Brian Greenspan was one of the most fun and colorful people we met at the Future of Digital Studies conference. In addition to seeming to always be at the center of the most interesting conversations, he proved to have very interesting ideas on electronic narrative. His current project, StoryTrek, looks to provide fascinating and immersive possibilities for the future of digital storytelling.

The idea behind StoryTrek is that authors could combine their digital texts with geospatial location systems to provide location-specific text. Reading the text on her phone, the reader might be traversing the text as she walks, only to read a passage about arriving at a brook as she does so in the real world. Going a bit further might reveal a passage about dipping one’s feet into the water and so forth.

HTLit is back at home from the Future of Digital Studies Conference at the University of Florida. In addition to an impressive list of invited speakers, the organizers were able to bring together several of the field’s most prominent scholars through teleconferencing.

This final session was wrought with technical failure, but as several conference attendees pointed out, if there was a crowd in all of academe that could appreciate and analyze this failure, it was digital humanists. Mark Bernstein tweeted to ask whether this was failure or just “excessively ergodic” interaction. After the session, I had a lovely talk with Brian Greenspan discussing how Rita Raley’s digital disfiguration was like an uncanny bit of art—her face blurred beyond the point of being humanly identified, leaving only the clear image of her eyes floating above the pixelated canvas where her face should be.

Though the video sessions certainly had their difficulties, the malfunctions were more of a launching point for interesting discussion than actual failures. As with the rest of the conference, there were many interesting ideas introduced and discussed.

While in Boston for Eastgate’s Tinderbox Weekend Event on March 13-14, Felix Kuehn & Alex Strick van Linschoten will be at the Harvard Coop on Friday March 12 discussing My Life with the Taliban , an autobiography of Abdul Salam Zaeef, former senior member of the Taliban.

Editors Felix Kuehn & Alex Strick van Linschoten will discuss this harrowing autobiography by Taliban member Abdul Salam Zaeef. The book begins with the author’s early childhood before turning to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Zaeef’s decision to join the mujahideen resistance. Countering conventional accounts that the Taliban emerged in the 1990s, Zaeef maintains that the movement existed as early as the 1970s. The author traces his rise in the Taliban to his appointment as ambassador to Pakistan in 2000, and his subsequent arrest and imprisonment in Guantnamo Bay after September 11 and the fall of the Taliban regime.

Discussion and book signing will take place 7:00-8:30 PM on Friday March 12.

We've found a fresh video of Ted Nelson, hypertext pioneer and founder of Project Xanadu, discussing ZigZag (ZZ)/ data structures. ZigZag provides “hyper-orthogonal” structures and links which structures allow for a system that maintains links from one cell to another without imposing tabular structure.

Most importantly, the hyper-orthogonal structure allows the user to enter data in two or three dimensions, then create additional dimensions without disturbing those first dimensions.

ZigZag certainly disrupts a common understanding of spatial relation, but once you understand it, the implications and uses for it are myriad and limitless.

Remix My Lit is a project based in Brisbane which aims to provide remixed and remixable texts, so that literature might take advantage of a creative practice that has been prevalent in movies and music for quite a while. Copyright laws tend to get in the way more often for printed works than other media, which has severely limited their availability for remix in the past. Remix My Lit hopes to change that while still respecting copyrights

Prominent Australian authors have written new short stories and released them under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial ShareAlike licence. What that means is you can remix the stories, but only if you acknowledge the author, the remix is not for commercial use, and your new work is available for others to remix.

The site now offers an anthology of remixed (and remixable) literature called Through the Clock’s Workings.

Tax season is upon us, and for many free-lance writers or those running a successful weblog, deciding what can by deducted might be a little confusing. An article in Freelancing and More! provides tips . See also, Wisebread’s 101 tax deductions for bloggers and freelancers.

Nicolle Elizabeth interviews Susan Gibb for a weblog series on Fictionaut . She asks about Fictionaut's Hypertext group, which Gibb created, and her depiction of writing hypertext offers encouragement to those who might wish to try writing some. Just as important, it reminds us why we fell in love with hypertext in the first place:

There is a certain amount of learning to write in the form so that readers aren’t left hanging off cliffs or walking (reading) in endless circles–unless that is his intent. Hypertext narrative can also offer many different endings to a story; parallels in time that change the outcome by choice–just as in real life. In truth, hypertext more closely resembles reality than linear text. I find it challenging and fun to write in hypertext form, but not all stories want the paths, and some stories just beg for it.

Ed Blackham answers our post on Editing Hypertext with an insightful look at how software debugging relates to electronic literature and the issues therein.

Your description of the problem made it sound similar to the the problem of debugging a program. We write (or sometimes auto-generate) tests, and we have tools that try to assess the quality of our test suites by (among other things) pointing us at areas of the code that no test has yet looked at. But even those tools can't really get at the fact that a line of code that's innocuous when arrived at along one path is deadly when arrived at along a different path. […]
If indeterminacy is part of the hypertext, of course, it all gets very difficult. […] It's all very fine to say in a postmodern (or pre-Socratic) sort of way that no two readers ever read the same text (or no reader ever reads the same text twice), but what can fairly be said of a "text" whose words make this philosophical conceit literally true?

November’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has been over for a couple of months. Now, many writers are returning to the novel for which they sacrificed blood, sweat, and their carpal tunnel. Many are casually editing and revising for their own sake, but others are looking to actually publish.

The NaNoBlog as posted an interview with Smashwords founder and eBook enthusiast Mark Coker on why electronic publishing may be the most viable format for many.

An ebook author doesn’t need a publisher to gain mainstream distribution into the largest online ebook stores. Amazon’s Digital Text Platform allows authors to publish their books directly into the Kindle store, and my own Smashwords recently announced ebook distribution agreements with all the major online retailers, including Barnes & Noble, Amazon and Sony. We also have distribution into the online catalogs of mobile platforms such as Stanza on the iPhone, Aldiko on Android phones, and Kobo across all mobile phone devices.
Millions of book buyers now prefer reading ebooks over print books, and this trend is likely to continue in the years ahead.

Of course, matters chiefly to those who have interested readers queued up in sufficient quantity to make publishing worth while, but cannot easily reach so many as to attract a conventional publisher. And do we know that millions of readers now prefer ebooks? Still, distribution is good to have.

Treehouse is an interesting example of real-life events accidentally becoming a digital narrative. The work offers the love story of two people through long-forgotten emails recovered from an old hard-drive. It’s an artifactual hypertext, presented in “appisodes” downloadable for the iPhone.

After finding out today that my favorite Runner’s World weblogger will no longer be posting, I was deeply saddened and touched in a way that felt very unique to the medium. It’s funny; the retirments of many of my favorite writers, composers, and artists haven”t touched me deeply. But Web reading is a different experience; one doesn’t often go back and read (someone else’s) old archives just for fun to see how the story unfolds with knowledge of the future, despite hypertext literature’s emphasis on rereading.

So when a blogger retires, that’s it. Runner’s World may choose to take the all of the archives down in a couple of months, cutting off my access forever. With reading a book, looking at a painting, or listening to a song—even though those pleasures exist in a finite space of time like reading a weblog—the experience is repeatable in a way that reading social media updates isn’t.

Where is the line drawn? I wouldn’t read a newspaper a second time, though I would reread the anthology of an interesting columnist. And I would argue that the interesting columnist is the closest analogy to the blogger. And indeed, though I’ll never browse the archives, if the blogger’s posts were bound into a book, I would probably reread them. So why the difference? What is it about the Web that makes this distinction?

And in the age heralded as the birth of universal publishing, does the achievement really count if people won’t ever reread those works?

Spatial hypertext has been getting a lot of attention on Flickr with the revival of the old Tinderbox group . Several generous people have provided beautiful maps, from Susan Gibb’s maps for her 100 Days project to Mike Wrenn’s maps of his planning and structuring a choose-your-own-adventure style work he created for NaNoWriMo.

Eastgate hopes the images will keep coming; they serve to highlight some of the interesting applications of hypertext, for both writers of print-lit and eLit—not to mention the infinite applications of hypertext for nonfiction.

Mike Wrenn's NaNoWriMo workspace. Several other views are open at the same time for maximum efficiency. 

Over the next few days, HTLit will be reporting from Future of Digital Studies 2010 at the University of Florida. Mauro Carassai, a graduate student at UF, has organized an event which brings together an impressively strong program, including some of hypertext’s most esteemed authors and critics.

Mark Bernstein mentions his upcoming talk on NeoVictorian New Media and the problems with criticism and promises more information to come.

Jason Kottke points to very interesting timeline paintings by Ward Shelley.

Timelines have been a subject of curiosity and interest in the hypertext world for a long time. A two-dimensional portrait of time (and even a three-dimensional one) presents the problems of the depiction becoming detailed on an infinitely minute scale, or infinitely multiple, never being able to distinguish where one topic ends and another begins. They can become very complicated very quickly, and as Mark Bernstein once told me, “A timeline is only interesting if it is complicated!”

Hypertext helps with these problems, as it is able to reconcile some of the multiplicity through links, however timelines remain interesting to the field. And indeed, Shelley’s timelines are interesting because many of them resemble hypertext maps more than they do linear illustrations of time.

Shadow Unit s a serial Web fiction by Emma Bull, Elizabeth Bear, Sarah Monette and Will Shetterly. In addition to the episodes available on the main website (now in its third season), many of the series’ characters have Livejournal blogs, allowing fans to interact with the characters. The series crosses Criminal Minds with The X-Files, adding a dash of several other paranormal TV series.

The FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit hunts humanity's nightmares. But there are nightmares humanity doesn't dream are real.
The Behavioral Analysis Unit sends those cases down the hall.
Welcome to Shadow Unit

Though many Web fictions are serialized, the insistence on likeness to television drama is interesting. Breaking the narrative into episodes and seasons seemed limiting. At the end of each season, however, writers release “bonus content,” analogous to DVD extras, including “deleted scenes.” What an excellent idea! This way, writers can go back and fill plot holes, expand on certain characters without interrupting the pace of the overall narrative, explore counterfactual plots, and answer some of the cries of fans.

The idea of including interactive character profiles is narratively engaging. I have not read through all of the seasons, but my curiosity was immediately piqued when a link to one of the character’s profiles had a note next to it that read “No longer updated.”

This series is a step toward the maturation of Web fiction, and its appropriation of television tactics is a welcome move toward more engaging living Web narrative. The latest episode is available in RSS, ePub, PRC (Kindle), and PDF format. Seasons one and two are available in ePub.

In revising some of the hypertexts she wrote during the 100 Days project, Susan Gibb noticed that some words were missing on one of the pages in a story. She remarks:

In straight narrative, this would tell me that nobody read the story. But in hypertext, they honestly could have read it and may have taken another path and missed this space.

It seems that, even with my own rereadings I’ve missed it too!

This post got me thinking about some questions regarding proofreading hypertext. Because the experience often depends upon the order in which different lexia are read, how difficult is it to anticipate how readers will interpret the text as they arrive through different paths? Is it more difficult to write and polish certain lexia while considering the reader’s ignorance of pertinent parts of the story?

I’d love to hear your responses; email me!

In all forms of art there is the compulsion of the artist to want to perfect her work, which may often delay the work’s release indefinitely. This example is even more true of technology-based arts, as the technology curve can sometimes outrun the work’s progress, rendering it obsolete before it’s ever revealed.

Clive Thompson of Wired explores the reasons for Duke Nukem’s perpetual delays and ultimate abandonment. The culprit in the game’s death, he suggests, was its designer’s inability to release an imperfect game. The article focuses on the gaming industry, but its lesson applies to software developers and technical artists alike:

It’s a dilemma all artists confront, of course. When do you stop creating and send your work out to face the public? Plenty of Hollywood directors have delayed for months, dithering in the editing room. But in videogames, the problem is particularly acute, because the longer you delay, the more genuinely antiquated your product begins to look — and the more likely it is that you’ll need to rip things down and start again. All game designers know this, so they pick a point to stop improving…

Listening to Susan Gibb’s “Lust” read by Finnegan Flawnt got me thinking about the idea of hypertext audio books. Superficially, the idea seems little more than a gimmick. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like an interesting experiment.

Interaction is such an integral part of hypertext, would a complex linking structure be possible if interaction was taking place without a visual field? Even if those structures existed, would we be able to understand them the same way? What kind of voice-recognition platform might be designed to allow a work to interact with the user in an interesting way? The thought of a work and a user interacting back and forth through sound to create a narrative is worth exploring.

Sure, you might look like that person on the subway who talks to yourself, but you’ve been doing that for years on your Bluetooth phone. Why let it bother you now?

Richard Holeton’s slideshow fiction Custom Orthotics Changed My Life , available in the Spring 2010 issue of Kairos , provides an interesting blend of humor, tragedy, and triumph. The piece uses a slideshow typical of business meetings, complete with lots of charts and graphs to tell the story of a sad man who finds redemption with his first pair of orthotic shoe inserts.

Graphs of family discussions and changes in his son’s mood through adolescence are entertaining and remarkably good at conveying meaningful narrative. Surprisingly, the graphs are able to provide the characters with depth and believable motivations. The music, by Stanford undergraduate David Kettler, adds the appropriate emotional accompaniment

The Atlantic covers an initiative to develop preservation standards for old video games, a project now being undertaken at several universities including the University of Maryland, Stanford, the University of Michigan, and the University of Texas.

“Who knows?”, opines Atlantic columnist Clay Risen. “Two hundred years from now, Super Mario Bros. could be treated with as much respect as The Brothers Karamazov.” (I’m betting on the Brothers. — ed.)

Though preserving video games is a relatively recent undertaking, anxiety about the permanence of digital art has plagued hypertext for most of its life. Indeed, it was this very anxiety that led the Electronic Literature Organization to create its Preservation, Archiving and Dissemination Initiative (PAD) which planned to deliver an open-source clone of HyperCard.

2K Games recently released Bioshock 2, the followup to the 2007 masterpiece that introduced us to Andrew Ryan’s failed attempt at a utopian super-society. Where the first game offered a harsh criticism on ideas of objectivism, Bioshock 2’s villain hopes to save the fallen society with an obsessively altruistic approach.

Nods to such literary predecessors as steam punk, H.G. Wells and Ayn Rand are so prevalent, that the designers released a recommended reading list before the game’s release, including an additional section of nonfiction “for supernerds” which includes several works of philosophy. The 2k forums are even fostering a Bioshock bookclub.

So far responses to Bioshock 2 have been positive, delivering praise to the complex and interesting narrative that manages to deliver high-brow narrative in a blockbuster game.

Jesper Juul’s A Casual Revolution offers an excellent approach to the gaming industry’s shift toward more “casual” games like Bejeweled, Rock Band, and Wii Sports. Juul contrasts the design approach of more hardcore games with these newer casual games, revealing interesting insights about what brings so many players who detest “traditional” video games to spend hours with Farmville or The Sims.

Hypertext literature faces similar difficulties: many see it as too challenging or too time-consuming. As a hardcore gamer, I can certainly appreciate the refusal to lower one’s intellectual standards in order to make a narrative more attractive to a wider audience. But the numbers speak for themselves; companies that are embracing a casual audience are making millions of dollars, and some of the most successful games— Rock Band, Grand Theft Auto, World of Warcraft—are flexible hybrids that fit into both a casual and a hardcore mindset.

This possibility exists for hypertext too, if it decides that it wants to become more mainstream. However, if “serious” games are any indication, it might take us a long time to decide if that’s actually what we want.

Gene Golovchinsky points to an interesting article on how dictators use the social media to break up political demonstrations. The article refutes the general assumption is that Twitter and similar sites are used by protestors to secretly organize, arguing that government is just as likely to use these sites to find and persecute dissenters. Golovchinsky comments, “all technology is neutral. Hammers can be used to drive nails or bash skulls.”

Satnislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of Human Invention explores how the brain converts words on a page to understandable meaning. In a review for the Wall Street Journal, Christopher Chabris writes,

Mr. Dehaene shows how the brain works around its lack of an evolved module for reading. It turns out that a reader, scanning a text for meaning, is drawing not on a "module" but on a large set of brain regions. Each probably evolved for other purposes, but they are now "recycled" by the demands of our culture for understanding printed text. Areas for understanding language, lodged near the front of the brain, are linked with others farther back that recognize visual details and process the distinctive sounds of human speech.
[This functionality] accounts for why the faddish "whole language" method of teaching reading has proved inferior to the traditional phonics approach: Only teaching letter-to-sound correspondences enables the brain's systems for vision and hearing to cooperate efficiently and decode words they have never encountered before, an ability that allows children to go beyond what they have been taught by others and to learn new words and ideas.

A fascinatingting article by Jed Birmingham follows the aging of Charles Bukowski and William Burroughs as they move into the computer revolution, focusing on how their work changed with the technology. Though the Birmingham is careful not to call Bukowski a pioneer of the level of Michael Joyce , he does note how innovations such the ability to quickly capture thoughts and edit/delete functions greatly influenced Bukowski’s work.

In late 1992, Bruce Kijewski approached Bukowski with the idea of electronic books. Bukowski was intrigued. He wrote back, “Yes, you have a strange project: electronic books. It might be the future as more and more people find that the computer is such a magic thing: time-saver, charmer, energizer.” […] But there are still reservations and a sense of nostalgia. The same letter to Kijewski continues, “But, still, when [the electronic book] comes I will still miss the old fashioned book.” Despite such statements, it is clear that Bukowski was a writer not afraid of, or pessimistic about, the future.

Occasioned by the opening of the Berg’s William Burroughs digital archive , the second part of article explores Burroughs’ relationship to the computer. It seems he did not use a computer to write. He embraced film, audio recording, and painting, but apparently he never experimented with writing and the computer to the level that Bukowski did.

As far back as the mid-1960s, Burroughs was aware of the possibilities of the computer and computer-generated poetry. In Insect Trust Gazette , Burroughs’ work appears alongside an early computer poem. In his interview with Conrad Knickerbocker in Paris Review, he stated that he had yet to experiment with the computer, but thought that such literature was valid and interesting, if it stood on its own merit. Yet as time passed — again, as far as I know — Burroughs never experimented with the computer. On one level this makes sense given the fact that Burroughs was well advanced in age and set in his ways by the time the personal computer was generally available. You might say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but Bukowski proves that you, in fact, can.

Model © 2008 The Regents of the University of California, Image © 2008 The Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia

In the style of other hypertext compendia, Rome Reborn provides the kind of in-depth look at the past that would not be possible without the marriage of computers and the humanities.

The project, lead by Bernard Frischer, aims to build the most detailed and accurate reconstruction of ancient Rome to date, basing the models on archaeological finds. Stunning images of both the interiors and exteriors of many of history’s most famous buildings are available on the project’s site. In the most recent iteration of the project, many of the hand-drawn buildings are given such details as modeled windows and doors in place of the previous method of using textures to project these features.

By now we’ve all heard the hype on the iPad: it’s fast, it’s beautiful, and some believe it’s going to change publishing and literature. Others believe its primary goal is to turn us all into optimally efficient consumers . But much of the literary hypertext community is wondering where we fit.

There’s concern that iPad will not support Flash.

The interface is sexy. Many people got excited at Steve Jobs’ demonstration of iBooks, particularly at the possibility of books with color images and video. This is good news for paper simulators.

Because of its size, people are expecting the iPad to be an eBook reader that also does myriad other things. It’s not the device that has me excited but the marketing and the positive response that marketing seems to be getting. People seem ready to let video, images, sound, and—most-importantly—links into their books. The iPad hardware may not change much in the advancement of literature, but the fact that it represents a device that can store a portable library of interactive literature is a step in the right direction.

Though many 2010 Independent Game Festival finalists are not yet publicly available, Play This Thing has reviewed a few that are currently available .

Information on other finalists is available on the IGF Web site. Several of the games are fascinating and just downright fun. Take a look at Continuity , a Student Showcase platformer with levels of shuffling card puzzles.

Critical Mass, run by the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Board of Directors, is currently publishing a series on The Next Decade in Book Culture.

In a response to Katharine Weber’s bleak outlook, in which she sees converging texts blurring the boundaries “where the conversation about books ends and the book itself begins”, Peter Friedman writes ,

Prophets of doom tend to prescribe remedies intended to recall comforts forever past. That’s why a cultural freakout is not a healthy thing. It leads to bad decisions. Had Jack Valenti and the entire film industry had their way, there would be no VHS machines, no CD and DVD burners, etc., etc. But it turned out that the VHS was the biggest financial boon the film industry had ever experienced…
Like the businesses that once dominated the film and music industries, the monopoly held by the industry over production and distribution is now in the hands of any kid with a laptop. The film and music industries are still making money. But that money is now made in a far wider variety of ways, and is split among more parties. It’s no wonder these industries are therefore decrying their deaths.

The sky is falling, the printed word is dead, and according to the title of an article by Ted Genoways editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review , fiction itself could be dying . Genoways argues that, as universities are butting the budgets of their literary magazines, the short story is vanishing with its outlet. This problem is compounded by the overabundance of MFA-toting creative writers.

It seems unfair to look only at printed quarterlies and assume that all lit mags are doomed. The article only focuses on the internet insofar as he seems to regard a journal’s moving online as a defeat. He dismisses the online community as the blogosphere from which literature needs to be rescued, thereby also dismissing the countless journals and fiction sites that actually showcase good writing.

The article sparks some great responses that point to many of these great sources for short stories, such as McSweeney's , Ecotone , Triple Canopy, Black Clock, and many more—just the thing to spice up my commute!

On the sets of many summer blockbusters, crafts people are hard at work, many of whom will never get the credit they deserve. These people include sound, lighting, camera, and costume experts, and one other group that is often under-appreciated: people who design fictional computer interfaces.

From War Games to Hackers to I, Robot, futuristic computer interfaces present interesting design challenges that become more and more universal as art shifts toward the screen. A recent feature in Gizmodo spotlighted one FUI designer, Mark Coleran, and discussed FUI creation.

Designing a fake dashboard for an imagined supercomputer or a hovering control panel for a worldwide surveillance system is a different process than creating a genuinely usable UI. Your goal is to imply things: that a machine is powerful; that a villain is formidable; that the software is intuitive, but that the breadth of its powers borders on unknowable. At no point does real-world usability factor in, and nor should it—this is pure fantasy, for an audience raised on Start Buttons, desktop icons and tree menus.

If real UIs must be usable, and FUIs must imply things without needing to be usable, the UIs in electronic literature must lie somewhere in the middle. The design features of the interface say a lot about the piece itself and are bound by the same artistic rules that the FUI is. However, they must also be usable so that the reader may interact with the piece. This combination presents an interesting design problem when designing hypertext art.

Luckily we may have help in the future. Coleran is calling for listings of FUI productions to create a compendium for fans and future developers to draw upon.