Since I get this question more and more these days, I’ve lately worked my way around to a short-hand response:
Poetry, fiction, or other literary work that depends on the distinctive behavioral, visual, or material properties of computers, computer networks, and code for its composition, execution, and reception.
What I like about this tripartite definition, I suppose, is that I think it manages to capture the mutual role of author, reader, and machine, as well as aspects of computers themselves as platform, display, and medium. (Of course it begs other questions, such as what is literature and what is a computer.)
Better answers are no doubt going to be found at the upcoming MITH/ELO symposium on the Future of Electronic Literature, here at Maryland in May. Have you registered yet?
Kari tipped me off to this one, as she does about so much that’s cool on the Web these days; here’s a pipe she did for her fabulous Rip, Mix, and Burn: Social Creativity Online classes here at Maryland this spring (and here’s the syllabus).
There’s an interesting sequence in Michael Wesch’s awesome Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us, which by now everyone has watched and re-watched. The sequence I have in mind is at approximately :26-:46.
This is Wesch demonstrating the linking potential of digital text, specifically hypertext, through a rhetorical move that operates both visually and verbally: the mouse pointer clicks the words “here” and “here” and “here,” which shift to a fresh locale on the screen with each click, as does the word “anywhere.” Clearly Wesch is keen to underscore the spatial dimension of hypertext, its ability to transport us somewhere.
Well and good, though of course one could offer up the predictable critiques to the conceit of geo-spatial displacement in the digital realm. But that’s not what interests me here. Because a curious thing happens next: he links to the WayBack Machine, introducing an overt temporal or chronological element into the proceedings, which is only underscored by a close-up of the mouse pointer clicking the button marked “Take Me Back.” (For those who may not know, the WayBack Machine is a production of the Internet Archive, an independent effort that is currently the closest thing we have to an archival capture of the Web’s shape-shifting history.) We see the mouse pointer select a Yahoo page from October, 1996, before the screen dissolves into code, and an explanation of the way HTML was munging form and content at the time.
The contrast to the spatial emphasis immediately preceding the appearance of the WayBack Machine is striking in the overall context of the piece, which is overwhelmingly focused on the dilating Now of linkage, connections, sharing, communicating, mashing, mixing. But there’s a lesson here too for Web 2.0, which is that Web 1.0 has done a conspicuously poor job of preserving its own past. (Brewster Khale, who is the driving force behind the Internet Archive, has performed Herculean efforts, but that fact that his is a private effort, run, I believe, out of a basement in San Francisco’s Presidio, reinforces rather than diminishes the point.) This is important not just because one day they’ll be a Web 3.0 and maybe a Web 20.0, but because it reminds is that “the Web,” as a gestalt, is still a very heterogeneous environment, and that Web 2.0 hotspots like Blogger and YouTube and Flickr are part and parcel of a network that is paradoxically alive with elements of its digital past. Web 2.0, in other words, should not become a totalizing identity for the Web; conceived of as a network of files and servers and protocols, the Web remains a riot of different data standards, interface cultures, and yes, social practices. The Drudge Report, still apparently hand-coded in vanilla HTML and—tellingly—fodder of first resort for many a Web 2.0 blogger, is as good an example as any.
We love Web 2.0, but the notion that we’ve remade the Web (not to say the world) overnight will ultimately prove as thin and unreflective as that tawdry mirror-coating on the recent “YOU” Time Magazine cover. Wesch clearly knows this, let’s make sure the rest of us do too.
Registration is now open for the Electronic Literature Organization and MITH’s May 3rd public symposium on The Future of Electronic Literature. Keynotes are N. Katherine Hayles (UCLA) and Kenneth Thibodeau (National Archives), but that’s just the beginning of the list of terrific people who will be in attendance. Space is limited, so reserve early!
A few days ago Steve Ramsay wrote a post entitled Text Analysis in the Wild. It discussed the phenomenon of the visualization widget attached to a New York Times article on the 2007 State of the Union (the article is apparently already consigned to the newspaper’s pay-per-view archives). The widget, however, enabled you to analyze how frequently various words (like “Iraq”) appeared in the President’s addresses over the course of his term.
The appearance of such a widget in the sidebar of a mainstream news publication suggests that the venerable humanities computing disciplines of text analysis and visualization may be on the verge of becoming mainstream. Here are two more such applications:
TagCrowd is a quick and easy to use online tool that generates tag clouds based on word frequency from a text you either upload or copy and paste into the input window. Here’s a tag cloud of “The Yellow Wall Paper,” which I did for my current undergraduate class:
Many Eyes, meanwhile, is the brainchild of the creative and prolific Martin Wattenberg. Users are encouraged to upload their own data sets and explore them using a palette of available visualizations.
On an academic front, Geoffrey Rockwell has been collecting essays on humanities computing and setting them up for analysis with the impressive array of TAPoR Portal text analysis tools. Here’s an image he sent me of a visual collocation of one of my own pieces:
Finally, MONK has been funded by Mellon. What is MONK? Check here!