Category Archives: Explanation

A category of posts that provides basic information about the project.

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.


Inventories of John McDaid’s Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse

931037-MJohn McDaid’s Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse is, as mentioned in the previous post, out of print and impossible to find used.  Therefore, scholars wanting to learn more about the work are forced to turn to secondary sources for  information.  Googling the title nets 32,300 hits, which seems a significant number that, at first glance, could shed light on the novel. In truth, it is really difficult to understand the breadth of McDaid’s genius through secondary sources without having access to a complete inventory of the contents of the box that constitutes the work, the art forms with which he experiments, and the media involved in the notion of Uncle Buddy as a “hypermedia novel”–and none of this information is readily found online.

At a time when works of electronic literature were packaged in slim folios of cardboard or vinyl, Uncle Buddys’ came in a box, a black one with silver lettering.  And because the boxes were purchased from a candy company, the publisher Mark Bernstein, according to McDaid, referred to Uncle Buddy’s box as “the chocolate box of death.”  The conceit upon which Uncle Buddy’s was built (Re:  you receive a box of seemingly random items from your Uncle Buddy’s estate) was derived seesfrom McDaid’s personal experience:  In 1986, the same year McDaid began work on Uncle Buddy’s, his dying Aunt Rita sent him a See’s candy box filled with odds and ends that constituted a portion of her “estate” she wished to give McDaid. It may be impossible to tell from this photo, but some of these contents included a 5 pound note from the Provincial Bank of Ireland, a calendar she used for remembering the  medicine she took each day, and a gift card.

ubpf-boxThe contents of Uncle Buddy’s box includes five floppies (or the later version, one CD); a booklet introducing you to the work with directions for how to get started (in the later version, the booklet is condensed into one small sheet); two audio cassettes of music; one letter from a publisher; and one set of page proofs of a science fiction short story.  While these items, like those in Aunt Rita’s box, may seem at first incongruent, they aren’t. Instead, all equally serve as elements comprising the narrative.  A case in point, the borrowed copy I have includes only four working cassettes, the booklet, and the publisher’s letter.  To access the work, one really needs to load the information on all five of the cassettes into a folder on the computer desktop for the work to function properly–four just won’t do.  The publisher’s letter makes no sense without the page proofs because without them, the reader is not clued into Uncle Buddy’s interest in science fiction or that the genre permeates the work.  Without the audio cassettes, the lyrics that make up part of the work are untethered and, more importantly, it also eliminates one of the media from the multimedia.

Additionally, Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse experiments with artistic forms and genres.  We find generative text, photography, hypertext fiction, musical lyrics, music, sound, images, animation, the multimedia book, and text driving a story that is all at once science fiction, mystery, game, farce, and children’s book.

ubpf-mediaIn a sense, Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse goes beyond even what Ted Nelson claims in  The Literary Machine (1987) literature to be:  a “system of interconnected writings.” McDaid’s literature, instead, includes a vast array of interconnected letters, email messages, tarot cards, riddles, conference program, journal (replete with essays), story story, book, screenplay, poster for a film festival, poetry, and, of course, code.  Also part of this imaginative world are audio cassettes, the system audio utilized in the narrative, a map, and photos and illustrations.  It is important to note that McDaid produced all of the writing and media himself, and the section of the work called Hyper Earth presages Google Earth, right down to naming the view from the street, the “street view.”

Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse is an opus and, I would add, a work of genius. It may very well be the first work of multimedia, and, along with William Gibson’s Agrippa, one of the first works of  electronic literature to come packaged in a box and augmented with additional media.  It may also be considered one of the first artists’ books of electronic literature. When I read this last paragraph, I am glad that Stuart Moulthrop wrote me on that August evening in 2012 from Santa Cruz where he was attending a workshop with Anne Balsamo, Tara McPherson, and other “DH folks” and invited me to join them all in a grant “to make video records of readings of early e-lit works.”  It has turned out to be considerably more than that.  As I mentioned in the previous post, we are contributing to the history of electronic literature, and part of that history is making others aware of the rich and complex works, like Uncle Buddy’s, that generated from the early digital literature of the late 20th century.



First Traversals Complete


Stuart Moulthrop traversing Victory Garden for the Pathfinders project

Pathfinders broke new ground this week with Stuart Moulthrop’s  “traversal” of Victory Garden.  The project, at its core, centers on digital preservation, specifically preservation of early digital works of the late 20th century.  This first round of works we are preserving includes four electronic literature novels––two of which were authored in Storyspace (Mouthrop’s Victory Garden, Jackson’s Patchwork Girl), one in Hypercard (McDaid’s Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse), and one with command line programming (Malloy’s Uncle Roger:  The Blue Notebook).   These works, for the most part, demand reader interaction in order for them to be fully realized, so preserving them does not simply mean we capture the nodes and lexias of Victory Garden, for example, but rather that we document the experience that readers have with the work.  To that end we have videotaped Moulthrop traversing his work on an mac-classicApple computer (as seen in the photo to the left) that readers in 1991 would have used when they themselves read the work.  This is what is meant by “breaking new ground”––the documentation of the experience of traversing his hypertext novel in the native environment––for even in  the interview with Lev Manovich published today in Rhizome Manovich expresses shock in “how little visual documentation of the key systems and software (Sketchpad, Xerox Parc’s Alto, first paint programs from late 1960s and 1970s) exists.” Obviously, we are on the right track with the project.


E-Lit artist David Kolb

By “traversal” we mean one passage through a work that is comprised of multiple layers and heaps (e.g. stacks, mounds, mass) of potentially contradictory narrative elements in which the reader is taken back to the beginning.  Using talk aloud protocol, Moulthrop traversed his work for 20 minutes for the camera––and for an audience of six people (David Kolb, author of Socrates in the Labyrinth, drove up from Eugene, OR to join faculty and students of the CMDC Program). The following day we invited two people unfamiliar with the work to traverse it: Pat Kutkey a computer science teacher from Frontier Middle School in the Evergreen School District in Vancouver, WA, and Sean Philbrook, a sophomore at WSU Vancouver.  We captured both reader’s traversal (also using talk aloud protocol) on video and, then, interviewed each (also videotaped).  Not surprising was that both men had little difficulty understanding how to move through the work. Kutkey’s experience with computing environments and Philbook’s with games and gaming systems led to the comfort and relative ease with which they worked through Victory Garden.

the team

Aaron and Dene preparing Stuart for his traversal

Our videographer Aaron Wintersong (a CMDC student who graduated this year) will collaborate with us on the video editing,  eventually combining it with the footage from the next three traversals.  Ultimately, all of this information will be made available as an AppBook that we are producing with  our Scalar consultant Will Luers.

We were fortunate that the Marketing and Communication department on our campus sent photographers to take photos during the two days of traversals.  Here is the archive of all of the photos.  We were also fortunate to have Morgan Hutchinson, a graduating senior from the CMDC program, liveblogging that day.

Here is a short video of Moulthrop talking about what it is like to go back to Victory Garden after two decades of its creation.  This clip comes from the interview that followed his traversal.  Grigar is conducting the interview videotaped by Hutchinson for our YouTube channel.