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Friday, April 9, 1999
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Technology, writing converge at forum

Experts from the fields of new media and publishing joined Brown`s `Technology Platforms for 21st Century Literature` forum Thursday night.

By Patrick Moos

Herald Staff Writer

Between comparing notes on the latest palmtop computers, enjoying multimedia presentations by Brown students, and discovering hypertext fiction, some of the world's pre-eminent innovators in literature and technology met to discuss their future together at this week's "Technology Platforms for 21st Century Literature" conference.

"We want to gather writers, publishers, and technologists to discuss and begin shaping the authorship and reading of Internet fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction," said Robert Arellano of Brown's Scholarly Technology Group (STG).

Organizers see great potential for the expansion of traditional literature through computers, an innovation they said began in part 30 years ago at Brown.

"Hypertext is about 50 years old, but for only about five years has it become widespread through the World Wide Web," Arellano said. "Brown has been using it since Andy Van Dam and Robert Skoals began studying ways to make hypertext useful for the humanities in the late 1960s."

Arellano said that Brown has been leading the development of literary uses of technology since Professor of English George Landow began working on hypertext literature 10 years ago.

In the spring of 1991, Robert Coover, professor of English and William Faulkner Award-winning author, began teaching the first hypertext fiction writing workshop. Coover's work has focused on the possibilities for multimedia narrative.

"Brown's special," Arellano said. "We have the longest-running continuous workshop on hypertext literature, and a lot of other universities look to Brown as the vanguard of what's possible in this field."

The conference began Wednesday night with an opening convocation, "futureTEXT: A performance of leading-edge electronic writing" in the Salomon Center for Teaching.

Thursday's forum, "futureTECH," featured presentations of uses for technology in 21st century literature. Guests used the opportunity to talk informally with other pioneers in their field.

"The technologists and the writers are really responding to each other well," said Jane McIlmail, administrative manager at STG. "The whole idea here is to foster a dialogue between them."

As experts explained the rudiments of hypertext literature to novices, leaders in the technology industry shared insights into the budding field with authors who had previously worked only with paper.

"We sometimes tend to equate the book with literature, but the book is technology too," Arellano said. "It was new 500 years ago, and people didn't know what it would do to society. Now people are often nostalgic for the object we know as the book, but they should realize that computers can be literature, too."

The presentations included an interactive reading of "The Unknown," a hypertext novel written by several professors at the University of Chicago.

"The Unknown" chronicles the supposed adventures of the authors as they rise to fame as hypertext novelists. They read from pages of the novel, inviting the audience to select one of the words or phrases in the page which, through hypertext markup language would then link to another page of the story.

A hypertext novel in this way is non-linear, connecting parts of the story through topic instead of time. A discussion of the cult one of the characters started thus led to her agent's reflections on her new-found fame in New York, then, through hypertext, to a chapter on sex and drugs on Paris's Left Bank.

While the events of the novel were not linked chronologically, the authors were able to link easily a tale of the Hollywood film industry to God and their low opinion of the state of Maine.

"We've been working on The Unknown' since June," said William Gillespie of the University of Chicago, one of the authors. "We didn't know when we started that it would take nine months, and we certainly didn't know we'd end up here."

"The Unknown" tied for first place in the trAce/Alt-X International Hypertext Competition, judged by Coover.

"Part of the concern for this symposium is that as we leave behind printed pages and [their] commitment to the line, and enter into this multidirectional, multilinear space which is more vague in its outlines, we enter into problems about the impact of literature," Coover told the Providence Phoenix.

However, the conference's theme - and the belief of many of its participants - that technology can improve literature and that the rapid ascent of the Internet provides a variety of new platforms for creative expression.

"What we're really all about is recognizing that technology has great potential for expression," Arellano said.

The conference concludes today with "The Story So Far," a review of the first two days, "What Happens Next," a continuing dialogue, and "The Plot Thickens," an open house with workshops and discussion groups.

Readers can find "The Unknown" on-line at http://www.soa.uc.edu/user/unknown/.

Next:Airing society`s dirty laundry


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This story appeared in The Herald: Friday, April 9, 1999