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Pathfinders

Judy Malloy's Artist's Statement for Uncle Roger

Intertwining elements of magic realism with Silicon Valley culture and semiconductor industry lore, the three files of the pioneering electronic hyperfiction, Uncle Roger, originally appeared beginning in 1986 on Art Com Electronic Network on The WELL. In the 27 years since the work began, it has been authored as a social network intervention, with UNIX shell scripts; on floppy disk with BASIC; and on the World Wide Web with HTML. In File II of Uncle Roger, “The Blue Notebook,” reflecting the increasing complexities of the narrator’s Silicon Valley life, five parallel narratives advance the story at the will of the reader. Some of the text is taken from the narrator’s notebook where, as she explains: “The things I wrote in the blue notebook didn’t happen in exactly the way I wrote them.”

“Everything I typed on the keyboard showed up on a large screen which filled the entire wall at the front of the room. Five men in tan suits were sitting around the screen, watching the words as I typed them in.”

In the spring of 1986, I was invited by video and performance art curator Carl Loeffler to go online and participate in the seminal Art Com Electronic Network (ACEN) on The WELL, where ACEN Datanet, an interactive online publication, would soon feature computer-mediated works of text-based art, including works by John Cage, Jim Rosenberg, and my interactive Uncle Roger.

Once in a while in a lifetime, everything comes together. In 1986, it was my experience in database programming, the idea I had been working on since 1977 of using molecular narrative units to create nonsequential narrative, the availability of personal computers that would make what I had been trying to do with “card catalog” artists books more feasible, and the arrival of Art Com Electronic Network, a place to create, publish and discuss the work.

In August 1986, for publication on ACEN, I began writing and designing the interface and programs for the hyperfictional narrative database, Uncle Roger. And in the process, I created an authoring system — Narrabase — which I have continued to develop for my work for 27 years.

A seminal interactive hyperfiction for command line computer platforms, Uncle Roger is based on a narrative and creative use of links (originally called keywords from the database algorithms that informed this work). The composing of the three files that comprise Uncle Roger was influenced by my experimental artists books, by my experience with library database programming, by the slide-based narratives I performed at alternative art spaces in the early 80’s, and by scene-based Renaissance comedy.

The Story

"I pictured a whole line of men in tan suits
scampering around on a stage, singing
'The yield is down. I think we lost the process.'
The chorus was 'We lost it in the submicron area,'
which is what Jack said next.”

ACEN’s host, The WELL was (and still is) a pioneering Northern California-based social media environment, which hosted digerati from all over the World, including Silicon Valley, where I had once lived. Thus, at the time that Uncle Roger was created, I was immersed in 1980’s San Francisco Bay Area personal computer culture. With locations including a party in Woodside, a microelectronics lab, and an early corporate word-processing office, Uncle Roger, like the interface and the programs with which it was created, is set in this era of transitioning computer culture. Events are observed by a narrator, who in telling the story intertwines elements of magic realism with Silicon Valley culture and semiconductor industry lore.

Files 1 and 2 are interactive hypertexts in which the reader actively follows chains of links through the narrative––either one link or combinations of links using the Boolean operator “and” (“men in tan suits” and “dreams”, for instance)––and then returns to the beginning to follow another link or combination of links. Simulating the diffuse, unsettled quality of the narrator’s changing life, the third file is generative.

The Three Files of Uncle Roger

What I type on the keyboard appears in green on the screen which is called the monitor. When the screen is full, the letters scroll up somewhere inside the machine.”

The following background information about each file of Uncle Roger is from the packaging of the original Apple II Applesoft BASIC version.

“A Party in Woodside”
During a long, mostly sleepless night after, a party is remembered fitfully, interspersed with dreams. Like a guest at a real party, you hear snatches of conversation and catch fleeting glimpses of both strangers and old friends. There are occurrences which you never observe. You meet people whom others may never meet. A fragmented, individual memory picture of the party emerges.

“The Blue Notebook”
 In "The Blue Notebook," the story is continued by the narrator, Jenny. The narrative is framed by a formal birthday party for Tom Broadthrow at a hotel restaurant. Jenny’s fragmented memories — a car trip with David, a visit to Jeff’s company in San Jose, an encounter with Uncle Roger in the restaurant bathroom – weave in and out of the birthday party recollections. Some of the text is taken from Jenny’s blue notebook where, as she she explains: “The things I wrote in the blue notebook didn’t happen in exactly the way I wrote them.”

“Terminals”
In January the narrator, Jenny, left the Broadthrow family and started working for a market research firm in San Francisco. As Jenny sits at her desk, memories of a Christmas party in Woodside, a trip back East for the Holidays and other things that happened come and go in her mind.

More about “The Blue Notebook”

We walked through a door into a vast expanse of gray cement floors. There were no windows. Rows of benches were covered with black and silver equipment; piles of cables; boxes of small objects encrusted with wires; microscopes; tv screens; clear plastic boxes with holes in them; surgical gloves. In the back exposed pipes alternated with ten foot tall machines.”

In Silicon Valley, things do not happen simply and clearly. In File 2 of Uncle Roger, “The Blue Notebook”, five parallel yet intertwining narratives advance the story in sometimes conflicting ways––reflecting the increasing complexity of Jenny’s life.

The story is framed by a formal birthday party for a microelectronics company president. His party––in a Silicon Valley hotel dining room––is punctuated by the narrator’s unlikely encounter with the eccentric semiconductor market analyst Uncle Roger. And while Jenny sits at the banquet table, other narrative threads––a car trip with a former lover, a visit to a semiconductor house in San––come and go in her mind.

Parts of the story are taken from her notebook where reality is difficult to separate from fiction and dream: “The things I wrote in the blue notebook didn’t happen in exactly the way I wrote them.”

Technical Information

"'It’s an FX-7000G ,' said one of the men in tan suits. He pulled a thin calculator out of his pocket. The other two men leaned over the calculator while he pushed some buttons. Small grey graphs appeared on the tiny green screen.”

Uncle Roger was first told online on the ACEN conferencing system on The WELL, beginning in 1986. Beginning in 1987, it was published online as a working hypernarrative, programmed with UNIX shell scripts on ACEN Datanet. It was also self-published as computer software, programmed with BASIC for both Apple and IBM-compatible computers and distributed by the Art Com Catalog, (a video and small press distributor) as well as exhibited internationally in the traveling exhibition Art Com Software.

Over the years, I have worked to keep Uncle Roger available to a public audience. A web version was created in 1995 and is still available at http://www.well.com/user/jmalloy/uncleroger/uncle.html.

And in 2012, I recreated the BASIC version of Uncle Roger for the DOSBox emulator.  Access is available at my site.

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  1. Judy Malloy with Apple II