The abstract submission deadline for the Future of Digital Studies, February 24-27 in Gainesville, Florida, is January 1. full paper submissions will be due on Feb 20.

The list of invited speakers is exceptional:

  • Joseph Tabbi (UIC)
  • John Cayley (Brown University)
  • Fox Harrell (Georgia Tech)
  • Gregory Ulmer (UF)
  • Terry Harpold (UF)
  • Jane Yellowlees Douglas (UF)
  • Mark Bernstein (Eastgate Systems)
  • Craig Saper (UCF)

Videoconference spots by:

N. Katherine Hayles (Duke), Nick Montfort (MIT), Jerome McGann (UVA), Matthew Kirschenbaum (UM), Michael Joyce (Vassar College), Rita Raley (UC Santa Barbara), Arthur Kroker (U of Victoria), Luciano Floridi (Oxford, UK), Lev Manovich (UCSD)

Leslie Carr of the University of Southampton in the UK writes about his first experiences with hypertext : a book that sounds like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure for math students.

I was about seven (it was 1971) at the time that I discovered "Tutortext: Basic Mathematics" in the village library. It was a volume from an American series of popular education materials aimed at those who "wish to learn ... and yet have to teach themselves"[…] Each chapter started with a page of explanation and a question with multiple choice answers leading to other pages; some of them explained where you had gone wrong, and one of them congratulated you on your progress and took you on to the next step.

His account of his experience with HyperCard is also interesting, calling attention to a recent reincarnation called TileStack .


Deena Larsen is spreading the word the word that NPR’s panel on How E-Books Will Change Reading and Writing forgot a few things — such as the last twenty years of electronic literature.

Join the fun and add a comment with your favorite hypertext!

Li-bel is an interesting new electronic bookmark which seeks to add another dimension to book reading. It’s a bookmark, designed to be used with printed books, that provides complementary information to the text, such as video, sound, and reference text.

The idea was born from the designer’s pursuit of the hybridization of books—a point in between print and hypertext literature. So far, information on the li-bel is sparse, but it’s something to watch . We were told that computers would come to books, and not the other way around; this is an interesting example of that theory.

The Purpling is a hypertext poem by Nick Montfort in which each sentence links to another lexia. As each page is visited, the sentences begin to turn purple. The text of the poem focuses on how we read and the nature of reading hypertext.

eBook Prognostication

Adam Penenberg speculates on the evolution of the book and future of reading. Unusually for pundits dazzled by the Kindle and iPhone, Penenberg observes that the real future of eBooks surely lies in books that do more – not merely paper simulators or books with video illustration.

The first movie cameras were used to film theater productions. It took early cinematic geniuses like Sergei Eisenstein, Fritz Lang, Charlie Chaplin and Abel Gance to untether the camera from what was and transform it into what it would become: a new art form. I believe that this dynamic will soon be replayed, except it will star the book in the role of the theater production, with authors acting more like directors and production companies than straight wordsmiths. […] Instead of stagnant words on a page we will layer video throughout the text, add photos, hyperlink material, engage social networks of readers who will add their own videos, photos, and wikified information so that these multimedia books become living,

Much of Penenberg’s vision, while accurate, is not very new. When he writes that

A novelist could create whole new realities, a pastiche of video and audio and words and images that could rain down on the user, offering metaphors for artistic expressions. Or they could warp into videogame-like worlds where readers become characters and through the expression of their own free will alter the story to fit. They could come with music soundtracks or be directed or produced by renowned documentarians. They could be collaborations or one-woman projects.

he’s saying rather less than Robert Coover wrote in 1992, or Eric Drexler wrote in 1987, or Ted Nelson in 1976. Though Penenberg couches this paragraph in the future conditional, all these possibilities (and more!) have been realized in published works.

The article sparked some interesting and intelligent comments. Maryanne Conlin posts:

I do however have to ask- why veer away from the analogy in the article? I DO agree with your vision of the “ebook” of the future…but I also think, as we still have lots of theatre production of all sizes today….we will still have books published too!

Just because we have newer, richer forms of media does not mean that the old ones must die. Though computers can create stunning digital images, the oil painting has not been cast carelessly aside.

The Maryland Institute for Technology (MITH) has announced a new Web site featuring the Deena Larsen Collection. Larsen is an important hypertext pioneer; her Marble Springs and Samplers are published by Eastgate and her Web work has appeared in many venues.

Her personal hypertext site is fun and witty.

The collection also includes Larsen’s many early computers. MITH will be opening the collection to scholars on a limited basis. Researchers interested in visiting Maryland to work with the Larsen materials on site should write apply to

Women have been using pen names to overcome the difficulty in gaining a reputation as a respectable writer. Jill Walker points to a modern example of how one woman found that opportunities presented themselves in greater numbers when she took on the name “James” . She was able to create a successful writing persona, and built a blog on writing and design advice called Men With Pens.

The example is more poignant when one considers how machismo the site is. Walker points the obvious phallic suggestions of the title and title graphic as well as the photo of welding below it, but everything down to the gunmetal background of the banner and the brick background of the body suggests an inflated sense of masculinity.

It worked. The site is one of the most popular writing advice sites, and James was able to keep her identity secret for three years. Perhaps this persona is an appeal to the male fantasy of fulfilling some socially ordained image of success. Either way, her writing is good and her design advice is sound. It’s a shame she had to resort to this to receive the credit she deserves.

Roo Reynolds of BBC Vision uses GraphViz, a program for representing structural information as graphs and diagrams, to create a map of Leila Johnston’s choose-your-own-adventure Enemy of Chaos. Cory Doctorow loved the book:

[a] geekily hilarious modern choose-your-own-adventure novel in which you play a middle aged bitter geek who is drafted into a branching narrative in which your goal is to save reality, while negotiating many of the familiar indignities of modern geekish life, from over-exuberant role-players to nuclear apocalypse.

The map shows the overall structure of the work, revealing all of its loops, dead ends, and branches.

I often forget how linear choose-your-own adventure tends to be, perhaps because I’ve become accustomed to working with complexly structured hypertexts. As with most works in the genre, there are really only substantial choices to be made in the middle of this text; the beginning and end is strikingly linear. Also it seems that there is only one “true” end, while the other endings seem to just be deviations from the story--a game over, not a saving of the princess--and it might have been nice to see a couple of different true endings.

Just as I was getting ready to go home, dreading the two hour commute by train, bus, and foot—thank goodness it’s not really snowing yet— I saw this article on the subway as a writing environment. Many people, including me, spend hours a week on the subway reading; few write.

I do occasionally write on the train, but I prefer not to since the random passenger glancing over my shoulder is distracting. Emily St. John Mandel has a different view:

There’s a certain paradoxical privacy in working on the subway. It’s New York City, and we’ve all seen everything down here: if you start writing on the train nobody’s likely to give you a second glance, unless of course you’re writing on your laptop and they’re planning on stealing it at the next stop. Except on the rare elevated sections of track, your phone won’t ring. The odds of running into anyone you know are fairly slim. . . You’re out in the world, surrounded by other people, but there’s enough solitude in that crowd to get some writing done.

With video games finally advancing as a more widely-accepted narrative form, it’s time for game aficionados to take a look at the people who are writing the narratives. More and more game-production studios have built their reputations on the fact that their games provide well-executed narrative, Bioware among the most prominent examples.

Evan Narcisse interviewed Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, the story designers for Bioware, on how games convey story, the evolution of narrative gaming as an art, and how we can expect narratives to continue to evolve as graphics reach their peak before hitting the uncanny valley.

Artist Richard Wright was this year’s winner of the prestigious Turner Prize. Wright was shortlisted for his gold-leaf frescos on exhibit at Carnegie International, Pittsburgh and the Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh. His work is painted directly onto gallery walls, and is destroyed at the end of its exhibition. According to an interview with BBC News, he believes this process is important to the spirit of his work:

"I am interested in placing painting in the situation where it collides with the world; the fragility of that existence. Being here for a short period of time, I feel, heightens the experience of it being here."

Previous winners of the prize include Martin Creed, Grayson Perry, Gilbert and George, and Damien Hirst.

photo:Seamus Kearney

Rick Moody recently delivered a Twitter Fiction via several publishers in an effort conceived by Electric Lit to reach readers unfamiliar with Twitter fiction. Unfortunately, many people were following more than one of the publishers and became annoyed at the repetition. Some of the publishers backed out, calling the attempt a “noble failure.

But is this fair? The story is actually pretty good and addresses how the internet connects people.

If anything failed, it was the delivery, not the fiction. Too many figures in the online literary world were too quick to jump onboard without considering the logistics of the delivery. Much of this could have been resolved through Twitter’s new retweet function.

But I liked the narrative. And according to the comments on Vroman’s so did others who were not aware Twitter fiction existed as a form. And those people are telling their friends about social media as a platform for narrative.

Sounds like success to me.

Instead of the usual winter fiction edition, this week brings us The New Yorker’s “world changers edition” . Editor David Remnick told WWD thathe change was mostly economic, and the ad sales for the new edition have gone up over 50% from the fiction issue.

Abrina Jaszi introduces Flavorwire, a site which straddles the line between culture and popculture, to electronic literature and its possibilities, emphasizing the openness of a form which is “not constrained by the physical world.”

Some of the best reads this season are being produced by electronic writers — techies devoted to the life of literature off the printed page. Their experimental fiction and poetry is colorful, cacophonous, animated and interactive — and often mediated by a host of different technologies. The term “electronic literature”

This is, of course, wrong: most writers of electronic literature are not particularly technical. Beyond this, it’s a good introduction.

Jonathan McCalmont tells us that moral choices in video games are no longer fun .

But did he consider that the alternatives he propose are also not fun? He contends that moral choices in video games a la Fable, Knights of the Old Republic, or Fallout 3 are black-or-white, subverting the impact the system is supposed to have. He proposes alternatives like having truly difficult moral decisions to make. Rather than either helping an orphan or killing her, you’d have to choose between saving the orphan and her baby brother. (This is a choice? – ed.) McCalmont wants the consequences of the player’s decisions to be more consequential:

The real challenge facing morality mechanics is realism. Because in-game moral decisions have no real-world consequences, it is all too easy for moral choices to become tactical or aesthetic ones. It is precisely because these decisions are not real that it is vital to make them feel real. They must be based not only in a real understanding of the psychology of moral decision making but also a grasp of how people react to the people they disagree with and disapprove of. It is not until gamers feel as though they are making real moral choices that moral choices will become fun again and no amount of force lightning can change that.

The problem with making moral decisions more realistic is that it would not necessarily the game more fun. Moral dilemmas are difficult, and we hate to make them. Moral dilemmas add depth and dimension to the story, but alone they will not make the game more engaging. On the contrary, they might make the game confusing or frustrating if they are not given a very clear reason for being there, as they were in Modern Warfare 2.

I want moral decisions because it makes sense within the story, not just as a gimmicky platform for prestige or sales. Fable players were disappointed when their moral choices affected their avatar’s appearance, not because the game didn’t do what it said it would do but because that’s all the game did: the story and characters were shallow. The fun behind killing people to get horns only lasts for so long before you’re left with an unmemorable story. And horns.

McCalmont’s morally grey system will be fun for as long as it’s novel, and you won’t even be done playing the first game by then. I believe what McCalmont actually wants is more than a facelift to a tired morality system. We want more than, "do this to get horns." The answer is good narrative development that uses the medium’s proximity to the player to affect our emotions, and this narrative must be threaded into every facet of the game’s development.

Recommended reading: Jason Morningstar’s Grey Ranks explores teenage resistance fighters in 1944 Warsaw. D. Vincent Baker’s Dogs In The Vineyard turns the players into enforcers of a sternly alien and arbitrary morality. Both are narrativist tabletop games.

eLit Camp 2009 this past weekend was a great success. We had a very interesting mix of people, ranging from well-known hypertext scholars to writers to board game developers.

Bill Bly gave an excellent presentation of We Descend Volume 2, sharing some interesting passages as well as giving terrific insight into the writing and brainstorming processes.

J. Nathan Matias previewed his work-in-progress, Emberlight, an online system for sharing Tinderbox files in their various views.

George Landow gave a fascinating talk on model railroads and their relation to virtual worlds. Why, for example, do rust and dust feature so prominently in the best virtual worlds?

The weekend reached an emotional peak when Steve Ersinghaus and John Timmons discussed The 100 Days Project . And, on top of all of that, we got to preview Aaron Chase's fun (and literate) new board game about drunken adventurers.

Big topics for discussion included ☙ the formal properties of IF and their relation to hypertext fiction, argumentation, and stretchext ☙ hypertext in the classroom ☙ the mark of time in new media. We wrapped up the weekend with a fascinating performance of Punchdrunk’s brilliant hyperdrama, Sleep No More.

The weekend was a great experience. I went in looking for new ideas and left with vexing questions that I’m very excited about trying to answer. That alone makes the weekend a success in my book.

Congratulations to Matt Kirschenbaum, whp receives this year’s MLA Prize for a First Book for Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination .

Ball Droppings is a Chrome Experiment game focused on interactive play and the creation of music. A player draws lines to catch the ball. Each bounce creates a sound whose pitch depends on the speed with which the ball lands. It’s a fun little game, and my first endeavor was to try to create a well-known song. I didn’t succeed (nor did I find any fun youtube videos that would suggest others did), but I did create some fun little beats, and was even able to throw in a chord or two.

Also of interest, Dain Saint and William Stallwood’s Auditorium is an iPhone game that combines gorgeous colors, fun puzzles, and beautiful melodies. It’s reminiscent of Brian Eno’s colorful music apps. Auditorium is available through iTunes or can be played online.

Just in time for the holidays, Mark Hurst releases his annual Uncle Mark Gift Guide and Almanac. It offers great advice for tech gifts, gifts for kids, games (board games and computer games), kitchen equipment, and more.

Uncle Mark’s is always written with candor, wit and character. It’s one of the bright spots of contemporary tech journalism.


Liam Julian hails Oxford’s reprint of the original Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler. The piece recounts the evolution of Fowler’s and its successor edittions. Julian demonstrates why the 1996 reprint of Fowler’s didn’t capture the original spirit and gives great examples of the Fowler we know and love:

The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know & condemn; (4) those who know & approve; & (5) those who know and distinguish.
Many if not most textbook-authors and teachers of Fowler’s time, and ours, belong in the third group, the dire condemners. But Fowler sides with the fifth, a club, he writes, that believes “that a real s.i., though not desirable in itself, is preferable to either of two things, to real ambiguity, & to patent artificiality.” Writing should be clear and smooth, and if maintaining the contiguity between to and its verb occasions an unclear or jarring sentence, the infinitive in question should be split.

The tremendous influence of Fowler specifically, and grammarians generally, on US newspapers and magazines is not very well appreciated. British publishers either went to good schools, and knew how to use words, or they went to bad schools and didn’t give a damn. In the US, you got anomalies like Ross, a high-school graduate from Utah who showed up in New York and found himself running The New Yorker as it became the centerpiece of American prose. Ross felt he didn’t really know how to write (or act). He was famously fanatic for Fowler’s.

Social media has changed things, from word-of-mouth advertising to studies of how having more friends can affect your happiness. Socialnomics is a weblog dedicated to social media and its effect on society, supplementing Erik Qualman’s book of the same name. Qualman has also produced a short video called “Social Media Revolution.”

The video has been hugely popular on Youtube, and though the wording on some of the statistics has been called into question, it’s still worth taking a look. Maribeth Back at FXPAL writes:

“Some YouTube commenters take issue with a few of the stats – so I wouldn’t necessarily use this for source material. I think it’s true in essence, however.”

Great music choice, too.

The Miracle in July is a fiction blog that incorporates music and images into its text in an interesting way. Rather than just including images in the text body, Michelle Anderson hides the images behind links, allowing the reader a sense of exploration and discovery. More importantly, however, her use of music is unique: she places links in the narrative that begin or change the background music to enhance the mood of the story.

Sometimes this technique proves awkward, as when she includes the name of the song to link in the text, which often has the same effect as having characters recite the title of a movie . It does, however, reveal some interesting ways that this could be done very effectively. Music could pace the narrative—that is, it could be used to demonstrate the passage of story-time or to exaggerate inconsistencies between story time and real time.

Starting a song just as you begin a long and detailed description of a brief encounter which actually takes very little story-time (narratological deceleration), and trying to time it so that the clip ends as you finish reading the passage, could be used to good effect. Everyone will read at different speeds, but I can’t image more than several seconds of difference.

Gunnar Liestøl brings us Situated Simulations, a newly designed “moblie augmented reality genre for the iPhone.” In this example, a visitor to an ancient mound can use the iPhone to view a reconstruction of the ship buried within.

Unlike most current augmented reality functions, such as the popular Google Maps app, Situated Simulations does not use a live video feed and overlay graphics on top of the feed. Instead, it uses the iPhone’s built-in GPS and compass to turn the phone into a window into another time. The result is cleaner graphics and smoother movement. The 3D graphics take advantage of the entire screen, with the camera perspective changing to accommodate the user’s movement and orientation in real space.

Liestøl has published two papers (here and here) on the project and its uses in educational and recreational dimensions.

Social Life of Visualization

From November’s OzChi conference, a team from RMIT and Queensland present an interesting presentation of “The Social Life of Visualization.”

With the emphasis on tweakability, the ability to adjust visualizations, Mark Bernstein has some interesting questions.

Is this merely the science-museum trick of giving the user a button to press and a crank to turn?  Or is this a matter of getting the first visualization design in the right ballpark and then letting the user tell you exactly what they want by specifying the details?

While letting the user “playfully explore” the data might be psuedo-interaction, giving the user the ability to annotate or customize visualizations certainly goes beyond the science-museum. The ability to quickly change axes and visual parameters allows for exploration of the data in personal and dynamic ways.

Electric Literature is a quarterly anthology of five short stories per issue. Their goal is to distribute the short story “in every viable media,” bridging the gap between print literature and electronic media:

We're tired of hearing that literary fiction is doomed. Everywhere we look, people are reading—whether it be paperbooks, eBooks, blogs, tweets, or text messages. So, before we write the epitaph for the literary age, we thought, let’s try it this way first: select stories with a strong voice that capture our readers and lead them somewhere exciting, unexpected, and meaningful. Publish everywhere, every way: paperbacks, Kindles, iPhones, eBooks, and audiobooks. Make it inexpensive and accessible. Streamline it: just five great stories in each issue. Be entertaining without sacrificing depth. In short, create the thing we wish existed.

Electric Literature hopes to place the emphasis back on the story and not the medium, and aims to provide easier access to literature for readers and fair pay ($1000/story) to the authors they feature.

Nick Montfort posted a link to Morpheus Biblionaut, a new work created by William Gillespie with stunning visuals by Travis Alber. The work follows an American astronaut and poet who is sent to Alpha Centauri to test a nuclear weapon capable of destroying a planet but returns to find that there are no longer radio signals. Except, maybe, one.

The new retweet function on twitter has led to much discussion, but retweeting might clear up a lot of interesting questions on authorship and citation issues.

There have always been several ways to retweet posts, and there was little standard as to how this was done. A forthcoming paper by danah boyd discusses many of the issues of how tweets were passed along and the complications that arose from these methods:

As messages are altered, it can be difficult to discern who is being addressed and who is being cited. Ambiguities abound, both with respect to pronoun usage in the content of messages and in conjunction with the attribution protocols surrounding retweeting. For example, when a message is retweeted, the authorship of the message changes, adding ambiguity to personal pronouns. Who is the “I” in a retweet? Is it the retweeter, or the retweeted?

The new method of retweeting eliminates this and other concerns, such as who gets credit: the last person to retweet or the original author? The goal of the new scheme is not only to eliminate these confusions, but also to reduce retweet spam if 10 of the people you follow all retweet the same thing.

However, the new native retweet system does not allow for comments, which eliminates one of the fundamental reasons for retweeting. The new system keeps the authors straight at the expense of discussion. It seems unlikely that Twitter will add a comment system to retweets, for fear of both losing its simplicity and venturing too far into the direction of Facebook.

Robin Wauters compares the upcoming release of the new netbook operating system Jolicloud to Google’s Chrome OS. Inspired by the iPhone’s Touch Cocoa framework, Jolicloud hopes to make social networking an integral part of its operating system rather than an extra feature added on top of it.

Ed Blachman points out an interesting feature of these platforms for writers: as web-based machines with minimal disk storage, they rely on remote data storage. He writes,

The idea of "living and working on the Web from the ground up" is, if not new -- in some sense, it's The Return of Timesharing -- at least new to people who grew up in the PC era. Some part of the Tinderbox story, for instance, is that Client Apps matter -- that you need to be able to work when not connected, that you want control over your own stuff rather than cede that control to folks elsewhere…
So: how important is local storage and local control to the next generation of writers? How important should it be?

For the 10th anniversary of The Matrix , Trevor Boyd and Steve Ilett created “Trinity Help,” a 40-second shot-for-shot remake of the movie’s most famous scene, done totally with Legos and stop-motion. The project’s Web site shows how they did it and is full of humor and humility.

The juxtaposition of the computer-generated special effects of the original and the lego stop-motion special effects provokes questions about constraints and adaptations. Is a piece more impressive if it achieves a similar result, but must comply with difficult constraints to achieve that result? Should adaptations be compared across media given the constraints inherent in different forms? Are these fair comparisons?

And, hey, how cool is this?

The California NanoSystems Institute at UC Santa Barabara has been researching interactive environments for research and artistic expression since 1997. Their efforts have yielded the Allosphere, a 30-foot diameter sphere built inside a three-story cube. The Allosphere was built to be anechoic, minimizes all background noise and light-interference, and contains thousands of speakers to create an immersive interactive experience.

The Allophere’s project website speculates some of the possible uses for such technology:

Scientifically, it is an instrument for gaining insight and developing bodily intuition about environments into which the body cannot venture: abstract, higher-dimensional information spaces, the worlds of the very small or very large, and the realms of the very fast or very slow, in fields ranging from nanotechnology to theoretical physics, from proteomics to cosmology, from neurophysiology to the spaces of consciousness, and from new materials to new media.
Artistically, the AlloSphere is an instrument for the creation and performance of avant-garde new works and the development of entirely new modes and genres of expression and forms of immersion-based entertainment, fusing future art, architecture, music, media, games, cinema, and more.

The project, which recalls Cave Writing project at Brown, is ongoing; designer Professor JoAnn Kuchera-Morin and her colleagues are working on the computing platform and interactive display portions of the sphere.

The Louvre is currently featuring an exhibition by Umberto Eco entitled “Mille e tre,” which focuses on the concept of the list:

The exhibition “Mille e tre” traces the evolution of the concept of a list through history and examines how its meaning changes with the passage of time: from its ancient use in funerary traditions to its present-day use in everyday life, via the creative processes of contemporary artists, the list is a vehicle for cultural codes and the bearer of different messages.

"Mille e tre", 1003, is the length of Don Giovanni’s list of lovers.

Eco draws from several disciplines including printed literature, poetry, and paintings. In a recent interview, he explains that lists both serve as an expression of limitless concepts which language can not express, and also serves to highlight the concept of death:

We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That's why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It's a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don't want to die.

This idea that lists serve to express that which can never be expressed reminds us of Michael Joyce’s Twelve Blue , in which “each ever after” lists many things which “can be read.” This list, which is repeated often in most readings of the work serves to demonstrate the interconnectedness of all that “can be read” and indeed is also indicative of that which can not be expressed: the complex relationship between people, lives, events, and words and their meanings.