Rebooting Electronic Literature: Documenting Pre-Web Born Digital Media

Introduction to Rebooting Electronic Literature

Rebooting Electronic Literature is an open-source, multimedia book that documents seven pre-web works of electronic literature held in the Electronic Literature Lab (ELL) library at Washington State University Vancouver. The seven works selected for this project are among the most unique and fragile. Sarah Smith's King of Space (1991), the first documented e-lit work of science fiction, was produced with the early hypertext authoring Hypergate. David Kolb's Socrates in the Labyrinth (1994) is one of a handful of hypertext essays produced during the pre-web period and certainly the only one focusing on philosophy. J Yellowlees Douglas' "I Have Said Nothing" (1994), which—along with Michael Joyce’s afternoon: a story—appeared  in  W. W. Norton & Co.’s Postmodern American Fiction (1997), the only works of electronic literature ever published in one of Norton’s many collections. Thomas M. Disch's AMNESIA (1986) is a text adventure game, the only published by Electronic Arts and one of a handful authored by a prominent print writer. Rob Kendall's A Life Set for Two (1996) is an animated poem programmed by the artist in Visual Basic. Judy Malloy's its name was Penelope, Version 3.0 (1993) is a retooling of Version 2.0 (1990) by Mark Bernstein from the original BASIC program into the Storyspace aesthetic. Finally, Mary-Kim Arnold's "Lust" (1994) packaged with Douglas’ in The Eastgate Quarterly Review, Volume 1, Number 2 is a hypertext that straddles the genre of fiction and poetry.

These seven works were produced with programming languages, Visual Basic and Applesoft BASIC; custom authoring systems, Hypergate and the King Edward Adventure game authoring system; and the proprietary software program, Storyspace. All 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. Due to their availability through commercial distribution, these works were influential in shaping literary theory and criticism currently used today to discuss born digital writing. To date, none have been migrated to a more contemporary format and only two––AMNESIA and its name was Penelope––have been emulated for access by a contemporary public. Thus, these are works in danger of becoming inaccessible to the public because they were produced on and for computer platforms that today are obsolete.

The documentation methodology, built from the Pathfinders approach pioneered by Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop [1] centers on two important processes:  First, live performances––or what Moulthrop and Grigar called the Traversal [2]––streamed on YouTube of readers and/or authors performing the work on the hardware and software on which the works were originally intended; second, the addition of audience engagement via Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube live chat. Along with videos of the live stream Traversals and screenshots of social media posts, the book features images of the packaging of the work, such as folios, floppy disks, manuals, and paper inserts. It also includes historical information about the work and critical essays.

In developing the project, we aim to provide information helpful to scholars. Publication dates, versions, and production methods have been vetted by publishers and artists, when possible, with the intent of clearing up discrepancies relating to this information as well as offer previously unknown details about these works. Douglas' "I Have Said Nothing," for example, shows a 1993 publication date in some databases but actually appeared in The Eastgate Quarterly Review of Hypertext in the winter of 1994. The title screen of the version of Malloy’s its name was Penelope published by Eastgate Systems, Inc. shows a copyright date of 1992, but the work was not published until 1993. The cultural importance of dates is seen most clearly, however, with Smith’s King of Space. It was published in 1991 on 3.5-inch floppy disk by Eastgate Systems, Inc. with the company's early hypertext authoring program, Hypergate. Hypergate had become "operational" by 1988 when Smith had begun work on the King of Space. By 1990 the company had licensed Storyspace from Riverrun, Ltd., owned by Joyce, Jay David Bolter, and John Smith. Eastgate Systems, Inc. thereafter abandoned further development of Hypergate, [3] a decision may have impacted the migration of Smith's hypertext novel to CD-ROM technology. Thus, correcting the record with precise information ensures authority control, mitigates potential confusions and ambiguity, most importantly, helps to explain the development trajectory of particular works.

Written and produced by the ELL Team––Dene Grigar, Nicholas Schiller, Vanessa Rhodes, Mariah Gwin, Veronica Whitney, and Katie Bowen––the book features 85,000 words of artist biographies, descriptions of media, and critical essays; 350 photos of artists, works, and their original packaging; and 55 videos of artist readings and interviews and Live Stream Traversals. Producing a collaborative book such as this one meant we had to draw upon specific expertise and strengths each team member possessed and, at the same time, all be willing and able to jump in where needed. [4] We also recognized that because four of our team members were undergraduate researchers who may want to apply to graduate programs or one day seek employment––and two of which were graduating in May 2018––we acknowledge the importance of calling out each member's primary duties on the development of this book:
  • Dene Grigar, PhD: Conceptualized the book, wrote the introduction and all seven essays, and developed all of the materials for the resource pages
  • Nicholas Schiller, MLIS: Copyedited the book and wrote the descriptions of the Traversal videos for some of the works
  • Vanessa Rhodes, B.A.: Wrote the copy for all photo descriptions for each of the works
  • Mariah Gwin: Edited videos from the Live Stream Traversals for each of the works
  • Veronica Whitney, B.A.: Photographed all works and wrote the descriptions of the Traversal videos for most of the works
  • Katie Bowen: Edited all of the social media photos from all of the Live Stream Traversals and wrote the copy for each of them
We also wish to acknowledge artist Will Luers who developed the art for the "cover" of the book and along with Greg Philbrook, helped us to style some of its pages. 

This open-source, multimedia book is made possible by Washington State University's Lewis E. and Stella G. Buchanan Distinguished Professorship and support by Washington State University Vancouver. 

Finally, 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.


[1] See Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop's Pathfinders: Documenting the Experience of Early Digital Literature. 2015.

[2] They define a Traversal as "a reflective encounter with a digital text in which the possibilities of that text are explored in a way that indicates its key features, capabilities, and themes" (authors' emphasis). They also state that "a Traversal must take place on equipment configured as closely as possible to the system used to create the work or on which the work might have been expected to reach its initial audience." See Moulthrop and Grigar's Traversals: The Use of Preservation for Early Electronic Writing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017, 7.

[3] Belinda Barnet outlines the development of early hypertext programs like Hypergate and Storyspace in her book, Memory Machines: The Evolution of Hypertext. London, UK: Anthem Press, 2014. See pages 131-133.

[4] Our philosophy of collaborative team structure follows that of a "seamless design of network knowledge" argued for by Aaron Mauro, Daniel Powell, Sarah Potvin, Jacob Heil, Eric Dye, Bridget Jenkins, and Dene Grigar in which "collaboration [is] locally-determined,  designed, and mutually productive, regardless of standing within or without academic institutions; there must be an intentional ethics that is both transparent and adaptive to the needs of the team." See "Toward a Seamless Design of Network Knowledge: Practical Pedagogies in Collaborative Teams. Digital Humanities Quarterly. 2017 11.3.

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