University of the Sunshine Coast
The impacts of technological change upon narrative
The widespread use of information and communication technologies (ICTs), including computers, smart phones, and e-readers, means that narrative is composed, presented, accessed and published via a wide range of electronic-based platforms. Such trends are leading to morphing literacy practices, altering the way texts are written, read, interpreted and experienced. This paper investigates some of the changes afoot and discusses potential future directions for narrative in both print and electronic media.
There can be no doubt that the early development of computer technology throughout the 20th century had a significant impact upon processes inherent to written communication. Electronic writing, conducted on and through a computer-based medium, allowed both writers and readers to interact with texts and manipulate content, instilling written communication with remarkable malleability. However, it was the introduction of the first Web browser, the World Wide Web, in the early 1990s, that brought unprecedented change to the processes inherent to textual production, consumption, and distribution. This technological breakthrough transformed the Internet (Net) into a networked global communication tool that could be accessed and navigated by the general public with ease. The usability of the Net has transformed the role of all textual agents, including those fulfilled by readers, writers, publishers, and texts themselves. The information revolution propelled by the Net has therefore potentially generated more radical change than that invoked by Gutenberg’s printing press.
The overhaul of reading, writing and publishing practices subsequent to the information revolution is evidenced by the proliferation of electronic reading devices, including the iPad, the Kobo, Amazon’s Kindle, the Barnes & Noble Nook, Sony’s PRS, the Icarus eXcel, and the Google Nexus. This technology has boosted the popularity of e-books, where just a few years ago the market struggled . Significantly, these devices are tapping into multi-modal communication trends. Consider the Vook, the online and mobile application marketed by the American publisher Simon and Schuster. Integrated with the Net, the Vook reading experience has given rise to the hybrid book, which features a combination of text, audio and video. Such instances of media convergence – where different mediums can be accessed from a single platform – are expected to lure increasing numbers of technology-savvy readers, who will continue to shape the future of narrative:
The omnipresence of ICTs is impacting upon all elements of narrative, including its content, structure, organisation, and appearance. For instance, networked characteristics of the electronic realm mean that narrative can become hypertextual via the inclusion of internal and/or external links. Readers of electronic works are able to explore texts by following hyperlinks that may lead to other sections within the same text (intra-connections), or to material beyond the text’s boundaries (inter-connections). Moving to material beyond the text locates readers in the vast realm of cyberspace. Different texts and narratives can therefore become interconnected and linked with an entire world of information.
An example of the capacity of narrative to extend beyond its immediate textual frame is provided by the Web-based experiment, The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot as Hypertext (http://eliotswasteland.tripod.com). Like other electronic hypertextual works, this piece shows that narrative typically becomes much more fluid, linked and interactive when it is positioned within the networks of cyberspace . In this site, two screens are presented simultaneously: one screen displays Eliot’s poem, ‘The Wasteland’, which is embedded with blue hyperlinks; the other screen presents annotations that feature additional hyperlinks and lead to extraneous material (see Figure 1 below). Readers can leap from the poem, to explanatory notes, related books, extracts of poems by different authors, and related art works at any time. The electronic version of Eliot’s work is steeped in cultural and historical contexts, adding layers of meaning to the text that in turn create a unique reading experience.
The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot as Hypertext blurs genres by locating the original text in a network of related texts, so as to break the boundaries of the physical work itself. By illuminating the poem’s intricate network of symbolism, intertextuality, mythical undertones, and quotations, on-line presentation of Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ encourages readers to undertake a holistic interpretation of the original text; they are prompted to consider the poem’s historical and cultural background, significant allusions, as well as enlightening information about the author and other writers by whom he was influenced. Electronic presentation of ‘The Wasteland’ epitomises the propensity of hypertext to emphasise marginalised information and contextualise meaning through association.
Significantly, these trends resonate with notions of the open work, whereby texts constructed as ‘works in movement’ facilitate multiple readings (Eco 1989: 22). This has implications for the interpretation of narrative. Open works intrinsic to the electronic realm encourage readers to think in terms of associative connections, allowing textual meaning to be viewed from a variety of perspectives. Additionally, aesthetics of collage and concatenation typically found in electronic texts heighten the extent to which readers must fill in gaps when constructing meaning, making them more ‘co-producers’ than ‘recipients’ of meaning. It can therefore be argued that narrative is becoming more interactive and ergodic, whereby ‘a nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text’ (Aarseth 1997: 1).
Similarly, the practice of writing is undergoing tremendous change. Writers are no longer restricted to using typewriters, but instead construct meaning through an interface that beckons human interaction. As such, writers are working within a networked textual ecosystem that is accessed via powerful computer-based machines imbued with infinite possibilities. When working within the electronic medium, writers can draw upon written texts, visuals, audio, music colour, and motion, then re-combine these modes in innumerable ways to create new and innovative pieces. Consequently, narrative has moved beyond traditional constraints of the printed page. Narrative composition now commonly requires authors to work from a screen through which they manipulate language according to digital codes and conventions. Today’s authors must also compete in a world characterised by textual abundance and information overload. Consequently, the nature of writing is being constantly challenged and updated.
ICTs, and the on-line electronic realm in which these devices operate, are impacting extensively upon literacy practices. In particular, the boundaries that previously existed between the roles of reading and writing are dissolving. Similarly, the production and consumption of texts is increasingly typified by processes of discovery and exploration deployed within an interconnected textual space dominated by the presence of machines. Ultimately, authors and readers are increasingly working together to operate, manipulate and navigate textual content.
The complexities of electronic aesthetics: what are the implications?
The hypertextual linkage inherent to the on-line electronic realm means readers and writers can explore juxtaposed fragments of text with unsurpassed ease and speed. The vicissitudinous nature of the hypertextual landscape is therefore changing how meaning is shaped and interpreted. Reading and writing has gone well beyond the interpretation of linguistic text on paper, where the eye simply traverses the text in a linear fashion. Texts located in the electronic realm of cyberspace can exhibit hypertextual, non-linear features, while also drawing upon a range of semiotic systems, including linguistics, images, and audio. The processes of encoding and decoding meaning require writers and readers to actively draw upon their knowledge of how these systems work when fitted together in a multi-modal context. As Anstey and Bull note:
With their linked systems, fragmented structures, intertexual connections, and semiotic complexity, electronic texts occupy a new space that is more process-oriented than outcome based. Such texts prompt readers to co-construct meaning with authors by directly interacting with the text. This escalation of over-lap between writing and reading reinforces the notion of literature as work, whereby ‘the goal of literary work … is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text’ (Barthes 1992: 4). These work-oriented aesthetics are embedded within Joyce’s Web-based narrative Twelve Blue (1997).
Released in 1997, Twelve Blue is widely regarded as an early example of groundbreaking hypertextual narrative that facilitates intense levels of reader interactivity. Joyce’s text entices readers to follow threads of narrative via links that yield (lead to another section of text or image), demonstrating the tendency of electronic literature to draw upon intricate networks of association as opposed to linearity. Commenting upon the overall aesthetics of Twelve Blue, Hayles notes:
At the entry point of Twelve Blue, the screen displays a rectangular box that features twelve largely parallel horizontal lines of different colours, with each line resembling a thread of yarn (see Figure 2).
Divided into eight bars, the threads change orientation as they are played. Perusal of the text is facilitated by clicking on threads positioned on the left-hand side of the page (displayed once readers move past the first page), or by clicking on yielding words. Readers then drift through a series of narrative sequences. Some threads also lead to a visual, reflecting the marriage of text and image intrinsic to the Net.
The structure of Twelve Blue is highly fluid, with the narrative’s sequence changing upon every reading. However, a plot slowly emerges as Joyce depicts events that impact upon a range of characters, including ‘a boy and a girl, two girls and their mothers, seven women’, all of whom seem to be connected by various events, such as ‘a drowning, a murder, a friendship, three or four love affairs’ (Joyce 1997: ’author description’). Characters in the narrative are difficult to pin down due to the mostly indirect style of diegetic narration that tends to report events and memories, rather than dramatise them. Furthermore, Joyce’s use of an omniscient narrator allows him to experiment with the consciousness of different individuals. Consequently, character development is obscure, challenging readers to determine which human presences are significant to story development.
Significantly, themes drift to the surface of Twelve Blue, largely as a result of carefully executed poetics. Instances of vivid language and imagery are repeated in different threads and bars in ways that signpost corporeal existence and death as prominent themes. Similarly, repeated reference to colours and shades – such as white, ivory, darkness, black, and crimson – bring to mind the primordial nature of embodied existence, as well as the human body’s inevitable decay. These rhetorical devices intensify symbolism, allowing poetic language to tighten strands of plot and scaffold textual navigation.
Threads of narrative within Twelve Blue present a story flow in which images and text come together, overlap and separate, leaving readers with an overall impression of events, instead of a clear understanding of causal plot. Joyce’s piece therefore defies the idea that narrative unity is dependent upon Aristotelian conventions. Rather than presenting a clear set of causally linked plot points that terminate with a resolution, Twelve Blue offers a non-linear, multi-modal, interactive immersive experience that allows readers to feel as if they have become acquainted with a series of connected characters and events. Interpretation of meaning can therefore vary markedly between different readers, with no two readers traversing the text in exactly the same way.
Joyce’s narrative shows that the perusal, interpretation and construction of electronic texts involves more than bridging gaps and drawing mental associations; it requires readers to venture into an electronic space permeated with connections. Subsequently, writing and reading within the electronic realm entails important processes of discovery and navigation. Such processes have pushed literacy practices into a new space whereby texts are understood in terms of their positioning within a network of other texts. This not only intensifies associative thinking patterns, but also allows readers and writers to determine their direction of movement around a text according to different defaults, pathways and links.
An example of exploratory reading patterns incited on-line is provided by the Web-based hypertext fiction, About Time: A Digital Interactive Hypertext Fiction, Two Braided Parallel Paths, A double Helix by Swigart (2002). This narrative is deeply imbued with navigational features that incite constant reader interactivity. While About Time incorporates sound and images, the primary aesthetics of the text rely upon the manipulation of space and time achieved through its sophisticated structure. Swigart’s narrative consists of braided yet distinctly separate story strands that depict the experiences of two protagonists positioned in vastly different spatial and time settings (see Figure 3). One strand of About Time, entitled ‘Mouth’s Journey 40,000 Years Ago’, features an ancient Aboriginal man, who is obsessed with building a boat so that he may discover what lies beyond his immediate surroundings – a metaphor, perhaps, for the desire experienced by contemporary readers to pursue connections within the digital landscape and discover what lies outside any given text. The other narrative strand, entitled ‘The de Granville’s Files Present Day’, features Cro de Granville, who taps into the world-wide information network via ‘musing’, which seems to be synonymous with the on-line commentary practice known as ‘blogging’.
Aspects of screen design help with textual navigation throughout About Time. Readers can jump between story strands at any point by clicking on a spinning graphic positioned at the bottom of the menu. The left side of the screen presents a sidebar menu that displays links to individual narrative episodes. The right side of the screen presents episodes of the narrative, usually no more than a few paragraphs in length. Most episodes contain either blue or red links: blue links lead to other episodes; red links lead to visuals, along with a voice-over that expresses the opinions of an outside narrator. Readers cannot directly retrace their steps through the narrative, but clicking upon episodes listed in the menu will allow them to re-visit episodes they have already read. The result is an intensely multi-sequential, interactive story that not only offers an individualised reading experience, but also allows readers to spontaneously jump through complex sequences of space and time. This latter experience prompts readers to spatialise the text within their own minds, to seek out significant connections between parallel plotlines, and to actively compare the characters in each story strand.
On-line electronic narratives such as Twelve Blue and About Time show that the content, representation and distribution of texts is being revolutionised. Likewise, the processes inherent to writing and reading are being transformed. Increasingly, the act of writing requires authors to have a sound knowledge of different semiotic systems and to understand how these systems can be combined in ways that help them achieve effective communication. Authors can create internal and external textual links, deepening allusions and prompting readers to make meaning from association. And, of course, texts are no longer limited to paper, but becoming more screen-oriented, prompting authors to experiment with text layout, design, colour, and space.
Reading patterns are also changing, becoming more ergodic, interactive, non-linear and sophisticated. Readers are no longer restricted to decoding words and images on a page; instead, they can participate in the co-authoring of electronic texts, critique and respond to works, as well as comprehend written pieces from multiple perspectives. Not only do electronic texts require a significant level of reader participation, they also require a certain degree of digital literacy. As is the case with authors, readers need to understand the language of digital media, including its complex system of signs, and have some skill in relation to navigating the electronic landscape. They are also often required to process various sources of information in a short time span. In the digital age, the reader’s brain has generally become adept at creating coherent patterns from fragmented, linked and non-linear texts. Readers are regularly interacting with the written on-screen text, expecting it to respond in ways that allow them to navigate, browse, skip, synthesise and comprehend information.
Electronic discourse is generating new symbols and signs that deem communication to be increasingly complex. Furthermore, trends of media convergence mean texts can be written and read on a variety of multi-functional, portable electronic devices that are contributing to the machine-orientation of texts. It follows that the machine has become a facilitatory participant in the processes of textual interpretation, composition, production and distribution. Hence, the notion of text as machine, is an important concept that is rapidly gaining the attention of readers, writers and publishers. Importantly, such changes do not herald a complete break from the past, nor a supplanting of print. Rather, influences of technology re-position textual agents in ways that beg the question, where to next?
Innovations in print
As the digital age spreads its wings, narrative will continue to evolve; it is likely that more writers will strive to achieve an innovative edge within the comparatively ‘fixed’ medium of print. The innovation exemplified by electronic fiction behooves authors to re-think narrative so as to stretch the print-bound page in exciting new ways. Several contemporary narratives have already tapped the flexibility inherent to computer-based writing. House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski (2000), for example, combines typographical manipulation, linkage, visuals and elements of unique design to create a multi-layered text that challenges the reader to actively construct meaning.
An intricate, multi-layered novel, House of Leaves contains hundreds of footnotes, demonstrating ‘an extensive hypertextual navigation system connecting multiple narratives and reading paths’ (Pressman 2006: 107). This feature provides readers with a choice as to the order in which they peruse the text. Danielewski’s novel alsoemphasises the aesthetics of remediation, which, according to Bolter and Grusin (2000: 45), entails ‘the representation of one medium in another’. In this sense, the information presented in House of Leaves reaches readers via a vast array of technologies, including film, video, photography, tattoos, typewriters, handwriting, and computers. Inscription technologies referenced in the novel are also diverse as evidenced by the following passage:
Compiled by a blind (and therefore arguably unreliable) author, Zampano, the main text is an assemblage of fictional material composed of articles, scholarly notes and references, transcripts, and personal commentary. Zampano’s researchconstitutesa review of apparently nonexistent video footage known as ‘The Navidson Record’, compiled by award-winning photojournalist, Will Navidson.The film, shot by Navidson, his wife, Karen, and other characters, can’t be located anywhere but supposedly documents the supernatural proportions of a house inhabited by the Navidson family. Deepening the novel’s layers, Zampano’s interpretation of Navidson’s video footage is commented upon in a separate but complementary narrative written as footnotes by Johnny Truant, a young tattoo artist’s assistant who finds Zampano’s work. Truant not only assembles Zampano’s work into a logical order, but also details the psychologically destabilising effects of the narrative upon his already vulnerable state. ‘The Navidson Record’ is further mediated by mysterious editors, who purportedly find material by Zampano and Truant circulating on the Net and then assemble it into book form, complete with additional supplementary information, which further filters the material presented to readers. As the supposed editors point out:
Taking its propensity to tap into different mediums to another level, the novel is intricately linked with the Net. House of Leaves has its own website, www.houseofleaves.com, consisting of community forums that discuss the novel in detail. The address for this site is clearly displayed within the novel’s publication details, demonstrating the links between print and digital media. Danielewski’s novel is also linked to a Random House Reading Group Guide, which can be accessed at randomhouse.com.au. The reading guide provides a brief overview of the novel, including a few points about plot and characters, as well as typography and page design; it also lists a series of questions related to the novel’s complex content. In an interesting promotional strategy, these questions are designed to feed on-line analysis of the novel. Ultimately, interrelations between album and novel capture the recursive feedback loops typical of digital information.
At the same time, House of Leaves continually draws attention to its physical materiality through typographical manipulation, insisting on its specificity as a printed novel (see figure 4). Danielewski’s work features different fonts, text boxes that can be read backwards on the reverse side of the page, gaping holes of white space, music notes, type that runs sideways in the margins, type that is slanted, scattered, upside-down and layered, and type that is crossed out. Additionally, the novel features coloured type, mostly blue and red. Every instance of the word ‘house’ appears in blue, which represents the hyperlink, while red type crossed out with a black line would seem to represent the editor’s pen. The positioning of type on the page is also important. For example, type presented in blue-rimmed text boxes from pages 119 through to page 141 allows readers to follow a thread of related information, highlighting the networked nature of the novel.
The novel’s innovative presentation underscores the increasingly fluid aesthetics of printed texts as a result of the malleable properties inherent to the technology producing them. The influence of ICTs, and computer-based writing, very much comes to the fore in House of Leaves with readers prompted to ‘see’ meaning within the text, to interact with the novel, to move it into different positions as they read, and to look for associative meanings in elements of physical and textual design. Overall, House of Leaves offers a ‘printed’ response to the increasingly ergodic and open nature of electronic narrative, demonstrating the ability of authors to push the boundaries of print in unique and innovative ways.
Similarly, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Larsen (2010) shows how traces of electronic media can manifest in printed texts, stretching the medium’s traditional constraints. Larsen draws upon elements of visual and graphic design in ways that thicken the printed medium and increase reader interactivity. The novel depicts the experiences of its unusual protagonist, 12-year-old prodigy Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, or T.S., who has a compulsion to map, measure and illustrate almost everything. When T.S. receives a call from the Smithsonian Institute and learns he has earned a prize for some of his drawings, the story is set in motion: hopping a freight train, T.S. heads east to Washington D.C. without telling his parents.
T.S. is a peculiar viewpoint character, whose obsession with charting things reflects how he sees the world and his somewhat unhinged place within it. This approach to character development provides readers with some insight into the protagonist’s internal state, deepening reader empathy:
There is, however, a deeper reason for the protagonist’s mapping habit, which becomes ‘a whole system of ordering a life against tragedy’ (Bellafante 2009: BR9). Not only is T.S. aware that the marriage between his parents has become farcical, he is also haunted by the death of his brother, Layton, for which he feels partly responsible:
The inscription of Layton’s name inside various visuals literally illustrates the guilt that T.S. struggles with; it continues to resurface, just like the memory of his brother. The energy of this suppressed emotion fuels T.S.’s obsessive compulsive streak.
Importantly, the exploration of character interiority through illustrations and maps also draws attention to the idea of nudging important insights into the margins of narrative. As Paulson notes, ‘what most interests us in literary texts…are the margins and complexities of their “messages”’ (Paulson 1989: 301). An example of enlightening yet marginalised information can be found on page 38 of Larsen’s novel, where T.S. inscribes the wing of a cicada with the word ‘why’ (see Figure 5). T.S. does not say what the question in the cicada’s wing refers to, but readers are given a clue, with Layton’s name appearing in very small print upon the cicada’s wing in several places. It could be argued that the inscription ‘why’ reflects T.S.’s inability to understand Layton’s death. In this way, Larsen’s visuals position the text as a material artefact to be closely studied by readers, while also deepening the story’s emotional and psychological texture.
Figure 5. Hidden drawings in The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (Larsen 2010) illustrate the flexibility of the printed inscription surface
By consistently emphasising the power of visuals, design and page layout, Larsen stresses the plasticity inherent to computer-based writing and transfers this quality to the printed page. Additionally, the text’s use of arrows that direct readers to marginal content echoes the interactive features of electronic hypertext, requiring readers to constantly shift their eye and attention. These marginal links, which often provide background information, also reflect the non-linear, associative reading patterns encountered on-line.
Through the use of intricate linkage strategies, Danielewski and Larsen demonstrate how printed narrative can re-present the erosion of textual hierarchy typical of electronic literature. By emphasising the importance of both the marginal and central text in constructing meaning, these authors have generated open, ergodic, borderless dynamics in which textual boundaries seemingly dissolve and readers and writers are challenged to co-navigate a complex, networked space. Furthermore, with their re-presentation of linked aesthetics, non-linear texts, disrupted temporalities, fragmented structures, typographical manipulation, and unique page design, these texts draw upon an in-process method of composition and interpretation that emphasises the increasingly collaborative nature of writing and reading. Both narratives reinforce the reality that different mediums do not work in isolation. Instead, they converge and morph in response to social, cultural, and technological pressures.
Advances in technology, along with society’s responses to such technological developments, are changing reader/author/text relations. Processes associated with producing and interpreting texts now draw upon multiple modes, semiotics and individuals. Furthermore, these processes of textual production and consumption are increasingly facilitated by ICTs, lending momentum to the notion of text as machine.
ICTs are transforming structure, content, representation and distribution of texts, as well as the roles of readers and authors. Just as remediation allows different communication systems to borrow features from one another and re-produce textual effects in different ways, reading and writing practices also shape one another via technocultural feedback loops. In the coming years, narrative will continue to morph in terms of content, structure, appearance and production. The full extent of the impact of technological change upon printed narrative remains to be seen; however, it is likely that printed narratives will exhibit unprecedented degrees of internal and external linkage, demanding sophisticated levels of interaction and navigation on behalf of readers and writers alike. Perhaps, too, they will incorporate media convergence trends. This is already possible, with scannable Quick Response codes able to link the printed page directly with the Net, facilitating access to multi-modal features, including sound, visuals, video and motion. Overall, the increasing interdependence of narrative and machine will undoubtedly lead to further instances of innovation and experimentation in the field of written communication. From this perspective, it can be concluded that the nature of narrative – along with the processes of reading, writing, and publishing – will continue to adapt, taking texts to new, and as yet unimagined, places.
Eileen Herbert-Goodall holds a Doctorate of Creative Arts, which she attained from the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC). She has had her novella, The Sherbrooke Brothers, shortlisted with the Busy Bird Great Novella Search Competition. She was also recently awarded ‘shared-first prize’ within a short story division of the Fellowship of Australian Writers National Literary Awards. Her nonfiction articles have appeared in various newspapers and magazines. She presently teaches high school students through the USC’s Creative Writing Excellence Program, and is also working on a selection of short stories.
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Vol 18 No 1 April 2014
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo