My interest in attempting this overview of the 'state of the art' of digital writing is to provide a starting place for those new to the field (as readers or writers) to explore what has excited and inspired so many people in the 10 years that trAce has existed as a community.
But before we start, let me be honest: attempting to summarise a field as heterogeneous and inventive as digital writing is foolhardy, at best. The variety of personalities and approaches cannot be glossed into one idea of what digital writing 'is', and the terminology, like the field, is still developing quickly and in a number of directions. As Sarah Boland responded, "it's difficult to describe digital / new media writing as its in a constant state of flux".
What is digital writing?
That being said, the writers I talked to were largely in agreement, digital writing can be described as:
"Any writing that requires a computer to access it." (JodiAnn Stevenson)
"Creative writing that uses digital tools/software as an integral part of its conception and delivery." (Catherine Byron)
"... writing which, at minimum, would be diminished if it were presented in a non-digital format, and at best, which is effectively untranslatable out of the digital format." (Dan Waber)
Despite their natural reticence to categorise work into genres, it is also apparent that for many writers there are useful divisions within the broad umbrella term 'digital writing', despite these terms also being in flux:
"Collaborative/participatory writing, Hypertext writing, Improvisatory 'real time' writing, New media writing (i.e multimedia authorship), Code poetry and programmatic writing, Online role playing, Journal writing/'blogging', International community building, E-learning, Game playing ..." (Tim Wright)
How has digital writing changed in the last 5-10 years?
Unsurprisingly, the biggest change noted by the writers was in the nature of the technology used to create, distribute and display the work. First and foremost is the internet, which has permitted writers to distribute their work relatively cheaply to an audience around the world, as well as create live or collaborative narratives:
"Before about 1994, digital writing projects were disk based and single-user. Now they are often client-server based and multi-player. Big shift." (Tim Wright)
"The impact of programs such as Macromedia Flash and Director has resulted in the creation of multi-disciplinary works, which are perhaps better described as audio-visual experiences rather than being considered as strictly writing." (Alison Clifford)
The increasing speed of the internet was also noted by a number of writers:
"With increased bandwidth, there are increased opportunities - it's a lot easier to work with large-scale images, video, and so forth." (Alan Sondheim)
"The greatest change is the speed of broadband/ADSL plus the size of files that can be uploaded/downloaded. Its only going to get faster and slicker which opens up a new can of worms everyday" (Sarah Boland)
But a word of caution:
"It has most changed in something of an atavistic attraction to change itself, and especially technological change, as its subject." (Michael Joyce)
How will digital writing change in the next 10 years?
There is clearly still great excitement about the potential of the medium for digital writing and art:
"Ten years from now bandwidth and storage constraints might be completely gone. Video will be high definition, organic memory will make personally storing terabytes of information an unremarkable thing ... Personally, I hope in 10 years wearable computers and displays will be ubiquitous, that internet access will be extended to every portion of the planet that is currently without it, that the semantic web will have arrived." (Dan Waber)
"Mobile, wearables and other location aware technologies are going to have a major impact on digital writing in the coming years." (Tim Wright)
"In the next 10 years (if not much much sooner), it seems like it will be commonplace to access digital writing on handheld equipment rather than on a laptop or pc" (JodiAnn Stevenson)
"Words will have less of a part to play in digital arts over the next 10 years. We will see more animated images, video and sound-experiments" (Simon Harris)
"Stories may automatically orchestrate how we read (via programming) rather than us choosing how we read. For example, a persons web browser may read that persons browser habits and organize bookmarks/links automatically. Digital / new media could also incorporate adaptive software so that no person would experience the exact same story. How cool would that be!" (Sarah Boland)
Of course not all the changes may be positive. As Gavin Stewart points out:
"A lot of projects are going to routinely involve sound, video, hard core programming, which in turn means that they will be made by tightly budgeted production teams ... I, therefore, expect to see much of the art form being hit by the halitosis of capitalism and developing along the lines of the film industry; developing big prestigious projects such as games and corporate sites."
What are your favourite aspects of digital writing?
The most common response to this question was well summarised by Simon Harris:
"the freedom for experimentation that is commonplace on the Internet".
"I like to think of it as a totally new place... where one can experience freedom of form and from the boundaries now imposed." (Michael E. Crawford)
"My favorite aspect is the fusion it represents of all previous media. With web art the limits are currently the limits of my imagination, and I have every expectation that within my lifetime even that barrier will fall." (Dan Waber)
"Perhaps the most positive aspect of digital writing has come from the need to re-think writing and how stories are told. Digital writing requires us to think of multiple possibilities and interpretations of events throughout the narrative and perhaps it encourages a more comprehensive way of thinking about the story as a result." (Alison Clifford)
"I love the lack of hierarchy in well-designed, wisely moderated digital spaces - spaces where everyone can create stuff, have their say, scream and shout, behave badly, behave well etc. Where I can find it, I love the lack of self appointed editors and the censorship of conservative cultural elites. I love the conversations and the clashes - the collaborations" (Tim Wright)
What are your least favourite aspects of digital writing?
Almost all the writers mentioned the unreliability of the hardware and software they use to create and display their work:
"Computer crashes" (Sarah Boland)
"The biggest one has to be technical glitches, cross-platform problems, obsolesence, all that side of things." (Kate Pullinger)
"Technical problems that impede access." (Liz Swift)
"The unreliability of Windows and the amount of tedious housekeeping I'm forced to do in order to combat spam and viruses and to keep myself online in a healthy speedy way." (Tim Wright)
"The lack of cross-platform consistency. " (Dan Waber)
"The tedium of @$#%$# I have to change 1,000 lines of code, or adjust 1,000 images because I have revisioned the piece." (Deena Larson)
Also mentioned is writing that fails to engage with the medium and/or the audience:
"... instead opting for a direct translation of the story from page to screen in the quickest, easiest and most obvious way possible." (Alison Clifford)
"Work that sets up a hierarchical relationship with the reader/user - the author having authority over the work, the user struggling to access and become part of the world of the author. " (Liz Swift)
"Hypertext links = the illusion of reader choice, but the loss of readerly 'immersion'." (Catherine Byron)
Finally, there are issues with the culture and practice of digital writing. Echoing Michael Joyce's concern about the "atavistic attraction to change itself", for Gavin Stewart:
"My least favourite thing about New Media is the hyperbole. Everything, it seems, has to be ground-breaking, fantastic, exciting, innovative and novel etc. all the time! This means that it produces a hard climate in which to conduct a practice that investigates an aesthetic over an extended period of time"
"I'd like to see more series, more extended meditations on some specific potentiality... more criticism of digital writing, which would hopefully lead to more widespread understanding and acceptance of digital writing, and lastly, I'd like to see more individuals and organizations concerned with long term archiving and storage and conversion of digital writing so less gets lost to progress." (Dan Waber)
"I find the archiving aspects of NM writing rather distressing." (Catherine Byron)
"The fact that almost anyone can engage in it is what I love and hate." (JodiAnn Stevenson)
How could digital writing be better promoted to those outside the field?
This question provoked a number of strong responses. Whilst many of the writers saw schools and universities as an obvious place where an increased interest in digital writing could be fostered, a number of American writers were concerned whether promotion was a good thing to be chasing at all:
"Well, one question would be, why promote it? What's the point of that? ... perhaps there's just the right amount of promotion right now. People will find digital work if they're interested and online.." (Alan Sondheim)
"I'm not entirely convinced it can be, or that it should be. Speaking as an American with some small exposure to other countries, I can say that here, in America, what's needed is far more drastic. The bulk of American society doesn't have an appreciation for Art in general, let alone for digital writing or web art." (Dan Waber)
"I fear these words--promote, outside, and field, and perhaps even the word, better--which seem not the vocabulary of an art but one of infotainment and commerce." (Michael Joyce)
Similarly for JodiAnn Stevenson, the fear is that while "academic programs that study/teach/engage in digital writing" could be a good thing, they might "inevitably lead to mass-marketing, academic-dumbing-down, and censorship."
European writers instead tended to emphasise the need for projects that actively engage the public:
"I think that this is best tackled through grassroots work... at the moment it is often perceived as being an elitist, academic interest! Similarly, the art side of things needs to get out of the gallery and on to the streets through activist projects that do more than just contemplate the state of the Internet" (Gavin Stewart)
"I would like to see digital art forms attempt to reach the public in accessible ways. Probably the best way to do this is to engage non-digital art-forms with digital art-forms. I would also like to see a broadening of practitioners to balance academics with imaginative artists (both "popular" and "serious") and creative professionals. I believe that academic or difficult artistic, digital works tend to alienate the public. A variety of practitioners from differing backgrounds should help to engage the public." (Simon Harris)
"A really really terrific work needs to be produced, something that generates excitement and discussion and that everyone wants to see." (Kate Pullinger)
What is your favourite piece of new media writing?
This proved to be another controversial question, as several writers (very fairly) pointed out that the very idea of 'favourites' is problematic: it suggests the ephemeral populism that capitalism thrives on, and may encourage the development of a dubious canon of individuals and works, stifling work from writers who are less well known or who are without access to the larger nodes of distribution, for example due to language barriers.
Nevertheless, readers who explore the links will see at least the sheer variety of work that can be termed 'digital writing'. For writers actively involved in the production of digital work, they are representative of the breadth and quality of contemporary digital writing, and viewing them will explain much more than can be articulated here. As there is not ample space to describe the reasons why the works below were singled out, they are simply presented here in alphabetical order, and it is left up to the reader to discover why they might be worthy of mention in this brief and incomplete snapshot of 'the state of the art':
Arteroids by Jim Andrews:
The Assoziations-Blaster by Alvar C.H. Freude and Dragan Espenschied:
Chasm by Dave Jones, the games lounge:
Diffractions through ... by Jim Rosenberg:
Endless Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Charlie Kaufman, Michael Gondry et. al.:
FILMTEXT by Mark Amerika:
The Following Phrases by Braxton Soderman:
Freweini and Akbeh by elen gebreab:
Grammatron by Mark Amerika:
Him by Dane:
layzaytays by Andrea Morris:
Lexia to Perplexia by Talan Memmott:
Light has no Tongue by Lewis LaCook:
(currently offline, see http://www.lewislacook.com for updates)
Nio by Jim Andrews:
On Lionel Kearns by Jim Andrews:
Passagen by Sören Lachnit:
Pas au-delà by Matt Christie:
Persephassa by Roxanne Carter:
Phantasma by Wiener and Hentschläger:
Poetrica by Giselle Beiguelman:
Reach, a fiction by Michael Joyce:
Sister Stories by Michael Joyce, Rosemary Joyce and Carolyn Guyer:
Somnambules by Nicolas Clauss, Jean-Jacques Birge and Didier Silhol:
TextArc by W. Bradford Paley:
The Barrier Frames ... by Jim Rosenberg:
The Book After The Book by Giselle Beiguelman:
The Breathing Wall by Kate Pullinger, Stefan Schemat and babel:
Things Spoken by Agnes Hegedüs:
Videopoetics by Amar Ravva:
Chris Joseph is a digital writer and artist, editor of the post-dada magazine 391.org and author of babel. He would like to thank all of the writers who contributed to this survey:
Marcus Bastos - http://www.imagemlinguagem.com.br
Sarah Boland - http://www.bumble.com.au
Catherine Byron - http://homepage.ntlworld.com/cbyron
Alison Clifford - http://www.iua.upf.es/~aclifford
Michael E. Crawford - http://groups.msn.com/bannedfromthepunts
Simon Harris - http://www.simonsnewmedia.com
Michael Joyce - http://faculty.vassar.edu/mijoyce
Deena Larson - http://www.chisp.net/~textra/,
Joerg Piringer - http://joerg.piringer.net
Kate Pullinger - http://www.katepullinger.com
Alan Sondheim - http://www.anu.edu.au/english/internet_txt/,
JodiAnn Stevenson - http://www.bowlofmilk.com
Gavin Stewart - http://www.gavinstewart.net
Liz Swift - http://www.voidprojects.co.uk
Dan Waber - http://vispo.com/guests/DanWaber, http://nonfinito.de/oh
Tim Wright - http://www.xpt.com, http://www.oldton.com
Writers for the Future: