Writing Machines

In this section of the course, we’ve been reading about early design concepts for computing technologies and data organization, as well as a history of one of the basic building-blocks of computer-based writing: hypertext.  In this blog post, you might consider Theodor Nelson’s radical vision of “Literary Machines” or Vannevar Bush’s “Memex” machine and how their predictions still impact the word processing programs and computers of today.  You could also look at some of those entertaining points where their predictions missed the mark, or consider elements in their prototypes that you wish you could currently use.

We also read more of Lev Manovich’s ideas categorizing and analyzing the creative possibilities of new media.  You might consider why the algorithm is such an important aspect of digital media, or discuss some of the fundamental differences between digital and analog media.  Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media introduced us to a brief history of oral and print cultures and suggested that we might be in a “secondary orality” via new modes of electronic media.  What did he mean by this and how does it connect to our discussion of reading and writing online?

Finally, we explored hypertext as one of the fundamental underlying structures of our daily computer use.  Why were literary theorists like Landow, Moulthrop and Coover so interested in the ramifications of hypertext-based reading and writing on narrative structures?  Can we see some of the non-linear and open-ended aspects influencing texts and writing today?  Is hypertext now so pervasive that we barely notice it?

As we’ve discussed, new writing technologies go beyond simply providing us with a new set of tools. They change the very ways we think, interact, and create our realities.  How do many of these theorists connect political, economic and social changes to what at first appear to be simple advances in the way we write and communicate?  Try to approach your casual internet use as an anthropologist or literary critic: Break down and describe your daily habits, render them a bit unfamiliar, and see what ideas you can generate.


16 responses to “Writing Machines

  1. lizzygrl friday

    **I wasn’t going to post but this is a real world example of how we can’t escape the digital culture we live in. We’re not exactly fighting evil robots yet, but the Matrix is real ideologically speaking (or maybe more if you see green binary code on your screen?). **

    Discussing Hayles’ idea that new media pervades our consciousness and makes us question who we are made sense to me, but I was sure that I was at least in part immune. As a sentient being with free will, I can live without my cell phone for a few days (I have) or not watch TV for news (I gave it up for Lent one year, or rather, my mom gave it up for our entire family). Granted I use Google, but I don’t obsessively Twitter or need to check Facebook 20 times a day.

    This morning, I was on Facebook and noticed a friend’s status was congratulating Obama and encouraging others not to disrespect him. Because her status was only a few hours old, I immediately knew something was up. My first reaction was to go to cnn.com to check it out. Lo and behold, the top story is Obama’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize.

    Is Google making us smarter? Or Twitter or Facebook (maybe not Myspace so much) or Wikipedia or even Pandora? You bet. Knowledge is power (cheesy, I know but bear with me) and these media tools albeit social networks or online news outlets connect us to information like never before. We don’t have to wait for the morning paper or the evening news. We can use our cell phone to check stocks throughout the day or check news sites at work for breaking stories.

    All of these tools open our minds to new information in the most efficient, most effective manner to date. I’m by no means attached to my computer, cell phone, or TV 24/7. But isn’t it funny how we can’t seem to escape them? Our gut response is to reach for them when we feel we need information, when we feel that our ability to know the world around us is threatened. Yet we are threatened by the idea that AI “beings” would have this same perpetual awareness of the world as we do (should they move up the intellectual food chain past the retarded cockroach), and even communicate their thoughts in their own language. Why do we think we’re special in this regard? Food for thought.

  2. lizzygrl friday

    In response to jalapenojess on the fate of books, I share your sentiments. Books do have this sort of holiness about them (Dog-eared library books are the worst!). What you said made me think of Aarseth in “Nonlinearity and Literary Theory”. She talks about the fact that we assume that if we find an idiosyncrasy in the text there must be a problem with the copy; an author would number an introduction as a chapter one and also have a chapter one. As she puts it, “We prefer the imagined integrity of a metaphysical object to the stable version that we observe.” Basically, we’re creatures of habit and don’t like it when our status quo is shaken.

    I share your idea of this reverence for the copy, the printed word is sacrosanct in the sense that we should read it as the author intended. However, that brings me to 6crookedpillars’s post further down. Part of what I think is amazing about hypertext and the Internet is the possibility for customization, sometimes as intended by the author herself. Aarseth describes William Gibson’s “Agrippa: A book of the Dead”, a a book that essentially destroys itself as it is read. You have to take what you can from it the first time around because there’s no going back. There is no holy book that we can return to time and time again to worship; we’ve got one shot.

    I think that her example of Michael Joyce’s “Afternoon, a story” is even more telling. This text reads as a different experience every time. Like Easter egg bonuses to be found in a video game, the text has hyperlinks to be discovered along the way to enhance the reading of the text. Like a create-your-ending, but a more “choose what you add to the story” approach.

    These two instances make me incredibly optimistic about the future of the Internet. Yes, I understand that recursion threatens some of the very institutions which hold new media so near and dear. However, I see this recursion as a sort of back talk-open dialogue in which we can engage with each other and with ourselves. Yes, open sharing will unravel the fabric of society until we’re threadbare shells which Wikipedia and Limewire have doth created (a bit over the top, I know).

    If we can learn to engage and not accept anything at face value, that there is always something beneath the surface, I think that this is when, and only when we are really going to start making the most of the technologies we’ve got. It’s a scary prospect that nothing is sound or sacred. But I think it’s pretty darn cool, myself. Nothing and no one can tell me how to think or how to be, but at the same time they can and they do because of the nature of the System we live in. Everything and nothing is a contradiction. Food for thought (or is it…)

  3. bluedays_bluejays

    In my reading “The Language of New Media”, Lev Manovich states “The user can change the profile of a game character, modify how folders appear on the desktop, how files are used, and so forth. If we apply this principle to culture at large, it would mean that every choice is responsible for giving a culture object a unique identity and potentially remains always open.” This article is descriptive in explaining the ways to navigate around the media on the computer. It also defines key terms to know and gives some history on media. In the statement manovich in comparing personalizing a game to culture is agreeable. For example, folders in this statement will represent the people in the culture. The folder’s location would definitely be the region of the culture. The appearance of someone relates to culture, because the clothes that are worn sometimes have to do with culture. Every choice in cultures like what makes a culture and that is what makes it unique.

  4. I believe literary theorists like Robert Coover and Stuart Moulthrop were interested in hypertext because it is becoming the choice of reading. Robert Coover discusses his views of hypertext in his article “The End of Books”. “As hyperspace-walker George P. Landow puts it in his recent books surveying the field, Hypertext: “Electronic text processing marks the next major shift in information technology after the development of the printed book. It promises (or threatens) to produce effects on our culture, particularly on our literature, education, criticism, and scholarship, just as radical as those produced by Gutenburg’s movable type.”(p. 706) Coover said he himself was no expert on hyperspace but felt like he should know what was going on and what better way to learn than to teach it. We can see some of the non-linear and open ended aspects influencing texts and writings today. An example would be Tyra Banks new online magazine, Tyra: Beauty Inside and Out. She said it would give readers a way to talk about the different subjects in it as well as get feed back from her. “It’s not just a magazine…it talks back to you, Banks said. This is going to allow for a community of women. It’s real and it’s raw and it’s going to allow for a connection to me like you’ve never had before.” (www.fishbowl. disque.com) Hypertext has existed for a while now, that many of us grew up with it and people still are, that we barely notice it if we even notice it at all. I believe that it will keep evolving as with the computer and the new aspects that happen with hypertext are going to be the only things we notice and not the hypertext itself.

  5. I am kind of in the middle with my feelings over “The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin.”
    When thought of with hypertext, it makes sense because that is what it is: different parts that might not make sense or be related put together to create something new. When it comes to cutting up a book and rearranging the text… that freaks me out! Books have this kind of holyness about them that makes me not even want to dog ear them! (except for my text books…) Those words were put together that way by a person for a reason!!!!! -BUT- at the same time… it is still kind of intruiging to dance around the concept of dismantling what was to create something entirely new! This reminds of collages and poems, specifically viallenelle and sestina. Collage you take apart already created works or pictures and put them together in an amalgamation of awesomeness. Same with Villanelle and Sestina. Words or entire lines are “cut and pasted,” sometimes creating a haunting feeling… kind of like “The House on the Hill” by Edwin Arlington Robinson.
    A random insert: my favorite lines in the cut-up at the end are:
    “How many discoveries sound to kenisthetic? We can now produce accident to his color of vowels. And new dimension to films cut the senses. The place of sand.”

    • pferd von Gestreift

      As another student who read and blogged on the “cut-ups” I was curious to know what you thought about the “roomful of monkeys with typewriters.” Would they actually turn out Shakespeare. If I was given the funds to carry out this experiment, I would give them computers so they might use hypertext.

  6. Literary Theorists are interested in hypertext because technology has evolved. They feel that the days of print are almost over. It seems much easier to read online and click on a link for an answer rather than reading print text and being redirected to another print. Robert Coover states, ‘”With its webs of linked “lexias” its networks of alternate routes(as opposed to print’s fixed undirectional page- turning) hypertext prevents a radically divergent technology….from domination by the author”. Although, hypertext is not “better” than print, it is a system of choice. I must admit that since I use the internet frequently, i rarely notice hypertext.

  7. Our current society is dependent upon our present technology and future technological advancements. Marshall McLuhan claims within “The Medium is the Message” that “a society configured by reliance on a few commodities accepts them as a social bond quite as much as the metropolis does the press” (209). The United States uses technology as our social bond. From telephones to televisions, to the internet, cell phones, refrigerators, bank accounts, automobiles, filtration systems; we have created a civilization unlike any human society that has ever existed. This has an established effect upon our society and how we are connected to ourselves and each other through these technologies. Convenient living is now the number one staple within this county. This has proved to not only affect our country, but other countries around the world as well. The world is more globalized because our current technological status enables us to travel at a much faster rate. People are flying everywhere at their leisure. You no longer have to speak the native tongue because we have developed electronic translators. The convenience of communication has become remarkably developed in our current era and it is affecting the world in which we live in positive and negative ways. Getting into the positive and negative aspects of these effects would be an entirely different topic, but it is important to ponder how our current technological era is irrevocably changing our natural world.
    It is hard for people to notice the changes that are happening because we tend to get too caught up in current affairs. It is impossible for us to know how these technologies are going to affect the way we as a society function. But if we look at our current relationship with technology and compare it to the past, it has undeniably changed the way we communicate with ourselves and with one another. The evolution of our society will not stop, but only become more advanced. Which is why it is important to study the effects of technological advancements in our society through the lenses of the theorists we are studying within this class.

  8. “Nothing is ‘real’ in the first place since no place was really ‘first’ (You Want a Revolution). There had been so many ideas drawn up about the computer that no one person relly knew where to begin to design it. No one knew who was first nor what the original concept was. Therefore, people just continued to create their own ideas and designs for what they thought this machine should look like; which simply added to the confusion of the concept.

  9. I apologize in advance for the long post (aren’t these supposed to be paragraph length? Sorry!)

    Moulthrop really does bring up a lot of things we’ve previously discussed and is pretty good at predicting the future. In 2) What does hyper text displace or render obsolete, he pretty much sums up that new technology must encompass all previous ones in predicting that there will one day be hypermedia (audio and video): “Linear and objectifying tendencies of any print content in a multimedium would be overwhelmed by the subjective, irrational, and emotive influence of audio/video.” (He was also talking about failure of the computer as the beginnings of a “Gutenberg renaissance” although he also acknowledged that literacy would be on the rise, although it would be a “secondary literacy” much like how radio is “secondary orality”.)

    I also enjoyed his little, somewhat sarcastic comment about “Nintendo with delusions of cinema” since cinema has become an important aspect in game development. There is even the small genre of games whose focus is an “experience” driven by the audio visual (anything by Tale of Tales, lol. 8 looks like it would be good, by the way).

    I don’t really understand where his new definition of Chaos, “New arrangements spontaneously assemble themselves,” ties in with what he was talking about. I’m not sure if really expanded on it or if I just missed it (it seems to me like he was still talking about regular chaos in a sort of Wikipedia style cyber space.)

    I can’t see him being right about his take on McLuhanite’s laws. I feel like he kind of drifted off topic or left it incomplete when he went from hot and Cold media to Gibson. I feel like he was being a little idealistic in his hopes that the internet may not become hot, especially considering he is fully aware of intellectual property laws and he was dead on when he said, “the cultural mood at the century’s end seems anything but radical,” which has probably led us to make the same mistakes as before. Although in his defense, there wasn’t much media other than hyper-text at the time.

    When the internet was a completely cold, creative space, I can see how he might have hoped for the best, but as we are now, a free sharing of information would probably kill the news and entertainment industry (already has, really). Advertising and third party hosts control everything. Even user oriented/interactive sites like youtube and pandora are closely monitored and bombarded with sponsorship. Corporate sponsors already control everything you see on T.V. Now that the internet is T.V., they have to start applying the same rules, I guess.

    Also, I find his definition of recursion kind of confusing: The self-reference with the possibility of progressive self-modification. It doesn’t make a lot of sense out of context, but he continues to use it throughout the article. I also don’t understand how he can be so optimistic about recursion, but then, in the end say, “Welcome back to the future, same as it ever was.” Maybe I got mixed up somewhere while I was reading it.

    My question is, is it too late for the internet? It makes me a little sad because in the early days of new-media (when they were theorizing in the 40s and 50s) everyone was so hopeful. It’s disappointing that we live in a ephemeral world where there is only a small space between the new and creative and capitalism. It’s like an orphanage getting awesome donated presents for Christmas that they get to unwrap and play with until some mean old nuns come and take them up and sell them to the highest bitter for the good of the church (because obviously, all orphanages are run by the catholic church, lol. For the sake of my simile, let’s say they are).

    Anyway, on a positive note, I think the course is doing well because I do find myself with a growing repertoire of new (and old) media words and references which made this reading much easier than the previous ones. Since I knew close to nothing coming into this class, I’m excited to finally understand some of the readings (although maybe I really don’t and this post is totally inane. Sorry if that’s the case, lol).

  10. RadicalDreamer617

    In “You Say You Want a Revolution?” Moulthrop basically argues against Carr’s idea that the internet (or Google in specific) is corrupting our ability to read. According to Moulthrop, “early experience with hypertext narrative suggests that its readers may actually be more concerned with prior authority and design than readers of conventional writing” or in other words, hypertext activates us readers and makes us more belligerent. Hypertext also plays a vital part in bringing “typographic literacy” to the new stage of recursion which allows “amateur literary production.” This process permits all readers to interact with the reading materials and “potentially become writers” themselves. The interesting part about this medium is that it supports such social structure that would “stand fundamentally against absolute property and hierarchy.” So the question now is not what can hypertext do for us but how long can hypertext remain a friendly supportive tool as we all pictured it initially and not offend any governments?

  11. pferd von Gestreift

    In “The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin” William Burroughs discusses how all literature, especially the copy-and-paste things we post online, is made of cut-ups. Cut-ups are words, phrases, or sections of things cut up and pasted together. I used the word ‘things’ rather than text because Burroughs refers to photography and film as well as cyber and manually- generated literature. Cut-ups are collages made of anything- pixels, words, video clips, anything at all.
    As an artist, I have worked with collage for a long time and have spoken with artists who specialize solely in that medium. In classes, I have been asked by teachers to plan my collages. It disgusts me. Collages are meant to be spontaneous and unique- I should not have been asked to plan a layout or even the subject of my collage. Which is why Burroughs became suddenly very attractive when he said, “Greek philosophers assumed logically that an object twice as heavy as another object would fall twice as fast. It did not occur to them to push the two objects off the table and see how they fall.”
    People who have no imagination are the ones who make others who possess it plan their work, and it offends me creatively to be made to plan things of this nature out. I think this also applies to literature, as well as art. I would rather start writing, and then have everything jump around the page than to plan it out and have it stay in order. Hypertext and my favorite buttons on my keyboard (ctrl + c and ctrl + v) allow me to do this, and it allows my writing to have a more spontaneous, but perfected air about it that I could not acheive on a typewriter or piece of paper without a great deal of work.
    And after reading Burroughs’ cut-up of his essay, I was even more inclined to like this system of “cut-ups”. I plan to try creating cut-up poetry. Also after reading this essay, I was given to wonder about the idea of a roomful of monkeys with typewriters. I honestly think they could turn out Shakespeare if they were given computers on which the only program was a word processor, and I would very much like to read whatever came out of this experiment.

  12. I have done some cut up work before and it is one thing that I really love to do, but I what I never realized was that there is no limit to what you can cut up. In the reading from Burroughs, he said “Cut streets of the world” (91). I had never thought of using cut up for anything other than words before, but it happens all the time and every where. It really makes me think of the news channels and how they could use this. They could easily change what someone meant by just changing their words around. Is there really any news that can be trusted?

  13. In “You Say You Want a Revolution?” Stuart Moulthop talks about hypertext replace things. He explains how Nelson foresees that hypertext will revive the typographic culture. This is a culture that will be a paperless environment. Moulthop explains that “That forecast may seem recklessly naïve or emptily prophetic, but it is quite likely valid. Hypertext means the end of the death of literature.”(698) I would have to agree with Moulthop and Nelson, hypertext will cause the end of written text. As we become more and more advanced in technology there will be no use of paper. Hypertext has allowed us to be more interactive with our text. We are now able to read something, look up some information on what was just read, and then interpret the text any way we want it to.

  14. Vannevar Bush’s article “As We May Think” explores the idea of the creation of a sort of extension of the human brain, an early form of what we now know as a computer named the Memex. Instead of filing information alphabetically or otherwise as it is when stored manually in boxes or file cabinets, the Memex would copy the natural operations of the brain by creating paths of association the mind could easily follow. In regards to the human brain Bush states, “With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain.” This ingenious idea by Bush from 1945 is very close to the technology we have today. His description of the inner workings of the brain as an intricate web of trails is nearly exactly the same as the layout of the internet, especially now with the wide use of hypertext linking one page of information to another of similar interest. With this ability we are able to jump from our original search results to other outlets of information, expanding our knowledge on the topic as we go. Here is were our new technology splits from the ideas of Bush, instead of merely storing knowledge already known to us for easy access, the internet allows us to take in information previously unknown with a click of a button.

  15. As we now find ourselves in a new age of knowledge and technology, the way that art is created has changed, especially in regards to literature. Hypertext has promoted entirely new ways of both writing and reading various forms of literature. In the article “The End of Books”, Robert Coover goes as far as to state that hypertext is “. . . the [third] great event in the history of literacy”. Hypertext has also added to a new movement of art creation, which is described in Mark Amerika’s manifest of the same name as “Avant Pop”. It would seem that in this day and age art will no longer be confined to the small boxes of museums and books, or to the small groups of artists who can make a living from their work or writers who are able to be published. Art will be free and open for everyone to edit, contribute, and comment upon it through the medium of the internet and the use of hypertext.

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