Author Archives: Rachel

Techno-reflections, closing thoughts

First, I just want to say thanks to all of you for making this class the fun, rewarding experience that it was. You are all awesome!

As far as the technologies we used are concerned, I found it very refreshing to be able to integrate theories about writing and digital media and the analysis of electronic literature with the practice of writing with hypertext.

Probably the greatest success for me was collaborative note-taking in Google Wave, which really enhanced my classroom experience (perpetual “shiny” crash-screens aside). I’m typically a very meticulous note-taker, so being able to take notes in a semi-social way really helped me to stay focused on our in-class discussions as well as work ideas out on paper. As far as the blog is concerned, I definitely appreciated the opportunity to reflect on our readings and carry ideas from the course outside the classroom. (I’m pretty familiar with the two-post-a-week routine from previous classes I’ve taken with Prof. Fitzpatrick.) I was a little disappointed with the “discussion” aspect of the blog, though. A lot of our posts (mine included) stuck pretty closely to the “one-page-reading-response” format we’re all used to cranking out for class, which is good for personal reflection/meeting quota, but not so great for inspiring discussion. Partly, it may have been that this was such a small class, and hence more of a challenge to maintain an active dialogue both in and outside of the classroom.

In terms of class structure, I agree with Jori’s assessment that the theory was a little too front-loaded. When we were discussing theory, I had a hard time envisioning how it could be applied, and by the time we got to looking at examples of electronic literature, I had a hard time recalling our discussion of the theory. I think the class could really benefit from a structure where the two were more integrated.

On the whole, though, I got a lot out of this class. It’s going to take me awhile to fully process all the ideas we’ve brought to the table, but I’ve become much more cognizant of the issues surrounding the practice of electronic literature, and, in the process, inspired to explore new ways of writing.

Again, thanks to all of you for a great semester, and good luck to the graduating seniors!

I feel inspired to blog about We Feel Fine

What a wonderful website! I could spend hours watching the “Murmurs” scroll up the screen. I especially enjoy the literary homage to Kurt Vonnegut in the FAQ section:

Your book feels a bit disjointed. I’m used to books being more linear — what’s going on?

At the beginning of Chapter 5 in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim finds himself in jail on the planet of Tralfamadore. Billys captors give him some Tralfamadorian books to pass the time, and while Billy can’t read Tralfamadorian, he does notice that the books are laid out in brief clumps of text, separated by stars. “Each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message — describing a situation, a scene,” explained one of his captors. “We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”

We aimed to write this book in the telegraphic, schizophrenic manner of tales from Tralfamadore, where the flying saucers are.

In my contemporary art history class last year, one of my classmates did a presentation on “Listening Post,” the project the authors cite as inspiration for “We Feel Fine.” The two projects operate on similar principles (displaying phrases algorithmically culled from the Internet) but use very different modes of display. “Listening Post” is an installation piece that displays its selected phrases on a huge, wall-sized grid of monitors and simultaneously reads or sings the phrases with an electronic voice synthesizer. I haven’t experienced it first-hand, but I’m told that the cumulative impact of “Listening Post” is a very grand, symphonic, almost church-like experience. Unfortunately, because the piece has only one terrestrial location, it’s quite difficult to experience firsthand (as far as I know, it hasn’t been displayed anywhere since 2007).

“We Feel Fine,” on the other hand, is available virtually anywhere on the Web in the form of a Java applet. While it loses the sheer magnitude and multi-sensory richness of an installation, it nevertheless achieves some pretty stunning effects in its chosen medium. It’s a much more intimate, private, and dynamic way to experience emotion-as-language-as-data. (Speaking of mediums, I’m curious as to how this project translates in book form.)

Projects like We Feel Fine raise interesting questions about “authorship” versus what for lack of a better word I’ll call “designership.” Harris and Kamvar describe We Feel Fine as “an artwork authored by everyone.” (“Mission”). As designers and facilitators, they make creative choices that significantly influence our experience of the textual content, but they don’t write a word of it themselves. The final product isn’t so much a “distributed narrative” as it is a condensed narrative made up of millions of momentary, disparate articulations across the Web. If you can even call it a narrative. I’m tempted to describe it as something more along the lines of taking the emotional temperature of our collective unconscious.

Rough draft: The Sprawl

The (partial) draft of my project is up here. Clio is my designated peer-editor, but if the rest of you have some free time between now and Wednesday, feel free to go through and make comments. I’ll continue to update and expand it (significantly, I hope) over the course of the next day or so.

breaking news!

Via  Kate Pullinger’s Flight Paths blog, here’s a brand new manifesto for electronic literature: “A [S]creed for Digital Fiction,” by members of the Digital Fiction International Network (Alice Bell et. al.) In light of the reading we’ve done in this class so far, what do you think of the DFIN’s definition of ‘digital fiction’?

Especially the closing section on what they’ve chosen to omit:

A [s]creed for digital fiction deliberately neglects…

…communitarian digital fiction,

…digital storytelling,

… and any other form of digital narrative that does not qualify as fiction. While we welcome the authorial democratization that Web 2.0 technology permits and wholeheartedly support research that seeks to understand it, life narratives are fundamentally nonfiction and therefore beyond our remit.

I’m not entirely convinced the borders of fiction and nonfiction are as clear as they make them out to be, especially on the web. What about blog fiction? What about hoaxes? How does one define ‘fiction’ these days, anyway?

The Cave

First, a brief but hopefully fruitful digression: Julian Dibbell’s essay on the history of Adventure, the first computer role-playing game. (Dibbell posted a link to the essay in a comment on the first page of Gamer Theory v. 1.1.) The essay is pretty long, but definitely worth reading if you have time.

To briefly summarize Dibbell’s essay: an allegory of ‘the cave’ is intimately bound up in the history game design. In this case, the cave in question is Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, the longest known cave system in the world and model for Will Crowther’s pioneering computer game Adventure (the game that later inspired Zork, which we played in this class.) Dibbell suggests that ‘the cave,’ or rather, the cave network, is an important metaphor for life in the information age:

[…] Crowther’s role as an Internet pioneer suggested the cave’s new meaning and new centrality: it had become iconic of life in the fast-approaching information age, an epoch in which the occupation of open territory (and the exploitation of its resources) matters less than the knowledge of complex, hidden passageways and what they lead to.

Here, the cave network functions as a symbol of the possibilities of exploration and new knowledge in an age when the world’s surface territories have already been mapped. The cave network promised a new, invisible, and seemingly infinite chain of territorial discovery much in the same way as the computer network promises a seemingly endless web of information.

In Gamer Theory, Wark returns to the original ‘allegory of the Cave’–Plato’s, that is–but this time, the Cave is already a simulation. The introduction to Gamer Theory begins by more or less paraphrasing Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, with a few key details updated for the 21st century. Instead of being entranced by shadows on the wall of a cave, our hero is submerged in the games of The Cave(TM), a franchise-node in a network of Internet cafes. Here’s the twist: when our hero leaves the cave, he doesn’t find an ordered world leading him away from the shadows toward the Pure Light of Reason and disdain for the pitiable delusions that pass for reality in the world of the cave. Rather, he finds the world outside to be very much like the one he just left. The ‘real’ world is equally beholden to the digital logic of The Cave, where everything is commodity, spectacle, and competition. Utopian exodus from the cave is no longer a possibility.

Wark is interested in the ways that games model reality–model both in the passive sense (mimic, reproduce) and in the active sense (shape, reform, structure). Even the most fanciful game scenarios can function as powerful allegories for the culture and politics of the postmodern ‘gamespace’ that constitutes the world(s) we live in today: ‘The game has not just colonized reality, it is also the sole remaining ideal. Gamespace proclaims its legitimacy through victory over all rivals. The reigning ideology imagines the world as a level playing field, upon which all men are equal before God, the great game designer. History, politics, culture — gamespace dynamites everything which is not in the game, like an out-dated Vegas casino.’ (8)

(For another example of gaming-as-reality, I’d like to point again to the TED talk I linked to earlier: Jesse Schell on “When games invade real life.”)

If we’re trapped in a world of games-within-games, what’s a gamer to do? Wark suggests the possibility of subverting the system from within–finding ways to hack, tweak, and creatively break the rules of the game. True play isn’t playing to win; it’s playing to explore the full creative potential of the gamespace. And here’s where the Adventure/cave network metaphor (maybe) comes in handy. The Cave can be a space of darkness and delusion, or it can be a space for underground subversion. Or both.

What do you think?

When games invade real life

Here’s the latest and greatest TED talk: game designer Jesse Schell on “When games invade real life.”

Schell describes a terrifying/hilarious (hilarifying?) but eerily plausible future controlled by smart-everything technology and systems of endless point-scoring, “the REM-tertainment system” and “Tattoogle AdSense.” Schell’s examples are purposefully goofy, but his point is deadly serious: a game is only as good as its designers, and when games invade real life for good, everything is at stake.

Having read ahead a little bit into the introduction of MacKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory, I can’t help but get queasy at the thought of a literally game-based reality, knowing that the reality we live in today is already so structured by the metaphor of “the game.” We’re all stuck in an endless quest for “experience points,” but who’s keeping score, and where is all this leveling-up going to take us?


Based on the title alone, I can’t say I wasn’t warned, but man. ‘Lexia to Perplexia’ is hard to read. Really hard. Maybe even to the point of doing a major disservice to the ideas Memmott attempts to illustrate.

Granted, most academic writing is ‘hard to read,’ in the sense of being intellectually challenging: the ideas are complex, the language highly specialized, the author apparently having spent the past ten years of his/her life locked away in a tiny windowless office with no one to talk to but other academics. (jk, KF! jk!) Now imagine you take that challenging academic writing, swap in a bunch of code-related symbols/character strings/neologisms, scatter the paragraphs around, and then display the text in borderline-illegible color combination with a gridded background or two (up yours, Cartesian dualism!). Extra zest: layer effects symbolizing ‘the collision of incompatible transmissions’ that will definitely give you a headache. Bonus: distracting ‘find the link to the next bit of the essay’ minigames! Bonus bonus: no back button! You have to read it in one sitting! Whee!


That’s basically how my ‘Lexia to Perplexia’ reading experience went. I can respect, in theory, the notion of enacting thru code the chaos/disruptive nature of kommunikation in cybersphere, but in practice it’s…really unpleasant to look at, and even less pleasant to unpack critically. The ‘encoding’ process is clever, but ‘decoding’ is unnecessarily painful. I don’t feel like I’m allowed enough breathing room to properly digest and consider Memmott’s arguments. ‘Lexia to Perplexia’ deals with some really interesting material, but it’s heady stuff that takes time to process, and I really, really do not want to spend any more time than necessary staring at 8-pt. magenta text on a gray background deciphering Memmott’s quirky nEo|(log).isms to figure out what the cyber.hell he’s cyber.talking about.

With all due respect to conceptual complexity and aesthetic experimentation, it’s just…too much. Unless I’m totally missing the point and it’s supposed to be a parody of bad postmodern academic writing, because really? That’ll do, Talan Memmott. That’ll do. He has a point and he makes it, but I’m not convinced it’s a point that couldn’t be made in a more reader-friendly format.

At what point does ‘the aesthetics of failure’ become a failure of meaningful communication?


Apropos of our class discussion today about the poetics of code and different cultural perspectives on programming, here’s a description of a theoretical programming language called Haifu inspired by principles of Haiku poetry and Eastern philosophy. Interesting!

Design Principles:

  • A programming language should respect nature and be mindful of its beauty.
  • The language will be based on the five classical elements of Asian thought, rather than the limiting Western Aristotelian notion of four elements. The five elements are: Earth, Fire, Water, Wood, and Metal.
  • The language should have artistic merit. To this end, all valid code must be in the form of haiku.
  • Because I only speak English, code will take the form of English haiku, with the classic 5-7-5 syllable structure based on English words. I realise this is a fundamental limitation on the purity of the language, but any Chinese or Japanese speakers out there are welcome to port Haifu to versions in those languages.


Since John Conway’s “Game of Life” is a central metaphor in this week’s novel, The Bug, here’s a page explaining the facts of “Life” along with a nifty Java applet you can use to draw and run your own patterns. According to the author, “Life” is the most frequently programmed computer game in existence. I remember having fun as a kid playing with a version of “Life” on my family’s cranky old Windows 95 PC.

The persistance of the bug

How many novels are there about computer programmers? I can think of quite a few about futuristic cyberpunk sci-fi hackers, but almost none about the real lives of programmers in the present day (or the recent past, as in Ellen Ullman’s The Bug), and even fewer that really delve in to the daily frustrations and messy private lives of their characters in quite the same depth as Ullman’s novel. Spending all day in front of a computer terminal doesn’t exactly seem like the stuff of punchy, action-packed prose. But it is precisely by taking a long hard look at daily slog of programming, from the perspective of characters just on the verge of the cultural shift towards a computer-ubiquitous ‘society of the screen,’ that Ullman succeeds in breaking through the surface mundanity of computing to reveal the deeper cultural and philosophical issues at stake.

The first part of the novel follows the parallel stories of Roberta Walton, a linguist-turned-software product tester, and Ethan Levin, an insecure computer programmer, as they become absorbed in the obsessive pursuit of a ‘bug’ in Ethan’s code in the face of personal lives spiraling out of control. Ethan, especially, turns to programming to regain the sense of order and control he has lost in his crumbling marriage. However, programming fails to yield the sense of order he desires. We learn that Ethan’s interest in computer programming arose from his fascination with The Game of Life, a simulation program that generates elaborate, unpredictable patterns of ‘cells’ based on simple rules. He begins designing his own version of the Game of Life, inspired by the notion that “if he could just work his way down and down into the heart of living molecules, he would find something simple and clean.” (29) However, as Ethan is eventually forced to set aside his pet project to get a job in the high-pressure world of business programming, he discovers a life much messier than the one he idealistically envisioned. The life of a programmer isn’t one of mastery and control, but of continual frustration, the obsessive reworking of the same small problems in an attempt to ‘debug’ the mechanism and keep the endless permutations of human error at bay.

In a thought-provoking passage early in the novel, Ullman writes:

“Bug: supposedly name for an actual moth that found its was into an early computer, an insect invader attracted to the light of glowing vacuum tubes, a moth that flapped about in the circuitry and brought down a machine. But the term surely has an older, deeper origin. Fly in the ointment, shoo fly, bug-infested, bug-ridden, buggin’ out, don’t bug me–the whole human uneasiness with the vast, separate branch of evolution that produced the teeming creatures who outnumber us, plague us, and will likely survive our disappearance from the earth. Their mindless success humbles us. A parallel universe without reason. From the Welsh: a hobgoblin, a specter.” (71)

The spectral “bug” comes to stand for the universal chaos and messiness of life–that which, despite our efforts to the contrary, continues to evade our control.

As Katherine Hayles points out in Electronic Literature, the more reliant we become on computers, the more essential it is to recognize “the bug” as a fact of life. Code both conveys and disrupts the sense of continuity in our engagement with the digital world: “One one hand, code is essential for the computer-mediated communication of contemporary narratives; on the other hand, code is an infectious agent transforming, mutating, and perhaps fatally distorting narrative so that it can no longer be read and recognized as such.” (137) Ullman ends her Salon interview on a similarly cautionary note: as American society grew increasingly paranoid and increasingly dependent on computer-mediated information in the early ’00s, we somehow arrived at a moment when Total Information Awareness seemed less like a terrifying Orwellian pipe-dream and more like a perfectly reasonable, plausible use of government resources. (Arguably, a “bug” in the voting mechanism got George W. Bush elected in the first place. Think about it.) Computer-mediated communication, and the fallability thereof, has serious political implications.