Pathfinders at Narrative 2015

Stuart and I have been invited to give a talk about Pathfinders at the 2015 International Narrative Conference, taking place at Swisshotel in Chicago, Il from March 5-8, 2015. We were invited to present on a panel created by Eric Dean Rasmussen that also includes Bernard Gervais, Ariane Savoie, and Ed Finn.  My particular talk is entitled, Uncle Buddy and an Argument for Collection.”

Here is the abstract:
In order to experience John McDaid’s Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse, one of the finest examples of early electronic literature and an early experiment with multimedia storytelling, readers need access to a Macintosh computer, circa 1992, running Hypercard 2.0­­––for reading and seeing the words and images––and a cassette player––for hearing the music. Because these technologies are no longer easily accessible, this important cultural work is not well known today by a new generation of literary scholars.

There are countless other Uncle Buddy’s out there, works published by Eastgate Systems, Voyager, and other prominent publishers of the early to mid 1990s. This presentation argues for collection as a method of conservation of digital literature, focusing on examples of early literature that are now impossible to read or gain access to and processes those involved in collection use for introducing a contemporary public to this important literary work.

 

I want to thank Eric for organizing this panel and giving Stuart and me the chance to talk about our work.

 

Bill Bly’s Traversal and Interview Are Ready

The videos of Bill Bly’s traversal and interview are now available at our Vimeo Channel.

Bill Bly Interview, Part 1 from Dene Grigar on Vimeo.

If you are visiting this site, you probably already know that Bill is the author of the hypertext, We Descend, an important work of early digital literature published by Eastgate Systems in the 1990s.

You can read the brief essay I wrote about the work.  If you are a Dante lover, you may enjoy the essay from the perspective of the journey theme found in Dante’s Commedia.

We included Bill in Pathfinders at the invitation of Matthew Kirschembaum at the University of Maryland’s Maryland Institute of Technology in the Humanities  where the Bill Bly Collection is archived.  Porter Olson, a PhD candidate at UMD and a scholar involved in the Bit Curator project, is transcribing the videos so that they exist in a textual form for use by scholars.  It is this kind of translational redundancy that Pathfinders embraces, advocating as we do for collecting as well as emulating and migrating for digital translation and transcriptions for media translation.

I am writing about media translation in my article for Maria Mencia’s book to be published with the University of West Virginia Press.  Specially, I will be looking at the ways in which Uncle Roger changes as it moves from the serial poem delivered over the WELL, to the database narrative that constitutes the version found on the floppy disks, and then to the web-based version available currently.  A same type of study can be undertaken with Bill’s We Descend since it too has been published in various formats.  Any grad students looking for a research topic for a M.A. thesis out there?

 

Pathfinders Trailer

We are pleased to announce that the Pathfinders trailer is ready for viewing.  Produced by Madeleine Brookman, a CMDC Honor student who is Research Assistant for Pathfinders, the trailer gives a good idea about the aim and scope of the project.  It features all of the artists Stuart and I have work with in the project and highlights some of the moments of their traversals.

Most of the footage for this video was shot in the Electronic Literature Lab (ELL) that I direct at Washington State University Vancouver and, so, shows some of the 35 vintage computers we have access to for the project.

Students at Princeton U Using Pathfinders Videos for Their Course

As scholars we labor hard on our research projects hoping that what we do is useful to others and indeed we are making new knowledge for the world.  So, it is always a delight to find out this is true.

I learned today that students in Judy Malloy’s course, Hypertext Lit traversals for Electronic Literature: Lineage, Theory, and Contemporary Practice, at Princeton University have consulted the videos that Stuart and I produced for the project and made available at Vimeo.

Pathfinding: The Next Step

[Much of this language came from the grant narrative and so means that Stuart and I are co-authors this post.]

While Stuart and I finish Pathfinders, where we have developed the methodology for preserving the experience of early digital literature, we have already conceptualized the next step, which we are calling Pathfinding.  This phase is a two-day symposium that will bring together leaders in the preservation, archiving, and dissemination of electronic literature, computer games, virtual worlds, digital collections, online journals, and mobile media to initiate a nationwide, trans- institutional consortium for treatment of born digital objects.

The project builds upon the research undertaken in Pathfinders (Grigar and Moulthrop, NEH ODH Start Up Grant, 2013) that introduced an important innovation––the documentation of experience––to the preservation, archiving, and dissemination of born-digital productions. To support the symposium, we have written another Stage 2 NEH Start Up grant. We will know in March if it has been funded.

The symposium’s goals are to : 1) share and exchange knowledge gained from Pathfinders, as well as other initiatives relating to the preservation of born digital objects; 2) coordinate diverse approaches to work of this type; 3) broaden the scope of inquiry beyond art and literature to all types of digital expression within Digital Humanities; and 4) facilitate a critical discussion of concepts and methods in this emerging field.

Pathfinding  aims to bring new approaches and document best practices in a core area of Digital Humanities: the posterity of expressive objects developed in computational media, what we refer to as “born digital objects.”  While Pathfinders focused on documenting experience through a process we call the “traversal,” exploring collection––that is, the use of historical platforms that themselves suggest a specific cultural context––as a method of preservation, archiving, and dissemination, Pathfinding applies our findings for the purpose of opening a critical dialogue about the full range of relevant strategies, including the importance of combining migration to newer media, software emulation, and collection for this purpose.  Discussion among key innovators from a wide range of fields that generate and/or study born digital objects will improve understanding of potential and limits of various approaches and lead to better coordination of future research, both in sharing of tools, insights, and strategies, and in decisions about areas of focus.

The need for this kind of project in the humanities led by those with experience in the production and scholarship of digital born mediacannot be overstated.  As Alan Liu observes, “[w]here postindustrialism extends its baseline back only as far as the last financial quarter or year, the humanities respond by asserting that the real value of knowledge can only be gauged across centuries and millennia” (381). Writing has been the primary means by which humanists have extended their work through time, but with the advent of digital media, writing faces serious complications. Enfolded within software systems, writing and other forms of symbolic expression are subject to disruptive forces of obsolescence, in material as well as social terms. Media objects themselves grow more complex, from the basic duality between encoded or latent text, and what users see, to the particular intricacies of individual interfaces and architectures. If the humanities are to remain a vital cultural force, it is essential that humanists evolve ways of dealing with relentlessly advancing media.

It is also clear that multiple approaches are needed. Some objects may lend themselves to software emulation or system migration––two other methods of preservation––while others, constrained by property claims and other issues, may be better served by collection and the documentation of experience that we argue goes hand in hand with it. Each of these methods brings unique affordances, and each also comes with limitations. Scholars committed to the posterity of computationally intensive expression need a frame of reference that integrates approaches across a broad domain of application.

While preservation, archiving, and dissemination has long been an interest of the Electronic Literature Organization’s (ELO) PAD project, reflected in the publication of Acid-Free Bits (version 1.0) in 2004 and Born-Again Bits in 2005, much has taken place in nine years that require an extension of this work. The development, for example, of scholarly collections of Stephanie Strickland’s and Judy Malloy’s work at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University and Deena Larsen’s and Bill Bly’s at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities at the University of Maryland predicates further research in best practices for preserving born digital work. Moreover, we believe there is much to be gained in sharing what we have learned from Pathfinders with scholars and artists who study and create other forms of born digital objects so that we can determine best practices for those works where participation and interaction feature largely and continue to contribute to literary criticism and history of these important cultural works.

 

Talk about Pathfinders for Honors 301 Students

floppy“Pathfinding:  A Cultural Approach to Preservation, Archiving, and Dissemination”

URL: http://dtc-wsuv.org/wp/pathfinders

Abstract:
This talk centers on an approach to the preservation, archiving, and dissemination of digital media, such as computer games, electronic literature, and virtual worlds, that takes into account the cultural context of a work.  Such an approach has not yet been fully explored, but based on the research undertaken for the Pathfinders project, I argue that it can add an important component missing in current preservation techniques.

 

Today I am giving a talk to students in Honors 301 about the Pathfinders project.   It occurs to me that in doing so, I should try to tie into the notion of obsolescence with digital objects they value (as I focus on those I value):  Video Games.

Links:

mario“Cloud Gaming to Make Consoles Obsolete” :  http://advanced-television.com/2014/03/05/cloud-gaming-to-make-consoles-obsolete/

Pathfinder’s Vimeo Channel: https://vimeo.com/channels/elitpathfinders


Research Question:

What happens to literary works meant to be experienced on a computing device when the software and computer systems with and for which they are created update, change or become obsolete?  Do we allow these works also to become obsolete, or do we find ways to preserve them since they are important literary and cultural artifacts?

Goals:

  • To preserve seminal works of early digital literature
  • To innovate “collection” as an approach to preservation, archiving, and dissemination (PAD) through the “traversal”
  • To inspire other scholars to undertake PAD projects for digital objects
  • To inform developers and artists of best practices for creating works with PAD in mind

Methodology:
Videotaped interviews and traversals* by authors and by two users who interacted with each work

All videos, as well as sound files, images, binary code, and scholarly commentary, are collected and prepared for presentation in a multimedia book produced in coding languages HTML5, CSS3, and Javascript.   This book will be distributed to the public for free via the Pathfinders website as well as other venues such as the ELO website, HASTAC, and MLA, among others.  Additionally, a co-authored print-based book, entitled Paths to PAD:  Critical Essays about Early Digital Literature and Its Preservation, that will accompany the multimedia book and containing longer critical essays is being produced.

Findings:

1.  Through our research we have found that the most stable platforms for digital media development are web-based languages (HTML5, CSS3, Javascript) and video.  Unsurprisingly proprietary software poses challenges to long-term preservation of digital objects.  

2.  We also discovered that Collection, despite the difficulties it poses in terms of maintaining platforms over time, offers an important component missing from Emulation and Migration––that is, the cultural context in which the work was created.

3.  Finally, we have come to see that when preserving digital works, all three approaches should be explored in order not to missing an important aspect of the work since they each offer important affordances for understanding and interpreting them.

 

* Traversals entailed the author of each work, as well as two additional readers, to read the work aloud, explaining the choices made as they encountered and clicked on hyperlinks found in the work, while we captured these readings on video. Following this process, authors and readers were interviewed about their experience and their comments documented.  This approach to Collection had not yet been used.

Bill Bly’s Artist’s Statement for We Descend

We are pleased to post Bill Bly’s Artist’s Statement for his work, We Descend, on Pathfinders.  It will become part of the archive of Pathfinders, the multimedia book, which is in production now.

——————————

bly-pathfindersArtist Statement, We Descend
by Bill Bly

Almost three decades ago, while I was doing something else, five words dropped unbidden into my mind: “If this document is authentic…” I tried to keep at what I was working on, but the phrase kept repeating, until I finally turned my attention to it.

Who’s saying this? I wondered. What document? Why wouldn’t it be authentic? How would it be authenticated? Where did it come from in the first place? As I pondered these questions over a period of time, a clutch of fragmentary writings began to appear under my hands.

Almost from the beginning it was clear that each of these texts bore a double significance: each told a story, but each had a story as well. Further, their transmission as a group formed yet another story: their possible origin in some personal collection that was passed on, lost, found again, added to, broken up and scattered, all but destroyed, then miraculously pulled together again. Eventually, what came to be called We Descend took the shape of an archive of archives, an anthology of writings by numerous authors, which had been gathered and repeatedly reorganized, passing through the hands of many generations.

Every time a new Writing turned up, those five first questions crowded in along with it, followed by a cloud of proposals, conjectures, romantic imaginings — each provisional solution embodied in yet another Writing, whose own provenance had to be established or at least guessed at. Successive curators of the archives must have tried to organize and present them in whatever way seemed best, given the circumstances and the tools each had at hand. And so I tried to do the same. [Read More]

Video Documentation Completed, Multimedia Scalar Book Begun

stuart-deneI loaded all 14 of the documentation videos to the Pathfinders Vimeo Channel yesterday.  There are six for John McDaid, four for Judy Malloy, and four for Shelley Jackson.  I plan to spend this morning tagging and commenting on them so that they are easily findable and contextualized.  Right now they are organized by newest uploaded, but I plan to structure the channel in alphabetical order.

Additionally, Stuart and I have begun to develop the multimedia book that these videos, our critical essays, images, and other artifacts will be placed.  We will be using Scalar as the platform for the book.  We met with Craig and Erik this week to go over the final issues related to getting up and running on Scalar.  Will Luers is advising us on the theme and design.  The goal is to have the book in draft format by December, as stated in the NEH grant.

Pathfinders Moving Forward

photoStuart’s visit last week was a whirlwind of activity.  We spend all day Tuesday in ELL developing the plan for the multimedia book.  Will Luers, who is our Scalar consultant for the project, joined us to provide a tutorial on authoring with Scalar.  We inventoried and organized our materials so that they can be easily added to the templates.  The next day we worked on the grants for the next phase of the project.

We also had the opportunity to welcome two new members of the Pathfinders team. Madeleine Brookman, an Honors student in the CMDC program, will take over duties begun by Amalia Vacca, who is graduating this fall.  Madeleine will work with Grigar on a variety of duties, including overseeing the media assets of the project, managing its website and social media sites, and helping to develop the multimedia book.  Troy Wayrynen is a professional videographer who worked for many years at the Columbian newspaper before joining the CMDC Program this fall to pursue courses in multimedia design.  Troy will be in charge of editing the final versions of the videos.

Next Phase

Stuart will be at WSUV from August 11-14 to work with me on the next phase of the project.  Both of us have written extensively on the various works that we have selected for Pathfinders.  It is time to develop the multimedia book that will host all of the videos, criticism, code, and other assets of the project.  We are also plotting the next grant, which we envision as a symposium on digital preservation  for a variety of media objects.