A Web Reply to the Post-Web Generation

At the recent ELO conference in Montréal Leonardo Flores introduced the concept of “3rd Generation” electronic literature. I was at another session during his influential talk, but I heard about the concept from him beforehand and have read about it on Twitter (a 3rd generation context, I believe) and Flores’s blog (more of a 2nd generation context, I believe). One of the aspects of this concept is that the third generation of e-lit writers makes use of existing platforms (Twitter APIs, for instance) rather than developing their own interfaces. Blogging is a bit different from hand-rolled HTML, but one administers one’s own blog.

When Flores & I spoke, I realized that I have what seems like a very similar idea of how to divide electronic literature work today. Not exactly the same, I’m sure, but pretty easily defined and I think with a strong correspondence to this three-generation concept. I describe it like this:

  • Pre-Web
  • Web
  • Post-Web

To understand the way I’m splitting things up, you first have to agree that we live in a post-Web world of networked information today. Let me try to persuade you of that, to begin with.

The Web is now at most an option for digital communication of documents, literature, and art. It’s an option that fewer and fewer people are taking. Floppy disks and CD-ROMs also remain options, although they are even less frequently used. The norm today has more to do with app-based connectivity and less with the open Web. When you tweet, and when you read things on Twitter, you don’t need to use the Web; you can use your phone’s Twitter client. Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat would be just fine if the Web was taken out behind the shed and never seen again. These are all typically used via apps, with the Web being at most an option for access.

The more companies divert use of their social networks from the Web to their own proprietary apps, the more they are able to shape how their users interact — and their users are their products, that which they offer to advertisers. So, why not keep moving these users, these products, into the better-controlled conduits of app-based communication?

Yes, I happen to be writing a blog entry right now — one which I don’t expect anyone to comment on, like they used to in the good old days. There is much more discussion of things I blog about on Twitter than in the comment section of my blog; this is evidence that we are in the post-Web era. People can still do Web (and even pre-Web) electronic literature and art projects. As Jodi put it in an interview this year, “You can still make websites these days.” This doesn’t change that we reached peak Web years ago. We live now in a post-Web era where some are still doing Web work, just as some are still doing pre-Web sorts of work.

In my view, the pre-Web works are ones in HyperCard and the original Mac and Windows Storyspace, of course. (It may limit your audience, but you can still make work in these formats, if you like!) Some early pieces of mine, such as The Help File (written in the standard Windows help system) and my parser-based interactive fiction, written in Inform 6, are also pre-Web. You can distribute parser-based IF on the Web, and you can play it in the browser, but it was being distributed on an FTP site, the IF Archive, before the Web became the prevalent means of distribution. (The IF Archive now has a fancy new Web interface.) Before the IF Archive, interactive fiction was sold on floppy disk. I consider that the significant number of people making parser-based interactive fiction today are still doing pre-Web electronic literature work that happens to be available on the Web or sometimes in app form.

Also worth noting is that Rob Wittig’s Blue Company and Scott Rettberg’s Kind of Blue are best considered pre-Web works by my reckoning, as email, the form used for them, was in wide use before the Web came along. (HTML is used in these email projects for formatting and to incorporate illustrations, so the Web does have some involvement, but the projects are still mainly email projects.) The Unknown, on the other hand, is definitely an electronic literature work of the Web.

Twitterbots, as long as they last, are great examples of post-Web electronic literature, of course.

With this for preface, I have to say that I don’t completely agree with Flores’s characterization of the books in the Using Electricity series. It could be because my pre-Web/Web/post-Web concept doesn’t map onto his 1st/2nd/3rd generation idea exactly. It could also be that it doesn’t exactly make sense to name printed books, or for that matter installations in gallery spaces, as pre-Web/Web/post-Web. This type of division makes the most sense for work one accesses on one’s own computer, whether it got there via a network, a floppy disk, a CD-ROM, or some other way. But if we wanted to see where the affinities lie, I would have to indicate mostly pre-Web and Web connections; I think there is only one post-Web Using Electricity book that has been released or is coming out soon:

  1. The Truelist (Nick Montfort) is more of a pre-Web project, kin to early combinatorial poetry but taken to a book-length, exhaustive extreme.

  2. Mexica (Rafael Pérez y Pérez) is more of a pre-Web project based on a “Good Old-Fashioned AI” (GOFAI) system.

  3. Articulations (Allison Parrish) is based on a large store of textual data, Project Gutenberg, shaped into verse with two different sorts of vector-space analyses, phonetic and syntactical. While Project Gutenberg predates the Web by almost two decades, it became the large-scale resource that it is today in the Web era. So, this would be a pre-Web or Web project.

  4. Encomials (Ranjit Bhatnagar), coming in September, relies on Twitter data, and indeed the firehose of it, so is a post-Web/3rd generation project.

  5. Machine Unlearning (Li Zilles), coming in September, is directly based on machine learning on data from the open Web. This is a Web-generation project which wouldn’t have come to fruition in the walled gardens of the post-Web.

  6. A Noise Such as a Man Might Make (Milton Läufer), coming in September, uses a classic algorithm from early in the 20th Century — one you could read about in Scientific American in the 1980s, and see working on USENET — to conflate two novels. It seems like a pretty clear pre-Web project to me.

  7. Ringing the Changes (Stephanie Strickland), coming in 2019, uses the combinatorics of change ringing and a reasonably small body of documents, although larger than Läufer’s two books. So, again, it would be pre-Web.

Having described the “generational” tendencies of these computer-generated books, I’ll close by mentioning one of the implications of the three-part generational model, as I see it, for what we used to call “hypertext.” The pre-Web allowed for hypertexts that resided on one computer, while the Web made it much more easily possible to update a piece of hypertext writing, collaborate with others remotely, release it over time, and link out to external sites.

Now, what has happened to Hypertext in the post-Web world? Just to stick to Twitter, for a moment: You can still put links into tweets, but corporate enclosure of communications means that the wild wild wild linking of the Web tends to be more constrained. Links in tweets look like often-cryptic partial URLs instead of looking like text, as they do in pre-Web and Web hypertexts. You essentially get to make a Web citation or reference, not build a hypertext, by tweeting. And hypertext links have gotten more abstruse in this third, post-Web generation! When you’re on Twitter, you’re supposed to be consuming that linear feed — automatically produced for you in the same way that birds feed their young — not clicking away of your own volition to see what the Web has to offer and exploring a network of media.

The creative bots of Twitter (while they last) do subvert the standard orientation of the platform in interesting ways. But even good old fashioned hypertext is reigned in by post-Web systems. If there’s no bright post-post-Web available, I’m willing to keep making a blog post now and then, and am glad to keep making Web projects — some of which people can use as sort of free/libre/open-source 3rd-generation platforms, if they like.

Platform Studies at 10

The Platform Studies series from MIT Press is now about ten years old. The first book in the series, my & Ian Bogost’s Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, was published in 2009. (We also edit this series.) Before our book on the Atari VCS/Atari 2600 came out, we launched the site and announced the series, back at the end of 2006, and Ian and I were presenting about it at conferences the next year. So, although the exact birthday is uncertain, let’s say a (probably belated) happy 10th.

Pong's circuit board on the left, BASIC code from Hunt the Wumpus on the right
Pong compared to Hunt the Wumpus: The platforms, not just game structures and interfaces, fundamentally differ.

Nine books have been published in the series:

It’s worth noting again that platform studies isn’t a subset of game studies. You can see this from the above list, which includes books about two home computers (the Amiga and BBC Micro), a software platform used for different purposes (Flash), a national telecommunications system (Mintiel), and a peripheral used to connect computing to motion picture film (the Stromberg-Carlson 4020). On the other hand, its intersection with game studies is quite significant; four books are about gaming platforms while games play an important role in most of the other five studies.

As Ian & I have written, we have put forth platform studies, as a concept and (in capital letters) as a book series, simply as a way to focus an investigation of computational media.

It isn’t a methodology or even a method. It doesn’t require or preclude any particular sort of scholarship or analysis. We do think that since computational platforms are the focus in platform studies, some serious engagement with their computational aspects is needed, but this engagement can come from many different directions, from people with training in many disciplines and interdisciplines.

The point of the series and concept is to invite a focus on platform, just as we already have studies that focus on particular national contexts, particular historical periods, particular game/creative genres, particular games and creative works, and work done by particular organizations, collectives, and individuals. We describe this in, for instance:

That said, we have put forth a five-layered model to explain what a computational platform is and how it interacts with other layers of digital media. (This was introduced in Montfort, Nick, “Combat in Context,” Game Studies vol. 6, no. 1, December 2006.) We do believe computational platforms can be defined and that they have significance. So platform studies is meant to be an inviting space, but it is not one that is completely unfurnished.

Several people have done critical writing about the platform studies concept in the academic literature:

Others have taken a platform focus in their studies outside of the series, often in articles. These are a few that have come to my attention:

Ian & I continue to welcome inquiries from potential Platform Studies authors. We are available, as we have been, to help prospective authors develop book proposals for the MIT Press.

While we welcome books on all sorts of platforms, we want to particularly encourage writers to think about some of the platforms of major historical importance that are not yet covered in the series:

  • The Apple II series, successful home computers for which many games and business applications first were developed; also the basis for the success of Apple Computer.

  • The Commodore 64, the best-selling single model of computer ever made; highly influential in early online systems, gaming, the demoscene, and music.

  • The IBM PC, whose open architecture led “PC compatible” machines to dominate in home and business computing by the end of the 1980s.

  • The Macintosh series, influential in bringing the GUI into popular use; used in education and desktop publishing; the basis for the continued success of Apple Computer/Apple Inc.

  • Microsoft Windows, the operating system/desktop platform that has dominated in business but also many creative contexts and propelled the success of Microsoft.

  • HyperCard, the first widely-used hypermedia system before to the Web, included for free with Macs when it was released in 1987.

Again, books focused on any platform — or on a series of computers or a closely-related family of platforms — are welcome in Platform Studies. If a case can be made for studying a platform, it doesn’t need to be a popular favorite throughout the world. And, even if a platform is very prominent, a proposal still needs to explain why a study of it will be valuable. I just don’t want authors to shy away from these six!

Updated July 26 to add an entry for Samuel Tobin’s book on the Nintendo DS.

Concise Computational Literature is Now Online in Taper

I’m pleased to announce the release of the first issue of Taper, along with the call for works for issue #2.

Taper is a DIY literary magazine that hosts very short computational literary works — in the first issue, sonic, visual, animated, and generated poetry that is no more than 1KB, excluding comments and the standard header that all pages share. In the second issue, this constraint will be relaxed to 2KB.

The first issue has nine poems by six authors, which were selected by an editorial collective of four. Here is how this work looked when showcased today at our exhibit in the Trope Tank:

Weights and Measures and for the pool players at the Golden Shovel, Lillian Yvonne-Bertram
“Weights and Measures” and “for the pool players at the Golden Shovel,” Lillian Yvonne-Bertram
193 and ArcMaze, Sebastian Bartlett
“193” and “ArcMaze,” Sebastian Bartlett
Alpha Riddims, Pierre Tchetgen and Rise, Angela Chang
“Alpha Riddims,” Pierre Tchetgen and “Rise,” Angela Chang
US and Field, Nick Montfort
“US” and “Field,” Nick Montfort
God, Milton Läufer
“God,” Milton Läufer

This issue is tiny in size and contains only a small number of projects, but we think they are of very high quality and interestingly diverse. This first issue of Taper also lays the groundwork for fairly easy production of future issues.

The next issue will have two new editorial collective members, but not me, as I focus on my role as publisher of this magazine though my very small press, Bad Quarto.

Using Electricity readings, with video of one

I’m writing now from the middle of a four-city book tour which I’m on with Rafael Pérez y Pérez and Allison Parrish – we are the first three author/programmers to develop books (The Truelist, Mexica, and Articulations) in this Counterpath series, Using Electricity.

I’m taking the time now to post a link to video of a short reading that Allison and I did at the MLA Convention, from exactly a month ago. If you can’t join us at an upcoming reading (MIT Press Bookstore, 2018-02-06 6pm or Babycastles in NYC, 2018-02-07 7pm) and have 10 minutes, the video provides an introduction to two of the three projects.

Rafael wasn’t able to join us then; we are very glad he’s here from Mexico City with us this week, and has read with us in Philadelphia and Providence so far!

Sliders

Sliders front cover, with battlements

My minimal book Sliders has been published by my press, Bad Quarto. The book contains 32 poems, some of which are only one word long. In a break from tradition, they are not computer-generated.

Currently Sliders is only available for sale at the MIT Press Bookstore, 301 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, Mass.

Sliders back cover, with blurbs

Remarker #1 Is Out

Remarker #1

This month I published a zine in the form of a bookmark. It’s available by asking me for a copy, asking a contributor for a copy, or going to my local radical bookstore, Bluestockings, at 172 Allen Street, New York, NY. If you wish to find Remarker there you must, alas, look under the register among the freebies (and advertisements), not among the “grown up” zines. The upside is that Remarker is free.

Des Imagistes Lost & Found

Des Imagistes, first Web editionI’m glad to share the first Web edition of Des Imagistes, which is now back on the Web.

I assigned a class to collaborate on an editorial project back in 2008, one intended to provide practical experience with the Web and literary editing while also resulting in a useful contribution. I handed them a copy of the first US edition of Des Imagistes, the first Imagist anthology, edited by Ezra Pound and published in 1914.

Jason Begy, Audubon Dougherty, Madeleine Clare Elish, Florence Gallez, Madeline Flourish Klink, Hillary Kolos, Michelle Moon Lee, Elliot Pinkus, Nick Seaver, and Sheila Murphy Seles, the Fall 2008 workshop class, did a great job. The project was prompted, and indeed assigned, by me, but it’s the work of that group, not my work. The class put a great deal of editorial care into the project and also attended to principles of flexible, appropriate Web design. The cento they assembled and used for an alternate table of contents made for a nice main page, inviting attention to the text rather than to some sort of illustration. I’m not saying it would have been exactly my approach, but what they did is explained clearly and works well.

I told the class that the licensing of their project was up to them. They chose a CC BY-NC-SA license, more restrictive than I would have selected, given that the material was in the public domain to begin with, but a reasoned choice. They were similarly asked to decide about the hosting of the work. They just had to present what they’d done in class, answer questions about it, and let me look at and interact with it. While I would be glad to place a copy on my site, nickm.com, it was up to them as to whether they would take me up on the offer. They placed their work online on its own domain, which they acquired and for which they set up hosting.

After announcing this edition, readers, scholars, and teachers of Imagist poetry commented and thanked the class for it work. But as I bemoaned last October, Des Imagistes was no longer online a few years later. I asked around for files, but asking former students to submit an assignent six years later turns out to be a poor part of a preservation strategy.

Now, working with Erik Stayton (who a research assistant in the Trope Tank and is in the masters in CMS 2015 class), I’ve recovered the site from the Internet Archive. The pages were downloaded manually, in adherence to the robots.txt file on archive.org, the Internet Archive’s additions to the pages were removed, and something very close to the original site was assembled and uploaded.

Some lessons, I suppose, are that it’s not particularly the case that a group of students doing a groundbreaking project will manage to keep their work online. As much as I like reciprocal and equitable ways of working together, the non-hierarchical nature of this project probably didn’t help when it came to keeping it available; no one was officially in charge, accepting credit and blame. Except, of course, that I should have been in charge of keeping this around after it was done and after that course was complete. I should have asked for the files and (while obeying the license terms) put the project on my site – and for that matter, other places online.

Would you like to have a copy of the Des Imagistes site for your personal use or to place online somewhere, non-commerically? Here’s a zipfile of the whole site; you will also want to get the larger PDF of the book, which should be placed in the des_imagistes directory.

10 PRINT is CC Book of the Day on Unglue.it

The site Unglue.it, which offers books that can be made free after a certain number of purchases, also promotes born-free e-books such as the Creative Commons PDF of 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10. They have featured our book today, in fact. The founder pointed out to us that there are now 11 different “editions” of 10 PRINT in WorldCat, thanks not to the hardback, paperback, and e-book editions but to variant titles and author entries.

World Clock in Polish Reviewed (in Polish)

I announced the Polish translation of World Clock recently; here is, as far as I know, the first review of it – which is also the first review of World Clock in any language. It will appear in the magazine Fragile.

„TRAVELOGUE” WIERSZA WOLNEGO NICKA MONTFORTA

Nick Montfort, Zegar światowy, tłum. Z jęz. ang. przełożył Piotr Marecki, Kraków, Korporacja Ha!art, 2014.

Ciekawie przedstawiono w książce autentyczne przemówienie, w którym narrator mówi głosami innych osób. Autor nie tylko opowiada zdarzenie, ale pisząc, że tak było zwraca też uwagę na to, jak do tego doszło: „Ashgabat. Jest prawie 05:04. W pewnym przytulnym schronieniu sporej postury mężczyzna, o imieniu Jakub, czyta kanarkową umowę. Siada prosto”. Kategorii narratora szybko zmienia „punkt widzenia”.

Forma książki to proza ​​poetycka z elementami pamiętnika, po prostu chronologia uczucia. Za to motyw napisania tekstu przypomina „travelogue”, ponieważ zawiera krótkie notatki z podróży. W składni poetyckiej odgrywa ważną rolę elipsa (opuszczanie słów, a nawet całych zdań) : „Samara. Jest około 12:39. W pewnym miłym miejscu zamieszkania średniej postury mężczyzna, nazywany Liang, czyta nieskazitelnie czystą kartkę. Całkowicie się wyłącza”. Ograniczenia krótkimi wyrażeniami wymuszają na czytelniku wymyślanie sytuacji, to jest oryginalną interakcję między autorem a czytelnikiem. W ten sposób autor zaprasza do dialogu.

Struktura tekstu to mozaika, czytanie jest „rozdrobnione”. Możesz czytać książkę zarówno klasycznie, od początku do końca, jak też chaotycznie, otwierając ją na dowolnej stronie, co jednak nie powoduje uszkodzenia jej koncepcji. Styl pisania jest podobny do „nowego dziennikarstwa” (Tom Wulf, USA). Zmiana perspektywy (tzw. „kameleon”) to jedna z najbardziej interesujących i sprytnych technik. W ten sposób za pośrednictwem narratora autor gra z czytelnikiem. W związku z tym ważne jest również, aby pamiętać o zmienianiu „punktu widzenia”, o patrzeniu z cudzej perspektywy i opisywaniu wydarzeń postrzeganych przez różne osoby. Postaci to w Asmari, to w Tunisi. Postaciami są raz kobiety, raz mężczyźni. Zmiana płci i zmiana miejsca to ciekawe elementy gry autora. Ważne jest, aby zrozumieć, że podstawową zasadą dziennikarstwa jest prawdą, a Nick Montfort ignoruje wszelkie zasady i dlatego jest inny.

Jego tekst – ciągły wiersz wolny, który ma różne ciągi długości, bez rymów, ale z rytmem:

Port-au-Prince. Jest dokładnie 00:15. W pewnej schludnej, choć
niczym się niewyróżniającej, sadybie wyższa niż większość
staruszka, mająca na imię Fatma, czyta nieskazitelnie czystą
umowę. Drapie się w ucho.

JULIA POCZYNOK

Zegar Światowy, the Polish World Clock

World Clock in Polish, displayed
World Clock (book, code) has now been published in Polish. The translation is by Piotr Marecki, who translated the underlying novel-generating program and generated a new novel in Polish. ha!art is the publisher, and the book appears in the Liberatura series, which also includes some very distinguished titles: The Polish translations of Finnegans Wake and of Perec’s Life A User’s Manual, for instance.

The Polish World Clock on the shelf

10 PRINT in Paperback

Hey, lookit here. Not only is 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 (by Nick Montfort, Patsy Baudoin, John Bell, Ian Bogost, Jeremy Douglass, Mark C. Marino, Michael Mateas, Casey Reas, Mark Sample, and Noah Vawter, MIT Press, 2013) available for free online as a Creative Commons PDF, and available in the original harback edition that MIT Press published, it’s also now in paperback.

10 PRINT paperback

The paperback looks beautiful, by the way, thanks to the design work and attention of our co-author Casey Reas.

Here’s the MIT Press page with both the hardcover and the paperback.

Reading of #! etc. September 18, Harvard Book Store

I’m reading at the Harvard Book Store on September 18 – a week from now, on Thursday. The reading is at 7pm.

I’ll be presenting and reading from my latest book, #! (pronounced “shebang”), which is a book of programs and poems, published by Counterpath Press in Denver.

I’ll also discuss my previous two books, one of which is World Clock. I developed this for National Novel Generation Month last November; it’s a computer-generated novel. Cleverly enough, it’s been translated into Polish via translation of the underlying program.

The other recent book is 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10, which I organized and wrote with nine others. This one, an MIT Press book, is just out in paperback. This is a critical, scholarly study of a one-line program, and although it is an academic book of this sort, it of course has a strong relationship to the code-generated World Clock and the programs-and-poems #!.

The programs behind #!, by the way, are all available online as free software at my site, nickm.com. The book is there as an example of how this particular material form can represent the code and the output, and how page differs from screen, sometimes in very interesting ways.

If you’re lucky enough to be in Harvard Square often, please do come by to the reading. I will do my best to make it fun and provocative, and to provide some additional insight into computing and how it interacts with language.

Updated 10:01 — Time Still Ticks

Lance Olsen and Tim Guthrie have updated their classic and palindromically-titled electronic literature work, 10:01.

This piece was included in the first Electronic Literature Collection and the first edition can still be seen there. Since it offers links out to the Web, and some of these became stale since the piece was first published in 2005, the prolific and edgy experimental writer Olsen and developer Guthrie have revised the piece for the Web for 2014, also reworking a few other elements. One is still able to select among movie patrons to read their perspectives. The piece is a companion to the print-novel version of 10:01, published by Chiasmus in 2005.

I cannot explain how apropos it is that I blog about this after returning from an AMC theater.

The audience is listening! Check it out.