Does cyberlit turn writers into programmers?

Technology drives cyberlit. That is a given.

But, by its very nature, technology is always changing. And while new technology is the force which drives cyberliterature, it can also be its Achilles' heel. Writing is an extremely cheap art-form to practice, the basic requirements being pen and paper. What, though, are the basic requirements for cyberliterature? A computer with an internet connection, special software, a website with domain-name registration, an understanding of website design, and HTML or XHTML, at the very least, perhaps a digital camera as well as an image-processing package, and often much more. "Authors of hyperliterature don't have to be computer programmers," stated Edward Picot , "but they certainly do have to know a good deal more than how to set pen to paper."

Cyberwriters, like all writers, face the challenge of making the words do what they envisage, but they also face the challenge of its technology. In other words, the hypermedia poet or fiction writer who's also his/her own designer faces double-duty. "I don't want to exaggerate this aspect of hyperliterature, because it is my personal belief that original and exciting work can still be produced using nothing more than HTML," continued Picot, "but equally it must be admitted that some of the most striking recent works in the field must have taken a lot of technical know-how to produce."

A cyberwriter walks a fine line between "the desire for impressive graphic effects and the need to keep download times to a minimum to preserve reader engagement," Carrie McMillan argued: "There is a real danger that writers of hyperliterature may begin to concentrate on the hyper at the expense of the literature. They may become so involved with the technology that they become uninteresting as writers, or they may allow a desire to enthrall and astonish their audience to get the better of their concern to say anything original and deeply-felt."

In fact, that dynamic is exactly what inspired Robert Coover, famously heralder of the beginning of the hypertext era, to announce less than a decade later that its golden age was over. In a keynote address to the Digital Arts and Culture in 1999, he declared that the web "has not been very hospitable" to serious hyperfiction but has rather supported superficial, opportunistic events:

It tends to be a noisy, restless, opportunistic, superficial, e-commerce-driven, chaotic realm, dominated by hacks, pitchmen, and pretenders, in which the quiet voice of literature cannot easily be heard or, if heard by chance, attended to for more than a moment or two. Literature is meditative and the Net is riven by ceaseless hype and chatter. Literature has a shape, and the Net is shapeless.
The initial "hype" about hypertext literature was centered solely on its non-linearity, ignoring its other possible dimensions, such as the multimedia aspect of hypertext. What does Coover think of hypermedia? "Hypertext is now used more to access hypermedia...that most passive and imperious of forms," he stated, adding that hypermedia's constant threat is to "suck the substance out of a work of lettered art, reduce it to surface spectacle." Or put more succinctly, "it's back to the movies again."

But Jeff Rice in his creative hypertexted response to both of Coover's articles disagreed:

How can the "Golden Age" be over before we have begun to incorporate hypertext completely into our daily reading and writing habits? What we do today can hardly be called a beginning. Our current relationship to hypertext is comparable to the first months of television - static, no programming, and a few sets tuned in... The speed of technological innovation has convinced us that six years ago was sixty years ago, that ten years ago was a century past.
(For the entire hypertexted Kairos critique of Coover's articles including Coover's full articles, click here)

But when literature goes multimedia, when hypertext turns into hypermedia—or new media, as it is being called in the ever-expanding field—does a shift takes place from serious aesthetics to superficial entertainment? That's the debate. In an article entitled "When Literature Goes Multimedia," Roberto Simanowski (2202) reflected on this tension: "If the risk of hyperfiction is to link without meaning, the risk of hypermedia is to employ effects that only flex the technical muscles. It's not enough to have nice images or fancy animation. Effects are only justified insofar as they convey a message. "

That said, if writers interested in cyberlit in all its amazing diversity and potential want neither to be programmers nor designers, what is the answer? Collaboration? Technology may drive it be so, argued Picot.

It may simply be the case that the technology involved in hyperliterature will become too complicated for individual writers to cope with, with the result that the hypertexts of the future will be team efforts rather than individual ones—either teams of writers working together, or individual writers working with technical experts...."
The skills "required to produce exciting work that might gain a large audience on the net may become unreachable to all but the lucky or technically dedicated," predicted Dreaming Method's Andy Campbell , and even those who might want to do it all may not be able to: "Collaborations between graphic designers, programmers and writers are already spreading; although there are overlaps, everyone is being strictly pushed back to their own specialty." In fact, current literary e-journals exist that invite collaborative submissions, celebrating cross-genre works. Of course, any collaboration is not without its own danger. If the hypertexts of the future can only be produced by teams of people, worries McMillan, they may become almost impossible to bring out on an independent and self-financed basis.

Is this the end of hypertext's golden era or just the beginning? Keeping it simple or hazarding the complexities of collaboration—which will it be? The answer may be "both." Future cyberwriters will become not programmers but designers of their own visions either by reveling in simplicity or the experimentation complexities of collaboration, embracing future technology as a new century's tools for creative expression.

Marshall McLuhan believed that content follows form, calling media "the extensions of man." That certainly seems true with writing in cyberspace. The "insurgent" technologies will "give rise to new structures of feeling and thought, new manners of perception" (Griscom).

And those new perceptions must, naturally, take into account the "other" language, the language of the computer that allows a writer's vision to come to cyber-life. In considering his experimentations with a new software—the "'neath text," as he calls it—cyberpoet Jim Andrews offered philosophical thoughts about the uneasy relationship between the very human feeling of poetry, the ghostly creative muse, and the mechanical feeling of creating poetry via computer:

It is apparently ironic that we use machines to convey our humanity, but the irony is only apparent when we acknowledge the ghost in the machine and acknowledge also that we made the machine for the ghost to travel in...The "neath text" is to some forbiddingly technical and automated. Yet the ghostie may appreciate it, the ghostie neath and above and around the neath text.

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