I was sent this link by a friend. It turned out to be a piece of e-lit on Overland online by Tully Hansen titled too simply, Writing. As it happens I know young Tully a bit but was nonetheless delighted by the sheer inventive cleverness of Writing. (Note: I couldn’t get this happening on my iPhone but had to go desktop.)
by Tully Hansen
Click a word — it expands into another set of words. It all happens on the same slate so you can’t tell when the writing ends, which I found surprisingly unsettling. And as choicemust be made, where you end is unpredictable too. Ingenious.
That it became a viral hit did not surprise. Tully says he even had a response from Ghana. The talented Mr Hansen was also the winner of the Monash Prize at the Emerging Writers’ Festival last year. (His witty Creative Writing Commencement Address from earlier this year.)
Anyway I was prompted to ask for Tully Hansen’s E-lit for Beginners, a very different reading experience for old analogists like myself. I suppose one could say that games is the ruling principle of this new generation of text creation.
Tully notes: “Turned out long and link-heavy, but figure it’s a blog post, so…?” So … here it (all) is: boldly go where you may not have gone before —
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Tully Hansen’s elit for bginners
Electronic literature—elit—is a field near as difficult to define precisely as it is to capitalise and punctuate correctly. That something of the electronic or technological obtains to works in the genre seems clear; that there is necessarily a literary or textual component is likewise self-evident. And perhaps that’s enough to be getting on with, as far as a working definition goes: something to do with text and tech.
Given the list format comes as standard issue with every blogging license handed out by the W3C, what follows then is a selective index of interesting wordy things happening online, and the people happening them. Most of these works are freely accessible online, and they’re generally short enough to be taken in at a single sitting. Qualified only by virtue of being a digital native whose tastes skew screenwise and codewards, I make no claims to comprehensiveness—let alone authority!—but hope that, somewhere in these technoliterary byways and back alleys off the information superhighway’s main drag, the adventurous reader might find some diversion and delight.
Fitting, then, to begin with this loopy little videogame review. It’s become a touchstone for my technotextual explorations in that I keep coming back to it as an exemplar of the form – or rather for the way form and function(ality) can be inextricably entwined. Infinity Blade was an early marquee gaming title for the iPhone, consisting of a series of tappy-swipey battles in a medieval(ish) castle and grounds. The game almost invariably resulted in defeat at the hands of the final overpowered boss, at which point it would dump you back at the beginning ‘seventeen years later’, a representative of the next generation armed with all the experience and loot of your forebears to challenge the castle once more (a conceit taken to (hilarious) extremes in Rogue Legacy).
Geist mirrors this in the iterative unfolding of his text, which is somewhere between hypertext and animated gif. With each textual ‘bloodline’ the work effaces and rewrites parts of itself, but at a stately, measured pace – the text transforms into a durational medium, forcing the reader to slow, to reflect: on what is said now, on what was said before, on what has changed. Each time through the line of argument wanders further and further from where it began, condensing and coalescing into a reading of Infinity Blade that sits a great distance from a conventional videogame review. Such textual self-effacement can’t help but be read as writerly revisionism, a getting at what the piece was always trying to say, and perhaps this is at last what draws me back, again and again: it reads like an intelligent mind at work.
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Slime-slick neo(n)-insurgent at the helm of a revolution against (or is it a secession from?) gaming’s stultifying culture, Porpentine – along with Anna Anthropy and others – is one of the harbingers of the hypertext renaissance of late, brought about through the growing adoption of the Twine authoring system. Free to download, usable on almost any hardware and easy to get to grips without needing programming knowledge, Twine’s rise to prominence has been twinned with a flourishing of works from individuals and groups whose voices and stories rarely represented or even acknowledged in mainstream videogame culture.
One of numerous works available on her site, HIGH END CUSTOMIZABLE SAUNA EXPERIENCE was originally intended as a brief performance piece, to be played in front of an audience with choices made by fiat or crowd consensus. To this end, the story’s text is big and bold (pink/white all caps against black), sentences short and punchy, with subtle animation enlivening proceedings. The piece works just as well solo, making good on the promise of its title: you’ve never had a sauna experience so high end or so customisable, whether your tastes run to cute little octopy or foot-massaging sea anemones.
This points to one of interactive storytelling’s great strengths, in that the reader (interlocutor?) gets to make decisions and have the tale tailor itself to suit. The degree of agency a reader has to choose, and the effect these choices have on the outcome may ultimately be minimal, but the act of choosing seems to serve to increase the reader’s investment in the narrative.
EVERY HACKER KNOWS THE GREATEST OPERATING SYSTEM EVER INVENTED
IS THE GUN
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Despite the physical release of his debut novel last year, American ‘writer × media inventor’ Robin Sloan has always seemed more internet than print. Or perhaps Sloan himself dances the flip-flop, bouncing back and forth between digital and physical in fruitful ways. Whatever it is, my favourite of his ‘media inventions’ is Fish, a brief ‘tap essay’ originally conceived of as an iPhone app, then later released on the wider web using Tapestry (the free online authoring tool it helped to inspire). The result ends up much like a PowerPoint presentation you read to yourself.
Sloane’s essay dwells on the distinction between ‘liking’ and ‘loving’ something online, and intersperses colour, image and typographic treatment into what might otherwise be a blog post (which is not to diminish the piece – Sloan’s a founding father at one of the best weblogs around, after all). As with the Infinity Blade review above, the way in which the reader progresses the text (in this case, short segments or sentences are doled out each time the screen is tapped or clicked) changes the way that what is written is received. Given the small amount of text on screen at any one time, the format seems to encourage a more reflective reading mode, and care must be taken not to tap ahead (narratives progress inexorably onwards). At the same time, taps can serve as a kind of secondary punctuation, with a similar or identical screens creating a pause in proceedings, or even used to mimic cinematic techniques (as Sloane does in the final few ‘pages’). Finally, sharing buttons embedded in the text itself at certain (pre-defined, tweetable) junctures allow for the spread of key points or messages, a feature well fitted to Sloane’s pithy, at times almost aphoristic style.
This form also seems to lend itself to the sort of close consideration that be(ne)fits (some) poetry: see also Jonathon O. Minard’s rendering of Adrienne Rich’s poem Hubble Photographs: After Sappho.
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A five month project which ran from July to November this year, We Think Alone was a glimpse into the email correspondences of the rich and famous (or at least the Miranda-July-acquainted and net-connected). Part serial, part confessional, part performance, the ten participants (ranging in fame from Catherine Opie to Kirsten Dunst) were tasked with trawling their archives once a week for dispatches matching an assigned ‘email genre’: An Email About Money; An Email That Mentions Barack Obama; An Email That Includes A Picture of Art. These messages were then collated and redistributed – again, via email – to the project mailing list (which, by November, boasted some 100,000 members).
As mentioned in July’s artist statement, there’s a tension between private and public at play: these were personal correspondences, but only those chosen by their original authors as fit for rebroadcast. As a recipient, I thought about unsubscribing but I never got round to doing it; I don’t know if I stayed on out of laziness or voyeurism or just some growing fondness (born of repeated exposure) for these strangers’ voices in my inbox each week. Certainly that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar seems one heck of a nice guy.
… our inner life is not actually the same thing as our life on the computer — a quiet person might !!!! a lot. A person with a busy mind might write almost nothing.
Though the project is over, one might try instead Jon Bell’s Things mailing list, about which the less said, the better.
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Steve Roggenbuck is possessed of both a name to conjure with and a positivity to be reckoned with, the torrents of his joy overflowing every video and blog post and gif and selfie and tweet he posts (and he does post a lot). Social media serves as both his meter and his métier, and he advocates for the poet’s experience and engagement with the world to serve as poetic product, as much as anything recorded or written down. Perhaps best known for his Youtube videos, this indoor piece to camera is unrepresentative, sedate; more often he seems to be shouting and bounding about out of doors. Part Walt Whitman (of whom he is an avowed fan), part Ze Frank, part snake-oil self-help guru, part vegan frickwad, part meme, Roggenbuck is also (at time of writing) running a Kickstarter campaign to set up Boost House, a vegan community publishing house in Brunswick, Maine, which will no doubt be large, contain multitudes…
And to be a poet while the internet exists… mmmm, MAN we got an opportunity!
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Cut from the same cloth (or rather, woven with the same thread) as Porpentine’s piece, Christine Love’s Wild West gunslinger cowgirl coming-of-age could scarcely be more different in visual aesthetic, tone, and mood. The two works not only look dissimilar, but behave differently as well. Here each hair-trigger link is set off as soon as the cursor (now a pistol sight) touches the text. Even Cowgirls Bleed is so brief that to say much more does it a disservice, but it serves to remind the reader that choice can be just as effective in making a point about fatalism as it can about freedom (underscored by some visceral text effects).
(Extra credit: take an hour to play through Toby Fox’s Undertale demo, which also plays with choice and consequences and player agency. Then come back and tell me it didn’t break your heart just like this does.)
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Some works of elit may be manufactured by programmatic or machine-assisted means, yet yield a static, “conventional” final form. Such is the case with Even More Ultraviolent Homer, a novel available to download for free in PDF format. (The book is one of the works to result from this year’s inaugural NaNoGenMo, in which participants spent the month of November writing scripts and software to generate 50,000-word-plus texts. See also: Ranjit Bahtnagar’s verse novel, I got a alligator for a pet!).
Even More Ultraviolent Homer is the output of Chevalier’s own program, taking as its source Leconte de Lisle’s 1866 French translation of The Iliad. This source text is then broken down into component parts and reassembled, first having discarded any sentences without direct reference to hitting, striking or wounding. The result, as the author puts it, is a work that ‘conveys the feeling of a terrific chaotic ultra gore battle where nobody understands who’s fighting whom but everybody is shouting terrible things and randomly “plunging acute iron into tender flesh”.’ And, thanks to Google Translate, one need not even read French:
And Achilles raised his spear to strike him, but Lycaon grabbed his knees, bending, and the spear, eager to bite the flesh, sank into the ground, passing over his back. And he was striking all around him, and with his sword, he was raising the moaning of the wounded, and blood was reddening water. And he struck Deucalion, where the nerves meet the elbow. Then he struck, with his spear, to the knee, the wide and large Démokhos Philétoride, and then, with his strong sword, he tore his soul.
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Finally, I come to bury @Horse_ebooks, not to praise him; the evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bots. So it was with Jacob Bakkila and Thomas Bender, who in September put out to pasture the beloved, believed-automated account whose rose to internet celebrity on a wave of non-sequiturs and sentence fragments, spawning a fan art cottage industry in the process. Arguably Peak Horse had been reached some time prior, but to have the curtain pulled back to reveal two men with another curtain to sell us was galling, to say the least. (Yes, these metaphors are mixed; yes, I’m still quite upset about the whole thing.)
Still, it did serve to raise public awareness of Twitter bots, even if the term ‘Markov chain’ was bandied about with a little too much abandon. Twitter being largely a textual medium seems – along with a relatively liberal stance on pseudonymous account creation – to have fostered a flourishing of benign bot accounts.
These autonomous, automated text generators work away at whatever algorithm has been assigned them, pursuing their own little conceptual art projects: tweeting every word in alphabetical order (in Dutch, even), or mashing up disparate data – quotes from French sociologist Bruno Latour with Law and Order synopses, say, or Bruno Latour quotes crossed with #teen #swag tweets (bit of a thing for Latour among the botmaker set).
Though a bot’s output can be enjoyed in isolation, in many cases their appeal seems to lie in their utterances (‘Reality is constructed out of disorder and my napkin. #swag #swiggitySwootyImcominForThatBooty’) appearing in your timeline at infrequent intervals, interleaved among the breakfasts and Buzzfeeds of your regular human followees.
Hard to single out favourites (and, as joint proprietor of @botALLY, I’ve something of a vested interest), so here’s two of late: @AndNowImagine, which works by combing through and combining the fantasies and delusions of Twitter users the world over, and @TonyAbotMHR, whose policy platforms and #auspol interventions make about as much sense as those of the real one.
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New Year’s esolutions
This list barely scratches elit’s silicon surface, can do no more than jab a enthusiastic finger (á la Roggenbuck) towards a few interesting lit-ish things happening out in the wider web world.
Should you find the scratching, jabbing digit of this graf’s mettled manglephor has given you a taste for the stuff, there are plenty of places for further exploration, including but by no means limited to: the collections at ELMCIP and I ♥ E-Poetry, for starters; gnoetry daily and TROLL THREAD and Oscar Schwarz’s blog; Forest Ambassador and TwineHub and this year’s Interactive Fiction Competition; and many more digital destinations besides.
Enjoy exploring (which is perhaps the verb which best suits elit’s many modes of interaction – certainly, in light of the above, “reading” seems too limited a designation), and have a safe and happ-e new year.
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