Writing Technologies

The Pixels Are on The Interface, But What Do They Mean?

Will Slocombe

How technology affects the relationship between authors and readers will be a central concern in coming years. With the proliferation of internet fan fiction, addressing issues that fans felt were omitted from or elided in the original text (Austen’s ‘pornographic’ texts aside, perhaps), texts become malleable; ‘open-source’ texts, with no clearly defined author, and open to continual rewriting, also make possible new avenues of exploration for redefining the role of the author:

  • Who ‘authors’ an open-source text or computer game? Is it possible to theorise the ‘hyper-author’ as we have the ‘hypertext’?
  • Given its lauding of ‘the democratisation of knowledge’, why is the academy suspicious of Wikipedia, and free-access and online journals? What is an ‘authoritative’ source in a digital environment?

Moreover, we must take up the challenge of defining how the concept of the reader has changed:

  • Do readers truly have power to change texts and in what manner might this empower them?
  • To what extent can potentially damaging texts (that is, those that offer offensive or ideologically ‘dangerous’ perspectives) be neutralised by technological innovations? How problematic is it that this neutralisation depends upon access? How does this relate to free speech and censorship?
  • How does the issue of ‘embodiment’ affect our understanding of the textuality of digital environments? Does the ‘implied reader’ now work on a technological level?

Issues of authorship also have an impact on editing and editions’, by which I mean the way in which texts are linked to each other, as well as the act of editing an author’s works. It is now much more straightforward to produce critical editions online, enabling students and researchers to cross-reference sections of a text for comparison, or explaining unusual words and intertextual relations by hyperlinking different texts together. This clearly has an impact on writing about literature, but a much more urgent problem is related to textual drafts and revisions. One can easily imagine the loss to literature if William Wordsworth’s website were continually updated to reflect his changes to The Prelude or if James Joyce’s cramped marginalia had been overwritten by the word-processing program he used. We must ask ourselves the extent to which textual information is affected by technology:

  • How can technology improve contextual and intertextual awareness of texts? Does it improve cultural diversity by allowing access to foreign literatures or does the dominance of Anglophone writing online subvert this?
  • Will researchers and students suffer from ‘information-overload’ or loss of clarity because of massively intertextual projects (what might be called MMOEs—Massive Multiauthor Online Editions)? What is ‘context’ and what is ‘text’ if these are linked to digitisation projects of archives and museums?
  • What impact will technology have on our literary heritage and is there a way to minimise the damage? Has ‘endurance’ been replaced by ‘revision’?

Given these questions of who is writing and reading and how they are doing it, an allied area is the extent to which what is written has been affected. Narrative structure is one of the clearest examples of the way in which technology and writing interact and one of the most obvious examples of the effects that technology can have on structure is hypertext literature. In such texts, readers pick their way through the paths on offer and build a story through a hypertext’s ‘forking paths’ (see, for example, The Unknown),3 spatial construction (see Bruce Andrews’ Millennium Project),4 or stretchtext additions. These texts are part of what Aarseth calls ‘ergodic literature,’ meaning that ‘nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text’ – the name derives from ‘the Greek ergon and hodos, meaning “work” and “path”’.5 This is also partly true of print-based literary forms, however (as Aarseth himself realises), so it is important to establish exactly where the boundaries lie between ‘text’ and ‘hypertext’. Hypertexts perhaps make more explicit the de-centring of the text and the paradigmatic structure of language, as well as the ‘play’ of the text, but the extent to which they innovate or advance our understanding of what constitutes a text is still in question:

  • What are the differences between ‘textuality’ and ‘hypertextuality’? To what extent does hypertext return us to older notions of textual production (text as writing and images rather than ‘just’ writing) or have the potential to update them (text as writing, images, and sound)?
  • Are the dominant themes of hypertextuality—agency, interactivity, spatialisation, intertextuality—a ‘literal reification or embodiment’ of textual practices and does it really ‘disturb status and power relations’?6 Is hypertextuality only a gloss on these issues or is it embedded in the digitisation or ‘technologisation’ of the text?
  • To what extent are the ‘spatialised’ narratives of texts such as Salvador Plascencia’s People of Paper, Steve Erickson’s Our Ecstatic Days, John Barth’s Coming Soon!!!, or Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and Only Revolutions hypertextual? What narratological differences exist between print-based forms using hypertextual strategies and hypertexts?
 Next page  

3. The Unknown [accessed 22 February 2007].

4. Bruce Andrews, The Millennium Project [accessed 22 Februrary 2007].

5. Espen Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), p. 1.

6. George P. Landow, Hypertext 3.0 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), p. 99.

  There Are Pixels on The Interface, But What Do They mean?