The Conceptions and Misconceptions of Writing Technologies
Tantiani G. Rapatzikou
Caitlin Fisher in her article ‘Electronic Literacies’ poses the following questions:
How do digital technologies and new media tools modify the relationships between language, texts, and culture? How do we speak to one another, now? What are the benefits of reading digital text as a material mode of creating shaped by ideological concerns? What is the future of storytelling? In short, how will our encounters with new digital texts and possibilities challenge and change us? 6
These questions open up a whole new territory of investigation where emphasis is no longer placed on the creator and the object of creation, but on the process of the object’s making and structure. This makes us realize, among other things, that what matters here is not whether print or electronic narratives are good or bad, or whether they are complying with certain literary and aesthetic criteria, but the extent to which the unanimous and universal appeal of digital technologies today will alter the way we think and feel about ourselves and others, as well as alter the way that facts and opinions are exchanged amongst the members of an online community. These concerns become evident in Fisher’s article when she talks about the need for the emergence of ‘a new kind of literacy’ which will rely not only on the reading and evaluation of the material to be posted on the web, but also on exhibiting the ‘invisible intellectual labour’ that has gone into it; this is what she calls ‘thought sculptures’.7 What Fisher claims here, heralds the advent of a new range of reading and writing habits. These habits open up new vistas for the understanding and appreciation of electronic texualities by gradually moving beyond the ‘conventional or ‘progressive’ rivalries that have, until recently, dominated literary discourse about the future potential of print or electronic textual tools and practices. Nevertheless, it is still questionable whether this new kind of literacy can function within a real-time online community (not determined by certain geographical, cultural or political criteria) or be solely enjoyed by the members of academia.
When Michael Joyce published his hypertextual narrative afternoon, a story in 1987 (at a time when the World Wide Web had still not been introduced) everyone confronted it as a technological follow-up to print culture, as a technological means by which it would further its trajectories by altering the relationship that already existed between text, author and reader. In particular, the term hypertext referred to ‘the creation of interactive literature: stories, novels, and poems that require readers to make choices as they navigate a text’,8 in Joyce’s case via a CD-ROM saved program. In his reading instructions, Joyce claimed that with this text he invited readers to take an active part in the way the story was narrated by either following the storyline presented to them on the screen, or by choosing between various story scenarios, each one bearing a different title as listed in the hypertext menu. Also, he added that the story could change according to the reader’s decision either to hit the enter button or to type their responses in the dialogue box provided, affecting in this manner the way the story was about to develop. In addition, readers were offered a few reading tools – Yes and No, Link, History and Bookmark buttons – as well as the option to save their place in the hypertext so as to resume reading at a later stage. As for the way the story was written, readers were now presented with a paragraph or a short dialogue which appeared on the computer screen rather than on a printed page. So every time readers hit the enter button, a new paragraph or paragraphs, dialogue or dialogues would appear as if jumping from one section of a book to another. Although hypertext narratives seem to bear the name of a particular author, it is the reader himself or herself who is placed at a prominent position, since s/he is the one who now decides how the story will develop or evolve, choosing from a repository of textual segments that can be combined in a variety of ways according to the reader’s own textual prompts.
However, if one removes the excitement that the intervention of technology injects into the hypertextual experience already described, one realizes that Joyce’s narrative is part-author, part-reader led. The number of narrative storylines that this hypertext includes is limited, although variable in number with its 539 textual segments and 951 links. In this sense, Joyce’s hypertext does not differ that much from a print-bound text as far as textual integrity, browsing and exploring, typography, and graphic design are concerned. What its user-friendly technology allows readers to do is to look for or choose their own story paths, as well as appreciate the significance of following or requesting their own links. Yellowlees Douglas notes that theorists ‘examining the process of reading from disciplines outside literary criticism… have claimed that reading is driven by readers’ needs to fill in gaps or spots of indeterminacy in the text’,9 although in the case of reading a printed book this process is often bypassed since it is automatically performed. In the case of hypertext technology, readers are allowed an overview of the links followed so as to choose a different path the next time they read the hypertextual narrative. In this manner, the plot of the narrative as well as its outcome is constantly altered and its interactive quality enhanced as it is able to satisfy a far larger group of readers. Joyce characteristically states:
Like any reader and writer I still love the fetish of print, the beautifully bound volume, the sensuality of text. Increasingly I also value the vibrancy of electronic text, the dynamic of it…. In time there will be beautiful, even sensual, electronic objects which are utterly portable and transmutable… in ways that we cannot yet imagine for the book even after centuries of imagination of its beauties. Perhaps at that time we will have to see books for their multiplicity rather than their authority learning from electronic media to appreciate that their lastingness was not in their supposed canonicity but rather their actual community.10
6. Fisher, 'Electronic Literacies', in Powe, ed., Light Onwords / Light Onwards, pp. 93-4.
7. Fisher, 'Electronic Literacies', p. 98.
8. Silvio Gaggi, From Text to Hypertext: Decentering the Subject in Fiction, Film, the Visual Arts, and Electronic Media (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), p. 122.
9. Yellowlees Douglas, The End of Books, p. 29.
10. Shady Cosgrove, 'From an interview with Michael Joyce', afternoon, a story. CD-ROM. Watertown, MA: Eastgate, 1987.