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

Will Slocombe

Let me state an obvious yet important premise: writing is intimately connected to technology. Narrative is possible without technology, for it can exist in oral form; one can as easily imagine a story being told around a campfire today as from the beginnings of human civilisation. In contrast, writing and, by extension, the varied and difficult field we have come to know as ‘literature’ can only exist where there is technology. Without technology, writing is merely lines in the sand, glowing symbols in the air, vanishing almost as soon as they are produced. From the first time a symbol was carved in stone, carved into wood, or drawn on a cave wall with the first rudimentary tools, literature was the inevitable product, a sign not of permanence (what sign is ever permanent?) but at least of endurance. It was the first step along the path, the first link in the chain. From these earliest marks on stone and on parchment to illuminated manuscripts, from these to the printing press, and from there to the more recent emergence of hypertexts and, more debatably, computer games narratives, technology has always played a major role in what ‘writing’ is.

The above paragraph of course implies a clear distinction between nature and technology; technology stands apart from nature as a means of preserving our narratives from the decay of time. To some, however, it has perhaps stifled narrative, codifying ‘literary’ forms and restricting the organic evolution of stories. To such critics, perhaps, we disappointingly no longer recount vast epics of our communal pasts, no longer bond as a ‘tribe’. I certainly see the logic that the gradual evolution of oral narratives has been lost as we set down such tales in a more enduring form, although I would disagree with such claims more generally. One need only see the vast amount of writing done over the internet to see the endurance of this shared story-making. From blogs to MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games), from phenomena such as vlogospheres (video-blog communities) to projects such as Novel Twists, 1 technology enables us to ‘write ourselves’ into a much larger tribe, to share our writing with others on a scale hitherto unimaginable. Equally, it gives us unprecedented control over that writing, and opens up the possibility of engaging at a much deeper level with another’s writing.

This is not to suggest, however, that technology always has a positive influence on writing. This is emphatically not the case. Rather, technologies change the way we write, and the ways in which we think about writing. For instance, although there is a demonstrable development from the printing press to hypertext (they are both aspects of ‘technologizing the word’, as Ong suggests), is there a more persuasive link to be made between illuminated manuscripts and hypertexts, with images, texts, and glosses all available on the same ‘page’? If the answer to this is ‘yes’, then our paradigm for understanding how textuality differs from hypertextuality must account for this. (See Tolva’s ‘The Heresy of Hypertext’ for an interesting contribution to these debates). 2 Furthermore, it is important to understand precisely what a ‘digital environment’ is and how it affects the production and reception of texts, as well as the way in which key concepts in textual studies must be renegotiated to account for technological changes. It is for these reasons that we must examine the relationship between technology and writing through three key areas: authors and readers, editing and editions, and narrative structure.

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:

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

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:

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:

Furthermore, many of the issues of narrative structure emerge in relation to computer games. Whilst there are debates around the extent to which such games can ever be considered narratives—in many respects, their ‘ludological’ structure is at odds with the narrative we might be able to read into it—reader-players nevertheless determine their path through games. The validity and purpose of games narratology thus faces questions such as:

Finally, I wish to conclude on an issue that arises from the premise that ‘writing is intimately connected to technology’. As stated earlier, such an assertion implies that there is a distinction between writing and nature, for writing is inherently technological. If this is the case, what is a ‘digital environment’? Ecocriticism is a recent yet important area of textual studies, examining how nature is constructed by literature and affected by humanity, alongside exploring the significance of ‘place’ in writing. We must not forget that technology is responsible for many of the ecological problems facing our planet and so, perhaps, we must consider ecocriticism in translation to a digital environment:

No definitive conclusions can be reached on many of these issues. The writing is not on the wall, for we do not yet know the impact new technologies will have on textual studies; rather, the ‘pixels are on the interface’ and we are trying to understand what they mean.

1. Novel Twists [accessed 22 February 2007].

2. John Tolva, 'The Heresy of Hypertext: Fear and Anxiety in the Late Age of Print' [accessed 22 February 2007]. [accessed 22 February 2007].

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.