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The New Literature

This is a piece I wrote for our class zine on  Critical Theory of Technology for Allison Burtch at the School for Poetic Computation. Hope you enjoy it.

Literature is first and foremost about having ideas important enough to discuss and write down in some form. So you have to ask, “What is the literature that is best written down on a computer?” – Alan Kay

When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink… Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning” – George Orwell

What is the new literature? What is the most direct method of communication in an era of digital technology?

Much like Orwell’s ‘long words and exhausted idioms’ I think there are similar over-trodden tropes in digital technology that emerge to fill in the empty space where real meaning might have been. A project where you use a Kinect to control X with your body. What does it say about X, or about your body? I don’t know, but I guess it’s kinda neat.

In my poetry studies in college we focused a lot on how “form is content, content is form.” When Shakespeare leaves off the final stress in a line of iambic pentameter, he does it for a reason, it creates a palpable void that means something at that point in the poem. With our current state of digital technology we have unprecedented capacity to communicate with form, but instead we just see form being used to communicate itself. The Kinect shows you cool stuff you can do with the Kinect. Parallax scrolling shows you that parallax scrolling is pretty. I am all for things that are fun, cool or pretty and agree they are ends in and of itself, but they needn’t be the only ones.

When Alan Kay asks, ‘what is the literature that is best written down on a computer?’ I think of a literature that is felt out through Orwell’s ‘pictures and sensations’ and embellished with words to get the meaning across. People have become complacent in the complete control they have over endless pages of text across the internet: listicles thrive on their skimmability, longreads a gratifying self-flagellation. I want a literature that is more surprising, more frightening, more intentional in its medium, something that might require the reader to pay attention to how they are being told rather than just what.

But this creates a problem as to where one should focus attention: on developing technical skills to better communicate through ‘pictures and sensations,’ or on actually ‘having ideas important enough to discuss and write down in some form.’ Over the past two years I have been much more focused on developing new technical skills at the expense of interesting things to say, and mostly I think that is ok. I’m not convinced that important ideas and the ideal form for communicating them need to come from the same person.

In other mediums (music, film games) increased complexity of technology has simply led to more people being involved in the process. But writing, the discipline dedicated to the most direct communication of ideas, has remained the stronghold of the isolated auteur. I think it is important that there be people whose primary responsibility in life is to think about the world, but I don’t think they should necessarily be solely responsible for figuring out the best way to convey that thought. Just as data visualization allows for public consumption of vast troves of statistical information, I’d like to see new forms develop for better public understanding of theory, human experience and political argument.

For myself I’m interested in experimenting with my role on both sides of the equation: making myself a vessel for other writers I admire (a la Keats’s negative capability) and thinking long and hard about something and working with others to express it in in the best possible way. The new literature is immense and has barely been explored, there are so many things I still want to try. I hope you will join me.

On Leaving the School for Poetic Computation

As our time at SFPC comes to a close, we were asked to fill out a learning report by  selecting and answering four questions from a larger list as a way of summing up the experience. This is mine.

 

What are some of your memorable learning experiences at the school?

A lot of my learning experiences could be classified as “mundane successes in scary subjects.”

  • Learning to count in binary
  • How to make text show up in C++
  • How to make logic gates and adders out of basic electronics (I’d largely kept away from low-level electronics because I don’t have great fine motor skills, this was very encouraging for me)
  • Understanding how programming languages actually work in Ramsey’s class and then making a simple one

These small successes didn’t yield anything worth showing other people (except as evidence of the learning) but taken together had the effect of making me feel that there is no area of technology that is too difficult for me to engage with. This is a very empowering feeling. After SFPC I will probably spend a few months developing a video game (which is something I haven’t really done before) most likely in a language I’ve never used, and I don’t think I would have felt ready for it before SFPC, but now I’m pretty sure I’ll figure it out. I think this sort of holistic computational knowledge will also allow me to tackle much more complex projects down the line.

I learned a lot about organizing experiences for others from Ida. “Organize little, document much.”

Amit’s idea of teaching as a way to best help yourself learn fundamentally changed how I thought of the vocation and really made me consider it as a life option where I hadn’t really before.

I remember doing all the reading for Allison’s class one week (I believe on the topic of how the language we use to talk about technology defines the roll it plays in our lives) and thinking “wow, thinking is fun” and “I want to read more so I can think about this more.” I hadn’t thought about technology as whole in that critical way before, that was a valuable perspective to learn.

 

What would you’d like to teach and share after the school? and how would you like to teach?

I want to teach writers how to experiment with code/technology to find new ways of conveying their stories and ideas. I also want to teach people with technology skills how to collaborate with writers or use their skills to convey non-statistical information in new and better ways. I’d like to run a workshop where writers get paired up with technologists to produce a project. I don’t think there are enough structures that facilitate this type of collaboration.

Amit has sold me on the efficacy of  very small groups, especially when teaching something people have a lot of inhibitions about (like code.) I once taught a workshop that only 4 people signed up for and I was all like “aw man, no one wanted to take my workshop,” I’m much more inclined to see that situation as an opportunity now.

I’m also excited by the possibility of devloping interactive online tools for this kind of work. I don’t know enough to make them yet, but a lot of times a good tool and instructions on how to use it can go a long way.

 

What do you want the school to become?

I want SFPC to be an enduring part of the cultural landscape of New York City and America. My small field of digital literature has been largely siloed in a few graduate degree programs scattered around the country and for the most part inaccessible to the public. I would like to see SFPC become more of a public institution that acknowledges poetic computation as a valid use of talent and effort and serves as a bridge between the general public and the work of its students and the larger community they represent.

 

What questions are you leaving the school with?  What questions did you come in with?

How can I structure my life so that learning is a constant part of it?
How should I balance my energies between technical skill and valuable ideas? Is it more important to have original technique or original politics?
Am I still a poet?
What makes a good space for working and learning?
Is there a business-model besides commissions and installations that makes sense for this kind of work? Can publishing (many copies low price) make sense for this kind of work?