Category Archives: Sociopolitical issues

Poetics of electronic writing

An executable code poem by GreyLau

One of the questions that motivated me while I was working on my master’s degree was the differences between handwriting, printing and digital writing. Dennis Tenen’s new book, Plain Text: The Poetics of Computation, contributes to to that discussion.

Tenen points out that the major change between electronic writing and previous forms is that in electronic writing there is a separation between the act of writing and the support (i.e., what the writing is written on).

This becomes evident when we ask ourselves, while looking at a screen, “Where is the text?” Of course on one hand the text is on the screen; but on the other, it exists in electromagnetic storage somewhere we cannot directly see. In some sense, the writing is in both places. Tenen writes, “One must be translated, transformed into the other.”

This transformation occurs in what Tenen calls the formatting layer of electronic texts, which is where we may find censorship, DRM, ads and even spyware. Thus what we see on the screen is only the tip of the iceberg. Tenen:

At the maximally blunt limit of its capabilities, format governs access. Commands render some words and sentences visible on-screen while suppressing others. … The formatting layer specifies the affordances of electronic text. More than passive conduits of meaning, electronic texts thus carry within them rules for engagement between authors, readers, and devices. … Whatever literary-theoretic framework the reader brings to the process of interpretation must therefore meet the affordances encoded into the electronic text itself.

Tenen focuses on developing theoretical acuity for interpreting digital texts. This is vital, because if we do not develop such thinking, we’ll be quickly be strung along by forces beyond our understanding. We’re already at the point where some algorithm-generated texts are indistinguishable from human-generated ones, for instance.

And when it comes to social media (how we spend more and more of our time), if we do not learn to critically analyze the texts around us, we will miss out on what’s going on. John Lanchester writes poignantly on this in the London Review of Books:

For all the talk about connecting people, building community, and believing in people, Facebook is an advertising company. … [But] even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. … I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.

Separation between the act of writing and its support, indeed.

Documenting the self

I’ve been hard at work on my dissertation proposal—I’m studying the processes of artistic self-portraiture—and I’ve been thinking about self-documentation. In modern society we seem to be compelled to write about ourselves. We make resumes and CVs, and we write bios for our social media profiles, which are becoming central for everything from everyday communication to dating and business. There are, of course, also many non-verbal ways in which we document ourselves, which is a focus of my dissertation.

The later work of Michel Foucault suggests that self-documentation is not new. On the contrary, many in Ancient Greece and Rome apparently kept hupomnēmata, or notebooks “to collect what one has managed to hear or read, and for a purpose that is nothing less than the shaping of the self.” These were fragmentary notebooks, but their result was not merely a collection of disjointed scraps; rather, they contributed to a new whole, along with the writer themselves. According to Foucault, the purpose of the hupomnēmata was to care for the self, which was an ancient directive. (Foucault laments that today we only recall know thyself, having forgotten about care for thyself.) As Foucault writes, “writing transforms the things seen or heard ‘into tissue and blood.’” People regularly returned to their hupomnēmata for nourishment.

The function of the hupomnēmata is quite different from the modern genre of autobiography, whose purpose is not to care for the self but to care for others. Autobiographies and many other self-documents are packaged for sale (in various senses), but the hupomnēmata were intensely private. They were more about the process than the product.

Today, some of us keep hupomnēmata. Mine, if you could call it that, is in Evernote. But I think this is a rare practice. On the other hand, many people cultivate something like hupomnēmata in their social media feeds. A Twitter feed, for instance, presents a seemingly disjointed collection of thoughts and snippets from the world, and it seems to be both like and unlike hupomnēmata. On Twitter (and other social media, or even ICT-made self-documents in general), are posts revisited as a means of self-care? Is the primary audience the self or another?

Document power

It’s becoming harder and harder to ignore how documents exert influence on us—in politics, across society and in everyday life.

Examples are easy to find. A recent paper in the Journal of Documentation discussed how, in South Africa under Apartheid, documents were used to impose racial categories on individuals, which resonates with today’s discussions around legal gender. Library and information science professor Ron Day’s book Indexing It All discusses how social media and other big-data apparatuses exert similar control.

But the power of documents is nothing new. Indeed, I suspect it’s as old as writing itself. Or even older. I can only imagine the power wrought by the earliest smears of red ochre on burial sites 100,000 years ago. Of course, political control—especially when unbeknownst—is much graver than the kind of power of spiritual awe.

An interesting example of the use of written documents to impose political power is given by Bhavani Raman in the book Document Raj: Writing and Scribes in Early Colonial South India, based on her doctoral dissertation. Her account shows how the machinery built around written records far exceeded the power of military might in the 18th-century English colonization of Madras. The pen is mightier than the sword, indeed. And beyond the manipulative bureaucracy that was constructed around written records themselves, issues around language choice and translation are also wrapped up in the story. This work contextualizes the modernization of India, but it also gives an extensive and clear account of writing at work.

I’m currently reading Glenn Greenwald’s gripping account of the Snowden revelation a few years back, and it strikes me how the nature of document power has become all the more pernicious with the rise of modern information and communication technologies. Not only do written documents impose political categories and the like, but now they offer strangers a window into the depths of our lives through constant surveillance.

And it’s not just the capacity for seeing that makes this so dangerous; rather, it’s what remains unseen. If the NSA inter alia had a total and ultimate view of our lives, that would be one thing. They would know our actions, but they’d also know our backgrounds and our deepest motivations, desires and fears. Yes, that would be scary. But I think it’s even worse that they know some of these things but not others—because they fill in the gaps with guesses. For instance, say someone conducts a Google search for how to build a bomb. Does this necessarily mean they are planning to blow something up? They could be writing a novel, trying to understand the physics of a recent terrorism incident, doing research for a school project or simply trying to see how easy it is to find such instructions online. To use one of Greenwald’s examples, if I told you that a woman buys a pregnancy test, then calls an abortion clinic, you’ll probably make certain assumptions. But what if she bought the pregnancy test for her father, who works at an abortion clinic, as a cheap way to check for testicular cancer? These examples may seem facile, but you may be surprised by how patterns and fragmented information can be misconstrued. To give another example, there’s a famous riddle you may have heard:

A father and his son get in a car crash. The father is killed, and the son is terribly injured. The son gets rushed to the hospital for surgery. But the surgeon, upon seeing the boy, says, “I can’t do it! That boy is my son!” Explain.

Based on the information we have, we make assumptions. And those assumptions give us a paradox. In the case of this riddle, it’s rather harmless (other than revealing your possible gender bias). But in other cases, it could be life or death. To be sure, certain facts can be construed from examining people’s patterns of conduct, but it is very easy to jump to conclusions.

So documents and the practices around them can be tremendously powerful in our lives. We can use them, and we can be used by them. Often this power is invisible. Some of that invisible power is being unveiled… but surely, so much of it remains hidden.