Born Digital: Research into Digital Storytelling and E-Poetics

This article is appearing in WSUV’s Crimson & Gray (Spring 2014, Volume 4, Number 2) and features the preservation work that Stuart and I are doing in the Pathfinders project. A special thank you to the good folks at MarCom for featuring our research in this publication.



Stuart Moulthrop reading his seminal work Victory Garden with the CMDC’s technical assistant Greg Philbrook and me looking on.

Many people tremble with excitement while ripping open a box containing a new computer or electronic gadget. Dene Grigar, associate professor and director of the creative media and digital culture program at Washington State University Vancouver, gets that same tingle when she opens a box containing an old computer.

“Guess what I got today?” Grigar claps her hands together in delight. “An iMac G3!”

Grigar directs the Electronic Literature Lab, where she has collected more than 28 vintage Macintosh computers, the likes of which have long since been forgotten, donated or discarded by most people. While she delights in the hardware, it’s not the hardware itself that fuels Grigar’s passion. The computers are the medium that allow her to access and preserve electronic literature.

Read the article at the Crimson & Gray

We All Descend

[Special Note:  This posting comes as a response to the traversal and interview that Stuart and I conducted with Bill Bly, author of the hypertext novel We Descend, at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) at the University of Maryland, where Bly's papers are now archived.  A special thank you to Dr. Matthew Kirschenbaum, Associate Director of MITH, for allowing us the opportunity to visit the archives and to videotape in MITH offices and for participating in a traversal for us, and to Bill Bly for the time he gave us and for his art.  Pathfinders is richer for it.]


dantes-hellThe Buzzfeed game I played yesterday about where I would reside in Dante’s Inferno placed me right smack in Limbo with the virtuous pagans, Plato and Aristotle.  Those of you who know me probably understand why spending eternity with these Greek philosophers does not seem much of a punishment, even if it is hell we are talking about.  Of course, in Dante’s world view this nether land of shades and shadows is actually a far better  location than any of hell’s circles below.

Dante’s story of his decent to this realm of the afterlife and his vision of the place he believes a great many of us will end up reminds me of Bill Bly’s We Descend, another epic structured as a journey.  My Pathfinders Co-PI Stuart Moulthrop and I had just spent the previous weekend with Bill at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities where we videotaped several traversals of his work.  So, Bill’s story of Edgerus digging through a maze of information in his journey to knowledge about the past was still haunting me days after my return.  Thinking about the metaphor of “the descent” as I played the Buzzfeed game, I was struck by the idea that Bill’s use of it has us going as deep into the abyss as we do for Dante’s underworld, for We Descend takes us through a complex scheme of space––and of time.


The up-to-date Map View of the Writings of WDvol2, courtesy of Bill, 10 Feb. 2014

I know.  It is difficult to imagine a more complex schema than Dante’s hell with its many circles and bolgias, but We Descend holds it own against the medieval masterpiece in this regard.  The story takes us through four timelines (five, if you count the timeline the reader represents), beginning with a future post-apocalyptic storyline of Edgerus who digs down through eons of data to reconstruct cultural history, encountering, along the way, Writings by an ancient who calls himself the Last One.  As Bill says, “The Last One transmits the even more ancient writings from the magnificent civilization whose self-destruction he has survived” (Bly, 10 Feb. 2014).  The metaphor of the “archaeological dig” that Bill talked about in his interview with Stuart and me, serves, he said, to ”help us to visualize time.” (See Bly’s “Afterward” for a better sense of the levels he presents in the story.) And it does.  Here, I am reminded of how time unfolded below me as I peered down at the ruins of Homer’s Troy––Troy VI and VII––among the nine total possible Troys––and imaging Priam, Hector, and Paris having once dwelled upon one of stratum of soil among so many of them. And there I stood representing yet another Troy, one far removed from theirs.

We spend so little time on earth that we are fooled into thinking of time as a continuum.  Without realizing it, we are tainted by Plato’s allegory of the cave from the Republic, so seamlessly woven into the fabric of Western culture that we are unaware of its influence. And so, we believe that the journey of humankind––and our own personal journeys, for that matter––takes us from ignorance to wisdom, that evolution means eventual enlightenment if humanity can just stick it out long enough.  I mean, modern humans are a far cry from Neandethrals, right?  In this way, Bill’s descent differs from Dante’s.  Whereas Dante hikes into hell’s hole with Virgil as his guide and leaves a better person for it by learning the true nature of sin, we wander alone through We Descend facing hundreds of possible paths with no idea if we will come out of it with any understanding of anything.  Bill’s story is, as he says,  about “evolutionary descent” (Bly Interview).  We refer to ourselves, as Bill reminds us, as “descendants” of those who preceded us, rather than their “ascendants,” a far cry from the more noble pilgrim status conferred upon Dante.  Dante does, indeed, get to climb up Mt. Purgatory and the heavens after his sojourn through hell.

imagesI exaggerate as writers sometimes do to make a point.  Actually, we do come out of We Descend with an understanding.  In fact, Bill revealed this truth when he related the genesis of this story to Stuart and me:  There were “five words,” he said, that came into his head, like a motif that had to be written down: “If this document was authentic.” Thus, the story suggests that humanity’s journey, our descent and ascent over thousands of years, is an odyssey to find those things that are authentic, to seek the true nature of truth.  We can see through this tautology if we remember that the Greek word for truth is alethe, or “not forgetting.” Truth, then, is simply those things that we remember. It is through seeking cultural heritage, through preserving the memory of a people, as the characters in Bill’s story do, that truth is located and maintained.

Ultimately, what We Descend suggests is that we––all humans––are capable of descending and ascending, depending on how heroically we fight for the truth, how hard we work to place truth at the center of our lives.


Pathfinders Exhibit Mentioned in ProfHacker

I have to admit that the below 0 temperatures and the black ice on the ground colluded to keep MLA conference goers from the usual moving between conference sites, resulting in light foot traffic for the Pathfinders exhibit at the MLA 2014. The amazing work of electronic literature that we shipped or hand-carried, some of which were so new that they were still in beta, did not get seen as much as I had hoped.  And of course all four of the vintage computers I brought with me to show early digital work were destroyed in shipment to Chicago.  It was, in a word, a tough show.

So, it is extremely gratifying to find, today, the mention of the exhibit by Anastasia Salter for ProfHacker––an essay entitled “Making Things at the MLA 2014,––in The Chronicle of Higher Education. I have cited the section from the larger article. Please read the entire essay because she does a great job highlighting the “maker” movement evident in this year’s sessions.  The image used for the essay is actually one of the two broken LCs. A pitiful site, indeed.

Electronic Literature Exhibits. As a scholar of electronic literature, or literature that plays with technologies and mediation as a fundamental part of its structures and poetics, I’ve been very excited to see an increased presence of electronic literature at MLA through recent years. Aside from several panels this year, there was an exhibition that highlighted an important history of digital making. Organized by Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop, the Pathfinders exhibit offered a living history of 25 years of electronic literature, pointing out the importance of preservation while highlighting just how difficult it is to truly keep anything digital alive. The exhibit highlighted this painfully thanks to the destruction of several archival computers during transport. (This further dovetails with important work on Preserving Virtual Worlds Kari Kraus shared during the Evaluating Digital Scholarship panel.)

Pathfinders Videos Used in the Graduate Classroom

Raw video from the Pathfinders traversals and interviews are going to be used in Noah Waldrip-Fruin’s graduate course, Playable Media, at the University of California at Santa Cruz. The course “focuses on media, such as computer games that invite and structure play. Work includes building and critiquing a series of prototypes; studying major examples in the field; and discussing both theoretical and practice-oriented texts.”

Curatorial Plan for the Pathfinders Exhibit at the MLA 2014

pathfinder exhibt layout

Station 1: Early Digital Literature–Original Research from the Pathfinders Project
Judy Malloy
John McDaid
Bill Bly
Stuart Moulthrop
Shelley Jackson

Station 2: Multimedia Books & Apps
Amaranth Borsuk, Kate Durbin, & Ian Hatcher
Samantha Gorman & Danny Cannizzaro
Andreas Muller

Station 3:  Immersive Environments
Christine Wilks & Andy Campbell

Station 4:  Participatory Media
Jay Bushman & Mike Dasiey

Station 5:  Augmented Reality
Jacob Garbe

Station 6: Mixed Mediums
Erik Loyer
Jason Nelson

Station 7:  Physical Computing
Josh Tanenbaum & Karen Tanenbaum

Pathfinders Exhibit included in Digital Humanities Offerings at MLA 2014

Pathfinders:  25 Years of Experimental Literary Art is included among the  77 sessions focusing on “digital tools, objects . . . practices in language, literary, textual, cultural, and media studies [and] . . . digital pedagogy and scholarly communication listed in Mark Sample’s annual Digital Humanities at the MLA.

Those of you attending the MLA 2014 convention can find the Pathfinders exhibit in the Sheraton II, Ballroom, Level 4.  We are bringing, once again, trained docents to assist visitors and to help answer questions about the works.

We open on Thursday of the convention at noon.

Shelley Jackson Is Coming to Pathfinders

jacksonWe are pleased to announce that Shelley Jackson, the author of Patchwork Girl, is coming to Vancouver, WA for her traversal in the Pathfinders project.  She will be giving a free public lecture at Angst Gallery on Friday, October 18, from 7-8 p.m.

Posts about her traversals and images from her talk will be published here beginning Friday afternoon.

The Timeline for the Early Uncle Roger, by Judy Malloy

We are pleased to have artist Judy Malloy guest writing a post for Pathfinders that lays out the timeline for the production for early Uncle Roger.  Please join me in welcoming Judy.



Judy Malloy, author of Uncle Roger with Dene Grigar (left) and Stuart Moulthrop (right).


April 1986 – At Carl Loeffler’s invitation, I go online on Art Com Electronic Network (ACEN) on The Well (Whole Earth ‘Lectric Link).

August 1986 – I begin writing the text and designing the structure of File I of Uncle Roger: A Party in Woodside.

Fall 1986  – I begin programming A Party in Woodside in BASIC and create the authoring software BASIC Narrabase.

December 1 1986 – Using the BBS topic form as a story telling vehicle, I put A Party in Woodside online as a serial narrative on Art Com Electronic Network on The WELL. Keywords are included so that users can use any database software to create their own version of the work.


January 29, 1987 – The telling of A Party in Woodside is completed on Art Com Electronic Network.  I program A Party in Woodside with UNIX shell scripts, and ACEN publishes it online as an interactive hyperfiction on ACEN Datanet, which also published works by John Cage and Jim Rosenberg.

July 1987 – I begin telling The Blue Notebook, File 2 of Uncle Roger on Art Com Electronic Network.  My essay, “Information as an Artists Material,” is published in Whole Earth Review no. 57:48-49, Winter, 1987.  It includes Uncle Roger.

I create the first BASIC artists’ book disk version of A Party in Woodside, and this version is distributed by Art Com. The disk version of A Party in Woodside is exhibited at Ultimatum II, Exhibition, Images du Futur ’87, Montreal, Canada, Sept. 1987.

1987-1988 – I program The Blue Notebook with UNIX shell scripts with funding from The California Arts Council and Art Matters. The interactive version of The Blue Notebook is published online on ACEN Datanet.


For file 3 of Uncle Roger, my authoring system Narrabase is expanded to include a generative function and implemented with both UNIX shell scripts and BASIC.

File 3 of Uncle Roger, Terminals, is published on ACEN Datanet as an interactive generative hypertext, programmed with UNIX shell scripts.

All three files of Uncle Roger are implemented in BASIC Narrabase, self-published on disk with packaging and documentation, and distributed internationally by Art Com.

Based on my Card Catalog HOME, (circa 1978) Molasses (for MacIntosh Computers/HyperCard), one of the first HyperCard hyperfictions, is produced at the Whole Earth Review under sponsorship of Apple and self-published in 1988 on disk with packaging.

Uncle Roger and Molasses are included in the traveling exhibition Art Com Software: Digital Concepts and Expressions, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, NY, NY, Nov. 4 – 22, 1988. The show also traveled to San Jose State University, University of Colorado, Ars Electronica (Linz, Austria), and Carnegie Melon University.  The show is reviewed by High Performance and Art Week.

I begin writing and programming its name was Penelope, based on the program for file 3 of Uncle Roger.


The artist book version of its name was Penelope is implemented in BASIC Narrabase and exhibited at the Richmond Art Center in an installation with painted text on the wall and the work running on a computer.  (See: Revealing Conversations, Richmond Art Center, CA, Oct. 3 – Nov. 19, 1989. Catalog)

A Party in Woodside is exhibited in ARTWARE at A Space, Toronto, Canada, April 6 – May 6, 1989.

Uncle Roger is listed as a new genre in the Wall Street Journal’s Centennial Issue.  See Michael Miller, “A Brave New World: Streams of 1s and 0s” Wall Street Journal Centennial Issue, June 23, 1989.


My essay, “Uncle Roger, an online narrabase” is published in  Leonardo 24(2):195-202, 199, a special issue entitled “Connectivity: Art and Interactive Telecommunications” and edited by Roy Ascott and Carl Eugene Loeffler.

Exhibiting Uncle Roger: Challenges of Presentation

This post is derived from a part of the presentation I gave at the Electronic Literature Organization 2013 Conference in Paris, on September 26.  The  paper, which includes much additional information, will be submitted for publication.  If you are interested in reading it now, please contact me.



Judy Malloy, author of Uncle Roger, with Stuart Moulthrop

My second question focuses on obsolescence and the challenges it poses for presenting works in exhibits––what I refer to as the “challenge of presentation.”

Christiane Paul addresses this issue for media art in her seminal essay, “The Myth of Immateriality.” Here she reminds us that “the digital is embedded in various layers of commercial systems and technological industry that continuously define standards for the materialities of any kind of hardware components” (252) and suggests that the constant upgrades of hardware and software may be addressed, in varying degrees of practicalities, by collecting technologies (hardware and software) for the purpose of display, emulating code on newer systems, and migrating works to the next version (269). We can extrapolate much from her ideas, but Paul’s view that the “lowest common denominator for defining new media art” is “its computability” (253) bears attention in that it signals a difference in aesthetics between media art and electronic literature and explains why she values one strategy (emulators) over others (collecting and migration).

Unlike media art where “media” is anchored in the tradition of cinema and “art” is associated with terminologies found in fine art and performance, electronic literature generates from a wide variety of disciplines and practices, among them digital humanities, which itself is described as a “mode of scholarship and institutional units for collaborative, transdisciplinary, and computationally engaged research, teaching, and dissemination” (Burdick et al 122). Additionally, electronic literature embraces the technological origins of both coding and writing technologies, declaring this heritage in its genres’ naming convention.  Computability––functions made manifest by characters expressed in written code and which drives the words, images, video, animation, sounds, etc., of the work is the point––is the common denominator connecting hypertext fiction with flash poetry, generative poetry with interactive fiction.  So, what is the best way to present electronic literary works produced on systems that have been rendered obsolete?


Judy Malloy reading Uncle Roger on the Apple IIE

To answer this question, I turn to Judy Malloy’s database narrative, Uncle Roger, begun in 1986 and published on the ArtCom Electronic Network located in the WELL (“Whole Earth ‘Lectric Link”) in 1987.  It was contemporary with the Apple IIE and was, in fact, produced on this model.  Version 1.0 was originally written in BASIC and delivered as a serial novel comprised of 100 lexias over the network.

The version that was eventually sold commercially through the ArtCom catalog, however, was Version 2.0.  It was made up of three 5 ¼ floppy disks on which Judy organized the material from 100 lexias of the previous version into three parts:   “A Party at Woodside,” “The Blue Notebook,” and “Terminals.” Version 2.0 made it possible for readers to navigate the story by selecting and typing keywords on the command line. Each combination would result in a lexia or series of lexias relating to the keywords typed. Typing “David” followed by “Jenny” in the next query, for example, brings up episodes about the relationship between these two people: David’s messy apartment that Jenny recalls, the picture of David’s former lover that Jenny tears into tiny pieces and places back into his wallet.


The advertisement for Uncle Roger in ArtCom Electronic Network Catalog

Judy sold Version 2.0 from her home as a hand-made artist package.  As far as she knows (Malloy, “Interview”), only three copies of the complete work exists:  two that she donated to Duke University along with other materials that now comprise the Judy Malloy Collection, and one divided, at the moment, between Judy and me. So, to present all these parts of this historically important work in the Pathfinders exhibit in at the Modern Language Association conference in Chicago, IL in January, I need to ask Judy to lend me the floppy I am missing (“Terminals”), then, ship my Apple IIE to Chicago in order to show them.  Recognizing these two constraints would limit her readership, Judy did produce an online version in 2012, Version 3.0, that runs on contemporary computers. [1]

Having access to Uncle Roger online sounds like a good solution to the problem of shipping a vintage computer across the U.S. and risking a rare work of electronic literature, but let’s step back for a moment and think about the qualities that may be lost if I blithely show Version 2.0 on any Apple IIE or Version 3.0 on a contemporary computer without thinking critically in advance about my choices.

Uncle Roger centers on the semi-conductor chip industry of Silicon Valley of the 1980s, a time in which floppy disks and an Apple IIE computer with its black screen and green dot matrix type were familiar technologies.  This particular computer is one of the most robust that Apple ever produced, lasting 11 years on the market. When Judy began posting Uncle Roger on the WELL, the computer was only three years old. In fact, Judy wrote Uncle Roger on a version of the Apple IIE that constrained her lines to 50 characters, resulting in a narrative poem and Judy finding herself a narrative poet. Later iterations of the computer cause the lines to wrap in ways Judy did not plan for them to, but Version 3.0 running on a contemporary computer keeps the line lengths in tact. What is lost in moving to the newer version, however, is the look and feel of the period––the cultural context of the work itself.  On the circa 1988 Apple monitor, the aesthetic of computer and story design meet seamlessly, the time-stamp of the work’s technology making sense in the context of the material presence of the computer. Thus, in showing Uncle Roger at the Pathfinders exhibit at the MLA where over 5000 literary scholars convene, I need to be aware that I am doing more than showing content of a work––I am also providing a context for understanding and interpreting the work.

Additionally, as curator I am taxed with highlighting the unique features of Uncle Roger, such as its interactivity and ability to compel audience participation.  In fact, the work may very well be one of the first social media narratives, presaging twitterature and other familiar contemporary forms today.  With Version 1.0 Judy posted one to two lexias every day, in serial style, to friends in her network, who then responded by chatting with her about the story and riffing off to other topics. “Great stuff, Judy,” one reader wrote on December 2, “the ideas and the content are both up to ridiculously high standards. Thanks for the fresh air.” Another: “What jacket are you wearing?” (Malloy, ArtCom). This means that readers of both Versions 2.0 and 3.0 are missing a crucial feature of the work found in Version 1.0.


Screen of Apple IIE showing interface of Uncle Roger


Uncle Roger 3.0 displayed on a Dell computer

Translation theory holds that translation is ultimately a betrayal of the text by the translator.  Tautologically speaking, the best we can do to bring a work to a reader is just our best (Biguenet and Schulte).  So, for the Pathfinders exhibit, I will be carting my Apple IIE computer to Chicago since it wraps Judy’s text properly and, so, provides a better cultural context for the work than the Mac Minis or iMacs I generally use for exhibits does.  I will also provide examples of the conversations that took place at ArtCom between Judy and her audience, materials Judy has allowed me to photograph for my research.




[1]  A more complete history of Uncle Roger can be found at Judy Malloy’s Authoring Software,

 Works Cited:
Biguenet, John and Reiner Schulte.  The Craft of Translation.  Chicago, IL:  The University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Burdick, Anne, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp.  Digital_Humanities. Cambridge, MA:  The MIT Press, 2013.

Grigar, Dene and Stuart Moulthrop.  “Exhibit.”  Pathfinders:  25 Years of Experimental Literary Art. 15 Sept. 2013.

Malloy, Judy.  “Interview for Pathfinders.”   Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop.  8 Sept. 2013.

—.  Uncle Roger.  ArtCom Electronic Network. 1987.

Paul, Christiane.  “The Myth of Immateriality:  Presenting and Preserving New Media.” MediaArtHistories. Ed. Oliver Grau. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007. 251-274.

The Structure of Uncle Roger


Judy Malloy reading Uncle Roger

Silicon Valley in the 1980s. Success in the semi-conductor chip industry measured by companies that could produce the fastest chip. Engineers who could deliver it, wooed away with the promise of more money. Industry espionage, a common practice. This is the setting of Judy Malloy’s Uncle Roger, a serial novel created in BASIC and delivered to the tech savvy audience of the Art Com Electronic Network community that resided in the WELL (“Whole Earth ‘Lectric Link”) [1] circa 1986.

From the beginning Uncle Roger was envisioned as a database narrative. Malloy began the project in 1986, ultimately taking six months to create 100 records (or lexias) and a database that made it possible for readers to navigate the story by selecting and typing keywords on the command line [2]. Each combination would result in a lexia or series of lexias relating to the keywords typed. Typing “David” followed by “Jenny”in the next query, for example, brings up episodes about the relationship between these two people: David’s messy apartment that Jenny recalls, the picture of David’s former lover that Jenny tears into tiny pieces and places back into his wallet.


Malloy’s print-out of an Art Com conversation about Uncle Roger

The work may very well be one of the first social media narratives, presaging twitterature and other familiar contempary forms today. Malloy posted one to two lexias every day, in serial style, to friends in her network, who then responded by chatting with her about the story and riffing off to other topics. “Great stuff, Judy,” one reader wrote on December 2, “the ideas and the content are both up to ridiculously high standards. Thanks for the fresh air.” Another: “What jacket are you wearing?”

Uncle Roger unfolds in three parts. “A Party at Woodside” takes place at, as the title suggests, a party––the ideal situation for keeping the narrative open and introducing the reader to the characters living this heady, highly competitive lifestyle. ”Blue Notebook” consists of five parallel narratives told in retrospect by Jenny, a not completely credible narrator, with many of the episodes, a memory inside a memory. “Terminals” is both metaphorically and literally the end of the narrative, told from Jenny’s perspective.

Both Jenny and Uncle Roger serve as the common thread among the three parts, Jenny as narrator recalling this particular time in our country’s collective history and her uncle as the catalyst driving the action among the various players. Malloy suggests that Roger, a semi-conductor industry analyst (a kind of venture capitalist), is a Falstaffian character providing comic relief in a story about power and money in an industry that essentially built the U.S. economy from which we are still reeling, even now.


A notice about Malloy’s work in the Art Com catalog

Limited to 50 characters per line on the screen, Uncle Roger is a type of constrained poetry. Though not a poet when she began writing Uncle Roger, Malloy became one, she says, during the creation of this work. Those who read the work may be struck by the use of alliteration, internal rhyme, and other poetic devices. The repetitive use of the “M” sound in one episode draws out the action, while the liquid sound of multiple “Ls” in another takes us to both undulating waves and unstable times.

Malloy sold Uncle Roger through the Art Com catalog beginning 1987. Each copy was a hand-made artists’ book that Malloy refers to as a “material hack.” Hack or not, Uncle Roger constitutes one of the first commercially sold works of electronic literature in the U.S., a serialized database novel, artfully hand-produced and structured in a way that compelled readers to interact with its author. [3]


[1] The WELL, founded in 1985, is one of the first social networks.  It describes itself as “a cherished destination for conversation and discussion. It is widely known as the primordial ooze where the online community movement was born — where Howard Rheingold first coined the term ‘virtual community.’” See

[2] Malloy was originally known at the WELL (re: her “handle,” as names were called) as “badinfo.” Her name later shifted to jmalloy.  She was also known as Judy.

[3] The material garnered for this post is derived from the two-day traversal and set of interviews held with Judy Malloy at her office at Princeton University, on September 7 and 8, 2013.  We would like to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for funding to conduct these activities that has led to this posting.