Last week in TheNew York Times, Shelley Podolny considered the growing amount of computer-generated text that appears online. With the dystopian title "If an Algorithm Wrote This, How Would You Even Know?" Podolny describes a study by media scholar Christer Clerwell that suggests readers may not be able to distinguish between computer- or human-generated text. Such a phenomenon speaks to growing sophistication of natural language processing software and finely-tuned algorithms that can produce humanoid content.
This fall I am co-organizing a symposium through the Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington called “Affect and Audience in the Digital Age.” A collaboration between researchers in poetics from the Bothell and Seattle campuses of UW, our event explores the impact of digital mediation on contemporary poetry. Here is how my co-organizers Sarah Dowling, Brian Reed, and Gregory Laynor and I describe it on the conference website:
Audience in the Digital Age is a one-day symposium exploring emergent modes of creative public scholarship. Specifically, we are interested in scholarly, pedagogical, curatorial, and creative practices that attend to the digitally mediated character of contemporary poetry.
Digital Literature. It’s out there, I swear. The question is where? The answer is everywhere. Over the past twenty years or so, a diverse international community comprising a combination of independent and institutionally affiliated authors, academics, researchers, critics, curators, editors and non-profit organizations, has produced a wide range of print books, print and online journals, online and gallery exhibitions, conferences, festivals, live performance events, online and DVD collections, databases, directories and other such listings of creative and critical works in the field.
Collecting is key to the promotion and preservation of any genre. Collecting digital literature is a complex undertaking. Authors are dispersed, works are disparate, and platforms are unstable. The task of bringing together works as divergent as Donna Leishman’s ultra-graphic audio-visual Flash re-“writing” of the RedRidinghood fairy tale and Netwurker MEZ’s entirely textual code-work _cross.ova.ing ][4rm.blog.2.log][_ written in MEZ’s own digital-creole "mezangelle", to cite two examples from the Electronic Literature Collections Volume One and Volume Two respectively, is made all the more unwieldy by the as yet amorphous definitions of what it electronic literature is and what it is not. And there remains, the pesky problem of the name. How what and why do we call this thing we do?
Since the advent of the internet, advocates and critics alike have heralded the end of the book. And yet, despite the worst efforts of the publishing industry, not only has the book persisted, it has proven to be a particularly elastic form, adept at adapting to remarkable changes in the way we read, write and interpolate narrative.
For centuries the printed book operated as a closed system, invested in concealing the structural processes of writing from the reader. In his now infamous 1992 New York Times article, "The End of Books," Robert Coover observed, “much of the novel's alleged power is embedded in the line, that compulsory author-directed movement from the beginning of a sentence to its period, from the top of the page to the bottom, from the first page to the last.” And yet, as Vannevar Bush astutely commented nearly 50 years earlier in "As We May Think," published in the July 1945 issue of The Atlantic, "the human mind does not work that way. It operates by association.