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The New Media Reader

Edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort; criticism and theory; book with accompanying CD; ISBN 0-262-23227-8; $45.00/£29.95

Published by The MIT Press. This review originally appeared in The PN Review, Autumn 2003.

This volume, according to its editors, is an “effort to uncover and assemble a representative collection of critical thoughts, events, and developments from the computer’s humanistic and artistic past, its conception not as an advanced calculator but as a new medium, or as enabling new media.” Their phraseology suggests a dichotomy - between “critical thoughts” on the one hand and “events and developments” on the other. Is The New Media Reader a collection of criticism and theory in the new media field, or a history of the hardware and software developments which have made it possible for us to regard computers and the Internet “as a new medium, or as enabling new media”? To some extent it is both, and there are good reasons for this.

The theory of new media art – especially hyperliterature, which this collection deals with more thoroughly than any of the other forms - cannot be properly understood without tracing the technological developments which have taken place in the field of computing over the last fifty or sixty years, and the surprizingly philosophical ideas which have often underpinned them. Vannevar Bush’s famous essay “As We May Think”, from 1945, sets the tone by suggesting that computerised information should not be filed away in predetermined categories, but linked together by individual users into “associative trails”, because such an arrangement will be more sympathetic to the workings of the human mind:

Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass… The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association.
Very similar ideas reappear in Ted Nelson’s book Computer Lib/Dream Machines, which he originally self-published in 1974: “One of the remarkable things about the human mind is the way it ties things together.” For Nelson, Vannevar Bush’s principle that the mind “operates by association” leads to a tirade against the education system, and thence to the proposition that people should be allowed to educate themselves, with the help of computers, in a freewheeling, associative way:
The human mind is born free, yet everywhere it is in chains… There are no “subjects”. The division of the universe into “subjects” for teaching is a matter of tradition and administrative convenience… Anyone retaining his natural mental faculties can learn anything practically on his own, given encouragement and resources… Why not permit the student to control the system?… Motivate the user and let him loose in a wonderful place.
The writer Michael Joyce deliberately places himself in the same tradition of ideas in his 1988 essay “Siren Shapes – Exploratory and Constructive Hypertexts”:
Hypertext tools offer the promise of adapting themselves to fundamental cognitive skills… From Bush onward… visionaries have insisted that the sometimes slippery and obscure trails of hypertext rest upon an underlying bedrock of natural cognition… It is a compelling and, potentially, an accurate vision; and it is a vision I share.
Bush was a computer expert, who during the Second World War became involved in the Manhattan Project which produced the first nuclear bombs. Ted Nelson is credited with the invention of hypertext – “a body of written or pictorial material interconnected in such a complex way that it could not conveniently be presented or represented on paper”. Michael Joyce is the author of one of the most famous hypertext fictions - Afternoon, A Story – as well as being an educationalist, and co-designer of the hypertext authoring system Storyspace. Other names could be cited as belonging to the same tradition of ideas – a tradition characterised by what Joyce calls “democratic intellectual principles” - and The New Media Reader makes a strong case that this tradition has been fundamental both to the development of the digital environment, and to the artforms which have sprung up within it.

In the field of new media theory, the idea that the human mind works by association, and therefore should be left free to create its own associative pathways, often leads on to the notion that writers, rather than offering preset narratives or patterns of significance to their readers, should allow them to act as co-authors . Joyce’s essay “Siren Shapes” is about education, not fiction, but he approvingly quotes the hypertext theorist Diane Pelkus Balestri, who argues that “Hypertext… changes the relationship between writer and reader. The reader becomes a collaborator, constructing and reconstructing the text, choosing his own path through it.” The feeling that such a change of relationship is desireable, and that hyperliterature should encourage (or oblige) its readers to play a more active role, has strongly influenced the development of the genre. It helps to explain the emphasis which hypertext theorists (and indeed new media theorists in general) place on interactivity – which in turn helps explain why hyperliterature (and indeed new media art in general) frequently incorporates elements of gaming, and borrows heavily from the field of video games.

The New Media Reader devotes a great number of pages to the theme of interactivity, and a fair number to gaming. The CD which comes with the book includes “emulations” of several now-obsolete games - Spacewar!, Missile Command, Adventure, and Karateka. Readers not familiar with the influence of computer gaming on new media art might be forgiven for wondering what some of this material is doing here. Adventure, for example, is really nothing more than a computerised version of Dungeons and Dragons. It makes no pretence to be a work of literature, or any other form of art. But games such as this came to be known as “Interactive Fictions”, and Adventure is discussed by Espen J Aarseth, in his 1994 essay “Nonlinearity and Literary Theory”, alongside other works such as Joyce’s Afternoon, A Story – with the implication that nonlinear fiction and text-adventure games are equally valid as forms of hyperliterature. What Aarseth’s essay lacks is any analysis of the differences between our interactions with narratives and our interactions with games. New media theorists in general have failed to make such an analysis, and The New Media Reader is not in a position to put matters right. It does include, however, an excellent essay by Sherry Turkle entitled “Video Games and Computer Holding Power” (from The Second Self, 1984), which is highly suggestive in this regard.

The essays and extracts which make up The New Media Reader are all copiously annotated, and the editors have done an excellent job of putting each piece in its context, providing information about the author(s), and suggesting further reading. Expression of doubt or dissent, or calls for further analysis, are rare; but one exception to this rule is their evident dissatisfaction with the format of the present-day Web, which surfaces in their introduction to Ted Nelson’s 1965 essay “A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing, and the Indeterminate”:

Nelson’s vision was in some way far different – his thinking more general, and his proposals significantly more advanced – than the Web’s model of hypertext.
The Web’s type of “chunk style” hypertext – static links that allow the user to jump from page to page – has been around for decades and has been criticised for just as long…
The same note of dissatisfaction recurs in their introduction to the last essay in the book, “The World-Wide Web”, published in 1994 by Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Caillau, Ari Luotonen, Henrik Frystyk Nielsen and Arthur Secret:
The Web is a relatively primitive hypertext system… The Web demonstrates, as Donald Norman has said, that the technologies that prevail don’t have to be the best ones – they just have to be good enough.
Tim Berners-Lee’s original specification for the Web, written in 1989 for CERN, the European centre for High Energy Physics in Geneva, is notable for its absence from this anthology. Also notable for its absence, except in the last essay itself, is any history or explanation of SGML (Standard Generalised Markup Language), or how the development of SGML in the late sixties and early seventies gave rise to both HTML (Hypertext Markup Language, the language in which web-pages are written) and XML (Extensible Markup Language, a “meta-language” which is often used, amongst other things, for the development of Web-friendly databases).

Since the editors of The New Media Reader evidently have a distaste for the Web’s habit of dividing up information into discrete “chunks”, it is perhaps only natural that they show little interest in the various markup systems, which all work by putting information into “boxes” with labels attached to them. But SGML, HTML and XML are fundamental to the Web as we know it today, and their absence from this book (which doesn’t even list them in its index) leaves a hole in its account of how the multimedia environment has been developed.

The New Media Reader’s version of literary history, with regard to the development of hypertext, is sketchy – a problem which cannot be blamed on the editors, since it reflects a widespread failing amongst new media critics and theorists. The anthology opens with Jorge Luis Borges\' short story “The Garden of Forking Paths” (first published in 1941). Borges is certainly an important antecedent of hypertext writing – the editors mention his “combinatorial ideas” and “notions of textual infinity” – and apologists for nonlinear fiction are wont to lean heavily on the his short fiction and on Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy whenever they attempt to suggest an ancestry for the genre. Other names and titles are occasionally mentioned too: Espen Aarseth suggests the I Ching; Stuart Moulthrop, in his “Hypertext and the Laws of Media” (1991), refers briefly to James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake; and Robert Coover, in an essay entitled “The End of Books” (1992) lists Laurence Sterne, James Joyce, Raymond Queneau, Julio Cortazar, Italo Calvino and Milorad Pavic. But these are mere gestures. The theorists of hyperliterature are rather given to tossing off names and titles such as these without actually explaining their achievements or examining how individual works in the new form have drawn on them. In fact hypertext criticism in general shows more relish for doling out pretentious generalisations than for focussing on specific examples and analysing how they work or fail to work.

The New Media Reader has its fair share of dull and academic jargonese, but it also has snippets of material from some of the more entertaining experimental writers and artists on the margins of the new-media field. There is the short story by Borges which I have already mentioned; there is William S Burroughs’ provocative “essay” of 1963, “The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin”; there is a comic-strip called “Time Frames” by Scott McCloud (1993); there is a short outline for a computerised crime-novel, “Prose and Anticombinatronics”, by Italo Calvino (1981); and best of all, there is Raymond Queneau’s wonderfully funny short story “Yours for the Telling” (1973), the narrative structure of which is a series of alternatives modelled on a computer algorithm:

1. Would you like to read the tale of the three sprightly peas?
If so, go to 4;
if not, go to 2.

2. Would you prefer the tale of the three tall, lanky beanpoles?
If so, go to 16;
if not, got to 3…
Work like this reminds us that new media art has a great deal to offer, to both its practitioners and its audience, in terms of fun and entertainment, as well as experimentation.

The New Media Reader is neither a thorough history of the computer and software developments which have brought new media art into existence, nor a thorough survey of criticism and theory in the field. In some respects, however, it is genuinely representative of the new media genre: it isn’t designed to be read from one end to the other in a fixed sequence, there is probably too much material here for any one reader to digest, and some parts are much more interesting than others. It is a fascinating source-book, and will probably be regarded as an essential volume for students of the field for some time to come.

- Edward Picot

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