A weekend chatting about electronic literature

Monday, November 21, 2011

Tagged: boston, interactive fiction, hypertext, eastgate, if

I spent the weekend hanging out at Dangerous Readings, a small-scale (un-)conference about hypertext, interactive literature, and all that sort of thing.

The event was hosted by MIT, and organized by Eastgate, a publisher of hypertext and hypertext tools. They originally envisioned a BarCamp-style event, with sessions proposed and scheduled on the fly. But we didn't wind up being even that formal; it was just eight-to-twelve of us hanging out at MIT, talking about hypertext-like things for a weekend. Afterward there was pie.

I do not have a detailed report for you, I'm afraid. I had a really good time; the group was small enough to drill through my usual reticence. (At least by the second day...) So I was, for once, in the conversation rather than sitting back taking notes.

I'll note a few things, though:

Bill Bly introduced We Descend, an ambitious hypertext narrative (in progress) concerning a collection of archaeological artifacts. It's organized in layers of commentary. Bill began constructing the thing in Storyspace but is now using Tinderbox, a brain-organizer tool from Eastgate.

Mark Bernstein organized a reading of The Trojan Girls, a proof-of-concept piece in which two the "acts" have the same lines but in different orders. (The point is not to have a wildly different "outcome" the second time, but to have a reasonably seamless flow in both orderings. The stories are roughly the same, but with different emphasis, because the characters are generally responding to different remarks by different people in each "act".)

Angela Chang demoed Baby Duck Takes a Bath, a reading book optimized to help kids learn to read. The link is to a paper about an IF-style version, but Angela had an iPad prototype.

I got to show off Meanwhile, My Secret Hideout, and other prototypes in progress.

A notion that came up more than once: "Sifting" or "skimming" as a reading practice in its own right. (Not just a fast-and-careless habit of reading.) See also: The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around; or What You Do with a Million Books (a great title, and paper, by Stephen Ramsay). (Which, yes, I've skimmed.)

The question of where you find interesting interactive works. Or, where you hang out to inhale a stream of such works. The ELO collections are one entry point; IFDB is a very different one. Strange Hypertexts was also mentioned, although it's not currently active. Clearly we have a lot of communities with different aesthetics and goals. Speaking selfishly, I'd like them all to be aware of Meanwhile. Do they all want that?

The LED sign hanging in our Media Lab meeting room kept showing spelling errors. "SHUDTLE BUS", "ABRIVAL", "TUMSDAY". Are MIT grad students really bad spellers? (Okay, that wasn't a topic of conversation, I just noticed it and found it amusing. There's a good possible answer!)

Assorted other topics I recall: Is hypertext stuck in a cultural preconception of "a medium best suited to postmodern muddle"? What sort of introduction/tutorial does a hypertext work need? (Maps, "try this first" pathways, etc.) Do you need to teach the reading of hypertext to today's students? But do you need to teach writing it, as distinct from writing static text? If so, how? How do we (as authors) think about creating our works -- are we working from text to structure, or interactivity to content, or what? What new forms are implied by increasingly cheap storage and bandwidth? What communication tools are going to go mostly fallow in five years? (I.e., as the telephone already has.) Do we have enough pie forks to go around?

I'm not saying we got answers to those questions, of course. (Except the last.) It was a gab session.

I'm using the term "hypertext" here, because that was the language of the group. It was pretty distinct from my usual social circle; to some extent I was the token gamer-person. (Also one of the few programmer-people.) The discussion sort of took for granted that "hypertext" was an obscure, little-read medium -- whereas my usual viewpoint is that "interactive narrative" is a billion-dollar industry (mostly crap, mostly unaware of me, but still a huge thing). Doesn't invalidate any of the discussion, obviously; it was just a change of pace.

Anyway, good times was had by all.

(You can get another slice-view of the weekend by looking at the #danger11 twitter hashtag.)