This page is referenced by:
Introduction to Pathfinders
An introduction to Pathfinders with detailed information about the project
Pathfinders begins the necessary process of documenting early digital literature, specifically pre-web hypertext fiction and poetry, from 1986-1995. These literary works were produced with programming languages like BASIC or authoring systems like Storyspace and HyperCard and require a degree of interactivity between the reader and the work. They were also among the first computer-based works of literature to be sold commercially in the U.S. and, because of their availability through commercial distribution, were influential in shaping literary theory and criticism that, today, are used to discuss born digital writing. They are also literary works in danger of becoming inaccessible to the public because they were produced on and for computer platforms that today are obsolete.
From among the many hypertexts and other digital projects we could have selected to document, we decided on four:
1. Judy Malloy’s Uncle Roger, programmed in BASIC as a serial novel and published on the net from 1986-1987; sold from 1987-1988 in various versions on 5 ¼ floppy disks through Art Com Catalog; published in 1995 on the web
2. John McDaid’s Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse, a hypermedia novel created in Hypercard 2.0 and published in 1993 by Eastgate System, Inc. as a box containing artifacts from the literary estate of the titular Uncle Buddy
3. Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, produced on Eastgate's Storyspace platform and published by the company in 1995; regarded by critics as an important work of hypertext and cyberfeminism
4. Bill Bly’s We Descend, a complex hypertext novel––also created on Eastgate's Storyspace platform for both floppy disks and CDs––that experiments with the layering of time and published by the company in 1997We chose these four because they are long-form works that represent a specific individual contribution unique to the field as well as reflect a wide range of experimentation taking place during this period. For example, Malloy’s Uncle Roger, the first commercial work of electronic literature to be sold in the United States, was first published in 1986 as a serial novel delivered to an online audience on the Whole Earth ‘Lectric Link (WELL). Later iterations expressed on floppy disks and the web speak to its enduring popularity and give rise to its status as a classic work of the period. John McDaid's Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse was produced with HyperCard, a software application available on Apple computers for creating hypermedia. Like Malloy's Uncle Roger, Funhouse is a novel, but one that includes sound and printed elements as part of its storytelling strategy. Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl, produced with Storyspace––a hypertext authoring system created and sold by Eastgate Systems, Inc. ideal for long-form, complex writing––is viewed by many as the high point of hypertext literature in the pre-web period of the early digital age. Its recent re-release on flash drive, 20 years after its first publication, demonstrates its on-going status as an important work of contemporary fiction. Finally, Bill Bly's hypertext novel We Descend, also created with Storyspace, takes advantage of the affordances of this tool to experiment successfully with the multi-temporal narrative and intricate narrative structure.
Our method of documentation is unique in that we videotaped each artist and two additional readers interacting with a work on its original computer platform––a methodology we call “traversal.” When watching the traversal for Uncle Roger, for example, scholars can hear the crackle of the Apple IIe as it boots up and see the words “Bad Information” appear a few seconds later on the screen. Neither of these two elements is part of the story, but they are important cultural and artistic features lost in the migration to the web version that came later. Traversal recordings also capture the musings of authors about intentions, circumstances of writing, and on some occasions, effects that no longer work as intended.
We see our work with documentation as a form of digital preservation, one that builds on the method of “collection,” as opposed to the other two more common methods, “migration” and “emulation,” by providing scholars wanting to experience the work in its original format access to video documentation of the works in performance on a computer with which the work would have been originally experienced.
Besides videos of traversals, Pathfinders also includes videos of interviews with the artists and readers of the four main works; photos of physical artifacts such as floppies, folio covers or boxes containing floppies and other media; sound files from traversals and interviews; and commentary about the works and media. For example, John McDaid’s Funhouse consisted of five floppy disks packaged in a black box. Nowhere is it documented that the box also contains two music cassettes, a paper copy of a short story marked up by an editor, and a letter from the editor. All of these additional materials also make up the Funhouse and, so, are crucial to one’s understanding of the work. Pathfinders provides a video of McDaid opening the box and discussing each item found inside; certainly, an experience that scholars will see as helpful for understanding the breadth of McDaid’s vision. In total, Pathfinders features 173 screens of content, including 53,857 words, 104 video clips, 204 color photos, and three audio files.In developing the project, we have striven to provide information helpful to scholars. Publication dates, versions, production methods have been vetted by publishers and artists when possible. Thus, we hope to clear up discrepancies relating to this information as well as offer information previously unknown about these works. Judy Malloy's Uncle Roger serves as a case in point. While many scholars know that she published "A Party in Woodside" in 1987, they may not be aware that she updated and republished it in 1988. Nor it is well-known that the Modern Museum of Art holds a copy of the 1987 version of Uncle Roger, numbered "no. 10.", a fact highlights the work's status as a recognized work of art.
With the traversal videos and ensuing author interviews, we attempted a first cut at an oral history of early electronic literature. This effort yielded several notable insights, such as Judy Malloy's description of online interactions with her audience during the composition of Uncle Roger, Shelley Jackson's acknowledgment that the origins of Patchwork Girl owe something to Avital Ronell as well as George Landow, John McDaid's description of Funhouse as an attempt to "write a novel no 20th-century novelist could write," and Bill Bly's revelation that his work on We Descend has continued beyond Storyspace into the Web and other environments.
This open-source, multimedia book, is funded by The National Endowment for the Humanities through a Start Up grant from the Office of Digital Humanities. The NEH support made it possible to work directly with the artists, develop the materials for this book, and create this book for open-source access. Without the assistance from the NEH, Pathfinders would not have been possible.
Many other individuals and organizations provided support for our research.
From the Creative Media & Digital Culture Program at Washington State University Vancouver: Madeleine Brookman served as Grigar's research assistant and was funded through fellowships and grants provided by Washington State University. She was responsible for final edits for and the management of all of the videos found in the book, the production of the Pathfinders trailer, and uploading, tagging and describing media for the book. We acknowledge the videography of Aaron Wintersong and early organization by Amalia Vacca, who served as Grigar's first research assistant and who helped to organize the traversals and interviews. Greg Philbrook provided tech support for most traversals and interviews. Will Luers, faculty member in the CMDC leading its digital publishing initiative, is responsible for the design and styling of this book.
From the English Department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee: Brian Keilen and Rachael Sullivan, both doctoral students, worked with Moulthrop to catalog the raw video and audio files, construct first cuts of the traversal videos, and assemble static graphics. The Digital Humanities Laboratory in the Golda Meir Memorial Library at UWM provided work space and equipment for this effort.
We thank the Electronic Literature Organization for its leadership in developing methods for evaluating quality of “digital” creative and critical works and its insights into cataloging its growing body of “digital” fiction, poetry, and other literary forms––activities from which this research grows. We owe special thanks to Dean Anne Balsamo of the New School of Public Engagement, who brought together the two incipient strains of this project, and to Noah Wardrip-Fruin of the University of California Santa Cruz, whose 2012 Media Systems Workshop set the scene for that crucial conversation. We appreciate the support of Tara McPherson, Erik Loyer, and others at the University of Southern California's Alliance for Networking Visual Culture for the development of the Scalar platform on which the book is built. We thank Matthew Kirschenbaum and the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities at the University of Maryland College Park for sharing The Bly Collection with us for our project. We particularly recognize Grigar’s Electronic Literature Lab at Washington State University Vancouver, which provided access to her collection of computers and works, without which the project would not have been possible. We thank Mark Bernstein of Eastgate for taking the time to answer questions about publication dates and packaging, as well as giving us access to images needed for the book. We also thank the Modern Language Association for allowing us to exhibit our Pathfinders research at the 2014 conference in Chicago. Finally, we thank the four artists who provided their time and insights into their work. They all shared so much of their knowledge, history, insights, and time to this project. Literary history is better for it.
The development of this project is documented at the Pathfinders blog managed by Grigar. Also of note is the Pathfinders YouTube channel where rough cuts of videos were made available, early on, for scholars to use for their research and the curated Vimeo channel where all videos are now hosted.
The exhibit, mentioned previously, that showcased these authors and their works as well as contemporary expressions of experimental writing at the Modern Language Association's 2014 convention, is archived at Pathfinders: 25 Years of Experimental Literary Art. The exhibition ran from 9-11 January and was curated by Grigar and Moulthrop. Literary scholars were able to preview the videos and photos developed for the project and access some of works on Grigar's vintage computers, though it should be noted that three of the computers shipped to Chicago were destroyed en route to the exhibit. Though we mourn their loss, it represents exactly the calamity our work of preservation is meant to address.
Finally, we are already thinking ahead to an independent book project, Traversals, that further explores the uses of preservation for digital writing, and to the next version of Pathfinders that will include Moulthrop's Victory Garden, an afterword by Joseph Tabbi, and possibly transcriptions of the traversal videos for each artist. In a word, we see this project as one that will continue, adding artists and their works and capturing important information that needs to be documented for posterity.
Funders and Collaborators
"Essay about We Descend," by Bill Bly, reprinted from Authoring Software
Bill Bly's essay about his work, We Descend, originally published at Authoring Software
From Authoring SoftwareBill Bly, We Descend Vol. 1 (Eastgate, 1997), Software: Storyspace; We Descend Vol. 2, Software: TinderboxBill Bly is the author of the ongoing hypertext We Descend. Volume 1 of We Descend was published by Eastgate in 1997. Volume 2 was exhibited at the Convention of the Modern Language Association in January 2013 and 2014. His works also include Wyrmes Mete, a hypertext chapbook of poems, and, with John McDaid, he was awarded the John Culkin Award for Outstanding Praxis in the Field of Media Ecology for their music CD, Media Ecology Unplugged.
As a teacher, a founding member of the Hypertext Writers Workshop, and the recorder for the legendary Cybermountain Colloquium, Bill Bly has also been active in working with colleagues and students in the creation of electronic literature. He taught dramatic literature and theatre history at New York University (NYU) for 20 years, until he became interested in hypertext, which he taught both at NYU and at Fordham University. He also ran the writing program at Wagner College in Staten Island. Currently, he teaches Speech Communication at Northampton Community College in Pennsylvania.
In an Authoring Software statement about his densely layered work, We Descend, he sets forth the struggles and pleasures of creating hypertext. Beginning with reading Robert Coover's seminal article in New York Times Book Review,  he describes how he ordered every title published by Eastgate; his Eureka moment with Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden while participating in Robert Kendall's online Hypertext Poetry & Fiction class at the New School; the creation of We Descend in Storyspace; and the creation of We Descend Volume 2 in Tinderbox.
What started out in the early 1990s as a simple node-link hypertext has somehow turned into my life's work," Bly observes.
The Bill Bly Collection of Electronic Literature is archived at The Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, (MITH) and more information about his work can be found on his homepageBill Bly's Pathfinders Page
Dene Grigar's Pathfinders essay on We Descend
1. Robert Coover, "Hyperfiction: Novels for the Computer," New York Times Book Review, August 29, 1993.
Bill Bly: We Descend
About We DescendWe Descend is an artifactual hypertext, presented as an archive of writings gathered and transmitted over a vast span of time. A Scholar discovers the previously unknown Testament of one Egderus, a humble scribe who lived many generations before. Egderus' work leads to even older materials, a fragmentary archive which somehow survived a cataclysm that all but wiped out the magnificent civilization of its ancient authors. These documents promise to make the Scholar's reputation, but instead they destroy him, in a brutal reversal that provokes disturbing speculations about the present as well as the past.
The story unfolds in three "bands" of time:
We learn about the Scholar's world from his diary and the preparatory notes he makes for presenting the Egderus documenta to a convention of his peers.
Egderus' era is delineated in his Testament, which also incorporates letters, notes left behind by predecessors, and other miscellanea that ended up in his possession.
The fragmentary writings of the Ancients are mere scraps, almost impossible to interpret because their context is utterly vanished, but they provide a glimpse into a lost world that is both tantalizing and deeply troubling.
The thoughtful reader will discern -- in the commentary and cross-references throughout the archive -- a more recent band of time during which they were collected and arranged, and begin to perceive, if only dimly, the otherwise unknown person(s) who performed this labor. An artifactual work like We Descend invites the reader to join a kind of research project: Although the writings may be carefully and logically organized, they are not processed into a tale that can be told by a single voice, but rather are presented undigested, and the reader must assemble a coherent story for the whole, on her own.
In addition, using artifacts alone to tell the story foregrounds the three domains that any writing inhabits: text, meat, ghosts.
A writing is of course a text, made up of words and other symbolic inscriptions (images, diagrams, maps) -- an account that is written not enacted, intended to be read not listened to
Meat is the incarnation of text, comprising both the object(s) upon which it is inscribed and the inscription itself considered as a physical (i.e., non-symbolic) object -- whether a dried-up river of ink on paper or a parade of pixels on a screen
The ghostly domain is, paradoxically, where the story comes to life, in mental pictures of imaginary persons saying imaginary words, doing imaginary deeds. It is also the "place" where author and reader meet, and the story can be transmitted from one mind to another.
The History of We DescendWhat started out in the early 1990s as a simple node-link hypertext has somehow turned into my life's work. Previous curators of these Archives also complain lovingly of the same difficulty: new material keeps turning up, and -- in my case, at least, the technology for displaying and reading it continues to change. (I can't in good conscience aver that the tech has always evolved.)
Actually, the earliest Writing in We Descend is dated 1984 -- four years before I touched a computer more sophisticated than an ATM -- and it begins "If this document is authentic, then a complete reappraisal will be necessary."
I doubt that I can retrieve that frayed scrap of notebook paper, (yes, I wrote everything by hand in those days) but when I created my first Storyspace document nine years later, I know I copied them off a page I pulled out of the back of the clipboard where I kept everything I was working on. It was a simpler time...
By 1993, when I first encountered the word "hypertext" in an article by Robert Coover in the New York Times Book Review, I had maybe a thousand words' worth of notes, sketches, and snatches of dialogue for a project that had no name; they all seemed to belong together, but I didn't know how. Coover's article electrified me: I couldn't fathom what he was talking about, but I somehow knew it was important. So I wrote an inquiry to every person he said was working in this new medium of hypertext and asked them to tell me more. One such pioneer was Mark Bernstein of Eastgate Systems, who sent me a copy of Storyspace 1.0 on a small rigid diskette that worked in my Mac SE.
The manual that came with the Storyspace demo was breezily confident and reassuring, and told me how to do this, and that, or, if I wanted to, some other thing. What I simply could not figure out was what I would be making -- or, for that matter, why I would want to perform any of those operations the manual so cheerfully taught me how to perform. Not liking to give up on something I just hadn't got the hang of yet, I thought maybe I would do better by reading some exemplary hypertexts. Along with Storyspace, I'd also ordered an issue of the Eastgate Quarterly Review of Hypertext, which comprised a paper Getting Started booklet and another floppy disk inserted into a totally badass black rubber jacket. I don't remember either work included on the disk, but at first encounter, I was even more befuddled after reading hypertext than I was trying to understand what Storyspace actually did.
I continued all at sea for two years after that. I ordered every title in the Eastgate Catalogue. I read books and articles recommended by my correspondents. I attended a conference in Boston, and I continued to play with Storyspace, even though I wasn't having any fun. I did love Apple's Hypercard, and built stack after stack, but found that Hypercard didn't make writing very easy, and linking, though possible, was awkward. I could write in Storyspace, and link easily from one writing space to another, and I found out how to get under the hood in all those exemplary writings to examine their structure, but, like Vladimir in Waiting for Godot, I remained in the dark.
The light dawned for me on a sunny afternoon in the summer of 1995, when I was taking Rob Kendall's Hypertext Poetry & Fiction class online at the New School. We'd been assigned to read Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden, which of course I'd already tried to read more than once before. I was tired. I was exasperated. I gave up. I got it. All of a sudden, the whole elaborate structure of Victory Garden emerged from the murk in my mind, and I could see it -- better, I could feel it. Thinking about it didn't help, looking at the maps didn't help, poking around under the hood didn't help. As best I can explain it, the only thing that worked was to look at enough of it enough times -- and then I could read it, almost the way you read someone's face or body language. Now I'd been writing seriously for decades: I was a prize-winning playwright, a published poet and fictioneer -- and I had no idea writing could do that.
Technical developmentThe rest of my story's pretty much all tech.
We Descend was originally written and built in Storyspace 1 on Macintosh computers running System 7 through MacOS 9. Vol. 1 was published by Eastgate in 1997 for Mac or Windows on floppy disk. The two versions differ significantly from each other in look-&-feel.
An HTML excerpt for Rob Kendall's resource site WordCircuits was prepared in early 1998, using Adobe PageMill and Netscape Composer. By early 2006, most Macs were running OS X (which cannot open Storyspace 1 files) and post-iMac machines (i.e., after 2000) lacked a floppy drive, so I "translated" the Mac version into Storyspace 2, (which works in OS X) so that Eastgate could offer both Mac and Windows versions of We Descend bundled on CD.
We Descend Vol. 2 got underway in late 1998, using then-current Storyspace 1.7.5, and was eventually upgraded through Storyspace 2.5.1. At that point, Mark Bernstein was concentrating on Tinderbox, so work on We Descend Vol. 2 was migrated to Tinderbox in 2006.
In 2009, several experimental demos of We Descend Vol. 2 were constructed in Emberlight, a web app developed by Nathan Matias and Fred Cheung that published Tinderbox files directly on the web. But in 2011 Nathan accepted an offer to study at the Media Lab at MIT, so Emberlight's future became uncertain.
Tinderbox, a tool for making notes and visualizing information, improves on many of Storyspace's writing and organizing functions: its text engine is superior, and mapping has many more capabilities and much better aesthetics. Probably the best thing for me about using Tinderbox for developing We Descend is the ability to just write it, allowing organization to emerge organically, without my having to build containers and structures first, as I had to do with database-like programs such as Hypercard, and which is still the way with authoring platforms like Scrivener and most outliners.
Tinderbox can export all or part of the contents of a file to HTML and OPML, permitting an author to publish to the web or mobile devices -- though considerable pre- and post-processing is necessary, involving a lot of trial-and-error backing and forthing to get a satisfactory result. Tinderbox does not provide for spawning a Reader app such as Storyspace offered, no doubt because "everything's moving to the Cloud" -- which doesn't sound like a very stable... um, platform to build on, to me at least, but maybe this is just another concept that'll take this first-term Truman baby years to get.
In the meantime, I plan to soldier on in Tinderbox until We Descend is finished.
For a fuller description of We Descend and the topic for which it is the "test file" -- text, meat, ghosts -- see my talk for ELO2012
Vol. 1 of We Descend is available on CD from Eastgate Systems.
An HTML excerpt from Vol. 1 is featured in the Gallery at Word Circuits. A demo of Vol. 2 of We Descend can be read at its website and blog. Software: Storyspace, Tinderbox (both from Eastgate Systems).