An Erratic Tachistoscope

Although advancements in printing techniques increased the proliferation of books around the world, the user interface of books has remained relatively the same through the centuries. While the way a book is produced today is different than it was several hundred years ago, the object that ends up in readers’ hands functions as an object much as it has from the start. Content has certainly undergone radical shifts over this time period, but the physical book remains functionally the same. Moreover, the book itself is a standardized interface, working- on a content-distribution level- largely the same for one reader as it will for any other.

William Poundstone’s Project for Tachistoscope, on the other hand, has a curious relationship with the technology used in its viewing. As a text that exists in code rather than on a printed page, it isn’t a self-contained object the way that a book is. Tachistoscope must be viewed through a computer. To view it, you have to tell your computer to enact its creation on the screen so that you can access its content.

This isn’t fundamentally unique by any means, as all digital works display their interface through this process of enactment. Tachistoscope is interesting here because of how important the passage of time is to this text in particular. Having divorced itself from a format where the reader decides the speed at which to view the work, Poundstone is playing with “rapidly flashed (“subliminal”) words and images to complicate the perception of an electronic text”(found in the System Requirements located on the main menu).

To that end, the extremely short time that each slide is present on the screen is vital to the intended complication. While I found the narrative of the (decidedly terrifying) “Pit” relatively interesting in its own right, it wouldn’t do the same kinds of work if it was read as a static text across a page, whether printed or digital. After sitting through the 9ish minute text for the first time on my relatively nice, decently-powered laptop, I decided to see just how different the text might be on the Cold War-era machine my roommate has.

This experiment lead to the conclusion that he needs a new laptop, but also that Tachistoscope is extremely dependent on the device it gets viewed through. The rapid pace of the text was disorienting on my laptop (as intended), but on sub-par hardware it was rendered completely unreadable. Sometimes the slides would advance slower than a couple per minute (it started an antivirus scan that brought it to a crawl about two minutes in), while at other points it would speed through them as normal or even skip several slides entirely. Despite containing the exact same code, the program was entirely different when displayed on two different devices. Where printed text is both the content and the delivery system, a digital work like Tachistoscope is radically dependent on the computer system that is enacting it. For authors of digital works, this means they must consider the hardware constraints of their potential audience, or risk rendering their own text unreadable.

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3 Responses to An Erratic Tachistoscope

  1. I’m really glad to see you focusing on machinic specificity. I think that how the text encourages its readers to account for the materiality of the machine they’re reading it on is one of the most interesting things that Tachitoscope does. Nice post.

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  2. charlenejo says:

    Electronic literature’s relationship to (to use Brad’s word) its machinic specificity is interesting to me in that I wonder what happens to the archive of knowledge when parts of it become inaccessible due to technological advancement? We’ve already experienced what happens in 10 years to the electronic media that we’ve viewed in class–will we even be able to access Mary Shelley’s patchwork girl in 2025? Will Project for Tachistoscope begin to move so quickly that we can’t diciefer any of the forefront words, let alone the trolling white background? As another post mentions, the code used to make many of these texts hasn’t changed (because code doesn’t change?), but the programs needed to run them do.

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  3. charlenejo says:

    Follow up: This is not a “new” concern–but one that has plagued technological advance since we shifted to print. But whereas before the archive was to be destroyed by an atom bomb, now it’s the advancement of the technology (of the form) that excludes certain texts overtime, as it fails to be compatible with their programming or hardware needs (eg: floppy disks).

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