Arie Altena

Tofts versus Murray

Two visions of the future of electronic literature

by Arie Altena


Do different forms of narrativity, different forms of literary communication and different ways of interaction with literary 'texts' develop under the influence of new technology? These are questions that have been posed for years with respect to the computer and the interactive media derived from it. What is a good interactive narrative? In which direction will art and literature develop and what will the consequences be?

In this debate, which is underway in academic circles as well as outside them (is the moo the best model for literary interactivity? Is Tomb Raider the overture for the twenty-first century picaresque novel?) all the old questions about what literature (and art) is are revived in all their intensity. It often happens that unconsciously, one's notion of what literature is lies hidden in assumptions mentioned in passing, or in one's choice of subject or examples.

This is true of two books about literature and new media, computer and cyberculture which confront each other here. Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck gives an overview of the development of narrativity for computer applications. The other book, Darren Tofts' Memory Trade, constructs the (pre)history of a cyberculture which already seems to be over. These two very different books design a (literary) future for the digital age based on a construction of a past with a hoped-for future.

These two books represent diametrically opposite visions of the (computer) literature of the future; two views of literature, two literary tastes. On the one hand is Murray, the mit Trekkie, with her preference for recognisable stories and the nineteenth-century novel, on the other is Tofts, the Wakean, with his preference for linguistic experiments.

Murray versus Tofts

Janet H. Murray Hamlet on the Holodeck, the Future of Narrative in Cyberspace Cambridge, Massachusetts 1997, isbn 0 262 63187 3, 324 pp

While the poststructuralists declared the death of the author and demanded attention for the radical polyinterpretability of the text, Janet Murray was programming and debugging in the basements at ibm. Later, when the smoke had cleared, she headed into the archives to research nineteenth-century novelists. That dual background as English scholar and computer programmer makes her an ideal person to write a book about computer narrativity.

The question Murray asks is this: How does a literary computer application look that is as deeply human, meaningful, moving and profound, and speaks to us as much, as Hamlet? To answer that question, she maps the different narrative elements presented by computer applications. The familiar stories of games, Eliza and the www are treated clearly, accessibly and knowledgeably, making the book a pleasure to read. Murray neither falls into theory-speak nor gets lost in future speculations. She emphasises the importance of 'scripting' the interactor, of a system that reacts to input, and knows, through her prehistory of ‘literary’ human-computer interaction, how to provide insight into why navigating through a virtual space is crucial. She rightly concludes that the potential for compelling computer stories does not depend on high-tech animation or expensively produced video footage but on shaping (such) dramatic moments" (p. 53). In short, it is the mit notion of interactivity (see also Brenda Laurel), precisely what every moo player/builder and every Elite fan already knows.

The essential characteristic of the computer and thus of digital environments, according to Murray, is the ability to execute a series of rules. The computer models and reproduces patterns; the abilities to write a multilinear plot are there for the taking. Murray introduces the term 'procedural authorship' to make clear what writing for computer applications involves: Procedural authorship means writing the rules by which the text appears as well as writing the text themselves. It means writing the rules for the interactor’s involvement, that is, the conditions under which things will happen in response to the participant’s actions (p. 152). There appears a world of narrative possibilities which are realised by the reader/interactor.

The computer's rule-processing power is a new kind of performance machine for the procedural writer. Murray emphasises that nothing will essentially change about the fact that writing is the conscious selection and ordering of elements. A story is an act of interpretation of the world, rooted in the particular perceptions and feelings of the writer.

This concentration on the role of the author as possibility-bestowing, manipulating, choosing entity is to the point, but it overshadows a number of equally important aspects.

Murray does not pose the question of differences between readers and interpretations. More crucial is that she has little time for technology's structuring, guiding role. She likes the representation of a fictional world made possible by an author. Technology is the instrument that is played by the author in an attempt to move the audience. The best technology in her vision, then, is a transparent one. Her point of departure is that every era with the available technology gives expression to universal stories about a constant human nature. New technology transforms universal stories such that they remain relevant in a new era. The patterns are constant because human experience is constant, and though cultural differences may inflect these patterns differently from one place to another, the basic events out of which we tell stories are the same for all of us.

Murray falls back on the existence of universal story structures, but puts this idea, discredited in the seventies, in a cognitivist-evolutionary perspective. Simply put, what it comes down to is that certain story structures through the ages have proven 'useful'. These are the stories in which people recognise themselves, forms in which the big questions of life are addressed. With a bit of good will this could be called a humanist vision, because it places human nature centrally. Murray thus legitimises her preference for 'successful stories' as made by Hollywood, Disney and the Gene Roddenberry school. The question, however, is whether such universal story structures exist. And even if they do, Murray still too easily emphasises things shared by all people, whether they live in Sierra Leone or on Kaallalit Nunaat (every child in the world loves The Lion King, after all!). Against the mainstream Murray emphasises not cultural difference, but sameness. And bound up with that, the neutrality of technology.

Murray’s conformist commonsensical vision at times seems irrefutable, but it is not. It is significant that in reading the book one misses complexity, as in her vision of the relationship between fiction and reality. Murray emphasises that there is a pertinent division between world and fiction, not in an ontological sense, but because the users want there to be. A good story is one in which you can (fictionally) undertake actions without there being consequences in the real world. A story is a space for experimentation, an exercise for real life. In this she is right (most people want it this way), but she also creates the impression that she would be the last to consider the staging of reality by media.

The danger of law-abiding one-dimensionality lurks here, and as you read, the reassuring feeling comes over you that with Holodeck you have landed in a safe Victorian Zone, protected by a friendly peacekeeping force.

It says something for Murray that she pays attention to the social-cultural side of stories, soaps and cyberdrama and argues for the interaction between the story and social reality. She purposely chooses popular examples like er, Homicide and Star Trek to sketch the future of the multilinear computer story.

But precisely because she takes popular tv series and computer games as her point of departure, she limits the view of alternative models - such as twentieth-century art. She is too 'Disney' for my taste with all her believable characters and stories in which we can identify. She is, she admits, Victorian in heart and soul, a conservative feminist nostalgic for the fifties (this she does not admit). For me, her ideal future calls up images of a digital Disneyland where women and men are truly equal and have satisfying interactions every day while word-processing with a virtual house cat (which interaction with a real house cat cannot begin to emulate). Disney's millions can't be wrong.

Murray holds a view of literature in which Joyce, the postmoderns and the avant garde have no place. She sees a marginal role for literature that is also focused on its own technology, on language itself. Typical is her almost-sighing remark that recognisable books with familiar stories are now being written again. Also typical is her inability, for all her elaborations about games and game structure to assess oulipo, the first workshop in which writers and mathematicians worked together, at its true value: she finds the methods of Queneau, Perec and cohorts to be only a literary game.

Admittedly, Murray 's goal is not to imagine the 'high' literature of the future; her focus is not narrativity in avant garde art, but narrativity in popular cyber stories addressing a broad audience, from soaps to Tamagotchi. In this respect she is much more realistic than the cohort of poststructuralism-, deconstruction-, psychoanalysis- and rhizomism-infected theorists. As a realistic story, Murray’s sketch of interactive literature is convincing. But if it were up to her, not much would change in the world.

Darren Tofts Memory Trade, a Prehistory of Cyberculture North Ryde nws, Australia 1998, isbn 90 5704 18 12, 131 pp

In his book Memory Trade Tofts tries to show that in cyberdiscourse - the discussion of computer technology's influence on communication and culture - there is nothing new under the sun. According to him, the technologisation of the word was not brought into being just by the arrival of the computer (as is sometimes short-sightedly claimed in cyberdiscourse); the word was always already technologised. The subjects Tofts handles in Memory Trade make this clear: alphabet, writing and language as technology; the origins of cyberthought in mnemonics; Finnegans Wake as the original media theory book. These form Tofts' (pre)history of cyberdiscourse.

For Tofts, who is strongly influenced by poststructuralism, technology is not a transparent means, but that which shapes and structures experience, makes meaning fan out, draws attention to itself. Tofts argues for technology: Technology shapes the human way of seeing and experience and the meaning we give to the world. This vision could be called posthumanist. According to Tofts, then, the posthuman era began not just with the computer, but long ago with the invention of writing. In Tofts' vision, a new technology leads to fundamental innovation in art and literature: What was unthinkable or impossible before can now be realised.

Tofts focuses on aspects of cybernetics and the computer, which can be found in writing and the use of it. (T)hese cybernetic features (information processing, feedback loop), however, are not unique to the age of computers and artificial intelligence. They are, in fact, endemic to the book apparatus, conceived as a closed system of technological space, capable of indeterminate significance (p. 110). Tofts finds things in the past that are often seen as characteristic of the present. In the process he forgets that the idea of writing as technology only came about thanks to things like cybernetics. This is not to say that the idea is less true, but it doesn't make finding the similarities too surprising.

Tofts engages in memory trade. Through a tour of theorists, writers and philosophers he sketches a picture of the technologisation of the word. He summarises ideas from Bergson, Kant, Yates, Borges, Derrida, Ong, Socrates, McLuhan, Wiener, Haraway, Nelson (etc.) and strings them together. The links between the memory fragments should thereby make up his vision, but this does not happen enough. In Tofts' hands Memory Trade leads to a good, simple overview of a possible prehistory of cyberdiscourse, without much that is new.

Memory Trade is also an irritating book. Tofts defends the notion that 'language is technology' with the enthusiasm of an idealist who must convince his congregation and opponents of revolutionary insights. For an audience of readers who have been through thirty years of (post)structuralism, McLuhan and Havelock, Tofts writes that to think of writing as a technology is... a defamiliarizing gesture. He preaches as if he is operating in the margin but represents a widely known point of view.

Tofts surely has opponents, but they are not the naive cyber-theorists but the scientists who come from cognitive psychology armed with evolutionary-biological arguments and carrying the poststructuralists as their stock-in-trade and more and more successfully claim that the word, and writing too, why not, are biological givens. Tofts looks backward where he could have looked forward.

What is most lacking in Memory Trade, however, is 'the real world'. Tofts tries to make his construction current by linking it to early- and mid-nineties cyberdiscourse, with its celebration of a digital future when everything would be different. Seen in the rear-view mirror, that cyberdiscourse was a remarkable interlude in the development of the twentieth century when overstrained expectations, technodeterminism and mirrored sunglasses, Baudrillard brand, determined the view of developments. Tofts argues in the context of this (outdated) cyberutopia and in this finds a good connection with fellow surfers on the sea of cyber- and postmodernism, but unfortunately he misses the connection with the actual state of things.

Meanwhile, prompted by the developments of the last few years - such as the commercialisation of the www - a much more realistic view of new media holds sway. Reality and discussion have overtaken Tofts. Tragically, he is too late. Thus embarrassing are the speculations founded on a technological state of affairs that has become passé, the blindness to political and economic questions and the apolitical view that was still tolerated a couple of years ago but is now reprimanded with irritated criticisms (see Jamie King, Mute 12).

If only Memory Trade was nothing more than a well-informed explanation of the transition from a literate culture to a digital one, on the model of the transition from oral to literate culture as described by Ong, McLuhan and Havelock...

Fortunately, there is the chapter about Finnegans Wake, which ultimately makes Memory Trade worth the trouble. Tofts manages to set out in twenty pages why Finnegans Wake - the first literary text in which tv plays an important role - is the central text for the digital age. He shapes this conclusion, which is shared by Donald Theall and Marshall McLuhan, with the help of the usual suspects, like Deleuze and Derrida.

Finnegans Wake: the original media theory book, the moment at which print literacy converges with electronic digitization. The method of Finnegans Wake offers a hint of the ecology of meaning which will characterise the digital age, a glimpse ahead. It embodies the new ecology of sense implicit in the electronic, immersive experience of telematic cspace (Tofts’ 'metasignifier', in my opinion superfluous, which stands for 'cyberspace' as well as for 'space'), it is central to the aesthetics of the computer age.

Like many others, Tofts holds the opinion that hypertext is already present in written literature and certainly in Joyce: writing is an orphan without a father, every sentence always already means something different, and reading Joyce is never a linear question. Instead of Janet Murray’s cognitivist model of narrativity, in which the classical story is the best form to represent experience, a form that is canonised because it connects to the world of the reader's experience, we find here a leap forward into the unknown. No Hollywood of believable characters, but multiplexing words.

As every word in Finnegans Wake brings together different languages and codes in one signal, and thus makes possible a production of meaning more flexible than ever before, so will the computer networks humanity is plugged into allow us to multiplex like never before. In this way a new, broader and more flexible experience of reality will become possible. Tofts is extremely receptive to illusions and delusions that can bring forth speculation about possibilities of non-linearity and multiplexing minds. He allows himself to be swept away by a utopia, a Wakean picture of the future in which the technique of word play will be radicalised into a new manner of drawing connections between world and word.

Tofts is sometimes inclined to go one step further than common sense would allow. With reference to Arjen Mulder, he comes unpleasantly close to formulating the argument that Finnegans Wake in fact is something that goes 'beyond the media', exceeds technology, which the computer networks should also be able to make possible. In this dream there would no longer be a sender, a receiver and a sent message; to be immersed in information is to be information, not a sender or receiver of it. There can be no mediation when everything, including addressers and addressees, occupy the same multiplex channel. That sounds like a mystical experience, and Tofts surely doesn't think the networks will make us all mystics? One more step in the evolution of homo sapiens?

The question is whether many people share Tofts' optimistic belief that Finnegans Wake makes networked culture readable because it embodies the meaning-ecology of the electronic world. In any case, Memory Trade contains a good introduction to Finnegans Wake for the reader whose literary home is cyberpunk and cyberculture.


Interlude: three chance detours to explain an aversion to literary conservatism

The Command Line Interface

[place: picture of website]

In his lengthy article In the Beginning was the Command Line Neal Stephenson breaks a lance for the Command Line Interface over the Graphical User Interface, for encoding via words (cli) over Disney's castles of mirrors (gui). Disney is in the business of putting out a product of seamless illusion - a magic mirror that reflects the world back better than it really is. But a writer is literally talking to his or her readers, not just creating an ambience or presenting them with something to look at; and just as the command-line interface opens a much more direct and explicit channel from user to machine than the gui, so it is with words, writer, and reader. The word, in the end, is the only system of encoding thoughts - the only medium - that is not fungible, that refuses to dissolve in the devouring torrent of electronic media. Put in the terms of the contrast between Tofts and Murray, Finnegans Wake is the text that proves the wealth of cli, while Murray’s interactive literature chooses for perfect illusions. The openness and directness of code against the closed detachment of the image, the possibility of plural interpretations versus being closed inside a seamless dream.


[place: picture of book Anthony Dunne: Hertzian Tales]

In his book Hertzian Tales Anthony Dunne criticises the user-friendliness dictate in industrial design. He does this by refering to the American pragmatist Dewey, who distinguished between 'recognition' and 'perception'. User-friendliness is based on 'recognition'; the user has only to call upon what he already knows, nothing is learned, things are fitted into the existing frame. According to Dewey, growth and development are crucial for humanity and for ethics. For this, new elements are needed, learning must take place; a process that includes 'perception', not only 'recognition'. Norbert Bolz expresses it this way: User-friendliness is the rhetoric of technology that sanctifies our ignorance (see Die Konformisten des Andersseins, Fink 1999). In Dewey's terms, Murray’s notion of literature leans toward 'recognition', while Tofts' notion of literature, aimed at innovation, lies on the farthest edge of 'perception'. Murray wants to connect new technology to what humanity already knows and thereby sanctifies ignorance; Tofts sanctifies not what humanity already knows but what it does not yet know.


[place: picture of book McKenzie Wark: Celebrities, culture and cyberspace]

Murray’s view of literature is, in McKenzie Wark's terms, 'suburban' - or in the language of thirty years ago, petty bourgeois. That is not meant as denigrating; after all, she addresses herself to an interactive storytelling that suits the taste of the larger public. And the large, suburban public, as everyone knows, has never been progressive in artistic affairs. McKenzie Wark, an opposer like Tofts, says this: If there is a characteristic of the suburban approach to forming knowledge out of information, it is, broadly speaking, an emphasis on rationalism. By this I mean a bias toward pre-formed categories into which new information is to be slotted, rather than a bias toward creating categories out of the new and unexpected patterns imminent in new information itself. Rationalism, understood in this broad sense, is a common feature of suburban thinking. It is what creates the suburban tendency to resist new information when it doesn't fit the assumed order of the world. (McKenzie Wark, Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace: The Light on the Hill in a Postmodern World, Annandale 1999, p. 333)

The conservative view of Murray, who does embrace new media - in the same way that the bourgeoisie has no problem buying dvd players - but not new content (human nature always stays the same), has, not unexpectedly, a political side. Texts assume a way of reading; one is adapted, the other is a challenge to existing categories. A way of reading is linked to a way of being in the world: What is distinctive about rationalism, as more than a theory of knowledge, as a practice also of action in the world, is this attempt to make the world conform to the abstraction. (...) Rationalism composes an internally unified space for thinking about a particular thing, the economy for example, by dividing it conceptually from anything that might make it appear more heterogeneous (ibid. p. 335).

Finnegans Wake gives heterogeneity free rein. The principle used by the reader of Finnegans Wake in the search for meaning corresponds to what Wark, with a nod to Deleuze, calls 'empiricism' and which he opposes to 'rationalism': ...I think of empiricism as a highly conceptual way of handling information - but one that looks for patterns in flows of information rather than fitting flows of information into fixed patterns (ibid. p. 334). Such an 'empiricist' way of reading is open to new content, new meanings, new connections, can handle unknown elements, the strange, does not renounce nor immediately colonise.

It is not that Murray would ban the meeting with the strange, the other, in her ideal literature; on the contrary. She sees that meeting arising only when a classic narrative has first made identification possible for the reader, as in Star Trek. But to what degree does story structure, technology, preshape that meeting? Tofts' notion of literature, rightly, pays more attention to the appearance of the strange, of a new element in language, in the sphere of technology. What is neutral terrain for Murray is in Tofts' vision (already) the arena.

And thus this discussion ends with the question of whether technology, the instruments, the media, are neutral or always already marked, and what are the consequences of that?



Murray shows in her book how electronic narrativity tries to emulate life on the computer as nineteenth-century realism did in writing. She is faithful to a nineteenth-century idea of narrativity and probability in stories. Tofts pays attention to the wealth of the not-yet-realised. As a devout poststructuralist, he keeps his eyes wide open for literary innovation, while Murray argues from the standpoint of the successfully realised. This makes Tofts’ vision ultimately a lot more exciting.

It is true that Tofts ‘spaces out’ at the thought of doing away with mediation through the linking of everything and everyone to the same channel, a total immersion in information, but Murray on the other hand presents virtual pets and tail-wagging animated dogs as examples of future meaningful interaction with electronic stories. It depends on your preference.

Tofts is interested in new worlds, new perspectives, while Murray wants to translate that which is already familiar, which successfully fulfils the narrative function (biologically speaking!), for a new technology. It is Star Trek's Holodeck against Joycean multiplexing in the fourth dimension. Nostalgia for the nineteenth century versus the Wakean cyberutopia of a literature professor on lsd. Which multiperspective is preferable? The step-by-step learning of the Furby, or the myriad possible meanings of one element in a future Finnegans Wake? Thus considered, Tofts’ book makes a welcome and necessary footnote, and possibly an alternative, to Murray's conservatism.

translation: Laura Martz



some rights reserved
Arie Altena, 1999
published in: Mediamatic Magazine, The Printed Issue, 1999, p. 101-106