A Brief History of Interaction and Electronic Literature and Their Impact on Contemporary Interactive Practice
An interactive medium in its most simple definition, is where the audience doesn’t simply view or read a text, but instead becomes involved in its function, changing its reality as they participate in the creation of its meaning. Interaction in regards to “the mechanical and electronic arts, has dramatically altered the fixed and historically grounded relations between art and audience, shifting the emphasis away from contemplation to participation, to active involvement in the work. With the computer as the predominant medium, participation becomes interaction” (Tofts, 2005, pp. 13). This report will use The Silent History as an example of taking this involvement to a whole new level, incorporating elements of not just how we involve ourselves, but also where.
In order to understand how The Silent History is situated within a contemporary media context, we must first establish what medium the novel can be identified as. The text is a form of Electronic Literature, defined by the Electronic Literature Association as ‘working with important literary aspects that take advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer’ (Electronic Literature Organization website, 2013). This definition explains electronic literature as a creation of literature that actively involves computer software as a means of getting ideas out to the audience. Although this definition gives us a brief understanding of the technical means of electronic literature, this explanation is quite dry in terms of format, and marginalizes the artistic capabilities of the medium. Instead, I would like to focus on Katherine Hayles idea that “electronic literature tests the boundaries of the literary and challenges us to re-think our assumptions of what literature can do and be.” (Hayles, 2007). This idea encompasses most ideas portrayed throughout The Silent History, and helps us in situating the artistic context of the piece.
The interactive electronic novel for the personal computer dates back to 1984 with Robert Pinsky’s “Mind Wheel”, which is an all-text game in real time, created for the Apple II, Atari 8-bit, and Commodore 64. At Brown University in 1990, writer Robert Coover began teaching hypertext workshops, where students learnt how to write non-linear stories. These narratives had embedded links that directed readers to different positions in the text. (Williamson, 2012). Darren Tofts explains how electronic literature has gone on to significantly influence books as a medium, as since its introduction, ‘our reading habits have dramatically changed. Rather than being outside the story, we become enmeshed in story spaces’ (Tofts, 2005, pp. 104). Since electronic literature has been introduced as a prominent medium for narrative, “the sparks that will ignite imaginative activity in digital humanities must be fostered through speculative experiment that pushes beyond administrative or bureaucratic instrumentalism.” (Drucker, 2002). Electronic Literature has widened the possibilities of text, from the basic form of a book, to an unimaginable amount of different forms. We will use The Silent History as an example to exemplify these ideas.
Key Features of The Silent History
“Imagining actual readers using this thing is slightly terrifying at the moment. Words are easy—you choose which ones you want and they stay where you put them. But the world is messy—these field reports only really exist via a weird combination of text, reader, and physical environment, far beyond anything we can hope to control. But I guess that’s what makes it exciting.” (Horowitz interviewed in Contents Magazine, 2012)
Have you ever been so involved in a book you were reading that you wanted to become a part of the pages, to jump into the story and become one with its content? Well, with new electronic literature project The Silent History, you can.
The Silent History is a collaborated project between Eli Horowitz (former managing editor and publisher of McSweeney’s), Kevin Moffett (author of Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events and Permanent Visitors), Matthew Derby (author of Super Flat Times), Russell Quinn (co-founder of digital studio Spoiled Milk), and a mix of contributors all over the world (The Silent History website, 2012).
It is a science-fiction story, about a group of strange children, born without the ability to create or comprehend language. This story could seem like any other typical apocalyptic tale, if it weren’t for the medium itself. The novel uses “serialization, exploration, and collaboration” (The Silent History website, 2012) to create arguably one of the most interactive form of narrative ever created. The tag-line for the chronicle is “a new kind of novel” (The Silent History website, 2012), and in regards to this concept of ‘new’, we refer to an old style of narrative or text, played with through an alternate medium. What we are left with, is a story which can be personalised according to how you choose to read it.
“The interaction between form and content was a fundamental factor in this project from the very beginning. Each decision led to another in ways that seemed perfectly logical, even necessary, at the time, but somehow combined to generate this strange creation.” (Horowitz interviewed in Contents Magazine, 2012)
The story is told in two forms; testimonials, and field reports. The 120 testimonials are written by the creators of the app, and explain the history of the children in the story, through the eyes of the community members of the ‘silents’. The ‘field reports’, are where the audience interaction comes into play. Readers can write and send in these reports themselves, but the catch is, they can only be accessed by other readers when their GPS matches the location of where the report is set. There is no other way to download the field reports. Although these reports will be monitored and slightly edited by the creators, they are considered user-created content. The reports can be read on their own, but generally should be combined with all aspects of the text’s narrative. This piece of interactive literature is downloaded as an application or ‘app’ from the Apple store, and is divided into six volumes, each of these volumes having 20 installments. It is created specifically for iPads and iPhones. The testimonials were released one per week-day, starting on October 1st 2012, and completing on April 19th, 2013.
Artistic Context and Significance
The project began when Eli Horowitz, the former managing editor and publisher of McSweeney’s, decided he wanted to create a novel that you can physically explore. He came up with the idea of field reporters as a way of getting the public involved in the creation of the story, but he knew there has to be a central narrative in order to maintain consistency; hence the testimonials. As stated in an interview with Contents Magazine, in order to add focus on the idea of the field reports, he ‘needed to make the varied voice a strength, rather than something to hide, so he settled on the oral history format, and needed a plot that would allow for hundreds of different perspectives’ (Contents Magazine, 2012). The original release of the novel in October 2012 was situated directly in the rise of the popularity of tablet and smart-phone hardware, as well as during the growth in the status of the E-reader. The artists took advantage of this emerging electronic culture. Horowitz believes that ‘E-books were unmistakably a lesser form, and there was not a spirit of excitement about them, among writers or readers’ (Kellogg, 2012), and he set out to change this. He believes that successful art must come from taking risks, and he does not want to see this rise in electronic culture affecting the industry of writing. Although Horowitz hasn’t ruled out the idea of working with publishers, he leans more towards working with authors themselves. He would like to create a platform for writers to tell their stories in new ways, as they ‘have been left out of the digital revolution, and their role has been to shut up and not worry about their books getting uglier’ (Horowitz quoted in Deahl, 2012).
Eli Horowitz “wanted to make a piece of fiction that didn’t just appear on new technology, but used it to its fullest extent. Now, that basic idea has transformed itself into a sprawling, captivating work, and it could just be the start of a new way to think about fiction” (Thier, 2012). The Silent History project has used pre-existing forms of media to create a novel unique it its function. They have mixed the idea of user-generated content with a GPS system, in a way that enhances the story, rather than alienating readers. The Silent History is a contemporary example of how electronic literature as a form of interactive art has changed the way we read and access novels, and the ideas displayed through this text will continue to influence authors, artists and producers for years to come.
“The hardest part is getting people used to reading books in a new way, but I think it’s going to be easier and easier. My dream would be that other people do this form of storytelling and people take this in new directions we haven’t even thought of, and then we’ll do something else.” (Horowitz quoted in Williamson, 2012)
Deahl, Rachel (2012) ‘Taking Storytelling Digital’, Publishers Weekly, viewed 12 June 2013, URL http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/content-and-e-books/article/53801-taking-storytelling-digital.html
Drucker, Johanna (2002), ‘Theory as Praxis: The Poetics of Electronic Textuality’, Modernism/modernity, Volume 9, Number 4, The Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 683-691
Electronic Literature Organization (2013), ‘What is Electronic Literature?’, About the ELO, viewed 11 June 2013, URL http://eliterature.org/about/
Hayles, Katherine (2007), ‘Preservation, Archiving, and Dissemination’, Electronic Literature: What is it?, viewed 10 June 2013, URL http://eliterature.org/pad/elp.html
‘Inside The Silent History’ (2012), Contents Magazine, viewed 12 June 2013, URL http://contentsmagazine.com/articles/inside-the-silent-history/
Kellogg. Carolyn (2012), ‘The Silent History turns up the noise on a new kind of e-book’, Los Angeles Times, viwed 9 June 2013, URL http://articles.latimes.com/2012/oct/05/news/la-jc-silent-history-20121006
The Silent History (2012), viewed 5 June 2013, URL http://www.thesilenthistory.com/
Thier, Dave (2012) ‘The Silent History:’ A Novel Built for an iPhone’, viewed 12 June 2013, URL http://www.forbes.com/fdc/welcome_mjx.shtml
Tofts, Darren (2005), Interzone: Media Arts in Australia, Craftsman House
Williamson, Eugenia (2012), ‘The Silent History invites readers to become active participants’, The Boston Globe, URL http://www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/2012/10/12/new-book-the-silent-history-invites-readers-become-active-participants-story/lwuPuibzJe7wQSA7P2wGZN/story.html