Writing Technologies

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Not Coding, But Writing.

Simon Mills

Is there a literature of the new information economy?

The answer to this question depends on how we interpret the word literature. For the purpose of this short piece I shall just focus on writing that endeavours for artistic and cultural expression, rather than more general communicative writing. In the current media landscape, however, these two types of writing are often intimately connected due to their distribution on the same electronic networks.

Just as the invention and proliferation of the technologies of the printing press enabled and promoted the development of the novel, as well as other literary forms, so we can also discern examples of artistic literature that have been made possible by new media technologies. It can be questioned whether these examples actually constitute new form/s of literature and, if so, why?

The artistic use of new media with literary activity has been traced back to the earliest days of electronic computing in the 1950s. However, the rapid growth of the Internet in the 1990s created a proliferation of activity in this field much of which centred on institutional hubs such as trAce in the UK and the Electronic Literature Organisation in the USA, as well as other fora and email lists. 1

One of many areas of interest related to the cross-fertilisation of new media technology and writing is the way these technologies affect writers and influence their practice. What is the writer when he is also a programmer? What is the role of computer code within a new media writer’s practice? 2 Is the writer still just a writer when he is also working with different modes of representation beyond the flat page, such as with audio and visual media, databases, and information networks?

As a simple example of how a new media writer approaches writing in a technological environment I will briefly look at an example of my own practice called Let Us Turn. 3 It is significant to interpretation that this work is a response to a stanza from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass which begins ‘I think I could turn and live with the animals’,in which he praises the simple honesty of animals compared to people’s desire for possessions or religious servitude.

However, the interpretation of the piece is complicated by the text being heard alongside an ever-changing image flow. This image flow is automatically constructed as the piece executes by the random editing of sections of randomly selected film clips from a database. As such, each time the piece is viewed it might be different. This is of course the case with most hypertexts, unless they are strictly linear.

One way of understanding works such as these is by recognising the active role that technology has in creating meaning in the piece. In her article ‘I, Apparatus, You’, 4 Jenny Weight utilises the phrase ‘text-as-apparatus’ to highlight the active role in the meaning-making process that technology plays in such works, thus pointing to the shift in the relationship of the author with the audience to one that is substantially mediated by the actual hardware and software that are utilised both to construct and view the work. The text-as-apparatus becomes a crucial meaning-giving component that requires it to be brought into the interpretative matrix. Although Weight agrees that it is a controversial move to situate the apparatus in a central position within human dialogue, as it is not conscious, she argues that it ‘originates signs for someone else to interpret’ and also ‘reacts to the signs originated by human interlocutors. It operates within the “intersubjective motivational context” in which social interaction takes place’. 5

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1. Trace Archive [accessed 15 February 2007]; Electronic Literature Organisation [accessed 15 February 2007].

2. I use the phrase new media writer here to denote an author who creates literature that requires digital technology for its existence. Another phrase which perhaps brings out this relationship more strongly is author-as-programmer.

3. Available online here [accessed 15 February 2007].

4. Jenny Weight, 'I, Apparatus, You', Convergence 12:4 (2006), p. 413-446.

5. Weight, 'I, Apparatus, You', p. 415.

  Not coding but writing