MOOs Torill Mortensen
Music Aden Evens
Narrativity Jan-Noël Thon
Networking Mark Nunes
Ngram John Cayley
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
Performance Ragnhild Tronstad
Plot Types and Interactivity Marie-Laure Ryan
Politics and New Media Joss Hands
Preservation Matthew Kirschenbaum
Procedural Jonathan Lessard
Properties of Digital Media David Golumbia
Quest Narrative Ragnhild Tronstad
Race and Ethnicity Kim Knight
Randomness Marie-Laure Ryan
Reading Strategies Adalaide Morris
Relations Between Media Philipp Schweighauser
Remediation Jay David Bolter
Remix Aaron Angello
Role-Playing Susana Pajares Tosca
Sampling Benjamin Robertson
Searle’s Chinese Room Inderjeet Mani
Self-Reflexivity in Electronic Art Winfried Nöth
Semantic Web Axel-Cyrille Ngonga Ngomo
Simulation Gonzalo Frasca
Social Network Sites (SNS) Olga Goriunova and Chiara Bernardi
Software Studies Matthew Fuller
Spatiality of Digital Media Marie-Laure Ryan
Story Generation Pablo Gervás
Storyspace Anja Rau
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 Patrick Vonderau
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
Virtuality Michael Heim
Walkthrough Frederik De Grove and Jan Van Looy
Web Comics Karin Kukkonen
Wiki Writing Seth Perlow
Windows Jay David Bolter
Word-Image Maria Engberg
Worlds and Maps Bjarke Liboriussen
Writing Under Constraint Anastasia Salter