Saturday, 15 October 2011

Deeper Into The Machine...Getting Lost In Digital In The Company of Katherine Hayles

I'm sitting at the kitchen table with a large mug of black coffee. In the background the kids are watching Saturday morning TV on our I-Mac. Through the back door the garden is bathed with bright October sunshine. I am connected via my Samsung laptop's VPN link to King's College London and reading a paper on Google Scholar titled Deeper Into The Machine. The dishwasher is going, gently cleaning the dishes for us. My Blackberry is close by and so is an I-Pod connected to a Logitech dock. Neither device is in use though both could be in a moment if needed. Also on the table in front of me is a sewing machine loaded with light blue thread. My wife is making a pair of pyjamas for my son. Machinery is everywhere in our domestic scene. Not only that but the dishwasher contains a computer, we watch TV on our computer, my phone contains a computer, my music is stored in a computer device - only the sewing machine remains simply mechanical, everything else has been absorbed into the digital...

The first point Hayles makes is that people need to learn to "write digital" by which she seems to mean employ the full range of digital media available to write texts. Moments later she speaks of:

"the realization that natural and machine languages mingle in the production of electronic literature. While the user parses words, the machine reads code. These works are not content to let code remain below the surface but rather show it erupting through the surface of the screen to challenge the hegemony of alphabetic language."

I followed the links in the article to a work entitled Translucidity (Talan Memmott) and was presented with something that reminded me of a crappy Powerpoint presentation. Whatever text there was seemed pretty nonsensical. The graphics were crude and involved a lot of arrows. I suppose I could see the point that code was erupting into the text but I couldn't really see any merit to it other than articulating this, rather simple, intellectual concept. Furthermore what immediately struck me was that if writers are going to learn to "write digital" and use lots of multimedia tricks then their work is going to date very very fast. Text is extremely resilient. Something written hundreds of years ago can feel incredibly relevant and "up to date". But visual styles change constantly. Images date far faster than text. Powerpoint looked "cool" and "futuristic" once. Is text a kind of XML I found myself wondering - the structure that endures whilst everything else changes?

The next link I was invited to click on seemed to be a dead link highlighting another problem for online texts, one that has already cropped up on our MADAM course. If you are going to have an effective semantic web then links have to be maintained and former architectures preserved somehow. As Hayles goes on to call for new modes of criticism that engage with and recognise the full range of media available to be employed in digital writing I found it hard not to not think about the dead link I had just encountered.

Hayles then goes on to describe a work entitled database by Souza and Winkler. This is clearly a work of conceptual art rather than writing as such but it does make you think about things which is good. Various processes are inverted so that:

"The printer obliterates rather than inscribes words; the database is stored as marks on paper rather than binary code inside the computer; clicking blacks out visible words rather than stabilizing them; the camera “reads” but does not record; and the projection displays words oppositional to the ones the user has chosen."

Hayles goes on to talk about Lev Manovich who sounds interesting. Hayles summarizes his investigations of the narrative versus the database thus:

"While narrative is the dominant form of print literature, Manovich argued, database is the native idiom of the computer. He noted that database inverts the relation between the syntagmatic and paradigmatic that obtains with print text. For print the syntagmatic, inhering in the order of the sentence, is visibly present on the page, whereas the paradigmatic, inhering in alternatives that could be substituted for a given word, is virtual, imaginable as a conceptual possibility but not physically realized. With a database, however, the possible choices are physically present as encoded data, whereas the syntagmatic order created by their assembly is virtual, a possibility that can be realized only when the appropriate commands are executed."

At this point I found I was starting to engage a great deal more with things. However I was also distracted by the efforts of my wife as she attempted to cut my son's toenails. My daughter began firing a pirate canon and my mental state degenerated to a point where further thought was impossible! Still, I thought it would be fun to blog as I read - maybe this is the kind of new media criticism Hayles had in mind? Maybe...

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