Dear Reader: How are you reading these words? On which device? Through which interface? Can you read the source code of this web ‘page’? Can you re-write it? Why does it matter? We have machines for that, we have apps!
In Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound Lori Emerson sets out to demystify the wondrous devices of our digital age by interrogating both the limits and the creative possibilities of a wide range of reading and writing interfaces. For Emerson, interface is an open-ended term – a threshold, a point of interaction between human and hardware, between hardware and software, between reader and writer, and between human-authored writing and the vast corpus of machine-based text relentlessly reading and writing itself behind the surface of the screen.
In order to make visible some of the now seemingly invisible aspects of contemporary media structures, Emerson takes a media-archaeological approach to presenting a nonlinear material history of reading and writing media. Drawing upon Siegfried Zielinski’s ‘Deep time of the Media’, in which we are reminded that “the current state of the art does not necessarily represent the best possible state” (7), Emerson cites examples from an earlier era of computing based on a philosophy of open and extensible hardware. For a glimpse into this world, watch ‘The Mother of All Demos’. This name was given retrospectively to Douglas Engelbart’s December 9, 1968, demonstration of experimental computer technologies that are now commonplace.
Throughout Reading Writing Interfaces Emerson advocates for learning through doing, tinkering, experimentation, and trial and error, an approach she has fostered through the foundation, in 2009, of The Media Archaeology Lab (MAL) at University of Colorado at Bolder – “a place for cross-disciplinary experimental research and teaching using obsolete tools, hardware, software and platforms, from the past.” Her in-depth discussion of ‘First Screening’ – an early example of digital literature created by Canadian poet bpNichol in 1983-84 – is based on her own hands-on study of the open architecture of the Apple IIe, the computer upon which it was created.
Emerson charts a critical shift in the meaning of’ transparency’ away from the command line toward a ‘user-friendly’ graphic user interface (GUI) in which users have little or no comprehension of either the hardware or the software they consume. “The user-friendly now takes the shape of keeping users steadfastly unaware and uninformed about how their computers, their reading/writing interfaces, work, let alone how they shape and determine their access to knowledge”(49).
It is hardly surprising that digital publishing has embraced the iPad as a platform. “The iPad works because users can’t know how it works” (15). It is a read-only device. It provides consumers to access materials created by others, but does not invite us to generate new materials. If you are reading this on laptop or desktop computer, you can right-click on this page, select View Page Source, copy and paste source code, and re-write if you want to. If, however, you are reading this on an iPhone, iPad, or similar device, you will not have easy access to the vast sub-text lurking behind these words.
One must be able to read and write to be literate, hence Emerson’s fusing of reading and writing into readingwriting – an indivisible set of processes and, at times, a decidedly disruptive act. Emerson points her readers to a range of contemporary digital writers who are challenging or troubling the so-called invisible user-friendly interfaces of bland branded ubiquitous computing by embracing visibility and courting difficulty, defamiliarization, and glitch in order to draw attention to the limits these technologies place on our thoughts and our expressions thereof. For example, in ‘_cross.ova.ing ][4rm.blog.2.log][_’ MEZ incorporates linguistic elements from source code, game space, social medial, and augmented reality into literary text through a language system she terms _mezangelle_. Eric Loyer’s app ‘Strange Rain’ requires a bodily engagement with reading. Falling rain and/or text and sounds respond to sustained interaction by means of tilting, rotating, and touching, rather than scrolling, flipping, or clicking in the ways e-books have trained us to read. Jörg Piringer’s app “abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz” invites users to create their own kinetic poetry by randomly selecting, setting into motion, and altering the behaviours of letters on screen. Jason Lewis and Bruno Nadeau’s P.O.e.M.M. series (Poetry for Excitable [Mobile] Media) invites users to engage with the material yet ephemeral qualities of poetic texts entirely through touch. For example, ‘Speak’ (a free download from iTunes) is an interactive poem about mistaken identity and the confusion that happens when people believe you are somebody you are not. In version 2, the ‘Speak’ app became a mini-platform hosting texts about place, voice, and the nature of poetry featuring four commissioned texts written by guest poets. In version 3, users can enter their own text, or they can feed the app with text from a Twitter stream.
As the subtitle From the Digital to the Bookbound suggests, Emerson’s examination of reading and writing interfaces is by no means limited to the digital realm. Emerson states: ‘Throughout this book I try to produce a friction from reading new media interfaces with, into, and against old media interfaces” (129). She points to Emily Dickinson as a 19th century poet working with and pushing the boundaries of pen, pencil, and loosely-bound, unbound, and/or pinned paper fascicles (bundles or clusters) as media, as tools, as processes, and as interfaces. By reading Dickinson’s fascicles along side contemporary works of digital literature, including Mary Flanagan’s “[the house]”, Aya Karpinska & Daniel C. Howe’s “open.ended”, and Judd Morrissey’s “The Jew’s Daughter” , Emerson demonstrates that the digital literary is less an abrupt break from the bookbound than an ongoing conversation between writers past and present working on thresholds between space and time, between reader and writer, between variable and static, and readable and unreadable text.
Drawing upon the work of Canadian media theorist Marshal McLuhan’s early paring of the literary with a study of media, Emerson makes a link between writers experimenting with artists books – “a genre concerned with playing with material dimensions and with conventions of the book as a technology” (71) – and digital writers’ experimenting with computers to create new poetic forms. She draws attention to the typewriter as an interface by pointing to a number of poets working under the influence of McLuhan from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s, who “began to produce concrete poems that deliberately courted a visual and linguistic non-linearity and illegibility” (100). Never content to discuss any one media era or interface in isolation, Emerson aligns this ‘dirty’ concrete poetry with contemporary digital DIY movements such as the open-source ‘Processing’ programming language, designed to increase software literacy in the arts through an active engagement in writing in which process and product are intertwined.
Open source poetics lay bare the mechanisms of their creation. The web remains the most profoundly influential and accessible computing platform precisely because, for now at least, we can still read and write its source codes. But even as we do so, the web reads us. Thus an addendum to the above question: As you are reading these words, who or what processes and/or corporations are reading and re-writing your reading and writing? In the face of what she and others have termed the ‘Googlization of literature,’ Emerson points to a range of contemporary digital artists, writers, hactivists, and critics engaged in questioning “how search engines answer our questions (whether we ask them or not), how they read our writing, and even how they write for us” (166). As early as 1997 the art collective I/O/D was turning the Web inside out with ‘Web Stalker’, an application which presents the reader with all the HTML of any given web page, and a visualisation of all the links leading to and from that page. More recently, Constant Dullart’s ‘The Revolving Internet’ (2010) transforms the still-functioning Google homepage into a windmill slowly spinning to the tune of Dusty Springfield’s ‘The Windmills of Your Mind.’ Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler’s ‘The Apostrophe Engine’ (1994-2006) is itself a search engine, one which searches search engines to create poems that become the basis for yet more searches, thereby laying bare and leaving traces of the ever-evolving inner workings of Google’s search algorithms. John Cayley and Daniel C. Howe’s ‘How it is in Common Tongues’ searches the internet for phrases from Samuel Beckett’s ‘How It Is’ in texts written by authors or machines other than Beckett. As Emerson points out, and as the authors are acutely aware, the resulting texts are utterly mediated by Google’s search engine algorithm. Interestingly, both ‘The Apostrophe Engine’ and ‘How it is in Common Tongues’ have been published as print books. Emerson proposes: “that supposedly antiquated device, the book, is fast becoming a safe haven for readingwriting because its particulars cannot be tracked, monitored, indexed, fed into an algorithm, and given back to us as a commodity” (184).
We live in an age of wondrous devices, ubiquitous computing, invisible walls of software, algorithmic determinism disguised by slight of hand. Reading Writing Interfaces draws our attention back to the materiality of digital languages, reveals the underlying processes of writing, and makes visible the interfaces through which we read/write our world.
J. R. Carpenter is an award-winning artist, writer, researcher, performer and maker of zines, books, poetry, very short fiction, long fiction, non-fiction, and non-linear hypermedia and computer-generated narratives.
Lori Emerson is assistant professor of English, and the founder and director of the Media Archaeology Lab, at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She writes about media poetics, the history of computing, media archaeology, media theory, and digital humanities.