A Response to Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound

Recently, tech giants such as Apple and Google have increased efforts to efface the identifiable interface. This is in part due to the drive toward ubiquitous computing, and its promises of seamless, pervasive, interaction with networked technology. A consequence of this trend is that users become less aware of the ways in which their behaviour is being prompted or shaped by interface design. In Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound, Lori Emerson suggests that this is a dangerous move toward complicity, ignorance, and powerlessness. By comparison, she studies artists and writers who purposefully interact with, create, manipulate, or otherwise acknowledge interfaces, and in doing so, draw attention to them. Emerson’s goal is to demystify devices (ix) by focusing on how interfaces can either limit or inspire creative possibilities. She argues that this sort of interaction with networked technology constitutes readingwriting: “the practice of writing through the network, which as it tracks, indexes, and algorithmizes every click and every bit of text we enter into the network, is itself constantly reading our writing and writing our reading” (xiv). Although readingwriting could be applied generically as an apt description of the data traces web users leave as they navigate the web (writing) — which are subsequently recorded (read) and fed into algorithms that organize and present information in return (writing) — Emerson uses the concept in more specific ways throughout the book.

Through a media archaeology technique, Emerson studies the technological precursors of web-driven electronic literature and art. Going back further in history, she ruminates on Emily Dickinson and her use of facicles as an example of a poet who was critically aware of the possibilities for and limitations of her own analogue interface of pen or pencil and paper. To justify her methods, Emerson argues that “if we are to fully and accurately acknowledge the state of digital literature at the present moment, we will never successfully locate ourselves if we do not infuse our investigations into the contemporary with a sense of historical groundedness” (135). Hence Emerson’s insistence on performing a thorough historical — and sometimes media archaeological — treatment of her subject matter throughout the book.

The rise of digital technologies has opened up many possibilities for new ways of presenting, organizing, archiving, and finding research and cultural material. Emerson suggests, however, that the corporate development of generic computers (and perhaps especially tablet devices) quietly limits what is possible for computer-based work. In her insistence on the importance of paying attention to how an interface was designed and what implications this might have, she draws to mind Johanna Drucker’s call for humanistic design that prioritizes flexibility and dynamism over the stasis endemic to standard interface design (2012). Emerson’s meditation on how interface designers can counteract the open, creative use of technology in a bid for the streamlined, user friendly blackbox is relevant to my own research into how digital materials and digital publishing practices support or run counter to open scholarship. If one depends on extant tools and platforms to facilitate open scholarship, it is imperative to remain aware of any implicit limitations. For instance, in my own use of Wordpress and Medium as possibilities for experimental open scholarship platforms, I give up certain affordances that might be available elsewhere. Especially with Medium, there is a limited ability to store generated data effectively, and both platforms restrict more creative options to tinker with aesthetic considerations such as font and layout. Wordpress and Medium offer simple, straightforward, easy to create templates for sharing long form content. But with Medium especially there are no opportunities to “go under the hood” and manipulate code or control versioning and archiving practices; depending on the template, Wordpress does offer a degree of manipulability, although you always begin with a predetermined codebase. On one hand, these platforms limit creativity and control, à la Emerson, but on the other, they provide low-barrier opportunities for communication, public engagement, open licenses, and interaction. Gideon Burton wrote in 2009 that the mark of the open scholar is not solely a proclivity for open access publishing, but rather “someone who makes their intellectual projects and processes digitally visible and who invites and encourages ongoing criticism of their work and secondary uses of any or all parts of it — at any stage of its development” (n.p.). In order to facilitate these open scholar behaviours — to render work “digitally visible,” to engage with others — one must have a platform to do so. Tech-savvy, established scholars like Burton might create their own widely-followed blog to enact such practices (although I do wonder whether non-academic audiences find Burton’s blog, and if so, how). But established platforms like Wordpress and Medium offer a smoother on-ramp, and carry the added benefit of an extant community. Medium, with its close integration of social media profiles, its folksonomic tagging, and its algorithmic recommendations, could be an open scholar’s gateway to straightforward content sharing and connecting with a larger community — as long as they heed Emerson’s warnings and consider carefully how the design choices at Medium influence what one is able to create, and how.

Works cited

Burton, Gideon. 2009. “The Open Scholar.” Academic Evolution. http://www.academicevolution.com/2009/08/the-open-scholar.html

Drucker, Johanna. 2012. “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/34

Emerson, Lori. 2014. Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P.