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.
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.