www.dichtung-digital.com/2001/07/15-Pold

Writing With the Code - a Digital Poetics

Søren Pold

This paper (presented at Digital Arts and Culture Conference, Bergen 2000) proposes a digital poetics, which focuses on the possible digital transformations of writing and reading with examples from current cybertextual literature. The paper discusses how programming structures (algorithms, cybernetics, object oriented programming, hypertext) can be interpreted as literary forms. The outcome is a literary way to read programming structures and a discussion of a digital literary poetics. As a consequence this paper argues (by taking some initial steps) for further crossdisciplinary research in the field of digital writing between literary theory and computer science as a way to understand the general cultural impact of the computer and as a way to further develop creative innovation.

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The Computer as a Writing Machine

The computer is a machine that apart from its mechanical construction is composed of writing.[1] What I will propose in the following is a literary interpretation of the computer, which of course does not cover all aspects or uses of the computer, but focuses on possible transformations of writing and reading. Such a literary interpretation of the computer is of course important for literary studies, but I believe that the literary approach can also contribute to a general, critical understanding of the computer and some of its cultural impacts. Therefore I shall in this paper propose an outline of a digital poetics, and briefly point to current digital literary examples. My aim is to demonstrate how this rephrazes concepts from computer science as poetological and literary concepts and vice versa; how digital literature through its writing process demonstrates the literary and cultural significance of programming and of the computer. As a consequence this paper argues (by taking some initial steps) for further crossdisciplinary research in the field of digital writing between literary theory and computer science as a way to understand the general cultural impact of the computer and as a way to further develop creative innovation.[2]

A machine composed of writing is of course a great opportunity for contemporary writers. As it has already become clear for most writers through their use of word processors and the Internet, the computer is a great tool for producing, storing, editing and distributing text. Most published texts today have passed through computers and probably using the computer as a tool has influenced the writing in some sense, though it is difficult to survey such an influence.[3] The next challenge, however, arises when writers move beyond regarding the computer as just a tool for their writing; when writers move beyond writing only for the printer and the screen. When writers start interacting literary with all levels of code in the computer and they take advantage of a great new range of codes - writing with the code at all levels of what writer-programmer, John Cayley, has called the 'programmatron'. [7]

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Notes:

[1] Although the computer is currently marketed as a visual multimedium enabling intuitive, 'user-friendly', visual communication, there are no images beyond the interface. Everything is stored as bits and bytes, an electrical form of notation that can be approached as a development of writing in the sense that it shares and develops some of its defining characteristics: All levels and data in the computer are in principle open for editing and thus for writing and re-writing since both alphabetic writing and digital code are arbitrary sign systems (as opposed to some forms of visual and auditory data, that could not be edited to the same extent until the advent of the multimedia computer). In fact already alphabetic writing is digital in the sense that it is composed of discrete data (letters) from a finite set (the alphabet). See also [10].

[2] In this sense this paper continues the crossdisciplinary activities within the Hypertext community (which I do not have the space to enumerate here (cf. eg. [9]) but moves beyond the concept of hypertext to include broader algorithmic and cybernetic concepts of text and programing as well as multimedia and net art. This paper aims (given the limited space) to argue by pointing to examples and carrying out brief analyses instead of setting up a theoretical framework and discussion. Hopefully, however, it will lead to theoretical discussions.

[3] Which does not mean that it is futile as an interpretative perspective on modern literature. For a starting point see e.g. N. Katherine Hayles: "The Materiality of Informatics" (in Configuration, 1992, 1: 147-170).