Brave New Literature; Digital Textuality, Technology, and Cyborgian Humanity
In the spring/summer season of 2016 the world saw a huge leap in both the technology and usage of super modern mediums making use of augmented and virtual reality. With Pokémon Go players crowding streets and parks, virtual reality finally reached the point experts predicted 30 years ago, and the future really seems to be just about now. In fact, another app that plays around with augmented reality has more than 150 million daily users. Have the dog-ears and face-swaps of Snapchat crippled the user’s ability to marvel at augmented reality? Does she now take it for granted? The technology and mediums used to make these applications possible have had ramifications way beyond these specific platforms. The technology implies possibilities not only for art and literature, but emphasizes aspects of the human experience in ways that were not possible before. This leads us to a key topic in this article, which is the possibility that humans are morphing into cyborgs. The goal for now is to have you contemplate the screen you read this on, the phone probably less than a foot away, and how no experience no longer seems to be really real until it has been posted on Instagram or Facebook. Andy Clark, whose work on the cyborgian nature of humanity this essay will often refer to, suggests that “just as you take for granted your ability to use your vocal cord to speak to someone in the room beside you, you may take for granted your ability to use your thumbs-plus-mobile to send a text to a distant lover”. Take all this into consideration, and you have the necessary mindset to begin.
After springing cyborgs at you, I will admit that this essay will actually be concerned with literature and textuality. Literature is and has been changing as long as human records have existed — largely because literature has been the medium of human history’s documentation. The fact that it has proved impossible for scholars to agree on how to define literature speaks for itself. While many consider literature to be that which is written down, few would argue that Homer’s The Odyssey is not literature. The Odyssey of course, was originally an exclusively oral tale. One can observe historically that the technology available has always shaped the literature produced. Speech can be seen as a tool for the transmission of literature, text another. The orality of literature like Homer’s had, without a doubt, a colossal impact on its form. Just the same, the eventual physicality of books has shaped their content and form. Gutenberg’s invention caused the biggest literary revolution so far. New technology, whether ways to print more, faster, or cheaper, in addition to different channels of distribution, has shaped the publishing industry ever since.
For the last few decades the changing technology has largely been digitally oriented. Sara Lloyd, digital and communication director at Pan MacMillian, exclaimed in June 2016 that “The digital revolution is ‘absolutely’ not over”. She further argues that “the publishing industry needs to expand its horizons and keep pushing for change”. This can be interestingly compared to elements of Thomas Pettitt’s “Gutenberg Parenthesis”; the idea that the printed word has reached its peak and literature is in retreat to the oral stage again. New technologies represent a double challenge to this, which both enforces Lloyd’s claim that publishing must change, and underlines that it already has. New technology represents a step away from traditional texts; a movement that Pettitt argues mimics the history of “conversation, gossip, the ephemeral”. “Ephemeral” in many ways carries connotations of digital mediums and the literature produced in and by them. The fleetingness of both the medium and the content are quintessentially modern. A word on a page is essentially eternal, a spoken word momentary. What about the transitory digital text? This question encompasses many new mediums for literature, such as eBooks; audiobooks; Twitter poetry; and all the rest that will be treated here. Are they best considered as trends, or are they the future of literature?
The precise nature of literature is not in the scope of this article. However, I want to share thoughts on what literature has been and can become, and how this affects the reader. The technology used in the making of games such as Pokémon Go is not exactly new. The digital revolution has long been in the making, and the history of E-Lit, or Electronic Literature, already goes back for more than 50 years. E-Lit is defined as “works with important literary aspects that take advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer”, by www.eliterature.com. I will use the metaphor of the cyborg to highlight aspects of new, digital literature, the technology it requires, and how it affects the reader. I will do this by focusing on three observable concepts that prove key components of the way we use, understand, and “do” new forms of digitally driven literature. The three concepts underscored will be interactivity, immersion, and accessibility. My cyborg metaphor is largely built on Donna Haraway’s 1983 claim that “we are cyborgs”. More recently, and relevant to this piece, is Andy Clark’s work on Cyborgism and its consequences. Clark boldly states that “pretty soon, and still without the need for wires, surgery, or bodily alterations, we shall all be kin to the Terminator, to Eve 8, to Cable (…) Perhaps we already are”. Clark argues in his book Naturally Born Cyborgs that humankind is, and always has been, quintessentially cyborgs. This cyborg theory fits perfectly along with Elon Musk’s, the CEO of Tesla, vision of the future. Musk argued earlier this year that mankind has to become cyborgs to avoid becoming “‘house cats’ for vastly more intelligent robots”. Whereas Clark connects his cyborg theory to the essence of humanity, I am largely concerned with the present state of affairs, and a hypothetical future. So, how does this fit into ideas of interactivity, accessibility, and digital literature? My mission is not to convince you that we will all look like Arnold from the Terminator in a next decade. It is rather an attempt to understand how technology is an essential part of how we experience the world around us, including literature.
As mentioned, E-Lit is nothing new and has consequently received quite a lot of attention in scholarly circles over the years. I will try to answer questions relevant for the reader of various E-Literatures in 2016, as well as speculate on the future effects of not yet tested technology (in literature). While authors and poets have been experimenting with storytelling technology for thousands of years, the last decades of technology has made some extremely far-fetched things possible. In addition, literature has never been as available as it is now. One thing is that literacy is increasingly widespread; another is that 28 % of the world’s population carry in their pockets a small rectangular object with access to eBooks and audiobooks, in addition to all the other mediums containing literature. Twitter has poetic “bots” making haiku poems, Instagram is overflowing with poetry accounts. There are also more complex and avant-garde platforms rising, like the enormous wealth of E-Poetry (working in millions of ways), Twine games and poetic experiments making use of the tension between digital and traditional mediums.
Some specific platforms will receive most of the attention: Twine games; Between Page and Screen; Twitterbots; in addition to the more conventional Audiobooks. The first half of the article will consist of in-depth analysis of specific texts in light of interactivity and immersion. The second has a more hypothetical approach to questions of accessibility, textuality, and technology, in addition to work on Twitterbots and audiobooks. I will raise questions asking how new digital mediums change the way stories are told. How does the reader understand these stories? Regarding Between Page and Screen, Twine games, and Pokémon Go, a question keeps recurring; is this literature, or even text at all? And, does it interfere with the reader’s nature, or is it the other way around? How does it change the way we approach and access literature? With so many possibilities of action and immersion, is the reader the one interacting with the product, or is the product interacting with the reader’s reality? Pokémon Go sent millions of users out into the streets, in order to further the “story” (there is a certain plot to it after all). Can an E-Book do the same? Can the mediums of tomorrow end up taking you out of the book, the world that book nerds of centuries past have been accused of disappearing into, and into the so called real world, still guided by the book? Literature has many usages and functions, one being assisting an escape from reality. Readers have stepped through looking glasses and closets, ridden dragons, and accompanied travellers around the world. What if the literature could now literally take you there? What if you could become one with it?
Interactivity and Immersion
Interactivity and immersion might be the most fruitful categories to explore regarding digital literature. An interesting thing about interactivity and immersion is that the words can be both synonyms and antonyms. Immersion in literature is pretty straightforward. Who has not read a book too exciting/sad/funny/romantic/scary to be put down? Cried a couple of tears, laughed aloud, or become unreasonably angry? Our ability to sit down with a former tree and hallucinate wildly for hours on end proves that readers readily give in to literature. Marie-Laurie Ryan argues that theorists should learn to consider “text as a virtual reality”. This idea is a crucial for me. While Ryan’s text in many ways is outdated, it still treats many still-relevant topics. Her theories on immersion, interactivity, Virtual Reality and literature will be transferred to instances of digital and digital dependent literature. Solomon Rogers, not the most impartial guy as the CEO of the VR company Rewind, expressed in February 2016 that “this media changes everything — it breaks the barrier so there is no fourth wall. You are a part of it”. The technology has finally caught up with Ryan’s predictions from the late nineties. The question, when talking about literature, then becomes whether the reader melds into virtual or augmented text in a different manner than she would with a plain written text, and what this potential difference constitutes.
I will begin by looking at Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse’s 2012 book Between Page and Screen through the notion of interactivity and immersion. In my usage of the terms immersion can be connected to acceptance of literature, while interactivity is best connected to freedom. Interactivity is testing and pushing the boundaries to see if they push back, immersion is accepting the surroundings and indulging in them, diving in headfirst and allowing the experience to engulf you. Between Page and Screen is a lot more than “just” a book, which is why it becomes an obvious starting point. While it is a physical book, it also requires a computer camera in order to transform the graphic illustrations, which constitutes the entire content, into poetry. It is an augmented reality project, where the screen and page go together to make poems that the reader can, and must, play around with. Augmented reality, generally, exists in the meeting place of “reality” and the virtual. Between Page and Screen explores this meeting space in multiple ways; most obviously in the way the reader sees the text over the live-stream of herself holding the book.
To be precise, Between Page and Screen is the love story between P[age] and S[creen] portrayed in a series of poems conveyed as letters. In addition to poems, there are animations of animals, patterns, circling rings, and more. These patterns mimic the tradition of “concrete poetry” or “visual poetry”. Between Page and Screen is a continuation of a tradition, and a completely new creation. Both concrete and visual poetry are concepts where the form of the poem reflects the content, which is a key element in Between Page and Screen (and much other E-Lit). The relationship between page and screen, P and S, is discussed, problematized, and celebrated in the time span of the very short story. The interactive element is the fact that the reader holds, in her hands, a book with graphic figures (there are no words in it). When she enters www.betweenpageandscreen.com, turns on her camera, and opens the book, words are projected out of the book and is seen floating over the book on the screen. Complicated? Yes. Necessary? Also yes. Amaranth Borsuk explains that in the creation of Between Page and Screen they wanted to create a “defamiliarization of the reading process”. The interaction functions on multiple levels. There is the interactivity in the relation between the printed book’s pages and the screen’s camera. This interaction constitutes the plot of the book. In addition, the reader herself plays an important role.
The relationship between characters P and S is fascinating, and the liaison between physical page and screen is intriguing. What becomes most important in our context is the role of the reader. The position and importance of the reader is underlined on the homepage: “Reflected on screen, the reader sees him or herself with open book in hand, language springing alive and shape-shifting with each turn of the page”. This connects with the Borsuk’s point on defamiliarization. The authors of Between Page and Screen wanted to test the reader experience, and the reader’s habit of reading. Reading “is not as natural as it seems” Borsuk explains, it is a “learned process”. Most readers will not think twice about the actions necessary to pick up a traditional text, it is a habit, naturalized. However, learning to read and to turn it into a habit does not come natural for humans; on the contrary, it takes a countless number of hours.
Between Page and Screen challenges the naturalization of reading the printed word. It highlights the point that with practice, as Ryan says, any form of reading can become “natural”. Having the reader “in the picture” underlines a fundamental need in the text. Participation is essential: It is not possible to read the book through a phone camera, which was a conscious choice by the creator to force the reader to partake in the media. Between Page and Screen is not really only between Page and Screen. It constructs a ménage à trois including an active reader. The reader’s mind forms a bridge between the screen and the page, and generates meaning. There is interaction between three physical entities, the reader, her book, and the computer. In a way, this can be seen as a method of teaching the reader to participate in a dialogue with the computer. The computer screen, because of glitches and error messages, becomes more than a receiver or a giver of meaning. It becomes an entity whom the reader must deal with, and attempt to understand. This might be a metaphor for the first step, initiated by man or machine, of practicing becoming cyborgs through communicating with a machine to create meaning.
There is a fascinating link between the reader’s role when reading and understanding Between Page and Screen, and the difference/sameness of immersion and interactivity. Ryan claimed in 1999 that interactivity in text always has to be sacrificed for the sake of immersion. Rules and regulations, the elements regulating what the reader can and must do to make the book work, are needed for interactivity, however, they limit the level of immersion. The interactive guidelines often fences off the immersive experience. The lack of freedom leads to the glitches becoming too obvious, and the diver is pulled back out of the water. Between Page and Screen challenges this assumption. Alongside the interactivity between reader and text, the book makes physical demands. It needs the reader to hold the pages at just the right angle, move it around, all the while being able to read the screen. In 1999 Ryan suggested that readers might just not be ready to read on the screen yet, nevertheless this would change. It appears as a successful prophecy; a new generation of readers is now creating and playing around with E-Literature like Between Page and Screen. One the one hand, the naturalization of the medium allows the reader to enjoy the content and form all the more. On the other, the naturalization leaves the reader even more provoked when the technology fails.
The new generation of readers, at one with the technology mediating the experience, relates to it in a completely different way than Ryan and her colleges envisaged at the end of the last millennia. In 1999 the technology or the medium was “a thing in itself”. Now the technology is purely a medium, a distribution platform that is naturalized by habit. If you ask the parent generation: “How do you use this book to gather information and experience”, it will at best elicit a raised eyebrow and a “come again?”. Asking the next generation how they use digital platforms will most likely receive the same response. In other words, the present generation of digital users, and consequently also its readers, are spoilt in regards to technology. While marvelling at the technology right away, the reader will shortly notice that Between Page and Screen is troubled by some glitches. The text does not come up right. The angle is wrong. She has to close down and refresh the page. The immersion is shattered by a technology that is not capable of maintaining the interactivity it promises, or so it seems.
Nevertheless, this shattering actually furthers the thematic concept of the story. The annoyance created by the malfunctions eventually contributes to a more complete immersion, because annoyance, exasperation, and longing are emotions felt and portrayed by S and P in the book. The struggle to make things work, of finding a place to meet, is projected from the book, to the screen, and then to the reader. In a way, it underlines the threesome when the reader becomes an opinionated member in the exchange of words. This problematizes, like the letters do, the possibility of a perfect union of Page and Screen. The fact that the book suffers from technological problems appears to be a part of the plot. In the end, interaction and immersion merge in the glitches of their crashes, something that ultimately further the theme of the book. Ryan writes about how interactivity can be interpreted both in the literal and figurative sense. In the figurative sense “interactivity stands for the collaboration between the reader and the text in the production of meaning”. The production of meaning is definitely encouraged in the reader’s experience of Between Page and Screen, because the meaning of the text is so much more than that which can be gathered from looking at the text alone. Interactivity is required for Between Page and Screen to function, which is something that goes for a lot of new mediums. While Pokémon Go literally requires its user to walk around to achieve progress, Between Page and Screen requires patience and the ability to sit still and work with the media. When reading, or experiencing, Between Page and Screen, accepting the premises of the technology is crucial.
Twine games, unlike Between Page and Screen, exist exclusively in cyberspace. In one way they are similar to traditional texts where the reader has to enter a story and accept its premises. Twine games are inherently interactive, allowing the reader to partake in creating the events as they unfold. Consequently, Twine games constitute another modern take on storytelling using immersion and interactivity to create effective, action packed fiction. Twine games are largely built on the tradition of hypertext fiction, often seen as starting with afternoon, a story (1987) by Michael Joyce and Patchwork Girl by Shelly Jackson (1995). Twine is both the programming tool used to make Twine games, and the name of the finished result. Twine games are games where the player navigates through a textual labyrinth, quite a lot like the Choose Your Own Adventure novels you read as a child. After some paragraphs, or sentences, sometimes just words, you get a choice regarding how to proceed through a word in the text that acts as a portal. The individual words serve as “paths” to new words.
A Twine game does not work without a reader’s actions. The text will come to a halt and the story ends. In some Twines the reader is faced with an abundance of choices regarding what to do. She can go back and forth and explore different options, just to see where the textual labyrinth may take her. Some do the opposite; they force the reader back to the starting point time and time again, only to make her repeat the same steps once more. The literary element is convincing; there are typically long stretches of literary prose. I am about to explore two of the most read and well-received Twines out there. They both deal with the concept and limits of Twine in different ways. The first is Encyclopaedia Fuckme (2011) by Anna Anthropy, which is a Twine game with a lot of emphasis on the game part. Like most Twines, the reader, you, is the main character. She is visiting a lover for dinner. The Twine game continues to combine erotica with extreme, hair on end horror, including cannibalism and the scary fable beast: The vagina dentata. The aspect that makes this the most game-like is how you can either win (you don’t die!) or lose (you die…). The actions chosen by the reader have effects, and even if the choices are limited they seem to encompass the most likely alternatives.
Encyclopaedia Fuckme is another example where interactivity works together with immersion. At least until you play it for the third time trying to figure out how to avoid dying. The horror genre functions well with this format, and it does dominate a large share of Twines. Perhaps because of its ability to produce a feeling of immediacy that efficiently draws the reader into the story. Oddly enough, as readers we are often attracted to letting dark corridors swallow us. Espen J. Aarseth makes a great point relevant not only for this Twine, but to horror and the way we read literature in general. He makes the casual observation that in a way, all literature is interactive — that is a two-way exchange of meaning is required — because all fiction is a lie we as readers choose to believe. The reader makes the first step by accepting the story. In horror this is especially visible, not only are we “letting” ourselves believe a lie, but allowing it to affect us emotionally. When it comes to Encyclopaedia Fuckme, the reader can be considered interactive and immersed simply based on her high running pulse — regardless whether the erotica or the horror causes it. The horror, and adrenaline produced, increases when it is the reader on the chopping board. Twines efficiently make the reader more immersed because of active participation. The interactivity, rather than shattering the immersion, allows the reader to identify more with the character (themselves). The reader, when believing the lie that she is me interacts with the text both on a physical level (pushing of buttons, goosebumps, arousal) and on a mental level (disgust, hatred, fear, annoyance).
Twines such as Encyclopaedia Fuckme and other interactive platforms such as Between Page and Screen have emotional response as a key ingredient. What if it was possible to measure the precise level of emotional involvement, and allow these measurements to control the reader’s intertextual progress? In early October a British technology company started crowd-funding a new game they define as “Emotionally Responsive Gaming”. BfB, the company behind the game, underlines “the pleasure of an immersive experience”. The game itself is not relevant here, but the technology and what it might mean for publishing and future reading experience is. The technology, a combination of a tablet and a sensor, allows for the media to measure the player’s emotions. To win the game the players must focus their feelings and emotions. Not only is this a step towards allowing our minds to merge with the computer, and thereby allowing it further access us and potentially increase our dependency on it. It also carries tremendous possibilities for enhanced literature. Imagine, Encyclopaedia Fuckme 2.0: She/you is running around her/your lover’s house desperately trying to get away, or, she/you is trying to seduce your lover to escape. The technological tools offered by Emotionally Responsive Gaming could potentially measure the level of emotional involvement, the reader’s level of immersion, and shape the interactive choices accordingly. The reader’s goosebumps could determine how fast you run; arousal the success rate of the seduction. In Between Page and Screen the disintegration of the images, or their steadiness, could be affected by the reader’s concentration or annoyance.
Another Twine that evokes a lot of the same feelings, but which employs quite different narrative and graphic techniques, is Blood Will Out (2016) by Ella Risbridger. Risbridger created the twine for Blood Cancer Awareness Week 2016. The story is, as she writes on twitter, “a reasonably harrowing, absolutely true text-based adventure game”. The “game” starts with a note from the author that she is “not even sure it’s a game at all”. An interesting thing to think about is whether one should consider this introduction a part of the game or not. It helps set the mood, and in many ways teaches the reader how to interact with the game. Making use of horror literature tropes Risbridger warns the reader “I wish none of this had ever happened”, finally concluding with a strong message: “And if you find yourself going in circles, tough. That’s just how it is sometimes. Keep going. Keep going. That’s all there is to it”. In Blood Will Out interactivity and immersion are again both conflicting forces, and cooperating elements. Blood Will Out is a Twine about a woman whose boyfriend gets blood cancer, but perhaps it is really more about the way the human mind and consciousness work. The story is based on Risbridger’s own real life experience with living with a partner close to death.
Risbridger, by way of introduction, dares the reader never to hit the “back button”. First, this appears like the typical warning before a scary story. Like ghost stories saying “there’s no coming back after this”, with the storyteller pointing a flashlight towards her face. It seems a little lame and unnecessary. As it turns out, the horror of cancer is actually not the reason one eventually wishes to hit the back button (the need definitely does arise). It is the excessive repetition ultimately used to mimic the human mind during periods of mental anguish. The picture below makes a good example.
Every time you choose to proceed through one of the links, you end up back at this page after a couple of other portals. That means you visit this same image at least five times, which might not seem that much. It becomes overwhelming when the same happens every other “actual” move forward. The most striking thing about Blood Will Out, next to the quiver down the spine graphic descriptions of a body fighting itself, is this forced repetition. It is used to portray living with anxiety and the endless sameness of life. In Blood Will Out, like all Twine games, the reader faces small bulks of text with one or two, or eight, hyperlinks that moves the story forward. The reader is forced to go through the same pages, to read the same words, time after time. The same “option” page is repeated, ending up not as much offering options as being a manual that has to be followed. To get as much out of Blood Will Out as it can offer, one has to read all the words. The reader ends up forcing herself through, dared by Risbridger not to skim the text or press that prophesized back button.
Risbridger tests the hold of immersion in her story by pushing her reader to the extreme. The interactivity in Blood Will Out is very limited, as one cannot avoid the tracks laid out by the author. In some cases this would count as “bad” or “weak” interactivity, but in this case it proves a vital function making the story more efficient. Again, like with Between Page and Screen, the format of the Twine reflects the content. As previously stated, the connection between form and content is as old as art. The question becomes whether the effect and function of repetition is different in Twine games, or E-Literature, than in a traditional medium. There are many books written where the reader is forced to re-read the same sentences and actions over and over again. What makes Blood Will Out different is the illusion of interactivity, the reader believes she is in charge, and that she can take action, but she cannot. There is no action in Blood Will Out that will allow you to escape and still follow Risbridger’s carefully given instructions. The reader’s only way of action or escape is to close the window, in a way mimicking Risbridger’s limited options. Like in Between Page and Screen, emotions are stirred by the frustration of not achieving the desired actions.
In a format that is built on the idea of interactivity, that the reader has a power over the narrative, the betrayal of being captured by a textual labyrinth without a chance of escape (unless you press the back button, but then you lose) evokes strong emotions. The form and content are strongly linked, Risbridger uses the format to underline the plot. Again, the reader is a necessary contributor as the emotional response created by the claustrophobic labyrinth furthers the meaning of the text. This mirrors the way the author herself felt, and the way you are supposed to feel when captured in a relationship and life where something, but you are not sure what, is very wrong. The “weak” interactivity in this case facilitates the immersion, it allows the reader to connect deeper to their twine “self”. The game is a recreation of living with anxiety and mimics the structures of the mind more than anything else. A message effectively transmitted using the Twine format.
What would the possibilities be if immersion could actually be measured? Theoretically, Emotionally Responsive Gaming could be used to measure the reader’s involvement in the text. Rather than forcing all readers to repeat a specific number of “rounds”, the technology could be used to decide precisely when the reader was thoroughly enough immersed in the text to proceed to the next page. By measuring the reader’s emotional responses the technology could advance the game based on it. Of course, there is the opportunity for a didactic element here. The technology, combined with a Twine game such as Blood Will Out, or perhaps an enhanced e-Book, could be used to teach readers to understand and deal with their own and other’s emotions. The CEO of BfB Lab Simon Fox explains that this is a part of their goal. According to their studies, players have been “able to increase their level of emotional control”, and “the company found that 80 % of players who applied skills learned from the game to their real life”. In addition, hypothetically, this could be used to measure the reader’s immersion success rate. For the first time it would be possible to objectively measure whether the reader has the “right” reaction to a text. Twine games and book projects like Between Page and Screen illustrate how important interactivity and immersion are in analysing new digital literature. In addition, all three texts discussed highlight the way in which the new ways of reading provides a reader experience that can change the reader’s naturalized habits.
Accessibility, multitasking and textuality
“Accessibility” carries multiple connotations important and worthy of scrutiny in connection to E-Lit, new digital mediums, and the future of publishing. The first aspect was mentioned already in the introduction; The fact that more than two billion people have smart phones has undeniably changed the accessibility of literature. Not only do smart phones work with eBooks and Audiobooks, they are becoming the frontier of the digital publishing revolution. “It’s really about the phone in your hands”, like Justin Hendrix, Executive Director of NYC Media Lab, expressed at the 2016 Digital Media Conference. There are countless applications and sites accessible through this little rectangle. This contains the duality of my usage of the accessibility term; not only is literature more accessible (it is right there on your phone), the phone offers access to meaning and interpretations of the literary works available. Scholarly interpretations, or the actual authors, are just a couple of keystrokes away. Humankind’s essential ability of multitasking will constitute a vital point in this section. E-books themselves will not get much attention, mostly because I agree with Lloyd that “the digital revolution was never ebooks”. E-books are too similar to traditional books and consequently do not force the reader to change her reading habits. Audiobooks, on the other hand, are both the fastest growing digital media and they require a certain alteration in the manner we “read”. In addition to this, poetic Twitterbots will be discussed in context of the previously mentioned Cyborg transformation.
Before getting to this, a section on the metaphor of the Cyborg is necessary as it is closely connected to the consequences of accessibility and multitasking. Clark, as mentioned earlier, argues: “To be human is to share a hybrid identity with the technologies that permit our cognitive experience of the world to take on distinctly cyborgian contours” (quoted in Engström, 563). This is to say that human nature requires the use of tools, now technology, to “better” itself in order to transcend the present state of humanity. Rather than seeing the idea of post-humanism as a threat, Clark sees it as evolution. Already in 2003, Clark saw how the younger generation were treating the phone in their hand “like a prosthetic limb over which you wield full and flexible control”. Because this prosthetic limb offers an extension of our brain and body, it illustrates accessibility better than anything. The Twine games previously mentioned, come to life in this prosthetic, or as I will refer to it, the extended limb. Here arises one great difference between digital mediums and the book. The book is constant and unchanging, an external object that never shifts from its original shape. The story might change depending on the historical and social context, however a book put down by Jane Austen in 1816 will largely be the same if the reader picks it up today. The extended limb, on the other hand, contains such a wealth of information, an abundance of stories, poems, written or oral text, that it is never the same two days in a row. The constancy of the phone/tablet/computer (it is always at hand) on the one side, and the constant inconsistency on the other, creates a uniquely modern medium and reader.
As mentioned, there is one digital media that publishers have fully learned to make use of, which is the audiobook. The Audio Publisher Association presented statistics showing that audiobook sales jumped 21 % in 2015, and all of 37 % in January and February of 2016. The reason, according to Trip Adler, CEO of Scribid, is the nature of multitasking in consumers. The cyborg generation and their parents are making audiobooks a part of their everyday life. Ryan’s prediction that the future generations would be used to digital mediums seems to be proven accurate once again. Audiobooks are more accessible than ever before, due to accessible smart phones and the human habit of multitasking. Adler further explains how the audiobook “format fits neatly in the sweet spot of changing technology and changing behaviour”. This goes in accordance with Clark’s opinion of human evolution as essentially cyborgian. Continuous development and improved technological advances are dependent on people capable of using them. There has been a fear in the book industry that the general public is not ready for it yet. Perhaps this is the reason why publishing has been so careful with new digital mediums. This leaves experiments with new technology in literature in the realm of revolutionaries and the experimental, like Between Page and Screen, or those who find art more important than capital, like the creators of most Twine games and Twitterbots.
There are two main elements to the “new” digital audiobook that seem relevant here. First, the aspect of accessibility is relevant in the context of immersion and reader response, secondly, in connection with mankind’s ability to engage with technology and to embrace multitasking.
As we can see above in audible’s (Amazon’s audiobook page), audiobooks make promises of transporting you from your boring breakfast or Laundromat to magical kingdoms far away. As of now, unlike Pokémon Go, audiobooks do not require you to go out and do stuff. However, with the tracking and spatial technology of Pokémon Go one can easily imagine a not too distant future where the reader’s movement is an incorporated part of the audiobook. What audible does promise is a no-effort possibility of escaping the dread of everyday duties. Audiobooks are in some ways the greatest celebration of the (Cartesian) dualism. It allows the reader’s mind, or simply a part of their mind, to be one place while the body is somewhere else. The more prosaic question now becomes, leaving the hands free element aside, how the always-available listening device changes the experience of reading? Most audiobook listeners do not simply listen to audiobook, they make it a part of their everyday routine, combining it with doing other things. According to Adler, Scribid had to down scale the offer to their members earlier this year because of people “trying to squeeze 34 hours a day into 24 hours”. What potential consequences does the fact that people are always plugged into their book have?
For a large percentage of human history, literature was first and foremost enjoyed in oral form. The change came about around the 18th century. A combination of increased literacy and an expanding economy gave the growing middle class the ability and leisure to enjoy a book on their own. For 99.9 % of the population, reading privately goes back much more recently than 300 years. It can seem we have an inclination towards being read our favourite story out loud. The biggest difference between the orality of literature pre- mainstream (western) literacy and the present day audiobook listener is that the listener now does so in solitude. The audiobook, rather than being a common and shared pleasure has become an individualistic indulgence. Rather than taking the reader out into the world, like games such as Pokémon Go, the audiobooks turns the reader inward. Perhaps not into themselves, but definitely into that extended limb that provides them with the opportunity.
Can listening and reading be compared? Is reading in the traditional sense superior? Some of the snobbier book lovers, and authors such as Colm Toibin, have expressed a certain disdain towards audiobooks, calling it lazy reading. Is it really due to laziness, this want to have more literature performed in a day? The phone offers a uniquely new opportunity to do precisely that. Certainly, most will at some point in life have heard their mother sight “I’m not an octopus you know! I don’t have eight arms”. Most mothers might not have, but your phone, however, in a way does. Your phone/tablet/computer is more than capable of doing eight things at once. It allows the reader, or listener, to both “read”, answer work emails, speak to friends, and perhaps do the laundry at the same time. Another question arises, again related to that of art, of what extent the literature perceived through this multitasking can truly be appreciated? This comes down to how well anyone can do multiple things at the same time. Does multitasking impede appreciation of literature? In a way, like Between Page and Screen, the audiobooks seems to train a new generation of “readers”, and perhaps cyborgs too. As Ryan said about technology, while one generation struggles, the next makes it habit. Perhaps the next generation will be able to fully exploit their cyborgness and become unstoppable multitasking geniuses. Or, like some fear, they might be incapable of thinking or understanding anything without their extended limb at hand. What seems certain is that humanity is evolving into better multitaskers, heavily assisted by their extended limb. Something that hopefully points towards the genius theory.
While audiobooks are definitely both immersive and accessible, they do require a certain level of effort and commitment, in addition to the financial cost. The next medium up for scrutiny does not. Many consider Twitterbots a nuisance, as they constitute a source of spam. Still, Twitterbots are not only occasionally hysterically funny, but they contribute with some truly poetic potential. Twitterbots, like audiobooks, are intriguingly considered in the light of multitasking. They are the poetry books under the reader’s third arm, containing a wealth of literature of all sorts. Twitterbots are not only interesting seen in the context of the reader but also in the context of the writer, though the two do not need to be separate.
Above we have poem.exe, Pentametron, and The Ephemerides. These are all generated Twitterbots that use different elements of Twitter to create poetry. poem.exe creates Haikus from other poems, by randomly placing sentences together, finally “the program looks for seasonal references and uses these to decide whether to publish or reject the poem”. Pentamentron explains itself by clarifying that “With algorithms subtle and discrete / I seek iambic writings to retweet”. The bot finds tweets unintentionally written in iambic (metrical “feet” with two syllables, where every second syllable is stressed) and puts them together in an always-growing poem. This poem highlights the constantness and constant change in electronic literature mentioned earlier. The poem is never-ending; the technology generating the poem makes sure it persistently grows. The poem is constant and accessible in the sense that the reader can always just open their phone, look under their third arm, and enter the poem. The poem even sends “push” notifications reminding its reader to read the latest edition. At the same time, the poem is unceasingly changing as the bot updates itself. Every time the reader enters the page a new/same poem is there. Trying to find a section she previously enjoyed can prove almost impossible in the wealth of new material. This is what causes the poem to be both constant and interchanging. While some can say that this form of poetry makes for a lazy reader, because there is no work involved in accessing the poem, there is an acute need for attentiveness and appreciation. The poem might be gone forever the moment the hand returns to the pocket, buried under a mountain of new stanzas. While it is of course possible to take screen-shots of particularly enjoyable sections, like I have, some of the effects of the poem disappear when frozen in the stillness of an image. Lastly, we have The Ephemerides, which is quite simply “Random raw images from outer planet probes, accompanied by computer-generated text”. I will return to it quickly as it is the Twitterbot chosen to represent its kind through deeper analysis.
The question quickly arises of who the poet really is when dealing with Twitterbots. Not because of the typical anonymizing style of the internet, but by the way the medium obscures the difference between human artist, Twitterbot poet, and poem. There are countless other questions discernable in any discussion about Twitterbots. Some recall academic issues dating back to the beginning of the digital age, and perhaps even before. Is it art when the result is random? Where is the soul in something literally soulless? How can we measure quality when no human talent is involved in the actual making the poetry? Is the software programmer a creator of art in the creation of bots?
When it comes to the Twitterbots above, my personal favourite is The Ephemerides. The creator of The Ephemerides, Allison Parrish, explains why she chose the two elements she did: “Both space probes and generative poetry programs venture into realms inhospitable to human survival and send back telemetry telling us what is found there”. Ultimately, there is a fascination with what humans cannot access on our own, and the effect created when it becomes accessible to us. The idea is to find out what “poetry written by a space probe would look like”. Parrish explains that the computer-generated poems are random lines from Astrology by Sepharial and The Ocean And Its Wonders by R. M. Ballantyne. While it is very easy just to press “follow” and then enjoy the poems as they come, additional meaning comes when sought out. Luckily, the internet can provide us with access to the author’s intentions. The fact that these messages from a space probe, perhaps mankind’s ultimate technological achievement to date, reaches the reader through her extended limb is essential. The poems are sent from space, interpreted by the Twitterbot, then sent to the reader through her phone. The poem, the message, sent from the space probe, requires translation through another technological medium. This medium, however, is not pure technology. It is an extended limb connected to a reader capable of accessing the poem. Again, like with Between Page and Screen and the Twine games, form and content shape each other. When speaking of digital literature like this, it is not enough to look at the form purely based on what one sees. It is necessary to consider the channels in which the poem reaches its reader. The transmission of the poem from extended limb to mind is a vital element in the appreciation. Whether it is a distraction or the highlight of the reader’s day will vary. However, the poem will be the same, an ovation to the communication between technology, the reader, and her cyborg nature.
It becomes obvious when reading about the creation of Twitterbots, like The Ephemerides, that one needs a lot of talent and knowledge to create bots like it. For the reader of Twitterbot poetry, the poems appear more accessible than ever. For the creator, however, the case is another. Reading through Parrish’s process of creating poems, less technologically and creatively gifted people would be amazed. Not only does creating these bots require technological skills, they involve an insight into how poetry works. This article earlier decided not to claim to know how fiction works, and neither will it attempt to find a definition of poetry. However, it can be argued that there are certain elements, methods and techniques, which are needed to make a poem. The question arises whether this poetry is great in and of itself, if it is great in context of its form and combination with image, or if it is a mediocre poem supported by interesting side elements. The answer is another question, of whether it matters? There was a mention earlier of the soul of something as soulless as computer generated poetry. A breathing spirit might not have created poems like the one by The Ephemerides, but neither can an ordinary spirit access them. The poem requires technology and humanity; you may say it requires a cyborg.
Taking into consideration the technology necessary for creating and enjoying Twitter poetry, two very different aspects of accessibility becomes discernible. While the poetry itself is more accessible, being free and constantly updated right into your pocket, writing this kind of poetry is less accessible. Whereas pen and paper are all traditionally written poetry requires, new digital poetry depends on the poet’s willingness to merge with technology. E-Poetry becomes the cyborg’s poetry. Talents such as the ability to create, originality, and artistry have historically been abilities mankind has taken great pride in. These abilities have been used to differentiate between man and beast, between human and nature. Now they are brought into the technological territory. For the poet to be able to claim the poems created by bots as her own, she must accept that the technology is a part of the art making process and a part of the poet. It can be very hard to guess whether a poem is computer generated or made by real, human soul. It is so hard that the creators of Bot or Not found it necessary to create what they call a “Turing Test for Poetry”. The webpage hosts a test where the reader is supposed to guess whether the poem presented is created by a Bot, or Not. You might want to take the quiz; you can just ignore the academic challenge of deciding what is art and do it for the fun. At the same time as the lines between poet and bot is blurring, the reader is often capable of keeping the cyborgness of the poetry at an arm’s length — quite literally as the arm holds the phone. The reader, so used to technology, easily forgets the ultimate creator of the poem and allows herself to see the poem as an organic part of her twitter feed. It might just be Roland Barthes’s dream come true; the author is finally dead and only the poem remains.
A lingering question throughout this article has been: what is text? What separates literature from other instances of text? What is the role of the book and publishing in all of this? The article has earlier made a point of the difference between the static existence of a book, and the ever-changing state of the digital text. Whereas the future is hard to foresee, some ideas and predictions seem likely to prove accurate. The Gutenberg parenthesis provides one interesting take on the future and past of text. One does not have to buy the entire concept of the Gutenberg Parenthesis to perceive that there are interesting points to be made. We can see that Clark’s ideas of the human evolution into cyborgs are fairly compatible with the Gutenberg Parenthesis. Clark explains that:
“We see some of the ‘cognitive fossil trail’ of the cyborg trait in the historical procession of potent cognitive technologies that begins with speech and counting, morphs first into written text and numerals, then into early printing (without movable typefaces), on to the revolutions of moveable typefaces and the printing press, and most recently to the digital encoding that bring text, sound, and image into a uniform and widely transmissible format”
According to Clark mankind has always been morphing into something else, using the newest tools to get there. The link between technology, textuality, and the human evolution seems apparent in the above. However, whereas Clark treats evolution in a traditional chronological view, scholar Thomas Pettitt argues that “we are [actually] going forward to the past”.
In Pettitt’s opinion, during what he defines as the Gutenberg area (15th to the 20th century) people believed “what you had in books was truth”. Pettitt further explains how the physicality of the book plays a major role in the construction of it as dominant, reliable, and eternal. That system of truth and power is currently breaking down, partly because of how “informal messaging is starting to look like books” and partly because “print is no longer a guarantee of truth, and speech no longer undermines truth”. All in all, the veneration readers have for physical books does seem to be on the decline. In its wake, texts that previously would be taken less seriously because of their non-physicality might have room to bloom. Print’s dominance, according to this theory, is “now being challenged in many ways by digital culture and the orality it embraces”. The move back to orality leads to an increased “fluidity in communication”. The internet plays a key role in departing from the parenthesis, which has shaped human consciousness for the last centuries by (among other things)emphasizing categorization. Text, and human consciousness, will be freer when removed from the notion that text means truth, and the definiteness that this way of thinking implies. The orality aspect is less based on spoken word than on communication. The reader cannot communicate with a hardcover book (or a paperback for that matter). The book always gets the last word. However, digital literature is changing this. Orality can be understood as the way Twitterbots just appear in your pocket, with an anonymous creator (disregarding the space probe), and is still allowed to speak with meaning. Going back to orality can mean accepting one’s role in the dialogue with P and S, to be allowed a say in their ménage à trois. Orality can be interactivity, like the Twine games where the reader can choose her actions. Orality is changing the way we think about things in order to accept art and technology on their own premises.
Pettitt prophesies: “Text will remain but it is being set free. Text may well become more mobile but less stable as it becomes freer”. This all goes in accordance with E-Lit and the Avant-Garde artists who have been experimenting with the written word. The main implication of the Gutenberg Parenthesis is that text will become more like human consciousness, more like how it was before the printed word dominated. That is, it will be less definite and categorizable. This change in textuality is observable elsewhere than the Gutenberg Parenthesis. Leonardo Flores, perhaps the biggest E-Poet enthusiast out there and creator of I ♥ E-Poetry, delivered a Ted-X talk on E-Poetry earlier this year clarifying what makes E-Poetry so special. Flores explains in an interview how readers have “already starting to shake off the rhetoric of linearity that print media promoted”. This aligns well with the idea the Gutenberg Parenthesis expresses, and Clark’s ideas of cyborgness — if seen in light of the technology E-Lit requires. While the work I have treated from Pettitt is not directly concerned with E-Lit, Flores’ work obviously is. He underlines how new forms of E-Poetry represent the literature for the future reader. This reader will be ready to accept the premises of technology, and has evolved from the belief that truth can only be found in a hardback. Readers who have embraced technology can enjoy this new literature and create their own. Just that Open Source Poetry (E-Poetry where the coding is shared and re-used) exists underlines a step away from ideas of originality and artistry, and spotlights a community of free and fluid text.
There will probably not be another generation where physical, traditional books are the one acceptable form and carrier of truth. Like Amaranth Borsuk explained considering their mission with Between Page and Screen, reading can be re-learned and re-habitualized. The manner in which their project challenges the preference of print echoes the ideas of the Gutenberg Parenthesis. One does not need to see completely eye to eye with the scholars behind it to appreciate how they might be onto something. Combined with the wealth of alternative forms of text and transaction of meaning, it is seemingly impossible to reject the idea that the knowledge of the future will most likely come from a screen. The popularity of audiobooks, too, has impact on this. If we believe Pettitt’s claim that people only trusted the written word, printed black on white between hard pages, the audiobook popularity highlights a change. Pettitt would say that the reader is going back to trusting orality, the spoken word. Clark might say that she is evolving and becoming able to use her extended limbs in an organic way to achieve more. I would say that it seems like books as units were only supposed to dominate the textual market for a finite period of history; subsequently we now need a new way to think about and work with literature. Luckily, the pioneers of the literary digital age are already well underway in making this happen.
There is a difference in the way this essay has approached the concepts of interactivity, immersion and accessibility. The first two appear the most relevant when experiencing of new, digital, literary mediums. The latter, on the other hand, is connected to a way of relating to the mediums and its creators. Ryan’s ideas of interactivity and immersion as opposing elements of a virtual reality experience have been challenged through literary works throughout this article. An investigation of Between Page and Screen proved that the ménage de trois of book, computer and reader is the main element of the project. The scrutiny of twine games Encyclopedia Fuckme and Blood Will Out explore different ways in which interactivity and immersion prove essential for their function. Furthermore, future technology and its effect on these mediums have been predicted. The potential for Emotionally Responsive Literature seems great; it underlines the possibility of a melding of literature and the reader’s experience thereof.
It seems clear that Clark is onto something when he claims that “our tools become more and more a part of who and what we are”. The stitches attaching the extended limb constituted by the phone/tablet are rapidly disappearing. They also underline the predictions implied in the Gutenberg Parenthesis and similar ideas of the future of text such as Flores’s. It seems that Books, with a capital B, were only supposed to be the dominant medium for dispensing literature for a determinate period of time. This essay in no way argues that traditional books will disappear from the market, the steady decline of e-Books if anything proves that. Conclusively, the fundamentally changing aspects of humanity demand that the mediums delivering our literature need to change with us.
The second half of the article is largely concerned with cyborgness, accessibility, and the effect this has on the experience of new digital mediums such as Twitterbots and Audiobooks. This accessibility, not exclusively but appropriately, is underlined by how I was able to interview one of the authors (Borsuk) this very text concerns itself with. We have observed a need for the publishing industry to prepare for the millennial and the following generation’s cyborgness. The audiobook represents a return to orality in literature, furthermore, it highlights how the cyborgian reader is ready for it. Technology is a part of mankind, as much as mankind is an indispensable part of the technology. Robots, though inside the extended limb, have already been created in mankind’s literary image. Whether Twitterbots and the like of them will replace a part of mankind, or constitute an addition, is not easy to say. Human kind, like Clark points out, has always been dependent on our tools, and our art had evolved in step with humanity. Expressions of communication have evolved from cave paintings to songs, gone from orality to print, and now to digital literature and all that encompasses.
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If you’re really into what I’m writing about, I would recommend reading my sources:
Andy Clark’s Naturally Embodied Cyborgs.
Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto”.
Espen J. Aarseth’s Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature.
Marie-Lauren Ryan’s “ Immersion vs. Interactivity: Virtual Reality and Literary Theory”.