Beyond Art? Digital Culture in the Twenty-first Century Colloquium

The Oxford Union, 21st April, 1999

Organisers: Oxford University's Humanities Computing Unit (

Literature and the Digital Media

Peter Howard


Personal computers doubtless have great potential for extending the boundaries of literature in all sorts of ways. Such literature is, of course, accessible only to those who can afford the technology and are able to learn how to use it. We are on the threshold of this becoming a reality: already there are writers who use digital media exclusively, but there are also many readers who do not access them, either through technophobia, or indifference. 100 years ago children would read to their illiterate parents, and today, parents are being shown how to use computers by their children. In many senses, there's nothing new. In many others, it's all new.

The Internet breaks down geographical boundaries, but can't do anything to change the human desire to form communities. People still tend to be very territorial in cyberspace, establishing new, virtual communities. e.g. email lists, newsgroups, CompuServe and AOL forums, web-based discussion groups. The Multi-User Dimension Object Oriented programs (MOOs for short) construct models of buildings, where people can move around, look at things, modify the structure, and 'talk' to each other. LinguaMOOs, pioneered by Cynthia Haynes and Jan Rune Holmevik are MOOs designed for writing. In a sense they models of literary societies, where people can write, share their work and so on. These new social structures are where any new literature will be forged. They are culturally and geographically more diverse, but I foresee that writers will still tend to team up with others with common aspirations and outlooks.

Email, and to a lesser extent Usenet newsgroups, enables the establishment of geographically diverse writing communities, but it is of course the World Wide Web that is causing important changes in the nature of the writing product and the method by which it is distributed.

The changes in the method of distribution arise from the fact that anyone who can access literature published on the Web can also publish their own, on almost equal terms. The economics are entirely different - the fact that with print publishing it's expensive to produce, market and distribute the product tends to restrict the number of authors whose works are made available. Since books are expensive, people will tend to buy ones by authors whose work they already know and like. Thus publishers will tend to publish books by people whose work is already known. Web publishing flattens these literary hierarchies, and a new literary politics is emerging from the changed economics.

At present, those economics are trivial - almost nobody gets paid for publishing on the Web - and this leads to politics approaching anarchy. If your poem is accepted by a print publication, you're likely to get some remuneration, even if that consists solely of a complimentary copy. On the Web, you don't even get that. There have been some attempts to generate revenue from Web literature, such as Chadwyck-Healey's Literature Online project. This is a huge database of literary works, accessible via the Web. But the project is based on the print publication economic paradigm, and I suspect it will be forced to change its approach. It charges large subscription fees that make it unaffordable to everyone except specialist libraries. Such a subscription-based service would be impractical for personal home pages and Internet magazines. Why should I pay to subscribe to one ezine, when there are dozens of others I can view for free? More appropriate methods for a small Web publisher to generate income might include hosting advertisements, or the idea of the 'millicent' charge, whereby a mechanism is established to make very small charges for viewing individual Web pages.

Readers invest more than money in reading; they also invest their time. This will dilute the anarchic effect I mentioned earlier, since authors and sites will acquire reputations and 'brand names' that will attract readers to new content that they produce. However, Web publishing will result in a much broader range of writers being read, and a weakening of the 'authority' that being published by a prestigious name currently gives. This will be part of the wider reduction in any received authority of what is worthwhile, important or even 'true.'

The Web also severely curtails the effectiveness of attempts at censorship. An example of this is if you look in the Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse for James Kirkup's poem "The Love that Dares to Speak its Name" you'll find the page blank. If you want to read the poem, spend five minutes on the Web with a search engine.

Many writers are concerned about losing copyright on the Web. Copyright still applies, of course, but it's much easier to breach it. For most Web based literature at the moment, it's not a serious issue. First, nobody wants to steal your work: they'd much prefer to use the Web space to host their own. Secondly, writers currently publish on the Web to be read, not to make money, so if someone did copy their work, they'd just be getting more readers. When money starts to become involved, the problem will become more serious.

There will be, and already is, a cultural schism between print and cyberspace. Most print-published authors do not appear on the Web. Conversely, there are writers well-known on the Web, who have no print publications to their credit. I believe this split will remain, but grow less obvious in the next few years. Print publishers will find ways to make their authors' works available via the Web, and writers who have established a name for themselves via the Web will find themselves more attractive to print publishers. There will also be an increase in the number of privately produced booklets and pamphlets, as writers with a Web presence find there is a demand for print versions of their work. There is still a strong preference even amongst those who spend a lot of time on the Internet, to read literature from the page, rather than from the screen.

The World Wide Web also changes the nature of literature, most dramatically with the simple, but powerful concept of hypertext. Hypertext isn't new - the term and concept were invented by Ted Nelson in 1960 - but it really needs a computer both for its construction and for its consumption. Nor does it necessarily need the World Wide Web, which can often be too slow a medium for the ideal presentation of hypertext. But the widespread availablity of Web browsers, and the ease of distribution of hypertexts via the Internet, have contributed enormously to the growth of hypertext literature. Another important factor is that Web audiences are already familiar with the grammar of hypertext - they know how to use a mouse, what clues indicate something might be worth clicking on, and what is likely to happen when they do.

The most obvious point about hypertext literature is that it emphasises the deconstruction of the text, by providing ways for each reader to find their own way through it. It's actually a little more complex than this, though. I know of one Web poet who restricts the freedom of her readers by forcing a specific route through her texts. With a book, you can choose to read it backwards, but the hypertext author controls all the possible ways of reading the work.

As the technology of the internet advances, it becomes possible to provide more than just the text itself. Colour, images, typography, layout, sounds, video all become candidates for inclusion in the work. This is exciting, but there are also dangers that the special effects detract from the work if not carefully handled, and that the effects are expected. The simple poem is no longer enough - readers expect to be viewers and listeners as well. Perhaps this is symptomatic of a wider change in attitude to culture - we expect not only the book, but the film, not only the song but the pop video as part of the package. And attention spans of readers do tend to be shorter. This is possibly partly to compensate for the intensity of the multimedia assault on the senses, but it's also partly down to the knowledge that viewing costs time and money, and that there is a whole lot more out there to explore.

Hypertext literature is still very new, but I expect it to mature over the next few years. The maturity will be acquired both by the writers and the readers, and will result in works that use the technology selectively and appropriately for what they are trying to achieve. I also expect there to be more interactive projects - just as people link to each others' pages, so they will pool ideas and creativity into collaborative hypertext works.

Peter Howard

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