The Conceptions and Misconceptions of Writing Technologies

Tantiani G. Rapatzikou

What impact are epublishing and other online modes of production and distribution having on patterns of reading? Is the ebook revolution, much hyped at the beginning of the century, failing to threaten printed textuality in the way many feared?

Jean Baudrillard, in his article ‘Violence of the Virtual and Integral Reality’, expresses his concerns about the electronically powered world of interactivity to which we now seem, more than ever, to be drawn. He states:

Machines produce only machines. The texts, images, films, speeches, and programs that come out of computers are machine products. They have the features of machine products: they are artificially expanded, facelifted by the machine; the movies are full of special effects, the texts full of lengthy passages and repetitions, which are the consequences of the malicious will of the machine to function at all costs (for that is its passion), and of the operator’s fascinations with the limitless opportunity of operating the machine.1

This urgent proclamation of the evils or of the illusive complacency that the twenty-first century digital technologies generate is outweighed by the enthusiastic response of a number of artists, web designers, hypertext or digital narrative generators, and cultural theorists who proclaim the beneficial role that digital technologies are destined to play in the near future as regards the development and evolution of our literary habits. J. Yellowlees Douglas, one of the first female hypertext authors, states that ‘while interactive narratives do not generally reward random explorations of the text… they offer readers a series of options for experiencing the plot, rather than the singular skein that connects print novels and stories’.2 The conceptions and misconceptions surrounding the future of print and electronic literary production can be evaluated by looking at one of the primary studies conducted in the early 90s by Nicole Yankelovich, Norman Meyrowitz, and Andries van Dam. As stated in their research outcomes, printed matter is regarded as disadvantageous, since ‘readers can never alter its content, cannot customize information [and] cannot conform to user preferences [as they are] limited to 2-D information, static text and graphics’; 3 electronic texts are, in contrast, considered to be more ‘aesthetically appealing’ and ‘easy to read’, allowing for browsing and exploring, annotation and underlining as well as high-resolution print and graphics.4

As is evident from the views stated above, what concerned literary critics and computer analysts in the 1990s was not so much the literary depth and aesthetic substance of electronic narratives but their technical novelty and capacity for storing data. Whether this is still considered a legitimate stance remains to be seen, since it is too early to comment on the literary strengths and weaknesses of electronic narratives as they are going through a transitional phase. However, if we were to view the print versus electronic controversy from a technological point of view, we would be overwhelmed by the latter’s technical capabilities and future web-related potential. For example, the possibility of constructing a free-to-access HTML space, where segments of text would co-exist within a collaborative and communal e-textual environment, would be what a web designer would wish for.5 Moreover, how innocent is this kind of statement if one takes into account the subscription fees requested when one wishes to access certain specialized newspaper articles or encyclopedia entries online? Will it ever be possible to assess the quality of the information contained in an online collaborative textual project, or will it be the plurality of opinions – not their quality – that would matter most instead? With a World Wide Web mainly geared towards profit – being itself a continuously evolving software environmnet always in need of updates as well as sophisticated and highly advanced hardware equipment in order to run – it is difficult for us today to imagine a cybernetically-run textual databank which would be wholeheartedly resistant to the commercialization and commodification of the ideas and products advertised and circulating there. Whether this is going to affect the way we relate to an e-textual environment, how we perceive it on the basis of how it is written and read, is still uncertain.

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

Academic and scholarly circles have experienced, and still experience, the benefits of electronic literary databases and archives where lengthy documents and literary texts ‘can be downloaded and used for personal and educational purposes without constraint’. 11 Even if we accept the fact that the appearance of such databases may in the near future lead to the ‘democratization’ of literature – due to its distribution to everyone who can access the web and afford the technological equipment required – one cannot help wondering what will happen to library manuscripts and archival collections. The danger inherent in such an endeavour is that prioritization will be given to certain documents over others, as well as to the ability to view certain documents at the expense of others. Silvio Gaggi claims that ‘If one is in the habit of getting all the information one needs conveniently from a terminal in one’s home or office, one will be less likely to go to a library or archive in order to seek out some text that isn’t available on the network’.12 In the long run, this may affect the way we interact with a printed document in terms of our reading and writing habits. No longer being forced to read a text to locate a particular section or paragraph – ‘thanks’ to our electronic communications we are now able to copy and paste the section or paragraph we are after (notice the diversity of primary sources locatable with YouTube, Google, or Google Scholar, among others) – our critical ability will diminish. In addition, our writing ability will cease to be consistent and coherent, since less attention will be paid to how a literary document is conceptualized, planned, and organized. As for the equipment required for transforming printed matter into a byte-sized file, for transferring a printed document online or for even designing an HTML page, this can only be achieved by employing software at a high cost. As a result, certain social and cultural groups are prevented from accessing and benefiting from such data retrieval technology.

As already stated in the case of Joyce’s narrative, it is its supplementary value, rather than its annihilating power in relation to printing practices, that renders hypertext technology or hypertext narrative practices important within the context of print literature development. In this light, some of the larger publishing companies, such as Norton, have already acknowledged its importance by including certain hypertexts in their literature anthologies.13 Also, Jay Bolter, a hypertext technologies advocate, suggests that ‘network culture could assist and not displace the culture of the book… by helping serious writers build communities of readers.14 This is exactly what Joyce’s afternoon, a story had attempted to do by bringing together a variable number of readers who were willing to contribute to, or participate in, this kind of literary, but electronically assisted, experience. Whether this kind of endeavour can be realized under the auspices of online technologies is still difficult to determine at a time when the preservation of literary quality and sustainability is more pertinent than ever. It is important, though, that we do not let ourselves be carried away by our technophobia and conservatism towards electronic technologies, by our unrestrained optimism about their interactive strengths, or by proclamations about their fostering of intellectual freedom.

With the Virtual described as ‘the ultimate predator, the plunderer of reality’, 15 Baudrillard goes on to inform us that the world we are heading towards will have nothing to do with the world we are ready to leave behind. The new digital order which is about to emerge is neither as different nor as revolutionary as it claims to be, but an artificial replica which is a distant – yet technically manufactured echo – of the unrestrained and free circulation of ideas and intellectual exchange that it promised. Gaggi observes that in a digitized world ‘interaction will be meaningless… because it will present itself as an enlargement of choices but limit those choices to the trivial, it will really be a means of control disguising itself as freedom’. 16 However, the plethora of printed and electronic matter surrounding us nowadays keep on reminding us that there is still a textually active world around us, ready to tackle and comment upon any social or political issue on a global scale. In particular, reading and writing are acts in their own right, keeping us close to the material essence of reality by preserving our individual integrity as well as our intellectual capacity and uniqueness. Italo Calvino writes that ‘the lesson of a myth is in the literalness of its narrative’.17 Whether digital technologies insidiously desire to distance us from a literally textual world altogether remains to be decided.

1. Jean Baudrillard, 'Violence of the Virtual and Integral Reality', in Light Onwords / Light Onwards. ed. by B. W. Powe (Canada: The Coach House Press, 2004), p. 133.

2. J. Yellowlees Douglas, The End of Books - Or Books without End?: Reading Interactive Narratives (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000), p. 46

3. Nicole Yankelovich, Norman Meyrowitz, and Adries Van Dam, 'Reading and Writing the Electronic Book', in Hypermedia and Literary Studies ed. by Paul Delany and George P. Landow (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1991), p. 54.

4. Yankelovich et. al, 'Reading and Writing the Electronic Book', p. 54.

5. George Landow in Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology writes: 'I contend that the history of information technology from writing to hypertext reveals and increasing democratization or dissemination of power'. George P. Landow, Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), p. 174.

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.

11. Gaggi, From Text to Hypertext, p.116.

12. Gaggi, From Text to Hypertext, pp.117-18.

13. See, for example, Paula Geyh, Fred G. Leebron, and Andrew Levy, eds, Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997).

14. Stuart Moulthrop, 'Pushing Back: Living and Writing in Broken Space', MFS Modern Fiction Studies 43:3 (1997), p. 669.

15. Baudrillard, 'Violence of the Virtual and Integral Reality', p. 125.

16. Gaggi, From Text to Hypertext, p. 121.

17. Italo Calvino, cited in Baudrillard, 'Violence of the Virtual and Integral Reality', p. 140.