Wednesday, May 22

Web is abstract in way that books can’t link to


It’s no surprise that books, ordinarily comprised of words on paper, are now moving to the computer.

The personal screen is a place where students are authors, but also a place for reading social, cultural and academic information.

Katherine Hayles, professor of English and Design | Media Arts, researches the movement of books from traditionally written literature, to envelop code, image and nonlinear format, both on screen and in their pages.

Her most recent book, “Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary,” comes with a CD. This CD contains many examples of online literature that are interacting in new ways with the idea of a written work moved online.

The online book lends itself to an associative mind with hypertext, nonlinearity and the ability to execute multiple activities at a time.

Vannevar Bush argued in 1945 in an article called “As We May Think” that the mind thought in paths associations. The text outlines a machine called a memex, commonly cited as a predecessor to the Internet, as it shows a chain of associations similar to browsing a site like Wikipedia.

Linear associations are what we normally use in argumentative essays, with the “if a, then b” sort of relationship, and associative thinking is based on more nebulous associations, such as that apples remind me of my grandmother’s house, which reminds me of wind chimes.

“It seems to me that we have intensive training in linear thinking … (and) by the time someone gets into college she or he has already had 12 some years, at least, in intense linear thinking. I rather imagine that it’s some combination of association and linear thinking, but I do also think that there is a spectrum along which people fall,” Hayles said.

Her book focuses on the ways in which online literature is changing with new technology forms, which allow for nonchronological storytelling.

This type of associative thinking is also part of her teaching strategy, encompassing these practices, which are not only shifting literature, but also affecting collaborative effort in the classroom.

Hayles said she finds students are increasingly collaborative with regard to projects and writing, often having multiple conversations in online media, telephones and additionally engaging in multiple activities online at once.

“Writing is rapidly moving toward collaborative activity, and one approach to that is to regard such practices as illegitimate, because the students are offering help to their friend. I think that’s the wrong approach. I think instead, collaborative authorship should be made a part of the assignment,” Hayles said. “And to really take advantage of these new modalities and see what can be done with them. That I think is much more exciting.”

I, too, engage in collaborative writing, often bringing friends into the conversation about papers and columns I write and ideas, even at their nascent stage.

Zach Blas, a graduate student of Design | Media Arts who has worked with Hayles, said he finds the online community of media scholars effective in that they link to sources, allowing them to speed up research and truly function at the speed of digital media.

In a class with Hayles, he collaborated on a blog rather than turning in assignments.

Nick Kusnezov, a third-year bioengineering student, said he would prefer a more creative assignment for collaboration, though he said he does enjoy classroom-wide collaborative efforts on South Campus.

Hayles, who has worked on collaborative drafts herself, finds the process liberating, though a bit intimidating as the trade-off for more ideas is less control over your own work.

Her book talks about not the end of the book as a medium but rather a shifting conversation about the book. For her, the conversation between books and screens is a two-way street.

“It’s multifaceted, it affects design, for example, so we get screens that are designed to look like books and books that are designed to look like screens. We get books adopting the symbolic language, functioning in a different way than pages used to function,” Hayles said.

What does this mean about the future of the book, in an age of digital file copying, hyperlinking and potential for nonlinearity? It means that books aren’t going away for good, but they will be responding to digital media.

“I think the book has great potentialities. In some ways it’s far superior to electronic media: It’s backward compatible, it’s robust, it’s simple, it always works when you open it,” Hayles said with a laugh.

I must say, I read her book in print, which is still my preference, but then I looked her up on Wikipedia and somehow ended up at a page about aliens and outer space within a few links.

I guess there is something to this nonlinearity.

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