IN FOO THE LIGHT: THE ALWAYS IMPERMANENT
LITERARY INFORMATION OBJECT


Loss Pequeño Glazier


"E-motion" from "Mi Pequeño Amor", Digital Poetry

Crustaceous / wedge / of sweaty kitchens / on rock /
overtopping / thrusts of the sea
-- William Carlos Williams

Work breaks down to devices.
-- Barrett Watten

When William Carlos Williams wrote "a poem is a small (or large) machine made of words", he created an image of striking relevance to current investigations into emergent models of digital textuality. I prefer to think of such a machine as nearly equivalent to a physical machine, with interior works, a housing, a power supply. The interesting question is this: if you removed the housing for such a machine, what would you find within? Nothing less than a constellation of relations, bitter and delicious (as Williams would have it), relations that are energized, dynamic, and vital. One imagines a diagram of such relations in suspension the way a diagram of a molecule seems to represent atoms around a nucleus as similarly suspended. And of what sort of matter would such a machine be composed? Clearly, what we would find would not be titanium, stainless steel, or Teflon-coated aluminum, but words. What is important in this conceptualization is that the energy resides within the relations themselves, such a machine not being defined by a medium of delivery, the material of which it is constructed, nor even a location or origin.

These words could exist in any number of media, depending on what the "machine" was meant to do. Though the work of Williams was published in books, and though there certainly are a wealth of "machines made of words" that come to us in the book format, I would like to step back from this information format for just a moment -- indeed, to temporarily dislodge it from its privileged role -- to consider whether other housings for such machines might provide us with a broader spectrum of the possibilities for such information objects. If we take this act even further, to declare that a paradigm for the information object exists independent of and in a category hierarchically above the book medium, this would allow us to assess certain other relations that might prove of immense value. For example, in the metaphors of programming, by so declaring an information object, we are able to better view its parameters, its properties, its relations of inheritance and levels of interactivity with other objects. The concept of a machine can thereby be pushed even further, illuminating a model of great relevance to emergent digital textualities.

In order to proceed with this investigation we must take stock of what is really at issue when we wish to consider a digital information object.

The Emperor's New E-text

The first self-propelled car was built by Nicolas Cugnot in 1769 which could attain speeds of up to 6 kms/hour. In 1771 he again designed another steam-driven engine which ran so fast that it rammed into a wall, recording the world's first accident. (http://auto.indiamart.com/cars/birth-car.html, 3 Sept. 2002)

Indeed, exception has to be made to the assumption that the present form of the book has unlimited value as the practical technology for the circulation of information. This is like saying, as to transportation at the beginning of the last century, "The horseless carriage is a fine invention but my horses have proven they can get me from A to B. I'll stick with them". Indeed, there are many real people, such as the Mennonites, who have not even passed that point.

There is always the impulse to believe that a printed object is more "real" or durable because it appears to be safe, sitting on the shelf, year after year. But we all know that believing any record is permanent is a bit of an illusion. There are numerous examples of where this was not the case. For example, in 47 A.D. when Julius Caeser besieged the city of Alexandria. It was said at one time to contain copies and translations of all known texts in scroll format, one half million of these. The library took a further blow during civil war late in 200 A.D. and by 400 A.D. nothing was left of the library. Similarly, Buddhist literature has taken numerous devastating losses. When Nalanda University in North India was burned by the Turks in the late 1,100s, innumerable unique Buddhist sutra copyings from its library were forever lost. This is not a phenomenon that only occurs in ancient history! During the cultural revolution in China, 10 to 16 centuries worth of Buddhist texts were also lost and, most recently, was the devastation of tens of thousands of cuneiform tablets during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, an irreplaceable portion of the human record evaporated.

Of course the book and the e-text, in the present historical moment, do not share equal integrity. There is confusion about what the status of the information on the Web is and what the format for personal information objects will be. There are minor and major problems yet to be resolved.

One of these problems is the area of international standards, and most significantly, the matter of the edition statement, such as those implemented by AACR2 (Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules) for books. (Keep in mind that those weren't developed until 1981, 500 years after the printing press was invented! Even more limiting, standards only apply to countries where English is dominant.) Though such an apparatus already exists for e-texts in SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language), this standard has not seemed to appeal to the popular imagination and its implementation has barely been seen in the universe of Web-based e-texts at large. (Producers of popular end-user web production software also show a lack of interest in SGML.) At very least one would hope for an indication of editorship for many things you find on the Web. For example, if you look up the definition of anything on the Web, say -- "Nichiren Shu", a Buddhist practice originating in 13th century Japan that venerates the Lotus Sutra. There is not necessarily going to be a credit line for the definition you find. It is hardly the same as looking it up in a reference book where there is the name of someone taking responsibility for it. Thus you know to respect the Lotus Sutra in a Nichiren Buddhist's presence, or else you at least know to whom blame should be assigned!

There are also physical factors: devices that will make the e-text as portable as a book, such as the PDA or its future offshoots. And, issues such as the discomfort produced by current light emitting reader technologies must also be addressed. (Perhaps even our eyes will evolve as the technology evolves.)

Is there an advantage to the seeming editorial lawlessness that dominates the present environment of digital textuality? In this regard, one can only hypothesize. However, it is clear that more information is circulating, that more voices are being heard, and that access to information is more widespread, at least for that microscopic percentage of the world's population who have access to such technology.

At the very least, it is safe to say that the book is no longer what it was in the age of the printing press. With digital typography, type is no longer arranged on plates to be printed on, with the first edition of the print run being the edition of record. What happens is that digital files, containing text, images, and metadata information, are prepared. These are edited, revised, and formatted. The book object is then generated from the digital files. Thus we could look at the digital file as the information object itself; it is the scene of intellectual activity, the record of information, the reusable fountain which delivers the goods, whether in a discrete runs or on demand. The book is simply one output of the file! This concept of the dominance of the digital record extends much further than a debate about the status of the information object versus the printed book, and includes areas such as finance, civic and medical records, and intellectual property.

A clear exception must be made, of course, in this discussion about the information object, and that has to do with the work of fine and small presses. In this case, the information object has found its ideal output device, the codex, for such artistic undertakings are experiments with that specific medium. In such cases, the digital qualities that are lost are not to be mourned, since the material qualities of the work, its tactile, visual, and analog delights, more than compensate for any such loss.

Such exceptions notwithstanding, it is clear that the digital information object has real advantages. It's not just a question of it being transmissible. There are many other qualities that will make the book as irrelevant to information as the horse to transportation. Indeed, the phrase "horseless carriage" is familiar here as it bears an almost equal anachronistic quality as "web page". And the automobile also had the same variety of names that we find with the information object (e-poem, hypertext, digital literature, new media writing) with terms such as horseless carriage, motorcar, one-lunger, wagon, Motorette, and other terms variously serving to describe that new media horse-and-cart. Additional potential qualities of the information object, once developed, would be context-sensitive features, the ability to annotate and keep lists of commonplace quotes, AI and fuzzy logic search engines (including data types such as synonyms, homonyms, semantic radicals, etc.) with customized parameters that operate across individual books, personal libraries, and entire library collections. In addition, dynamic cross-references, and on-demand printing or file-creation of scalable subsets of information would be standard as would auto-prompted online updates to existing information. How wonderful a day it will be to get a message that says, "Would you like to update your bibliography of Salt Press?", rather than being harassed for the new Windows Media Player or to be reminded for years on end to register your Eudora! (Didn't I pay for it? Isn't it my choice not to register it? This is harassment!) Additionally, the issue of the lack of durability we have seen with the analog artifact. Who can say if anything in the long run is really durable? But while we're at this point, if it's not durable, why not play with this essential contradiction, a fact paradigmatic to the programmable literary object. Let us create objects that will never be the same from one viewing to the next! Such an approach takes the lack of durability that typifies any object in the world and brings it to fruition!

When it comes to the e-book, we are witnessing an enormous commercial failure. Though there are some print books, computer manuals and computer dictionaries that come with a CD-ROM of the book's contents, in general commercial publishers have been remiss in not going bi-media. There is a great advantage to being able to peruse, search, or cut-and-paste a book's contents in digital form! It might be an extraordinary boost to sales to make books available in both media, and it would certainly place publishers in a position to be active in emergent scenes of textuality. When print publishers of information begin to make their information objects available, as a matter of course, simultaneously in digital form, the information object of the future will begin to take shape. (Note that we are not calling these info "files", since "files" would suggest a more fixed sense of the digital information artifact, indeed a sensibility more decidedly analog. The reason these are "objects" is because they are independent while being interdependent; because parts of these objects can be dynamic or can be called to or from other parts of other information objects.) Indeed, the information object might be called an "info object" for short -- or even "infoo", a coinage nearly equivalent to "book" in its number of letters, the double o's providing a visual resonance to "O-O-P" (and to "oops", a humorous off-rhyme), object-oriented programming, a key process enabling this information paradigm shift to occur. Finally, the inclusion of the morpheme "foo" in "infoo" is a playful allusion to early programming nomenclature, "foo" being the generic variable and also short for the off-color "foobar", suggesting a lineage of play, the play in details of code and language.

Even more significantly, very soon, online and end-user local information will become indistinguishable. At present, even relatively low-end PDAs are capable of carrying entire books or routinely downloading the current contents of a newspaper automatically each morning. So the doors of perception will be directly linked to your own personal reading device, whatever that might look like in the future. (Indeed, if the C# programming language is implemented as currently envisioned, you will not just your reading device but all the appliances in your home from such a single remote device.) There is virtually no limit to hard drive space for personal use so it is easy to see a system developing whereby your own library can be moved on and off your "bookshelves" (nearly unlimited hard drive storage unit for text, image, sound, and video) and on to your "current reading shelf" (personal reading device). In my house personally, that would free up about three rooms worth of physical objects, something that would be a great relief to my sagging floor! When I see Mennonites riding in their horse-drawn carriages on the side of the road at night in the driving rain, I realize what a hard-fixed reality the previous transportation technology was. Luckily for us, for those information objects to which we remain attached, published on-demand copies will still certainly be available in codex form. But the book is just one possible container of information, and not a singular vehicle that serves all information implementations. Unless we lose our attachment to its form, we cannot open our minds to new paradigms or possibilities for the info object.

Once we accept the possibilities of an infoo that is more diverse, adaptable, and transmissible, the task becomes one of approaching that object, developing it, investigating its possibilities. To where does one turn in investigating such an exploration is no foo dunnit, it lies in emerging forms of textuality. Literature in programmable media is the exploratory mode of the new information object.

This discussion is in no way meant to disparage the book. One only needs to pay a visit to my personal library to know this is not the case. The problem is that most of today's literary practitioners have grown up in an age with a single, monolithic information object, and it is difficult to see that object as being one medium on a horizon that contains many possibilities. We cannot advance our understanding of a new medium if we are only looking through frames of an existing one. Indeed it is not a matter of one format is in, another is out. As Ron Silliman has written of his "new sentence", an entrance point into the new writing possibilities of the 70s, "If 'language writing' means anything, it means writing which does focus the reader onto the level of the sentence and below, as well as those units above". We can view the relation between the book and the infoo in a similar matter, that there is a nexus of activity and that every level in the hierarchy has its impact, functionality, and critical presence -- as much as each and every part of a machine is necessary for it to function. What is clear is that a deeper sense of classification of textual possibilities is necessary to accommodate the possibilities now present. Hence the emergence of the infoo. Only with declaring the infoo, an information object flexible enough to accommodate the textuality of the digital environment, can we work towards establishing a workable set of criteria for facilitating the emergence of a digital literature true to its possibilities.