Cyborg Imagination in the Age of Electronic Incunabula

by Wes Chapman
Illinois Wesleyan University

presented at the Popular Culture Association Conference, April 3, 1999

Danish translation courtesy of Einar Solbakken
Russian translation courtesy of Lera Domartina
French translation by Mathilde Guibert
Norwegian translation by Lars Olden
Macedonian translation by Katerina Nestiv

In Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray argues that we live in an age of electronic incubabula. Noting that it took fifty years after the invention of the printing press to establish the conventions of the printed book, she writes, "The garish videogames and tangled Web sites of the current digital environment are part of a similar period of technical evolution, part of a similar struggle for the conventions of coherent communication" (28). Although I disagree in various ways with her vision of where electronic narrative is going, it does seem likely that in twenty years, or fifty, certain things will be obvious about electronic narrative that those of us who are working in the field today simply do not see. Alongside the obvious drawbacks--forget marble and gilded monuments, it would be nice for a work to outlast the average Yugo--are some advantages, not the least of which is what Michael Joyce calls "the momentary advantage of our awkwardness": we have an opportunity to see our interactions with electronic media before they become as transparent as our interactions with print media have become. The particular interaction I want to look at today is the interaction of technology and imagination. If computer media do nothing else, they surely offer the imagination new opportunities; indeed, the past ten years of electronic writing has been an era of extraordinary technical innovation. Yet this is also, again, an age of incubabula, of awkwardness. My question today is, what can we say about this awkwardness, insofar as it pertains to the interaction of technology and the imagination?

Let me begin with a confession: I'm a technodummy. By "dummy" I mean the kind of person targeted by books such as IDG Books' HTML for Dummies, Javascript for Dummies, and C++ for Dummies. I notice that the series has extended past the technical fields: there is now a Dieting for Dummies, an Entertaining for Dummies, and so forth. There is not only a Dating for Dummies but also an ABRIDGED version of Dating for Dummies, which I guess is for people who want to skip the movie. There is even a book put out by Alpha Books called The Complete Idiot's Guide to Enhancing Self-Esteem, which seems to me to be carrying the concept a bit far. Anyway, I confess that, although I've never bought a "for Dummies" book, I am one of the people such books are written for, a technodummy, which is to say someone who isn't exceptionally skilled in using computers. This is unfortunate, because I do have a long-standing interest in USING computers, and especially in using them to write hypertext fiction and poetry. It is as a writer and a technodummy, then, that I am speaking to you today. I am mindful of the contradiction here: as Jerome McGann says, "good poets do not really quarrel with their tools." For the moment, however, let me be a bad poet in the spirit of comedy--that being the faith that speaking of what is baser than average tells us something about ourselves as we usually are.

In the roles of writer and technodummy, then, I'd like to talk about three kinds of interactions between technology and the imagination.

The first I'll call "technological paucity." This is what happens when a writer imagines something that the available technology will not create, or will create only badly. Let me give you an example. When I was just beginning on the hypertext fiction I'm now working on, I knew that I wanted part of the text to be animated--to move and change, both on its own and in accordance with actions of the reader. For example, there is a section of the text which I want to be in the shape of a waterfall. I can picture this clearly in my imagination: a cascade of phrases, tumbling over one another as they move down the page, maintaining a discernible shape even though the content of the waterfall--the streams and droplets of words and phrases--changes over time. Call it a metaphor for the self as a construct of language. For complicated reasons that have to do with my being a technodummy, I decided not to start writing in one of the programs best suited for animated work, such as Director or Shockwave Flash, but rather to start writing the non-animated sections in Storyspace and attempt to mock up a prototype of the animated sections using the only program I know well enough to use without climbing a steep learning curve. In this way I ended up trying to build a waterfall of words in Hypercard.

I'll spare you the technical details of how I tried and failed to accomplish this--problems with global variables, trying to pass exit repeats to other handlers, and so forth--and cut to the chase, which is simply this: you can't build a waterfall of words in Hypercard, at least not an interactive waterfall, because Hypercard is inherently a temporally linear program. It will only do one thing at once. So in this portion of my prototype--there were other portions that worked somewhat better--what I got, instead of a beautiful waterfall of words, was a few phrases blinking on and off in sequence and jerking slowly down the page, something like a precision bungee jumping team caught in a strobe light. As a metaphor for the self as a construct of language this has some potential, but it wasn't what I had in mind. I had hit the wall of technological paucity: I had imagined something that the technology I was trying to use wouldn't do.

The second kind of interaction between technology and the imagination is what I'll call "technological excess." This is what happens when a particular technology is more or less adequate to the task of creating what an author imagines, but has additional "features" which alter or shape the reading or viewing experience in ways not planned or particularly appreciated by the author. For example, one of the first hypertextual sections I wrote of Turning In, my first hypertext fiction, was a little section of text in the shape of an eight-sided cube--a cube with two tops and two bottoms. Call it a metaphor for the unspoken conversation that four members of a family have with one another that scripts the actions of the two children in the family in later life. This too I wrote first in Hypercard--at the time, it was nearly the only program available that was even remotely appropriate. An essential feature of this cube is that its sides exist only in relation to one another; it is not a linear narrative, but a spatial structure. I therefore tried to construct an interface which requires the reader to turn the cube in space in order to read another side. So far so good. Each of these sides, however, had to be put on a separate card--and Hypercard not only keeps such cards in a linear order, it allows the reader to move from one card to another in a linear fashion by using the arrow keys. I had run into technological excess: because of this feature I didn't want, my nice neat cubic story ALSO existed for the reader as a linear narrative.

Before I go on to the third interaction between technology and the imagination, let me say why it is important for me to have acknowledged that I am a technodummy. It is possible to object that these interactions I have described aren't very important, because they are essentially a personal problem. Even if I couldn't create a waterfall of words, a more skilled computer user probably could have, using a different program; similarly, if I had been more skilled, I might have found a way to defeat the arrow keys for my cube, or could have used a different program (as, eventually, I did, with different kinds of problems). My contention, however, is that technological paucity and technological excess are always present, or always possible, any time that anyone uses computers to create something. The imagination can always come up with something that no one can program; and unless you create a software tool from scratch and tailor it specifically to a particular artistic work, then there will always be something in the program that is superfluous or even runs counter to what a writer wants to do--and even in the former case there is the "excess" of whatever is made available by the operating system and the hardware.

The third relationship between technology and the imagination is what I'll call technological plenitude--a fit between what a writer imagines and the technology available. This can simply mean that the available technology is sufficient for what one has imagined, more or less by luck; more commonly, I think, plenitude occurs when writers, to borrow a phrase from Pat Cadigan, "change for the machines"--that is, when they begin to inhabit the conceptual space of a particular tool so thoroughly that what they imagine begins to take the form of the tool itself. Plenitude is not a sufficient condition for good hypertext fiction, but it is in my opinion a necessary condition. One of the many reasons that Patchwork Girl is one of the best hypertext fictions today is that Jackson uses the Storyspace program so effectively: the patchwork quilt section, for example, uses the box shapes which represent lexia in Storyspace, and the possibility of writing Storyspace title bars in different colors, very effectively to represent the panels of the quilt. The most extreme example of plenitude may be John McDaid's Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse, which uses and calls attention to just about every feature of Hypercard imaginable--for example, using the password option to partition off an inverted mirror image of the fiction as a whole, playing with the Hypercard card metaphor with a mock Tarot deck, and offering the reader segments of text designed to look like Hypertalk scripts. It is difficult to imagine a fiction inhabiting the conceptual space offered by a technology any more thoroughly than Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse inhabits Hypercard.

It might be objected that these three relationships I have described between technology and the imagination--paucity, excess, and plenitude--obtain not only with respect to electronic media but with respect to ALL technologies of artistic creation. Mark Bernstein, for instance, discussing the phenomenon of technological paucity, writes,

Reflect for a moment on how this phenonemon is reflected in painting. Each kind of paint (oil, ink, pencil, charcoal, pastel, watercolor, acrylic, encaustic) and each kind of support (canvas, board, copper, glass, paper) allows different affordances and imposes different limitations.
Painting often exploits technological paucity for effect. Japanese calligraphy, for example, revels in doing what cannot be done --words in waterfalls, for example.
Watercolor is unforgiving but gives you brilliant colors; this makes it tend to be nicer for flowers and landscapes but is a pain for figure work and portraits. But that's precisely why some people do figure painting in watercolor.

I agree with this completely, although later I'll say why I think that digital media are different from paintbrushes and canvas with respect to the issues I've discussed. Bernstein very usefully reminds us of the productive quality of constraints in art, including the constraints of technological paucity. Writers and artists go to great lengths to create constraints, in tension with which their imaginations prosper. An obvious example of such constraints are generic conventions: one does not write a sonnet in order to be free of constraint. It is surely possible to use technological constraints in the same way. As William Morris said, "You can't have art without resistance in the materials."

However, although I agree that these concepts I have described can be applied to non-electronic media, I also think that there are differences of scale and quality when they are applied to electronic media. In analog media, technological constraints arise from the properties of physical objects acting in accordance with physical laws. To stay with the painting example, brush bristles bend when they come into contact with paper, and they bend more easily the thinner they are; that is their physical nature. A drop of thin paint will drip downward; that is the nature of gravity. Both of these qualities could be used productively, to be sure, but they can be limiting as well: it is easy to imagine being unable to find a paintbrush fine enough and soft enough for an intended purpose, and there might be times when it would be useful for paint to drip upwards. The former, at least, would be an instance of technological paucity. Nevertheless, although an artist can't violate physical laws, and is constrained by the physical properties of tool and medium, within the constraints of those physical laws and properties an artist has almost unlimited physical freedom. You can daub lightly with a paintbrush, or press hard; you can flick paint from the brush without touching the canvas; for that matter, if you have a mind to, you can paint with the handle, or fire the brush at the canvas with an air rifle, or drop it by parachute from a plane and see what it hits.

In the obvious way, you can't violate the laws of physical reality in creating electronic art either. But in another way, this limitation does not apply. For it is not at the level of physical reality--electrons moving in particular ways through particular media--where the artist feels constraints, but rather at the level of the virtual reality of a particular piece of software running on a particular piece of hardware. In this virtual world, paint CAN drip upwards; the laws of virtual space do not need to correspond to the laws of physical reality, which is surely one reason why we get so excited about the new media. But by the same token, paint bristles don't bend in virtual reality, and paint doesn't drip at all, unless they're programmed to do so. In this respect, technological paucity in electronic media isn't like the difference between watercolors and oils, it's like being unable to count on the force of gravity or the pliability of brush bristles unless someone--either oneself or the creator of the virtual world in which one works--has turned on gravity or brush-bristle-bending in advance. To put this another way: the most relevant difference between the physical world and a virtual world is that the physical world operates from the bottom up, with fundamental particles operating in accordance with physical laws in ways which lead to larger and more complex emergent structures; a virtual world, or at least most of those that exist at present, is constructed from the top down, with all virtual properties and possibilities needing to be specified in advance. It is still possible, and indeed common, to use a program in ways that cannot be anticipated. But even so, perhaps "virtual world" is not the right metaphor for the conceptual space of electronic media; this space is not as capacious or as malleable as the physical world. Software for creating digital art is a hybrid, one might say, between a tool and a world.

A software program is thus both much more and much less complicated than a physical tool like a paintbrush. To the extent that a software program is a world, it is much less complicated than that physical world which grounds all technological constraints on the imagination in non-virtual art. To the extent that a software program is a tool, it is much more complicated than a brush: one can see a program like Hypercard--or Director, or Flash, or Dreamweaver--as the equivalent of some Dr. Seussian painting machine, with dozens of brushes and rollers and spray cans and typewriters all connected together like some especially complicated Rube Goldberg device. Given this combined complexity and narrowness, technological paucity is more likely to be in evidence in electronic media than in traditional print and graphic media, and technological excess is far more likely to be so.

There are various practical implications, I think, of the argument I've put forward today. For critics and theorists, for example, the concept of technological excess in particular raises some very interesting questions about the possibility or necessity of distinguishing between a work of art or literature and its material embodiment. On the one hand, the existence of feaures in the interface to a text which the text seems not to call for, or which might even seem to work against what the text is trying to do, calls attention very strongly to the materiality of the text; on the other hand, the fact that one can in some cases recognize such features at all suggests that it is possible to distinguish in some way between a text and its material embodiment. For writers, distinguishing between excess and paucity suggests some pragmatic ways to living with or living up to a particular technology. Working in a situation of paucity requires treating the limitations of a particular technology as a productive constraint, and exploiting the tensions between idea and medium, much as one would in using watercolors for portraits. Working in a situation of excess is a much trickier matter, because one has to assume that anything a reader can do with a text the reader will in fact do. If it isn't possible to disable certain features of an interface, then it is necessary to "change for the machines"--to fill the conceptual space. For system designers, these concepts suggest a number of desirable features for future hypertext tools, such as the capability in a browser to selectively disable or efface features of the interface to match parameters called for by a text.

I'd like to close, however, with something less practical, by engaging in the time-honored practice in the literature on hypertext of offering a dream vision of or wish list for the electronic infrastructure and the electronic tools of the future, based upon the discussion I have offered so far. To do this, I have to step out of the role of technodummy, not because I'm really not one--I am--but because it is pointless to wish for better tools unless one has made the commitment to learning and living with, fully, the limitations of ANY tools that are at hand. Aspiring poets ought not to quarrel with their tools either.

The vision I'd like to end with is simply this: I would like to see a virtual environment in which both readers and writers can fly. By that I don't simply mean the ability to violate the law of gravity; as I've implied, we can already do that. Flying is not the same as levitation. Flying does not renounce gravity, it requires gravity, depends upon gravity. It also depends upon air currents and air pressure, on having hollow bones and feathers which lap just so. And it depends upon a mode of knowing the world which is not merely intellectual and which, although it is enormously complex, is kinesthetic and proprioceptive, as irreducible as the movement of a brush through space or the utterance of a soft word. I want that virtual world, in other words, which is built from the bottom up, rather than from the top down, and in which the standards and protocols, the physical laws of the virtual universe as it were, have had the time and the evolutionary redundancy to become as rich and invisible as the law of gravity; and in which we denizens of the virtual world have had time to adapt with wings and the muscle memory of flight; in which, therefore, words have had the time to acquire a heft and solidity which they have never had in print and have in speech only at the cost of being already lost; in which the white space between words have had time to develop thermals and humidity and four dimensions.

One of the classic exchanges in hypertext theory, in my opinion, is the one between Michael Joyce and Stuart Moulthrop, recounted by Joyce in "So Much Time, So Little to Do": "Do you ever find yourself," asked Joyce "in all seriousness," "wanting to press the words on the page of a book you're reading to see what's behind them? or wishing you could probe the words as you're listening to someone?" Moulthrop answered, in all seriousness, "No." My own answer would be, "yes, absolutely," but I think that we'll have to wait for that until waterfalls of words seem simply inevitable and until readers and writers can fly.


Works Cited

Jackson, Shelley. Patchwork Girl. Diskette. Watertown: Eastgate, 1995.

Joyce, Michael. "The Momentary Advantage of Our Awkwardness." Of Two Minds 210-226.

---. Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1995.

---. "So Much Time, So Little To Do." Of Two Minds 91-104.

McDaid, John. Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse. Watertown: Eastgate, 1992.

McGann, Jerome. "The Rationale of Hypertext." <>

Murray, Janet. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: Free Press, 1997.