Archeology of the Present

This talk delivered Australian Literature Board’s “Story of the Future“ event held on 26 Feb 2007, Adelaide.

At times of great change, when the ground underneath your feet loosens and faces around you seem strange, some crush their eyelids together and bide their time until the new landscape fully surrounds them, and some yearn for the familiar. Retrospection is a privileged place, a calm place. The benefits of retrospection, however, can sometimes be simulated with a little shift of perspective. It is for this reason that rather than describe the changing technological and cultural landscape affecting us at present, I will describe them from the perspective of a future archaeologist. Indulge me, therefore, with a roleplay of a lecture from the future.


Today, as part of our series of lectures on ancient cultures, we’re looking at the changes to writers in the period 1997 to 2007. First, let us begin with an analysis of their tools.

The computer and the Internet had a massive effect on writers during this time. As a production tool, it made drafting a whole lot easier. They thought at the time that the digital medium would dispel all need for paper, but instead found that paper output had increased. This was due to a few factors, two of which were the increase of text production that the tool facilitated and the other was the realization that many have a preference for reading from paper rather than a screen.

The digital text was also a mutable one. A form they were not familiar with. Previously, when writers created a work it reached a point of completion, well, not many felt their work was ever complete, but the form it took, a book, film or television show, was fixed. It was locked off and then distributed to the consumer. With digital media and networked technologies such as the ‘Internet’, their work could be updated. A story on a website, for instance, could be changed by the author long after its initial publication. This was liberating for some, but also contributed to the instability of the text. A work was ongoing, unending. Instead of revisiting a page, readers experienced sessions with a text that was transient and intangible. Not only did the text never end, but the boundaries of it were unclear. There was no book cover, picture frame or credits at the end of a show. Just where did one work start and another finish?

Audiences couldn’t ‘own’ an intangible text like they could before, they could only access it for a period of time. What they did have control of though, was time. They preferred all forms of entertainment to be accessible 24 hours a day, on demand. This expectation of unimpeded access was facilitated by the Internet. Audiences had formed communities around common interests. But producers persisted in rolling out distribution according to location. These communities were split then, into those that could access their beloved text and those that couldn’t. Illegal means to procure these shows helped people gather what they thought they had the right to. The notion of what they termed ‘ownership’ was revised, indeed wrestled with, during this period.

The digital form facilitated an ease of reproduction in almost exact form. They called it repurposing and sometimes porting. They could deliver a TV show, for instance, on television and also on the Internet and on device called an “iPod”. Viewing the same information on different platforms heightened their awareness of the characteristics of each platform. These mediums affected the experience of the text, and so authors and technologists (who were sometimes the same person) investigated what was the appropriate content to each medium. They asked questions like: Just what is different about words on paper and words on a back-lit screen? How long can one read or watch for on a large screen, medium sized screen and small screen? How many words should be included in each? What images suit which screen and…what stories?

I will note here that previously the creator of ideas was not necessarily versed in the mode of production as well. They had to understand how it would look in a book, how the words would sound from an actors mouth or how the character would look on the screen, but they did not have to know how to make these things. Digital technology forced many writers to become adept at a technology that was simultaneously a production, publication and distribution technology. It also had its own language: code. There were some writers who started to express using that foreign language. You may recognize this artform as being the first hint towards the human-machine language that we are all very familiar with now.

The Holy Grail of Interactive Narrative was a story that could be read in any order, as chosen by the reader, which they called a ‘user’, wreader, interactor, player, gamer and so on. The ultimate aim, at that time, was to create a story that could be read in any order. This was a challenge because the dominant narrative form up until then was plot: which is a relationship between events that was linear: it was cause and effect. A non-linear text, they thought, was either devoid of cause and effect or could represent all causes and all effects in the one node.

Previously, the notion of transportation, of being transported to a fictional realm, had been facilitated through rhetorical devices in books and the cinema. The writer’s aim was to make readers and viewers feel that they had been picked up and dropped into the world of the book or screen. This pulling into reached a zenith point when the reader could suddenly share the same digital real estate as the characters. Virtual reality technology gave people a body, an avatar, that represented their self in a pixilated world where they could talk to artificial characters driven by artificial intelligence programs, or other people. They could go to the character’s home.

Now these readers weren’t just fantasizing about being there, they shared the same representative space, were co-tenants in virtual worlds and had to choose suddenly, how to act. These actions, too, had consequences, that affected the world. Janet H. Murray, an ancient scribe, spoke of “Hamlets on the Holodeck” and how software could progress so far that people could interact with characters that were run with artificial intelligence programs. These characters without strings were an interest to many writers in that time. For them, all possible reactions of characters had to be scripted. And then, not just the dialogue, but the moods and facial expressions. But this wasn’t enough, writers couldn’t trust these new beings to their beloved story. So they created drama managers that were omniscient beings that existing 24 hours in these virtual worlds, to watch over these synthetic actors and ensure they didn’t stray from the original vision.

Parallel to this technological immersion was the employment of everyday devices and technologies for storytelling. Writers started using web diaries, blogs, to create blogfiction, wikis to create wikifiction, email, SMS and so on. Characters emailed readers and conversed via SMS. Audiences loved this because the storyworld was reaching out to them. Storytelling wasn’t about being transported to a fictional world, it was about having a fictional world enter their real life. There was a growing preference for some to experience fiction in a non-fiction manner. The tropes of epistolary fiction from previous ages reached their zenith in this age, as writing exploded in many forms, all masquerading as ‘real’ texts, by real authors, with real lives. Fictional corporations had their own websites. They looked exactly the same as a real life website and that is how audiences wanted it. The imaginary and the real rubbed shoulders, united by their relative constructions.

Also, people wanted to ‘play’ more. Games became a constant in all forms of entertainment. Videogames overtook the film industry. Rather than try and figure out whodunit, gamers were more interested in being the one whodunit, or helping prevent it being done in the first place. They reveled in fantasy worlds where they could lead battles, fly jet planes, strategise whole nations and kill Orcs. They played against intelligent programs that were programmed by a new generation of writers who wrote settings, rules, missions and dialogue rather than storylines. They withdrew from the story bit by bit and slowly started creating worlds where anything could happen. Authors and players shared the same desire to enter a space where effects could not always be predicted. They wanted to see what would emerge, what could be given birth.

Suddenly the audience could share the same stage as the writers. This scared many writers as they saw it was a challenge to the artform. Stories, up until then, had existed as an expression of a single voice, a single author. But now readers could comment and contribute. It is at this stage that some writers become aware of different ways a reader could contribute without affecting a carefully crafted narrative. Instead, they were offered a role with specific tasks to complete. The reader was not a fellow writer but an obliging actor.

Writers and publishers started to listen to such claims because traditional artforms seemed to dwindle. Sales of novels and film and television audiences were decreasing in some areas. There were a few theories put forward to explain this phenomenon. Some argued that the quality of the works published was not up to scratch; others that the works were up to scratch but the audiences were afflicted with a degenerating disease of banality. Other theories looked at the media, not the content. The new medium of the computer, particularly the Internet, some argued was preferred over the ‘old’ mediums. The book is dead they cried, soon to be sharing a tomb with cinema and television.

A theorist and writer of the times, Umberto Eco, observed in 1996 that these fatalistic notions are echoes from the past: ‘The idea that something will kill something else is a very ancient one, and came certainly before Hugo and before the late medieval fears of Frollo.” (1996, 296).

Rather than and either-or paradigm, writing forms became inclusive of all forms. Writers were versed in many forms or worked in teams to create multi-platform experiences. Indeed, what emerged at this time was another form of story: one that began in one medium and persisted in another. Audiences flocked to these forms, they followed stories across mediums. This exploded the story into a World paradigm. Writers created worlds that could be accessed in any media form, not a single story and not for a single medium. Consumption patterns at the time showed that audiences were purchasing products that were from a familiar property. The author, arts type and medium became less and less important. It was the Death of the Author and Birth of the World.

To illustrate these ideas, I have put together a selection of creative works over this period of 1997 to 2007. A period that saw the shift from the Digital Age to the Age of Cross-Media Production.

In 1997 Mark Amerika published a massive hypertextual work called Grammatron
It was described by Time-Warner as

“A colossal hypertext hydrogen bomb dropped on the literary landscape…”

And by MSNBC as:
“A rollercoaster ride through textspace…click to enter GRAMMATRON and
you’re pulled into a machine eye’s view of both storytelling and story theory…intense.”

1997: NBC TV series Homicide: Life on the Street is augmented with a specially created website. When the detectives on the broadcast show clocked off, the second shift detectives took over, on the Net.

And then, in 1999, viewers of the NBC television show Homicide: Life on the Street, were treated to a special “crossover episode”. On the 3rd and 4th of February, the Second Shift detectives on the Internet started investigating a webcast killing and then deemed it a dead end and closed it. On the 5th Feb the detectives on the television show reopened the case in their television episode called And then on 12th and 19th of Feb, the net detectives took over and it concluded the case online.

In 2001 corporations Microsoft and Dreamworks’ commissioned The Beast. The story was not founding any book or DVD. Instead, it was distributed across hundreds of websites, emails, faxes, files, accessible only after players worked together to solve complex puzzles. The Beast was commissioned to publicise Stephen Speilberg’s film A.I: Artificial Intelligence but ended up being described by Internet Life magazine as the ‘Citizen Kane of online entertainment’. It was played by over 3 million people all over the world and cemented a new form of entertainment, called Alternate Reality Gaming.

The Wachoswki Bros. Matrix universe continued, with a narrative that traversed media platforms in a special way. In the 2003 short anime, ‘The Last Flight of Osiris’, the character Jue and her crew discover the machines are boring to Zion. In the anime she just manages to post a letter warning the Nebuchadnezzar crew of this impending danger. In the 2003 videogame, Enter the Matrix, the first mission for the player is to retrieve the letter from the post office. And then finally, at the beginning of the second film, The Matrix Reloaded, Niobe (who is one of two characters in the game) reports on the “last transmissions of the Osiris”. The transmissions posted in the anime and retrieved by the players in the videogame.

And in Australia, 2003, Fat Cow Motel launched on ABC TV and online. Audiences could follow the mystery of the town, read the town newspaper, watch as the characters interact with each other and actually interact with them. Audiences solved puzzles and worked to solve the mystery before the end of the series. The site was the ABC’s most visited.

In 2004, electronic literature writers Nick Montfort and Scott Rettberg published their work Implementation. Implementation is a novel in 238 paragraphs that is distributed on stickers for anyone to stick on poles, walls and fences around the world. And people did. The paragraph stickers were found in Paris, New York, Amsterdam, Tokyo and photos of them on sites across cyberspace: the main website and site they called “flickr” for instance.

Also in 2004, a videogame, Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords was released. Developed by Obsidian Entertainment, it provided a complex tale in which the player goes through a process of self-discovery where their actions have immense consequences and cause the player to question themselves and their companions.

In 2005, Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern published Façade. It was described by the writer/programmers as “an artificial intelligence-based art/research experiment in electronic narrative – an attempt to move beyond traditional branching or hyper-linked narrative to create a fully-realized, one-act interactive drama.” Players or co-conspirators of this experiment enter the house of married couple Grace and Trip, only to find they are on the brink of breaking up. You converse with them and either make the situation better, worse or really bad.

Also in 2005, Cory Doctorow’s book Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is published. Doctorow launches the book inside a virtual world, Second Life. The book is available for sale in hardcopy, but is also for free in just about every format imaginable – as created by himself and fans. It is available, for instance, as a Word document, webpage, every ebook format, pocket PC, RSS feed, for reading on an iPod, mobile phone and even a watch.

This same year, 2005, a different kind of what they termed a “tie-in” was implemented. A character in a US television series, One Life to Live, Marcie Walsh, starting writing a novel about her past memories. The novel, The Killing Club, is a mystery about how a group of friends wrote down how they would like to murder people didn’t like in a Death Book. Then the murders start happening and an investigation ensues. In February 2005, Marcie Walsh launches the book in the TV series and it is simultaneously published in real life by Hyperion Books. The book made The New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-seller lists.

In 2006, Sony PlayStation launched 24: The Game. The game bridges the narrative between seasons 2 and 3 of Fox’s 24 television series. The same characters, actors and writers from the series are used in the game. Another series that continues the narrative for 24 had also previously played out in mobisodes – episodes for mobile phones.

On February 1st 2007, Penguin UK and De Montfort University launched a massive wiki novel experiment. A “wiki” was the name given to a website that allowed anyone to edit it, whilst also recording all the changes. The wiki novel was called A Million Penguins, and the motivation for it was described as follows:

“The buzz these days is all about the network, the small pieces loosely joined. About how the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. About how working together and joining the dots serves the greater good and benefits our collective endeavours. […] But what about the novel? Can a collective create a believable fictional voice? How does a plot find any sort of coherent trajectory when different people have a different idea about how a story should end – or even begin?”

They had over quarter of a million page views and thousands of edits. The massive wiki novel was published as an “ebook” not soon after the editing period finished on March 7th.

As you can see, there was a lot of experimentation during the period of 1997-2007, much of which I have not covered today. The period saw an unprecedented explosion of media and art forms with which writers could use to express with. Readers and audiences were equally engaging in a variety of entertainment experiences. The choices for writers during this period, therefore, was almost boundless. I was unable to find any chart that lists all the options for writers during this period, so I have created one, a reverse engineering based on the artefacts unearthed and unzipped.


Despite all these options, not all writers knew about them, knew how to adopt them as an expressive medium, knew who could help them, or who to work with. Traditional publishers were in a crisis, they were unsure what audiences wanted or how to market and distribute to them. There was an overwhelming feeling that something had to budge. There could be something that makes sense of all these factors, that binds the new and the old together…that could be the birth of new forms of literature, of entertainment that are not just remediations of old. It was then that the Australian Literature Board pulled up their sleeves and took on a midwife role to help birth the Story of the Future. And now we teleport back to that time, to this time. We have front-row seats to this event. But not only front-row seats, all of you are invited to participate and help shape the story, or I should say, stories of the future. What Happens Next is truly in our hands. Thankyou.