There is no question but that the transition from the culture of the book to the culture of electronic communication will radically alter the ways in which we use language on every societal level. The complexity and distinctiveness of spoken and written expression, which are deeply bound to traditions of print literacy, will gradually be replaced by a more telegraphic sort of "plainspeak." Syntactic masonry is already a dying art.
The richness, complexity, and nuance Birkerts attributes to the traditions of print literacy are not lost in digital spaces, but rather communicated through means beyond writing. Hypertext arms authors with the ability to break the linear rules of print literature, easily incorpoate dyanmic visual elements, and explore new ways of combining them. Written language is not eroding, it's evolving. Syntactic masonry isn't dying, we're just working with different syntax.
"While poetry has been long limited to physical media -- from tablets and parchment to books and magazines -- digital publishing platforms have obliterated such constraints, adding the modalities of light and sound to the traditional combination of words and white space to this medium of human expression" Heick, 2012
Sure, Sven Birkerts thinks society is doomed to crumble as it transitions from a writing space to a digital one. However, it's been almost 25 years since Into the Electronic Millenium, and now there's a greater pool of data and more research to build from.
Birkerts wasn't completely off base- studies have found that the non-linear, "scanning" method of reading in digital spaces has affected how we try to engage with other mediums. "The brain was not designed for reading. There are no genes for reading like there are for language or vision. But spurred by the emergence of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Phoenician alphabet, Chinese paper and, finally, the Gutenberg press, the brain has adapted to read," Michael Rosenwald wrote in the Washington Post. In a time of rapid technological adaptation, brains- not to be outdone- have rapidly adapted themselves in turn. As we spend more time reading in digital spaces, we become more fluent in non-linear, multimedia reading. Certainly, I have to agree that spending less time critically reading written text would result in a lesser grasp of the finer nuances involved with it.
Is that truly a problem, though? Is it truly a devolution of our communicative abilties? Long has literacy been connected to intelligence, and perhaps that connection isn't the problem, but instead how we define literacy. In 2017, UNESCO shifted their focus toward the future of literacy in the digital age, examining how digital tools are influencing literacy in today's world. UNSECO Director-General Irina Bokova said, "Traditionally, literacy has been considered a set of reading, writing and counting skills. The digital world calls for new, higher-level, competences on top of these." With so many new ways to construct and exchange meaning, our current ways of defining literacy ignores how we communicate in the spaces we occupy most often.
When you consider the nuances of each individual medium available in digital spaces, as well as the complexities of the relationship between each when they mingle, co-exist, or flat-out collide, no sane person could say the abilty to dig deeper into human expression is lessened with more opportunity. Sorry, Sven.
What I found most interesting, and perhaps most telling when researching this question, was how long we've been pushing the envelope. E.E. Cummings bucked the formal conventions of poetry in the early 1900's, playing with typography and whitespace (technologies of their time) to deepen the means of conveying meaning. Dadaists, Futurists.. the last century was filled with minds who understood that there is more to be said and more ways to say it. The idea of digital poetry, concrete poetry, dynamic and non-linear poetry has been long in the making, a natural progression of artistic expression. Even the first truly digital, computer generated poem arrived on the scene as early as 1959. The world of electronic literature and digital poetry is already vast, despite is relative novelty, and we cannot ignore the analog authors who dreamed digital dreams through static mediums.
I think my project opponent, Mr. Birkerts, outlined what we stand to lose as our literacy evolves. Rather than read theory, I wanted to see and explore first-hand what was lost when print poetry was adapted to digital. My fiance, Tyler Brumfield, is a poet, and although he has been published in individual journals and magazines, he doesn't have a collection of his own. To research my ideas further, we planned and executed the creation of a small digital poetry book to find out first-hand what would be lost (or gained!) in the process.
Tyler's poetry is heavily inspired those that paved the way for digital poetry, such as E.E. Cummings. Paying careful attention to spacing and alignment, he tried to capture the essence of motion and the fluidity of ideas through formatting- perfect for adapting to hypertext.
"No matter the medium––orality, writing, print, electronic, mobile––give an artist something, anything, to create with––air, animal skin, paper, computer screen––and she or he will find a way to use it for making art. This impulse is, after all, a feature of our humanity." Grigar, 2013
One of the earliest questions we were faced with was how much of Tyler's voice to we want to preserve in this adaptation? While our initial thoughts was "all of it!", but we quickly realized that would be simply publishing the book digitally, offering no real affordances of it being digitized at all. So much of Tyler's voice as an author is in his form. The way he played with formatting, material, and other analog elements around him became part of his identity as a writer. As soon as we started stripping those things away, that identity was being stripped away as well.
That being said, the WRITING itself remained intact and whole. Even stripped down, the use of language remained unaltered, and it rang dinstinctly Tyler. The ability to break the poem up and add visual elements also provided him with more power than he had imagined as an author. Instead of being limited by the conventions of print literacy, we were armed with not one or two, but numerous methods of communicating his ideas. While losing much of his voice seemed inevitable, he felt he had greater controls and means to effectively get his message across.
The other interesting obstacle we ran into early on was my voice. Being that I wrote the code, determined how the writing would be presented, and helped Tyler better understand the visual possibilities, my "fingerprints" were all over the project. It became just as much my interpretation and expression of his work as it was his own, if not more. In this work of writing, visual communication, and hypertext, I was responsible for two of three of those elements.
It surprised us how much we found ourselves talking about movies and music videos. Perhaps it shouldn't- the book is even called A Fatal Vignette, a concept that easily floats between poetry and cinema. We easily could have remediated the poems into videos, had the project gone that way. Instead, we found ourselves spending more time on timing, transitions, and pacing then any other aspect of the book. In the absence of traditional formatting to guide the reader, we relied on timed animations of the text. How often they changed, when and where the appear, dynamic effects on certain words, and the speed all worked with specific purpose- to guide and pace the reader, and to set an atmosphere on the page.
Color design played another big role in how the message was crafted. His poetry often involves dark, wild imagery that when coupled with his poetric writing, sets a distinct mood. While that remained unchanged in the adaptation, we were also presenting this is a now visual space where even a blank canvas has associated meaning. For that reason, we needed to make sure that we crafted an appropiate atmosphere on the page, and color was instrumental in this case. Dark, romantic, powerful- black and red. That meant we were very wary about the heavy use of images. While we were intially really excited about the possibilities it offered, we found that how we were employing them worked against the poetry, instead of with it. Where there had once been subtly and nuance, now we were bludgeoning people over the head with the message. Basically, we became very aware at our ability to amplify certain aspects of the poem by highlighting it through various mediums. This was a powerful tool, but also one I think we may not have used with the most grace. Dark imagery in the writing, dark colors, moody images... OKAY, WE GET IT, YOU'RE DARK.
Interestingly, the vast majority of the visual elements were things that, in theory, he could have already been using in his work. Typography, layout, color, and imagery played an equally important role in print as it does on the web. Of course, since the medium is the message, how those principles affect the message changes with the medium. While it made sense for us to create a visually stimulating space on the web, it didn't accomplish the same goals when Tyler put his ideas to paper. In fact, he played with the same elements but intentionally took them in different directions. It seems painfully obvious, but typography in hypertext plays a different role than typography in print.
Hypertext was likely our most underused aspect of the entire project, which is interesting, considering it is presented in hypertext. The page's design is heavily influenced by print books, as it has a cover, preface, and navigation (or table of contents) that is presented to the reader linearly. From there, one can explore the poems in whatever order, but when you consider the larger possibilities of what hypertext has to offer, we didn't even scratch the surface.
In my exploration of digital poetry, non-linear narratives are a cornerstone. Having the ability to use hyperlinks to allow the reader to virtually traverse their way through a piece of literature add yet another of syntax for the author to work with. How a person experiences the content on the page- how they are guided from each screen to the next, how they can trigger different events and outcomes- all have their own ways to conveying ideas and information. This was a step we decided not to explore in greater depth for a couple of reassons. The first, UX/UI is still so new that neither Tyler or I felt as "fluent" in those ways of communicating as we did with writing and visual elements. The second, hypertext felt like it had the potentional to have the greatest effect on the message of the original writing. In our effort to still keep as much of Tyler in there as possible, we avoided seeing how far that rabbit hole went.
"As conventional jobs are diminishing and new jobs are emerging, we cannot and should not continue to evaluate literacy and learning as before. New emerging jobs will require new skills, and education should be pushing forward rather than trying to regain something that existed previously." Reynard, 2017
As today's digital storytellers, we have a unique responsibility to how messages are being crafted and presented. With the tremendous speed at which things are evolving, each new media object we put out to the world becomes a part of our culture's new literacy. Every website, every blog post, every YouTube video, every app. When we are aware of how our choices in writing and creating influence our message, we become more effective members of our community. When we appreciate the complexities of each new medium, as well as their combinations, we become more effective at using them.
The ability to powerfully combine writing, visual communication, and hypertext into a single experience is only one of the many storytelling opportunities available to us in digital spaces. It's one, however, that I believe carries a unique combination of media and interacitivty that is difficult to find anywhere else. Instead of working within the confines of convention, web spaces are a conventional playground.