Electronic Literature and Future Books

Friday, May 4, 2012
5-7 PM
Bartos Theater, Media Lab


Mainstream and avant-garde poets and fiction writers have been exploring the literary potential of the computer for decades, creating work that goes far beyond today's e-books. The creators of electronic literature have developed new interface methods, new techniques for collaboration, and new ways of linking language, computing, and other media elements. How has electronic literature influenced other media, including the Web and the book? What are the implications of having literary projects in the digital sphere alongside other forms of communication and art? 


This forum concludes a day-long symposium on the future of the book. Register for free at futurebook.mit.edu.


Katherine Hayles is professor in the literature program at Duke University. Her books include Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary (2008) and My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts (2005).

Nick Montfort is associate professor of digital media at MIT and president of the Electronic Literature Organization, now based at MIT. His books include Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction (2003).

Rita Raley is associate professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara where she directs Transcriptions, a research and pedagogic initiative on literature and the culture of information. Her most recent publications include the co-edited Electronic Literature Collection, volume 2.


David Thorburn is professor of literature and director of the Communications Forum at MIT. His publications include the co-edited (with Henry Jenkins) volume, Rethinking Media Change (2003).


Streaming audio recording of Electronic Literature and Future Books is available.


Video of Electronic Literature and Future Books is available.


[This is an edited summary, not a verbatim transcript.]

By Katie Edgerton, CMS

Photos by Greg Peverill-Conti

Katherine Hayles, professor of literature at Duke University, opened the conversation by defining apophenia, or the practice of finding patterns in random data. It’s a risk “endemic to literary criticism,” Hayles joked.  Apophenia is also an animating force behind David Clark's 88 Constellations for Wittgenstein, which Hayles categorized as a "future text."

N. Katherine Hayles

The piece is comprised of 88 animations, each focusing on an aspect of the life of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.  The connections Clark draws are associational and speculative, blending fact, fiction, and allusions to Wittgenstein’s own work.  Visitors can access the animations in any order.  Taken together, they create a loose, non-linear narrative of Wittgenstein’s life.

Visitors to the web-text 88 Constellations navigate a series of animated videos through an interface evoking constellations, themselves a “form of finding patterns that data does not justify,” said Hayles.  In 88 Constellations’s animations, Clark combines historical facts in the suggestion of patterns, blurring the line between coincidence and causality.

Hayles also cited David Markson's print novel Wittgenstein's Mistress.  The novel’s protagonist, Kate, is metaphorically trapped in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which proposed that logic could be used to solve most philosophical problems. Later, renouncing the Tractatus, Wittgenstein argued that logic had limited power; the world was made of language games, which gathered meaning through social and biological contexts. The readers of Wittgenstein’s Mistress struggle to find a pattern among Kate's disconnected thoughts, a pattern that may ultimately be elusive.

88 Constellations’s animations evoked connections, said Hayles. In Wittgenstein’s Mistress, the text invited disconnection. 88 Constellations begins with fragments and builds towards an elusive whole. Wittgenstein’s Mistress begins with the presumption of a whole suggested by the novelistic form, and proceeds to shatter the text into fragments. 

Each work challenges tradition in its medium. Clark, working in the tradition of "net art"—which is often characterized by a fragmentary aesthetic—gives 88 Constellation’s visitors a suggestion of an elusive whole.  Markson, writing a novel, begins with the suggestion of a whole, but ultimately shatters her text into fragments.

For Hayles, these two examples underlined the importance of media-specific analysis. “We must look at every work,” she said, “in the context in which it arises.”

Rita Raley

Rita Raley, associate professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara, profiled Ian Hatcher’s Signal to Noise.  Part vignette, part interactive fiction, Hatcher’s text is unsettled by "textual ripples" that suggest an invisible reader.  An encounter with other readers is coded into the text itself.  “The reading space is no longer yours alone,” said Raley.  

Reading, Raley argued, is an inherently social practice.  Throughout history, interpretive communities have come together to decode documents and texts.  Today, many network novels solicit user contributions.  These texts take the practice of ‘social reading’ to a new level, creating dynamic exchange between readers and authors in which the temporal frame of collaboration is continuous. 

Raley celebrated the notion of the ‘unbound book,’ a text that was open to collaboration and continuous creation.  Many works are collaboratively interpreted and created in online reader forums.  We should think of these forums as part of the text, said Raley.  “They are not parasitic, but symbiotic.”

Raley saw these communities as part of an “expanded text.”  The book is one component part of contemporary textual environment, she said.  Today’s texts are not only found in bound volumes, but are "situated in the interstitial field," continuously and dynamically created by communities of authors, commentators, and readers.

Nick Montfort, associate professor of digital media at MIT, described his upcoming book project 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10.  The title refers to a one-line program for the Commodore 64 computer operating system that randomly generates a right or left leaning diagonal line.  Taken together, the lines create an aesthetically pleasing pattern, where there is “a play between randomness and regularity.”

Nick Montfort

Montfort identified this program as one of the earliest instances of “creative computing,” a genre includes electronic art, digital literature, and “things that don't even have a name, like hobbyist programming.”  The Commodore 64 program, according to Montfort, was an automatically generated aesthetic production. “If people hadn't been doing things like this with computers,” he said, “no one would have thought to create e-books.” Computers could have easily used exclusively for military and accounting purposes, but thanks to early pioneers in creative computing, we now think of them as tools for aesthetic and cultural purposes. 

Montfort collaborated on 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 with nine other authors.  Montfort saw his recent project as an experiment in collaboration.  The co-authors wrote together, in a single voice, on a media “wiki” page that, similar to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia from which it gets its name, could be edited simultaneously from remote locations using the Internet.

There are many types of collaboration, said Montfort.  We tend to think in extremes: either massive, “crowd-sourced” projects with hundreds of authors, or the romantic individualistic model of a single genius-author alone with his thoughts.  “There are many ways in between to think and write together,” said Montfort, suggesting that 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 might be a case study of how collaboratively-authored books could be produced in the future.

Audience Discussion

An audience member cited a number of book-to-movie adaptations, and asked if electronic texts could be similarly adapted.  Are digital texts media specific, or could they cross between formats? 

It is hard to think about 88 Constellations for Wittgenstein working as a book, said Hayles, because animation is so intrinsic to the way it functions. By the same token, she doubted it would be a successful film because fragmentation was integral to its aesthetic effect.  But adaptation of electronic texts isn’t impossible, said Hayles.  She drew on Raley’s notion of an “expanded text,” to suggest that digital works might be able to “ripple out” into various transmedia narratives that tell a story across multiple platforms. 

David Thorburn

There can be a tendency to eulogize the “decaying beauty” of books, said Communications Forum Director David Thorburn.  What unique possibilities do new technologies offer authors for storytelling and creativity?

Authors like Mark Danielewski (House of Leaves, Only Revolutions) are reasserting power of the codex in the digital age, said Hayles.  Danielewski has turned down multiple film offers for his popular novel House of Leaves because he feels that it would only work as a book, yet House of Leaves is in some senses a database novel, heavily influenced by technological forms. Authors like Danielewski are asserting the possibilities of codex while transforming the form in response to digital technologies.

Many stories about the loss of the book are anecdotal said Raley. We should look beyond the anecdotes and eulogies to build a robust theory about what exactly is shifting.

An audience member asked if the panelists thought the possibilities for electronic literature were infinite.

There are built-in constraints based on how different media operate, said Montfort.  These constraints are not just technical; they’re cultural as well.  Although there are a lot of possibilities for the form, this is not a time of complete liberation and freedom.

Raley mentioned transmedia narratives as having a kind of grand scale.  The possibilities for telling stories across multiple platforms aren’t infinite, but they seem large and, at this point in time, very exciting. 

Are there differences in reading print and digital texts, asked an audience member.

“It’s an issue of attention,” said Hayles. Reading on the web is different than reading in print.  Often, digital reading involves more skimming and scanning. We’re now seeing a transfer of online reading practices back onto print.  Many people aren’t approaching texts with the same level of attention.   

Raley agreed, but said there was a move towards increasing literacy online.  Electronic texts, such as 88 Constellations and Signal to Noise encouraged deep attention online, said Montfort, fostering skills like close reading and textual analysis. 

We've talked about how process of reading has changed, said an audience member.  How has process of writing changed, specifically academic writing?

Many academics produce scholarship read by a small audience, said Hayles.  Her latest project is to create a scholarly computer game, in the hopes it would help her reach a broader audience. “Let’s explore games as a medium of writing and literary production,” she said.

The transformation of the writing experience also has to do with collaboration, said Montfort.  He pointed to his own experience writing 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 with nine others. Being able to write collaboratively in the same documents is a new, and potentially very productive, experience.

I’m skeptical of utopian narratives about digital technologies, said an audience member, but I'm tempted when I hear about online communities forming. Do the panelists agree?

Nick Montfort

“I don't think utopianism should be considered a bad word,” said Montfort. “We can construct a better society because of technological possibilities and what it offers.”  He cast back to the early 1990s when utopian idealists feared corporations would own the web.  Thanks to their work, that didn’t happen.  There’s a place for utopianism, and we shouldn’t be afraid of it. 

An audience member pointed out that much of the digital record was proprietary.  Scholarship is behind paywalls, and many e-books are even less accessible. Why were some electronic resources more difficult to use than printed books, and what can academics do to make their work accessible?

Montfort agreed this was a difficult issue.  As a practical matter, he said, publishing work under Creative Commons licenses—which allow for widespread distribution with proper citations—is the optimum way to go. 

An audience member asked about the panelists’ reading practices.  Do electronic texts they feature in their recreational consumption?

Yes, said Montfort, and he suggested that interested audience members look at the archive of the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) for examples of digital works, and further information about the art form. Montfort is the current president of the ELO.