As text technologies evolve, so too does the province of literary analysis.
How is a tractor like a writing desk?
Some metaphorical insight is to be gained in the comparison between reading and writing, and reaping and sowing. Changes in technology that facilitate physical contact between laborers and their element, be it a blank page or a fallow field, bring farmers and literary scholars into a more direct, non-figurative conversation, concerning the nature of electronic goods.
In the digital world, neither plow nor pen is subject purely to their mechanics.
In the digital world, neither plow nor pen is subject purely to their mechanics. Modern tractors like modern typewriters are also computers, which means that these tools now contain an inward facing surface, marked by inscription. Solid-state memory arrays are machined out of silicon, ceramic, palladium, platinum, silver and other precious metals. They are tiny storehouses for information—programming instructions—which ultimately govern the behavior of the mechanism. The presence of such a surface and the capability to respond to its commands is what differentiates "smart" devices from their lackwit counterparts. The smart device, to paraphrase Marx, is one that evolves, out of its silicon brain, grotesque ideas. It is a thing imbued with potential for symbolic manipulation.
It should not surprise us then that protections usually reserved for intellectual property have been expanded to cover such tangible goods as harvesters and combines. In her essay "Freedom to Tinker," Pamela Samuelson, of Berkeley Law, described the now infamous attempt by John Deere, a major international maker of agricultural machinery, to restrict access to the innards of its machines, thus severely limiting its customers' ability to repair their own equipment. Organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and repair.org have mobilized politically, resulting in "right to repair" bills adopted into law in at least eleven states, including New York and Massachusetts.
These bills are important to me as a literary scholar, because the right to repair implies, physically, the right to read, write, and interpret inscription implicit in all smart devices, including those on our writing desks. Like farmers, all those who read and write at a computer are faced with a threat of critical disempowerment. The practice of literary hermeneutics, the interpretation of texts, in all of its varied traditions, cannot take place when access to inscription is physically curtailed. Think of it as an ultimate form of political censorship, not by decree, but by material design. Solid-state drives are sealed hermetically and therefore hermeneutically.
The right to repair implies, physically, the right to read, write, and interpret inscription.
What one sees at the surface of a screen is part of a more complex, laminate figure that extends across surfaces: some near the reader and others remote, inches and sometimes continents away from the site of interpretation. The electronic book in my palm has its origins on servers guarded by armed men in Ohio, Northern Virginia, Mumbai, and São Paulo.
"Literary analysis should awaken to the importance of media-specific analysis, a mode of critical attention which recognizes that all texts are instantiated and that the nature of the medium in which they are instantiated matters," N. Katherine Hayles wrote in Poetics Today more than a decade ago. These words, along with other pioneering works by materially-minded textual scholars—Johanna Drucker, Matthew Kirschenbaum, and Jerome McGann among others—have motivated my approach to writing Plain Text: The Poetics of Computation.
What are the media specifics of text instantiated on digital screens? In answering that question, I have relied on a number of archival sources that point to an intellectual legacy shared between the history of literary thought and the history of modern computing. In this way, I show that the very idea of a Turing machine, crucial to the development of computer science, owes its origins to a series of thought experiments about the nature of textual interpretation in the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Elsewhere, I discuss the influence of metaphor theory in the practice of user interface design, as reflected in the thought of Brenda Laurel, Donald Norman, Edwin Hutchins and other proponents of the "direct manipulation" movement, which gave us the familiar "windows," "folders," "scroll bars," and "trash cans" on screen. I show how the very mechanics of cathode ray tube and liquid crystal displays affect the apprehension of digital media, including text, which moves on screen, at the limits of "critical flicker fusion" in excess of 60 times per second, even as it appears to stand still.
What happens when farmers lose the right to handle soil or to fix their tools? What happens to writers who lose touch with pen and page? Can the practice of literary interpretation persist in alienation from the material contexts of knowledge production? These are not theoretical questions, but matters of tactical expediency. The politics of inscription are a matter of grave concern to farmer laborers, software engineers, and textual scholars alike. They require a concerted effort to more closely align our ideals with technologies at hand.
The politics of inscription are a matter of grave concern to farmer laborers, software engineers, and textual scholars alike.
The politics of inscription are not simply a matter for academic discussion. In the time that it took me to finish Plain Text, a coalition of US "data dissidents" won a temporary exemption from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to allow them to modify their medical implants. It included Hugo Campos, who wanted to access data collected by his Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator, and Benjamin West and Jay Radcliffe who fought for the right to modify their implanted insulin pumps. Marie Moe, of Norway, similarly struggled to rewrite her heart implant's software. "I want to know what code is running inside of my body," she said. "Medical devices are black boxes," she continued, "you can't look into them, there's no transparency, we don't know how they work."
In Pakistan, the American National Security Agency-sponsored Skynet program has placed people on the US-sanctioned "disposition matrix" or "kill list" based on predictive analytics: social network analysis, cellular machine learning, patterns of travel and telephone use. Automated tools with names like SMARTTRACKER, SMARTCHART, and Cloud Travel Analytic select people for target strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles. Our ability to interpret codes that kill on our behalf also stems from our capacity to access them, read, understand, modify, and publish criticism.
Readers everywhere are engaged in a political struggle to control and deploy codified resources. The heart and the sky are sites on which the tactics of inscription are increasingly contested. The right to access the internals of a device is intrinsically related to the right to interpret it. An engaged and literate public requires the ability to keep mechanisms of power in plain view, amendable to commentary and continual interpretation.
Parts of this essay have been adapted from Plain Text by Dennis Tenen.