Reading and Writing Literature in the Digital Age
Things change fast in the digital age, including methods of reading and writing. Indeed, the omnipresence of electronic media, as generated by the Internet, is transforming literacy practices across the board. The common use of various electronic communication devices – from the personal computer, to smart phones, and beyond – means reading and writing traditions are being eroded; this process, in turn, is opening up literature to genre-breaking innovation. The changes taking place are profound: novels are written and read on screens; online blogs have a rapidly increasing fan base; the newspaper industry is investing huge amounts of money and energy towards electronic publishing; a vast array of print magazines and journals are available in electronic format; and the popularity of ebooks has skyrocketed. As our reliance upon electronic communication systems increases, we are accessing hypertext – the engine room of the Internet – with greater frequency and confidence than ever before.
Given the crucial role played by hypertext in shaping contemporary literacy practices, it's important to attempt a definition. Basically, a hypertext allows readers to follow hyperlinks that lead to other sections within the same text, or to material beyond the text's boundaries. By enabling readers to jump forwards or backwards through written material, hyperlinks provide texts with a degree of flexibility that’s unlikely ever to be achieved in print. In addition, moving to material beyond the borders of a text takes readers into cyberspace, where different texts can become connected with an entire world of information. Navigating this world not only requires readers to interact with an interface but also prompts them to choose what and how they will read. Consequently, the once quite clear lines of distinction between the roles undertaken by writers and readers are disintegrating with both agents increasingly called upon to co-construct meaning. The pertinent question is as follows: what does this change mean for the future of printed literature? Realistically, there are no clear-cut indicators as to where print is headed. However, insights into the likely direction of printed works can be gleaned by looking to present developments in the electronic realm.
The book has morphed tremendously over the past few years. Contemporary readers can check out texts on a wide range of platforms, including the iPad, Kobo, Kindle, Nook, Onyx BOOX, as well as Sony’s PRS reader series. The far-flung use of these devices, which are often linked to the Internet, suggests reading has become closely aligned with active browsing as we scan, follow links, and switch topics. Ready access to audio and video is also impacting upon the way we engage with texts, allowing us to "click" in order to hear or view related information. Subsequently, interactive and digressive reading habits are the norm rather than the exception with a growing number of people expecting more from books than simply words on a page.
Digital literacy skills are becoming more widespread as the Internet’s accessibility improves, at least in parts of the more developed world. The electronic sphere requires both readers and writers to understand the interplay of various digital elements, such as hyperlinks, colors, sound processing, video operations, and aspects of interface interaction. Special attention must also be paid to decoding visual symbols, which permeate electronic media. As a result, contemporary authors (working in both print and electronic media) are encountering opportunities to work with texts in unconventional ways. At the very least, writers using digital technologies are being granted an unprecedented degree of choice as to how they manipulate language; we are now readily able to experiment with space, page layout, and typographical design. Use of these technologies is therefore having a tremendous effect upon the content, form, structure, appearance, and meaning of texts.
Changes accompanying the digital age do not herald a complete break from the past, but foreground patterns of recycling and adaptation in which new forms of media absorb and re-present elements of older mediums. Take, for instance, how ebook screens can be swiped in a way that mimics the turning of a page or how electronic blogs can be posted on a page designed to emulate paper with features of dog-eared corners adding depth and texture. In short, while electronic media, particularly the Internet, is reconfiguring literacy practices, it’s not necessarily supplanting print. Rather, developments propelled by digital technologies are influencing readers and writers in a way that begs the question: where to next? In order to gain a clearer understanding of what the future may hold, it helps to investigate how literacy practices have changed in the past.
For hundreds of years, patterns of reading and writing have been shaped by the codex. This Roman invention, which replaced the scroll, initially entailed the stitching together of wooden leaf tablets and was later developed into the printed book format we recognize today. While easier to handle than the scroll, the codex still provided readers with blocks of text that unfold in a linear fashion. Interestingly, early word processors echoed the relative linearity of the scroll and codex by presenting closed, unlinked electronic texts that enabled readers to simply move up or down a sequence of pages. However, this all changed when more advanced computers allowed for the introduction of electronic hypertext.
Fundamentally, hypertext has turned the book on its head, challenging traditional assumptions associated with the printed medium. Rather than following a fairly uniform flow where words are fixed upon the page, hypertext presents information as a network of textual links to be navigated, explored, and operated. The connections pursued in a hypertext are largely dependent upon reader choice, allowing us to switch from one idea to another or even to flick between screens. It follows that hypertextual systems – especially those encountered on the Internet – are creating a space where literature (and associated literacy practices) is becoming less of a final product and more of a process-oriented experience. Users must interact with reading material, negotiate electronic spaces, and adjust to abrupt changes in pace, direction, and content, all while striving to interpret meaning. These interactive, digressive reading patterns are encapsulated by the genre of electronic literature, which has well and truly stretched the boundaries of storytelling.
Although contemporary electronic literature often draws upon aspects of multi-media, including sound, visuals, and motion, the genre was initially associated with hypertext fiction. This type of fiction is characterised by hyperlinks that harness networked structures and multiple reading paths. As we know from our use of the Internet, internal hyperlinks allow readers to jump around, both inside and outside a text. This "linkage" device is demonstrated within works like Michael Joyce's afternoon: a story (1990), Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden (1992), and Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl (1995), all of which are important examples of early hypertext fiction.
Throughout the nineties, the development of more sophisticated computer programs took the interactivity of texts to a whole new level. With its incorporation of sound, spoken text, motion, color, and graphics, electronic literature became far more complex. These developments are reflected in groundbreaking hypertextual works, such as Grammatron by Amerika (1997) and Twelve Blue: Story in Eight Bars by Michael Joyce (1997), which draw readers into the sensory-rich realm of multi-media.
Essentially a playful piece, Joyce's web-based Twelve Blue entices readers to follow threads of narrative via clickable links that "yield" and cause the screen to shift in some way (by bringing previously invisible images to the fore or taking readers to a different section of the text). Reading Twelve Blue is therefore redolent of surfing the net, with the text providing a continuous flow of prose, visuals, associations, and connected events. Not surprisingly, the emergent plot is a little difficult to follow: the content of Twelve Blue seems to shift with every reading, defying Aristotelian conventions of a clear beginning, middle. and end. However, persistent readers will discover that the characters are connected by various events; these events are described by Joyce himself (on the Electronic Literature Collection website) as "a drowning, a murder, a friendship, three or four love affairs."
At the entry point of Twelve Blue, the screen displays a rectangular box that features twelve largely parallel horizontal lines of different colors, with each line resembling a thread of yarn. (See Figure 1 below.) Divided into eight bars, the threads change orientation as they are played; navigation is facilitated by clicking on threads located on the left-hand side of the page, or by clicking on yielding words. Readers then drift through a series of narrative sequences and images, developing insights into different characters as they go.
Figure 1: Screenshot of Twelve Blue by Joyce (1997). Image accessed at: http://collection.eliterature.org/1/works/joyce__twelve_blue.html.
Character development throughout this piece is subtle; Joyce allows readers to explore their experiences, which are often connected by associative meanings, along with the use of repetitive and symbolic language. Reading Twelve Blue equates with experiencing the narrative as a diffuse whole, whereby events and characters deliver an overall impression of events, rather than a clear understanding of causal plot.
The turn of the Millennium saw the emergence of sophisticated electronic link-node poems, including The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot by Strickland (1999), Dispossession by Kendall (1999), and Lexia to Perplexia by Memmott (2000). These works demonstrate electronic literature's capacity to produce multiple meanings through linkage, nonlinearity. and repetition. Riding the wave of new media, they also epitomize the ability of the computer interface to instill literature with unique effects. In this sense, visuals, sound, and motion combine with facets of interactivity to create sensory novelty.
It’s worth taking a closer look at Lexia to Perplexia, which presents both topical and thought-provoking content. This visual spectacle explores themes concerning the disintegration of boundaries between body and machine and serves as a metaphor for the increasing entanglement of human and artificial intelligences. Neither lyrical poem nor prose fiction, Lexia to Perplexia is a genre-breaking work in which computer code and text interplay. Lacking traditional elements of narrative, such as plot, rising tension and resolution, Memmott's work is presented as a series of interactive sequences in which various textual cues – including rollovers, pop-ups and even booby-traps – are embedded. These features regularly overlay the text, creating an impression of interruption that subverts the flow of information. Efforts of interpretation become swamped by a sea of strange language infected by computer code. Featuring graphics, glyphs, dots, dashes, brackets, and fragments of narrative that come together and disappear again, Lexia to Perplexia draws attention to the permeation of computer code into the very structures of everyday communication. (See Figure 2 below.)
Figure 2: Screenshot of Lexia to Perplexia by Memmott (2000). Image accessed at:
Lexia to Perplexia blends the languages of human and machine, effectively symbolizing the emergence of the cyborg in a posthuman world. Additionally, Memmott's work underscores the computer as an interactive and programmable medium that provides fertile ground for the production of innovative literature.
Like Lexia to Perplexia, many other digital poems demonstrate the propensity of electronic media to re-invent literature. For instance, the dreamlife of letters by Stefans (2000), Landscapes by Marsh (2002), C.O.G. (I) by Glazier (2002), and human-machine-mind by Johnston (2009) are motion-based compositions that exhibit a multi-media fanfare. These works immerse readers in a thick, viscous medium, in which the language becomes a form of literal art: letters and signs are able to morph and perform as they move across the screen, often in response to reader interactivity.
The genre of generative electronic literature takes the idea of reader participation a step further. These electronic works typically use a combination of algorithms to create random effects. An excellent example of generative poetry is Concatenation by Geniwate (2005), which taps into substantial themes, including interracial tensions, world politics, and human vulnerability. (See Figure 3 below.) The poem draws upon the cut up technique embraced by experimental writers like William Burroughs, who cut up pieces of a completed work before re-arranging them to form a new text. In this regard, Concatenation provides readers with a responsive, interactive space in which letters can be clicked upon; doing so prompts phrases and lines to appear upon the screen. Algorithms provide certain rules as to how and when lines of text appear, so that the poem isn’t as random as a cut-up. Nevertheless, there seems to an unpredictable quality running through the piece that suggests a sense of spontaneous performance.
Figure 3: Screenshot of Concatenation by Geniwate (2005). Image accessed at:
Lexia to Perplexia and Concatenation – along with a multitude of other electronic pieces – offer interactive experiences that are taking literature to new and exciting places. Furthermore, their collage-like effects heighten the extent to which readers must fill in the textual gaps, making them co-producers rather than recipients of meaning. Such innovative works are throwing down the gauntlet, challenging writers to stretch the constraints of print. We need only look at experimental novels such as Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000), Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts (2007), and Larsen’s The Selected Works of TS Spivet (2009), to know the challenge is being accepted.
It’s fair to say that – as a driving force behind new directions in storytelling – the electronic medium is re-molding literacy practices, as well as the very nature of literature. While the future impact of technology is difficult to predict, it’s likely that ongoing experimentation within electronic and print media will produce texts that exhibit an unprecedented degree of linkage and visuality; this process, in turn, will require readers and writers alike to further adapt their literacy skills. Perhaps, too, printed texts will reflect present media convergence trends – where different mediums can be accessed on a single platform – by incorporating direct links to the Internet. This linkage is already possible with scannable Quick Response codes allowing readers to leap from the printed page straight into cyberspace using a suitable smart phone or electronic reading device. Significantly, this capability allows features of multi-media to bleed through into printed works. It’s only a matter of time before this potential comes to fruition and the aesthetics of multi-media are married with print: this development will be another game-changer in terms of how literature is written and experienced around the world.
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