Byte - Sized Words

By Emily Gold / May / June 1999
November 14th, 2007
The mad rush to develop flashier graphics and faster programs has consumed the attention of technologists since the Internet hit the mainstream a few years ago. But that left plain old text - particularly literary text - to play second fiddle to pictures, designs, and sounds. "If you couldn't write a good sentence," says novelist, hyperfiction enthusiast, and Adjunct Professor of English Robert Coover, "you could at least make it bounce across the page. This made it harder and harder for us to think about text."

An urgency arose, Coover says, to focus attention on the needs of the pioneers who write the electronic prose and poetry called hypertext, a literary genre that appears only on computer screens and that takes advantage of the computer by allowing readers to help shape a story by clicking with a mouse on embedded links.

To help meet this need, Coover co-organized a conference that would join writers and developers of electronic-writing technology. The result was Technology Platforms for 21st Century Literature, a three-day conference in April hosted by Brown's Scholarly Technology Group and the Program in Creative Writing's Hyperfiction Workshop.

Writers at the conference discussed several anxieties. They worried about finding user-friendly tools that would allow them to concentrate on words, not on the technology that got those words up on the screen. "If you find a tool that is right for one writer, it's going to be wrong for another," said Mark Bernstein, president and chief scientist of Eastgate Systems, a hypertext publishing company. Writers also worried about the impermanence of their work in a world where new software becomes obsolete almost as soon as it is created.

Technologists, meanwhile, introduced writers to the newest electronic-writing tools. The audience crowded around Martin Eberhard as he showed off his invention, the Rocket eBook, a machine the size of a paperback that weighs twenty-two ounces and holds 4,000 pages of words and images. However, some writers viewed the device as retrograde, Coover says, because it basically imitates books "rather than provoking people into the new arena" of hypertext.

Coover hopes the conference marked the start of an ongoing discussion between writers and technologists, who, through hypertext fiction, are literally joining science and art.

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May / June 1999