What is cyberliterature?

One of the best things about a new medium is that it is wide open for reinvention literally as it is being invented. That is most evident in the terms that float and skim and vanish and now and then stick long enough to enter the language—terms such as computer, internet, world wide web, cyberspace, hypertext.

But cyberspace is not the internet nor even its world wide web websites. A dictionary might say it is the space between all the world's computers connected via a certain TCP/IP "inter-net" network. It is not even physically "there," being more like the place where telephone conversation occurs, that is, not inside the actual phone but the space between the phones. Insert computers screen for phones, computer screens for phone lines and we have a first grasp of the concept.

For our discussion, though, with that concept in mind, let's look at some of key terms from a writer's point of view.

In his 1984 novel Neuromancer, William Gibson coined the term "cyberspace," and it has come to be known as the medium in which the internet lives, and breathes, and has its virtual being:

Cyberspace: a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators... a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data...(1)

But what really is cyber-"space"?

Maybe we should first ask, what we consider "print-space."

Is it the space on a printed book page, the six inch by nine inch piece of bound paper? Hardly. Instead, we'd probably answer that the space of a novel is the space the words describe, a space that can be another century or around the world. But the space of the internet, while it may involve, as in print, the spaces that the language take you imaginatively, cyberspace is the medium itself. As we read in cyberspace, we click on links that "take" us to other "spaces." We "go" from one site to another...author to author, text to text, images appearing instantly before us. Cyberspace's "space" is the space of the electronic medium itself. (2)

It is a place of "simultaneous information in which we share images that arrive instantly from all quarters at once" (McLuhan, 1973). The true space of a bound and printed book conjures one type of hallucination of space. The true space of the internet, courtesy of electricity and an internet access is the computer screen. In fact, what we see is really a double writing space, if we peek behind the screen's "curtain." Every word we see on the page is really in two languages, the above text, and the "'neath text," as one cyberpoet put it, the secret language of the internet, "hypertext markup language" or HTML. All the places we "go" are really "brought" to that screen by that secret language and most basically, the light inside the screen. In fact, McLuhan went so far (1993) as to say that "communication takes place not by mere transportation of data from point to point" but is, in effect, "the sender who is sent, and it is the sender who becomes the message" (Reading and the Future of Private Identity).

In short, what we see there truly is "virtual," Gibson's hallucination—real...but not really—a consensual "dream-narrative" experience via our invitation. As Alt-X's Mark Amerika (2000) had his "medium," the "Techno Shaman," explain it during the earliest cyber years: "The first thing you must understand is that...[i]t is no longer possible to disassociate the dream from the real. Intuit your dreams and accept them as part of what's real and you will become empowered."

Anyone who connects to the internet, who wanders through cyberspace, knows that empowering feeling of getting information on a screen from around the world in nanoseconds. Everything that is happening the moment it happens, much in the way foresaw media in the technological age. We are connected to an electrical source that connects to a galaxy of "lexias" that fill the internet's cyberspace—and we can hardly make ourselves turn it off, much like television, the medium McLuhan (1996) in "The agenbite of outwit" so famously announced was the "message."

The seemingly infinite linkage from one side of the virtual universe and back Mark Amerika (2000) called "evolving narrative." It can also be "cyberbabble." It can feel like Jorge Luis Borges' infinite Library of Babel which contains all books, "ever lost with all their pathways of unmeaning and meaning hopelessly intertwined..."

...expressing all that it is given to express, in all languages. Everything: the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels' autobiographies, the faithful catalogue of the library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of those catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book in all languages, the interpolation of every book in all books. (p. 54)
But as with most things that are conceptual, any explanation is just a word picture. As one professor (2006) summarized the effort for his students: "Cyberspace is a way of grasping something that cannot be grasped except by means of metaphor. If time is a river, cyberspace is a continent lit up at night, across which we bound like action heroes, covering unthinkable distances." (3)

What is hypertext?

The magic, the hallucination that we now so commonly call the internet, the vast universal library of the world wide web, is made possible by that galaxy of links, or lexias, created by hypertext. What does the word "hyper-text" mean?

First, what does text mean? The word "text" itself comes from the Latin word for weaving and for interwoven material, and it has come to have extraordinary accuracy of meaning in the case of word processing. When we write text, we are interweaving our thoughts and words into sentences with syntax that makes textual sense. Hypertext then, adds linkage to that interweaving. It is the "textual dynamic" that allows text to travel, and by its nature, offers a creative tool for the writer in this new medium.

The term was coined in 1965 by visionary Ted Nelson whose Xanadu project is considered the inspiration for many of today's internet dynamics. But the idea of such a machine with a dynamic of info links, goes back as far as 1945 when Vannevar Bush posed the idea as a match to the way our minds work.

Links—that jumping from webpage to webpage that inspired the familiar information superhighway metaphor was foreseen by theorist Roland Barthes (4) in 1974 as text blocks of words and images linked electronically by multiple paths or trails in "an open-ended, perpetually unfinished textuality described by the terms 'link, node, network, web, and path" (pp. 5-6). Barthes suggested the text is a "galaxy of signifiers" (pp. 5-6), reversible, that we gain access to it by several entrances, no one of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one; the codes it mobilizes extend as far as the eye can reach."

Think page as cyberspace; think text, then think hypertext that allows jumps from information text to text into infinity...or, as artists do, think of the entirety of it as a creative medium to explore.

As one interactive fiction theorist Marie-Laure Ryan (2001) explained metaphorically, it is a territory where "the links are the roads, the reader is a traveler, clicking is a mode of transportation, and the itinerary selected by the traveler is a 'story'" (p. 218). For our Road Trip, this is the perfect definition.

What is cyberliterature?

"Poetry has entered the electronic landscape," declared poet Loss Pequeno Glazier (1998) in his essay "Jumping to Occlusions." Even if such a landscape suggests "images of electronic video games or machine-readable iambics... the fact is that the electronic world is a world predominantly of writing." Though this writing often seems eclipsed by its mode of transmission (electronic mail and the world wide web...), Glazier believes this is not that different from all previous writing, eclipsed by other communication such as "the book the stone tablet, and the scroll." Like all previous types of writing, electronic writing also engages the double "mission" of any writing—"to be about a subject, but also to be about the medium through which it is transmitted."

What is cyberliterature? It is literature about an idea but also about cyberspace, the unique medium in which it exists. Most of the creative writing done especially for cyberspace is hypertextual in some fashion. In its earliest days, as with most things connected to the internet, electronic "hypertext" literature boomed in the 1990s then seemed to bust only to reinvent itself. As critic Carrie McMillan points out in an essay in Slope 17, there's now "a renewed emphasis on the creative possibilities offered by the Internet." And that means hypertext. The hypertextual dynamic, the way words and images can be linked to other words and images, creates a whole new creative medium for the creative writer. As two early hypertextual writers explained the brand new form in 1991, "This is a new kind of fiction and a new kind of reading. The form of the text is rhythmic, looping on itself in patterns and layers that gradually accrete meaning, just as the passage of time and events does in one's lifetime."(5)

Hypertext, explains Mark Amerika (2000), is a reading in which the readers/participants actively click their way into new writing or textual spaces (that now might include graphics, moving pictures, sound, animation, 3-D modeling, etc.). Calling these hypertext jumps or links "alterna-reading choices," Amerika explained hypertext as a new literary tool: "Hypertext, as a concept, suggests an alternative to the more rigid, authoritarian linearity of conventional book-contained text...In the middle of reading or viewing a hypertext (and isn't it always a middle-reading?), the reader/participant is given a number of options to select from..."

Hypertextuality can be at the heart of a creative piece or it can be just another tool in the hands of a creative writer. The hyperliterary dimension of a poem, for example, doesn't have to be a required part of a reading, but can add depth.

What are its subgenres called?

Literature created in a digital environment can't exist for long without adapting to the new medium. And that cyberspace adaptation has coined the term hypermedia or new media to include graphics, sound, video, animation, and other media dimensions.

But even that specific definition isn't all that new. Early cyberliterature expert George Landow saw hypermedia as simply hypertext that includes "verbal discourse" via images, maps, diagrams, and sound that expands the notion of text beyond the solely verbal (p. 5). New technology, now standard on most 21st century computers, though, has created subgenres that bring hypermedia into the literary mainstream beyond, perhaps, what Landow might have envisioned. For the purposes of this exploration, the term "cyberlit" or "cyberliterature" will be used, but the creative medium of cyberspace is still so new and continually re-invented, that no real agreement seems to exist on what name it should be known as, much less what it's exact definition should be.

Names abound for cyberpoetry, for instance: flash poetry, liquid poetry, virtual poetry, visual poetry, soft poetry, electronic poetry, computer poetry, the list goes on as does the confusion. Electronic poetry, or epoetry, is often used to describe both the most innovative cyber creations as well as a traditional piece of "print" poetry available on the internet. In fact, the terms vary so widely in the new digital poetry subgenre that Jorge Luiz Antonio offers an entire article on the terms used in this emerging subgenre by its practitioners, from click poetry to holopoetry, along with links to poet's sites or works.

In describing the dynamic of the ever-expanding, ever-fluctuating subgenre cyberworld, cyberpoet Robert Kendall (2001) described his own labels:

Though "hypertext" didn't fully describe all aspects of the work I was doing, this term had the benefit of being already familiar to many people, especially after the rise of the Web. So I became a "hypertext" poet. Some of the pieces I'm currently working on aren't very hypertextual and rely more upon other techniques, such as animation. So am I now a "hypertext poet with Flash tendencies"? (E-poets on the state of their electronic art)
Epoetry may function as an umbrella term for all things poetic on the internet, but for fiction online, the term efiction doesn't quite work as well, especially since "ebook" is already in the language, usually, to mean a traditional "print" book accessible on computer. Terms such as hyperfiction, hyperbook, electronic fiction and cyberfiction seem to be used interchangeably, if fitfully, and as the genres continue to meld, game-playing worlds known as interactive fiction, computer narratives, and digital fiction, add to the mix. And to add to the confusion, there's also the word "cybertext," used in the computer narrative world to mean a text that—unlike hypertext's "all possible" linkage to all of cyberspace—is limited to specific computers or "machines" operated by readers choosing from many storylines to experience a narrative.

If names for cyberliterature seem to blur, cyberspace's unique nature also has a knack of blurring the lines between the genres, writer M.D. Coverley explained in her entry in Currents in Electronic Literacy's "E-poets on the State of Their Electronic Art Survey" (2001):

Although I have published some poetry, I consider myself a fiction writer. The appellations that I normally employ are Electronic, Hypermedia, and Interactive. However, all of those "new" descriptors modify the essential project of fictional narrative writing. The fact that some of my works have been published as poetry, I think, draws attention to the nature of the WWW. The Web tends to favor short segments of prose-text is difficult to see on the screen, readers don't like to scroll, the medium itself encourages a multiplicity of sensory inputs.
A poem is a machine made out of words, or so poet W.C. Williams was once to have said. "It's odd to think it so, given the utterly human nature of many poems," pondered cyberpoet Jim Andrews (1998). Yet there is a sense in which it's true, he believes: "Language itself is surely a technology insofar as it is a tool made by people; our tools and technologies are not dumb and lifeless externalities that we pick up at need to do a job; instead, they often are truly extensions of ourselves: extensions of our minds and feelings and imaginations (language); extensions of our eyes (electron and radio telescopes); extensions of our memory (books); extensions of our voices (telephones); etc."

It is an uneasy relationship we have with our machines. The creative magic waiting within the "hallucination" of this new machine-medium is exciting for the innovative, cyber-culture artist, but any 21st century writer working with all the latest "extensions" might feel their ever-evolving connection to the writer's "dream space." As Andrews explained, "Poets are familiar with the odd feeling of seeing their poems in type...it's as though a part of themselves had somehow been transferred by machines to the external and other. There they are, our 'silent running soul devices.'"

Electronic Labyrinth:Ted Nelson
Currents in Electronic Literacy:Robert Kendall

RoadSite: references/ linkography