IN FOO THE LIGHT:
THE ALWAYS IMPERMANENT
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
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.
Emperor's New E-text
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
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
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.
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.