“The first thirty seconds in a person’s presence are the most important” (Black Box). Likewise, the first thirty seconds on a webpage are the most important—it better be intriguing, or it’ll be getting the X.
Black Box, a short story by Jennifer Egan, was originally released through a series of tweets on her Twitter account. One tweet at a time, the story unfolds. It follows the journey of an American spy in the near future, with computer chips inserted into her body (a recording device in her ear, a camera in her eye, an emergency button in her knee, etc.), on a secret mission in the Mediterranean. It is written in second person, which makes the reader feel as though she is in a dream of her own making, as if she temporarily is the spy herself (at least, that was my experience with it). After each sentence or so, I would press the arrow to the right of the text, and I’d be presented with a couple fresh lines. The tweets are delivered in the form of instructions on how to behave as a spy:
“A microphone has been implanted just beyond the first
Activate the microphone by pressing the triangle of cartilage across your ear opening.
You will hear a faint whine as recording begins.
In extreme quiet, or to a person whose head is adjacent to yours, this whine may be audible.
Should the whine be detected, swat your ear as if to deflect a mosquito, hitting the on/off cartilage to deactivate the mike.”
The suspenseful, action-packed plot moves fluidly between instructions that guide the main character’s actions, and a narrative through the main character’s internal thoughts. These thoughts include the reasons why she must stay alive (so she can see her beloved husband again who is back in America, so that she can have children one day, etc.).
Beneath the rectangular area of screen, on which appears one tweet after another, is a paragraph about Jennifer Egan and her previous works. Beneath this paragraph is one line that says, “You can read the story — tweet by tweet — below or head over to The New Yorker for a more traditional reading experience.” I gave this option consideration—I am a traditional literature fanatic. To me, nothing beats curling up on the couch with a good Jane Austen novel (the “good” description is unnecessary). Yet, sitting in front of my bright computer screen, with the knowledge of how this story was originally released, I chose to read the 606 tweets. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but another reason, perhaps the main reason, why I didn’t want to switch to the traditional form of literature is simply because it wouldn’t hold my attention. Cuddling up with a good book, sure, but reading on my computer is an entirely different experience. I want information fast, and reading long texts on my screen is tiring. Perhaps it is because I have trained my mind to be scattered across my monitor—I have five Microsoft Word documents minimized and eight tabs open on Safari that I continuously jump back in forth between. (As a side note, I’m curious—is a Kindle perhaps the happy in between of our long and short attention spans? We can apply our long attention spans to traditional texts but they are on electronic devices, allowing us to sporadically jump between texts.)
Unlike the other electronic literature with which we’ve engaged, which is unfamiliar territory, this short story is a peg in the hole of our familiar, ever-present digital/social media world, which our generation is obsessed with to the point of addiction. All you have to do is look around a crowded room of college kids, with all their noses in their phones instead of in books—I have a feeling if we all had to give up our electronics for a week, heck, even just a day, few of us would be successful.
The other electronic literature we have analyzed is intriguing, but often frustrating because of its unfamiliarity and the effort that must be exerted to make sense of it. Black Box is refreshing because it’s new-age technology, but also familiar. It’s not a game we have to figure out—it’s a game of which we are masters.
How many times have I clicked on a link that took me to a captioned picture that’s part of a list, and mindlessly clicked, clicked, clicked, until I reached the last picture and it’s caption? How many times have we all scrolled down our Facebook News Feeds or scrolled through tweets? Buzzfeed is a perfect example of our shortening attention spans and our need for information to be presented quickly. The popular solution is to replace articles with lists—we want the key points only and we want them fast.
Black Box is without a doubt a fast-paced, action-packed, intriguing story. It circulates around the heroic endeavor of a voluntary undercover spy who is always in eminent danger, while spying in a foreign country—I was holding my breath for the majority of the read. However, in addition to the riveting plot, the components of the literary piece that make a reader want to finish it, are simply its familiarity and its short-attention-span-grabbing techniques.
Members of older generations (as a generality) think that social media sites are overflowing with an excess of stimuli—their view of our digital world may even mimic our view of William Poundstone’s Project for Tachistoscope [Bottomless Pit].
Technology is something that evolves through the generations—what is easy to a seven-year-old may prove impossible to an eighty year old. My seven-year-old niece is better at maneuvering through an iPad than I am, yet my grandma still uses a flip phone and answers it upside down.
Electronic literature is unfamiliar territory and it’s difficult to wrap one’s mind around certain electronic texts. As we discussed in class, to fully appreciate the text in all its depth would necessitate the reading the text over and over again until it was memorized completely, thus enabling the reader to forge all the possible connections. The example mentioned in class was Stephanie Strickland’s Losing L’una.
I believe our generation is just young enough to hop on for the ride, but I have a feeling it will be the generation that grows up immersed in electronic literature that will really grab this sort of literature by the horns. Through the movement of the generations, change occurs.