Vannevar Bush and the Bomb

Vannevar Bush was the head of the Manhattan Project, so his comments at the end of As We May Think were most definitely influenced by an insiders knowledge of the nuclear project, and for a man so in tune with the rapid development of technology, it can be assumed he was able to extrapolate some of the effects that the project would have. It puts his comments in a new light, and as a I read them again, I cannot help but feel a sense of urgency in his words.

Here’s a brief bio for anyone interested.

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Everybody Dies: A Nesting Doll Puzzle

I found a piece in the second Electronic Literature Collection with an interesting name: Everybody Dies.  It’s a rather short piece about a few workers at a store called Cost Cutters.  They die.  And then, fish happens.  ­

The game provides a bit of a puzzle along with people dying, and leaves some big questions unanswered at the end.  Why did Ranni and Graham die?  How did they “survive” in the void and continue to communicate beyond death, in the past?  I’m reminded of the Russian nesting dolls.  We begin with Graham, who dies, jumping back to Ranni, who dies, back to Ranni the day before, who dies, and back to Lisa the day before that.  Each death leads to the past, where our newly dead character can speak through the mind of our current character.  Our dead characters can also see and think on the world through the eyes of the current character, giving you multiple options when it comes to interacting with the world.

Really, the game is quite short.  You can finish it up in an hour or two.  I believe this game did right with the several-people-at-once interaction.  Instead of just examining something, you can look at it through the eyes of one of the other characters at the same time.  That character didn’t exist in the place or time as the current character does, but they do have a role to play in the world.  You could say the same thing for the reader, the interactor.  They see through the eyes of the reader, just as the other characters see through the eyes of the current character.  The characters all have independent thoughts, which can give you hints that lead on through the story.

But it should’ve been explored further.  The nesting doll-style story wouldn’t have been able to continue very far, but the problem that needs solving at the end doesn’t feel like justice or a solution.  SPOILERS AHEAD Patrick, our main antagonist, gets arrested through a very simple scenario of moving around some labels on lockers.  SPOILERS BEHIND I can’t say I felt like the problem had been solved within the story.  It felt more completed than solved; like the puzzle pieces I upended from the box were mostly connected to start, and I only had to fit a few together near the middle.  Or that the whole fitted puzzle didn’t look nearly as cool as the picture on the cover of the box.

There was good humor, though, and I wasn’t lacking drive to finish the game.  But there’s no sense of real discovery, no uncovering of the most important questions the reader has.  The writing itself can carry the piece a good ways, but it falls short by the end.  I want to read more of it, but there’s none left.  It ends up being a story with potential.  There are parts that work, that get your mind working on the meanings behind things.  And then it ends.

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On the Color Blue…

This is where I first encountered that study on blue in relation to Homer:

99% Invisible, another cool podcast which originally led me to that Homer podcast, has a segment concerning conceptual blueness and its representation in scifi which is also interesting. Their whole project is worth some time (if you’re interested at all in historical design or the potential futures of design and culture) – particularly their segments on revolving doors and the history of fire escapes and egress in urban design. (spoiler, they originally marketed little baskets attached to ropes for you to escape the fire out your window!)

If you’re interested at all in blue in art, definitely read up on Yves Klein.

Add your own blues in the comments!

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Convergent, Conversational, Communal Storytelling on /r/NoSleep

Electronic literature has opened the door for anyone to become a writer and share their work with a large audience. This doesn’t necessarily mean that every piece of contemporary online literature is high quality work, but the popularity of certain pieces of writing can filter the good from the bad. Certain sites allow users to vote on original content to propel the best work into the forefront of other user’s attention. Take, for example, Reddit is an online forum that has many subsections, and a democratic system of “Upvotes” and “Downvotes” that decide how popular a piece of content is. One of the most popular subforums of Reddit is called /r/NoSleep. This forum lets its users create pieces of writing that are meant to frighten readers. The guideline to this, however, is that the piece must be written as if it actually happened. Many of the stories in this forum are well done, and the community has decided on their favorite story through its use of upvotes.

Filtering the /r/NoSleep results to “Top All Time Posts,” we can read the most popular story on the subforum. This story perfectly captures the essence of the medium that is /r/NoSleep. It is titled “My dead girlfriend keeps messaging me on Facebook. I’ve got the screenshots. I don’t know what to do.” It was written by a user called “natesw.” The author of this work tells a story that supposedly takes place from August 7th, 2012 to July 1st, 2014. It takes the form of the author telling this subforum how his girlfriend died a while back, yet he still receives messages from her Facebook account. This seems real to the readers, because the author formats his work as if it were a report of a strange occurrence in his life, instead of a traditional narration. The communal format of Reddit allows this illusion to flourish, because the site is built upon the fact that its users converse with one another online. The author adds realism by including pictures of his Facebook conversations with his dead girlfriend, as well as profile pictures that his deceased lover has posthumously tagged herself in. By using pictures of chat boxes to show a conversation between the characters, the author pushes the boundaries of conventional dialogue. Instead of conveying dialogue through quotation marks, he simply posts a picture of a conversation over Facebook. Internet savvy readers in his audience are definitely familiar with Facebook chatting, so we instantly recognize these pictures and the meaning that they convey. We think of the times that we have chatted online in our own lives, which bridges the gaps between our imagination, the real world, and the universe that this story builds.

The convergence of multiple platforms adds a complex level of depth and realism to this story. The fact that the author included pictures from a chat box of another website (one that we are all familiar with) brings the audience out of Reddit and into a more real world where multiple levels of social media exist and interact with each other. In this way, this story is similar to Vidzilla’s Resolution. Both of these authors blend multiple websites together to create a richer reading experience for their audiences. The result is a transcendent piece of media that reaches out to bridge the gap of different platforms that previously might never have interacted.

Here is the story in case you would like to read it:

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Breaking out of the CAVE: Justin Katko’s “Up Against the Screen Motherfuckers”

Coming in at under three minutes, Katko’s QuickTime video is a brief and violent affair. The visuals are strikingly colorful and erratic, generated by a malfunctioning graphical interface that was fed a string of data. The only cohesive “image” that is shown, besides the myriad of colors and shapes that assault the viewer, is a momentary picture of a man wearing a military uniform and combat gear, holding a rifle in a tiny square room.

For the first minute or so, there is nothing but these images and a background of machine sounds as disjointed and seemingly random as the images. The sense of order I got from this section came only from the process of the machine that created it, as to my understanding this is a text that was generated rather than authored in a traditional sense.

At roughly the one minute mark, though, a narrator’s voice loudly announces the work’s title. His tone makes it clear that it’s not a message of welcome, but rather something more threatening. Difficult to discern while watching the on-screen chaos, the narrator (who I believe is Katko himself) reads Katko’s poetry for just over a minute.

We demand in a language, gaining clicks in a feedback tube, operated by us on a spine of ambivalent protocol – not that it matters. What matters is the fact we demand.

I have virtually zero skill or know-how when it comes to unpacking poetry, so I can’t offer much insight into the structure of his verses. In fact, if the ELO’s description hadn’t referred to it as poetry, I would have likely failed to classify it as such. Calling it literature at all seems like a stretch, as the most literary part of it (the reading) isn’t even present for over half of the video’s duration. Without the visuals, though, I don’t believe the poem would carry as much weight. Katko’s anti-screen rhetoric is being told from within the screens that he despises, a fact I find helps to mask the overall vagueness of his message.

His work is undoubtedly visceral, but the “motherfuckers” he seems to be rallying against are never identified, which leaves his piece lacking as a call-to-arms. In the fashion of punk culture, it seems he is against the system that “they” enforce, while being unsure who exactly “they” are. Are the motherfuckers the screens themselves? Or are they the people who use screens as control mechanisms within society? Having listened to it several times, I still find myself unsure of his intended meaning.

Regardless, the overthrow he’s seeking is a violent one. The still shot of the soldier remains the only human image in the whole of the work, and the room he’s standing in is a virtual reality training simulator, not unlike the ones I’ve personally experienced. As both the visuals and voiceover cut out with half a minute or so left in the video, the reader is left with a black screen and machine-like sounds in the background. This time, the sounds aren’t random; they have the rhythm and tempo of machine guns, fired rapidly and with purpose. I can’t help but imagine that these are the sounds of Katko’s soldier, shooting his way out to freedom from the screens that surrounded him on all sides.

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Visuals are Just as Important as the Writing!

I chose to focus on Donna Leishman’s RedRidinghood from 2001, found here .

I had high hopes for this piece. Interactive literature, based on a fairy tale but with added adult themes, feminist creator, almost entirely visual? It sounds a lot like some of my own work in the Studio Arts department.

What an absolute disappointment.

The story opens on a cityscape, and key colored points lead the viewer to clicking into the apartment of Red Riding Hood and her mother. We know the story, the mother hands Red a basket and Red exits the apartment and the city. She walks down a wooded path and we see what totally looks like a raccoon following her but I guess it is supposed to be a wolf. We then see the wolf ride up to Red in all his grey-haired-skater-boy glory on a razor scooter (yes, really). He licks his lips at her and then scoots away, and Red wanders off the path to pick wildflowers and falls asleep.

The most interesting part of the entire piece happens in a separate pop-up while Red is sleeping in the flowers, and it seems to only come up on the first play-through, because I have been unable to make it appear in subsequent viewings. A small pop up window, titled “My Secret is My Mind” appears and displays the “password protected” (we are given the password) diary of what I can only assume is the wolf. We get insight into his disturbed mind, seeing his obsession with Red, and his desire to either own or kill her. We also get the sense that he is significantly older than the girl, as the first page reads “you make me feel like I am young again you make me feel like I am home again HOW EVER FAR AWAY I will always love you however long I stay”. There are also references to Satan, possible demonic possession, and the “wolf” persona being an aspect of the man that he cannot control.

After perusing the wolf’s diary, you are prompted to wake up Red. We watch as the wolf enters Red’s Grandmother’s house, and sees the Grandmother sitting up in bed. We then return to Red, watch her enter the house and see her gaze upon a darken bed which we see has the wolf lying in it. The scene then quickly changes to a side view of Red laying in the bed with a swollen stomach, and if you hover over the stomach you can see a tiny naked version of the wolf swirling around in there. The wolf then enters the room with a gun and holds it to Red’s temple, and then the game ends.

I would have thoroughly enjoyed this piece if only the visuals weren’t so god awful. The entire animation looks like something a 14 year old drew and posted on Deviantart circa 2005.  I mean, really, the quality of the visuals here is almost offensive. As someone who does freelance digital art, I can say with certainty that whoever drew this either only spent about an hour and a half on the whole thing, or had never tried drawing on the computer in their life before the moment they went into MS Paint and threw this together. Majority of my time at Pitt has been spent driving the point that when it comes to literature, the visuals are just as important as what is written, and this piece just proves my point. Leishman thanks Angela Carter in her credits, apparently inspired by Carter’s modernized, sexually charged adaptions of fairy tales. I have always been a fan of Carter, and part of what makes her stories work is the way her stories are presented like pieces of Gothic literature. There is a sense of sophistication that adds to the grotesqueness of her narrative. Leishman’s adaption of Red Riding Hood relies far more on visuals than it does on text, and because the animation accompanying her story is so juvenile it makes her whole story seem like something an edgy 14 year old dreamed up in their emo phase after reading Twilight.

PS. Here is a link to one of my digital pieces, based on The Little Mermaid, just to prove that you can make complex visuals entirely on the computer based on fairy tales with added adult themes.

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The Book of Sand: Agency in the Reader-Book Relationship

The Book of Sand by Jorge Luis Borges is a hypertext that consists of eight pages in random order. The text includes clues that the reader can use to rearrange the pages into a cohesive chronological narrative. If the reader rearranges the pages in the correct order, then her name is entered into the game’s Hall of Fame (this particular page is no longer online as of March 31st, 2015).

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The interface resembles an old book on a simple gray background. Each page includes just a few paragraphs with at least one picture. The pictures aren’t static; they dissolve and change into new images every few seconds.

In the text, a first-person narrative tells the story of a man who invites a door-to-door Bible salesman into his home. The salesman offers the man The Book of Sand, an infinite tome whose pages change every time the reader closes it. The man barters with the salesman to get the book. After the salesman leaves, the man spends months pouring over the book. He realizes that it’s starting to control his life, so he sneaks into a library and leaves it on a shelf.

Although The Book of Sand has the appearance of a book, the work acts a metaphor for new technologies of communication. By making this work resemble an old print book, Borges sets up a parallel in the reader’s mind between the historical Old Book (the root-book) and the New Book (the rhizome).

Yet Borges’s work differs from many works of interactive literature in that it presents a single correct way to solve the game that comprises its system. It doesn’t try to trick the reader; it’s not terribly hard to figure out the correct order. Instead, it draws attention to the process of reading.

Borge’s work communicates that the book has agency. Indeed, Borges is known to embrace “the character of unreality in all literature.”1 He flips the traditional notion that the reader yields power over the book; The Book of Sand is infinite, unlike the reader, manifesting the teleological end of the Book.

However, Borge limits the book’s agency. In the end, the first-person narrator closes The Book of Sand and gives it away. Likewise, the reader can stop reading at any time and is free to read the book in the “incorrect” order.

Katherine Hayles describes the agency in the reader-book relationship. In Electronic Literature, she explains that the book is a computer program that “functions as a receptacle for the cognitions of the writer that are stored until activated by a reader, at which point a complex transmission process takes place between writer and reader, mediated by the specificities of the book as a material medium” (57). Yet Borges complicates this idea; his hypertext is a rhizomatic novel that has more power over the reader than the traditional root-book, gaining its own agency.

Do you agree with Borges that the New Book (the Rhizome) has agency over the reader? If so, to what extent?

  1. Jozef, Bella. “Borges: linguagem e metalinguagem”. In: O espaço reconquistado. Petropolis, RJ: Vozes, 1974, p.43.
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