Hacking the word

June 11, 2013

A statement of intent, for Dazed Magazine:

The internet is made by hand, millions upon millions of words typed up and out, from every blog post, news report and status message, to every line of code which encodes, stores, arranges, transmits and displays them. It is a text, which needs very little help in generating new literatures. They flourish there, the read and the unread, even if much of the time we fail to notice them, or dismiss them as junk, word salad, vernaculars, unliteratures.

If we struggle with online literatures, it is because we struggle to understand the network itself. Writing about the network requires a literacy in technology itself – but like the telephone before it, the Internet feels like a profoundly anti-literary plot device – at least until we develop new and better modes of expression to describe it, and it’s affect on our lives. Literature’s inability to describe meaningfully the technologically augmented contemporary world in which we find ourselves seems to mirror our own. The dominant literary descriptor, and hence widely-held mental model, was William Gibson’s concept of “cyberspace”, which emerged from pre-networked models of popular computing such as video games. While the idea of cyberspace has proved useful for some time, it posits the digital realm as an elsewhere, a separate domain of experience, interaction and memory, with a clear frontier – which is contrary to our own experience. A planet-wide digital infrastructure; mobile devices; pervasive connectivity; social and private networks and other forms of communication; all point to a world in which the virtual intersects with the physical at every moment. This is what I mean by “the network” – not the internet, but us and the internet, interleaved with one another.

And so not only must our literatures reflect the ubiquity of the network, they must also account for its communality, and its computationality. Literatures produced by groups, by all of us, and literatures produced by the machines, and by us and the machines.

Fan fiction is the first native literary form of the network. It has existed for a long time, before the internet, but it finds its best home there, outwith the domains of copyright and fixed authorship rigorously enforced elsewhere. It seems native to the network because it embodies the network’s inherent disposition towards hacking and world-building, overlapping fictions which take from anywhere to generate new stories. It reproduces not only the characters of other fictions, but the concepts of the network itself, open sourced and widely distributed. When it delves deeper into other realms of technology and sexuality, into slash and posthumanism, it produces new operating commands for ourselves in a technologically-mediated world, new cyborg ways of being. The author, anonymous, escapes from view, becomes part of the landscape. Every networked text is a work of fan fiction, and a gateway to another text, a palimpsest of all networked texts which await our discovery, like Borges’ Library of Babel, an endless text awaiting interpretation.

Literary form and tradition is not all that remains to be hacked. The systems of production and distribution are more accessible to us, allowing for new hybrid forms, particularly in non-fiction and journalism, books which bleed out of the network in stages, gathered as firsthand reports on Twitter and BBM, coalescing into blogposts and essays, filtered by editors for online columns and opinion pieces, collected into temporary, unstable ebooks as time allows and slowly solidifying into paper books – which themselves might be revised many times, flipping back to digital, quoted and rewritten. This process, again, may not be entirely new, but it is newly visible, exposed by the network and thus more flexible, more amenable to irruption and reconfiguration.

And so much is generated by the network, by us and the machines. The rambling, fractured texts of the spambots are the siren argots of the internet, constantly crying out to be heard, to attract and seduce us. The machine speaks, machine to machine, deep in the hard codes of transfer protocols and on the surface in automated twitter feeds, robotic blog comments and broken emails – “Hello Dear how are you doing”, “I write to confess”, “I am pleasure to know you from Internet”, “I am romantic”, “How big do you want to get?”

And the machines help us to write too. Automated systems shore up, translate, edit, select and refine the raw text we feed into the frameworks that come to dominate our discourse. An army of bots patrol Wikipedia, correcting and annotating our sloppy information, helping us to understand it, shaping how we will understand the future world in which we’re already living. Companies sell automated writing services which chew up raw data and spit out textured narratives for financial services, which are read in turn by other bots, and acted upon as fast-moving stock trades, their high-frequency instructions like the birdsong background to our conversations. Other systems, like Google Poetics and Times Haiku, mine our words and interactions for new seeds of composition (“please say / please say something / please say yes / please say I do”). And in turn, the stylists of Weird Twitter and the Tumblr poetry scene seem at times almost to ventriloquise the machines themselves, in an attempt to understand them.

Our attitude to technology, particularly in literary circles, has for far too long been exclusionary and oppositional, envisioning some kind of battle between the “natural” world of human expression and the “unnatural” chattering of the machines. There have been excellent attempts to breach this divide, in the imaginings of science fiction; the coruscating; spam-filled prose of Stewart Home; Kenneth Goldsmith’s “Uncreative Writing”; the spasming code of Kenji Siratori; and many more. But the true literatures of the network will emerge when we abandon notions of the single-authored work, when we abandon authority entirely, when we write in machine argots and programmatic codes, when we listen to the bots and collaborate with them, when we truly begin to understand, and describe, the technologically-saturated culture we are already living in.

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