Concepts of Reading in the Digital Era
Abstract and Keywords
Digital reading has been an object of fervent scholarly and public debates since the mid-1990s. Often digital reading has been associated solely with what may happen between readers and screens, and in dominant approaches digital reading devices have been seen as producing radically different readers than printed books produce.
Far from merely reducing digital reading to a mere matter of what e-books might do to the attention spans of individual readers, however, contemporary critiques emphasize how digital computing affects and is being affected by neurological, sensory, kinetic, and apparatical processes. The future of reading has too many different aspects to be discussed by scholars of one discipline or field of study alone. Digital reading is as much a matter for neurologists as for literary scholars, for engineers as much as ergonomicians, for psychologists, physiologists, media historians, art critics, critical theorists, and many others. Scholars of literature will need to consult many fields to elaborate a future poetics of digital reading and examine how literary texts in all their different forms are and will be met by 21st-century readers.
Libraries are filled with volumes chronicling the history of the book and discussing how different social, political, and technological frameworks have produced, and have been produced by, different cultures of reading. Digital archives and databases abound with electronic essays and analyses addressing the impact of digital culture on people’s modes of processing the written word. Various national and international research projects are on their way to produce empirical data and reliable sociological, psychological, and neurological knowledge of how the advent of e-readers such as Amazon’s Kindle or the iPad affect individual reading patterns and attentional economies, while scholars in newer fields such as game studies ask whether the story of the printed book has simply come to an end or needs to be incorporated into disciplines such as media studies or ludology.1 The principal ambition of this essay is to map theoretical positions that think through different modes of reading in the present digital age. The article sketches out a number of paradigmatic perspectives that frame possible approaches to studying reading in the first place. The account presented here, therefore, will not do justice to the richness of writing on reading that has developed in various scholarly communities and cultures in recent decades. The primary point is simply to outline a number of key perspectives and theoretical questions that have driven or continue to drive current thinking about reading and digital textuality as primarily formulated by North American critics, who have proven to be of exemplary value to navigating the field in general.
The Spirit of Departure in the 1990s
The widespread arrival of Internet-based communication and information technologies in the early 1990s coincided with fervent scholarly debates about a so-called visual turn in contemporary culture and the humanities. While Internet browsers such as Mosaic translated digital data into navigable surfaces on-screen and email programs began to open new popular avenues for electronic messaging, theorists of culture pointed toward tectonic shifts in the landscapes of self-expression, information, meaning, knowledge, and pleasure: from words to images, from reading to seeing.2 The surfeit of mediated images energized scholarly work in fields such as art history, anthropology, cultural studies, film studies, philosophy, and psychology. At the same time, however, this raised considerable fears about the future of reading and writing, the rise of digital technologies often considered as the end of the Gutenberg galaxy, and the condition for the possibility of focused, critical reading and competent writing.3
As numerous theorists and critics during the 1990s began to ponder the pictorial turns of contemporary culture, a different set of scholars mapped the emergence of new forms and genres of electronic literature, produced since the 1980s with the help of personal computers and distributed through the emerging World Wide Web to interested readers in the 1990s.4 Though the objects of their study—hypertext fiction and computer-generated poetry—remained at the fringes of the established canons of literary analysis, the new faces of writing in the age of digital culture were often enthusiastically greeted as a culmination of poststructuralist and deconstructivist interventions. Mostly created with the help of the then popular Storyspace software, pathbreaking work such as Michael Joyce’s afternoon (1987), Stuart Moulthrop’s Victory Garden (1991), and Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl (1995), according to this perspective, exemplified what critics such as Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Paul de Man onward had theorized from the mid-1960s as the fundamental instabilities of all writing and reading. HTML’s hyperlinks exploded both the spatial and temporal boundaries of individual texts; they at once highlighted the extent to which any textual practice echoes the existence of other texts and questioned the category of the autonomous work and its closure as a central unit of traditional literary analysis and hermeneutical meaning-making. The malleability of digital material online and onscreen also emphasized the active role of the reader in the production of what may count as a text in the first place. Digital culture, it was argued, would finalize the death of the author that French critical theory had foretold in various ways in the decades preceding the arrival of personal computing. While some feared the end of reading and writing altogether, others thus embraced and celebrated digital and networked communication as the birth of a new reader: one emancipated from the authority of the text, one speculatively engaging the open-ended play of signifiers, one no longer bound to texts as fixed containers of meaning and intentionality. In her 1997 book, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, Janet H. Murray expressed this spirit of rupture and departure perhaps most forcefully when calling on her readers to “imagine a future digital medium, shaped by the hacker’s spirit and the enduring power of the imagination and worthy of the rapture our children are bringing to it.”5
Transitions in the 2000s
The new millennium certainly bore witness to the development of digital media and mediums unfathomed even in the most technophilic visions of the 1990s. Digital devices not only penetrated every fissure of the everyday; they also had an impact on structures of perception, knowledge, and pleasure far beyond the presence of what initially was seen as digital culture’s principal interface: the static computer screen and its representation of hyperlinked text elements. With the dramatic rise of locational and handheld media, the growing ubiquity of digitally powered interfaces, the success story of touchscreens coming in all shapes and sizes, and the ever more potent presence of wearable and haptic media, the primary association of the digital with the seemingly transparent “window” of a fixed computer screen no longer met the realities of the early new century.6 Unlike the critics of the 1990s, who celebrated the digital as a radical departure from the physical strictures of the body and the recalcitrant burdens of materiality, 21st-century scholarship increasingly came to reckon with the fact that digital media owned bodies as well and were embedded in and helped produce embedded matter.7 Far from solely producing disembodied onlookers of abstract data on-screen, digital new media could just as well serve as engines of embodiment, recalibrating the relationship between mind and matter and thereby reorganizing the realm of the sensible. For example, as stressed in particular by the work of scholars and artists at the SpecLab at the University of Virginia, digital media could do much more than simply serve as cold and abstract handlers of data. Understood as a medium whose materiality mattered, the computer, in the words of Johanna Drucker, here was employed to “create aesthetic provocations—visual, verbal, textual results that were surprising and unpredictable”8 and precisely thus helped (re)articulate the embodied subjectivity of its users.
And yet instead of following such expansions of the horizon of discussion, scholarly and public writing about the location of digital reading in the new millennium has primarily come to focus on the question of screen reading, on how individual readers, when facing the display of text on devices such as Kindles, iPads, and NOOKS as they were introduced after 2007, are able to hold on to reading practices shaped by print-based materials or find themselves forced to develop new habits and strategies of appropriation.9 In the wake of media theorists such as Friedrich Kittler, one tendency has been to hold technological innovations directly responsible for changes in cultural practice, that is to say, to deny possible differences between technical hardware and cultural software and consider new media platforms as being in full control over what users might want to and can do with them. A sketch of this argument, of how screens produce different readers than printed text, and of how different hardware configuration result in different cognitive, physiological, and sensory operations, has typically looked like this:
Although we might at first think of the pages of a book as a window to the world generated by the text, as a transparent frame effectively transporting us into a different and imaginary time and place, such metaphors largely fail to address how books have historically managed to grasp a reader’s mind and attention. A book’s page can be a self-effacing looking glass onto a different order of things, but much depends on the reader and the context. Readers may find themselves fully immersed in what the letters on paper communicate to them, but at the same time they experience the physical turning of the page, the quality of the paper, or the material properties of the cover as something that deeply contributes to how they hold on to the book and allow it to move them forward in time. A book’s physical properties matter to the act of reading. They play a considerable role in seizing our attention and inviting us to enter a curious space of temporal negotiation; a space in which our own sense of time, a book’s story time, and the time it might take to physically read its letters and sentences in their prearranged order meet and take hold of each other. Books invite us to get lost, to lose ourselves within their pages, precisely because they provide something steady and permanent, something we can touch as much as it can touch upon us. By contrast, the “window and frame” metaphor is much more appropriate to describe reading text on a screen than in a printed book. Screens and reading software encourage us to scroll down, zoom in and out, travel across, and scan and skip text similar to the way in which viewers might use a window to peruse distant realities at their own will. Unlike the printed word, digital text has no real existence or permanence. Digital text allows vast possibilities of nonlinear appropriation, whether we use search functions, follow embedded hyperlinks, or in fact start to reassemble its form or order with the help of different software functions. Digital reading, then, is closer to roaming. It empowers readers to meet a text on their own temporal terms and immerse themselves in their own ability to manipulate what appears in front of them rather than in the world represented by the words. Existing in some strange nowhere land, text on screen not only asks us to find or plot a way, but find or plot our way to define what we want to count as text in the first place.
There is no doubt considerable value in argumentative sketches like this. Media technologies structure, define, and reflect cultural practices, and there is ample evidence—scientific and anecdotal—that readers approach and consume e-books quite differently than printed material. And yet such arguments rarely do justice to the complexities of digital reading in the 21st century, not least because they measure digital reading against the normative bedrock of print reading, whereas the true challenge might be to understand digital reading as an expansion and reformulation of what might count as reading to begin with.
It has become commonplace to say that no aspect of literary culture today is free of digital mediation, whether it concerns the production, the distribution, the advertising, the delivery, the reception, the analysis, or the preservation of written material even in its most traditional form. Moreover, though many fault digital writing and reading for promoting a decline in textual competence, it has also become clear that the spread of new media and personal computational devices since the 1990s did not kill writing, or that the late 20th century’s turn toward the visual eliminated the mental resources necessary for productive acts of reading. The first decades of the 21st century will certainly not be remembered for a dearth of writing and reading; on the contrary, the production and consumption of written language today clearly trumps that of any other age, with email defining new standards for the speed of mediated exchange, with social media blurring what previous eras considered the lines between the intimate and the public, and with text messaging serving as a virtual lifeline for the communicative needs and self-expressive energies of an entire generation. Reading in the digital era is alive and well. It may simply exist in new places, rely on technological platforms other than the printed page, and involve structures of attention that fundamentally differ from the ones that characterized the history of reading during the preceding decades, and even centuries.
And yet even though the digital can be found in all kinds of forms, locations, and practices of textuality today, most public debates about the future of reading reduce the status of reading in the digital age to the question of screen and e-book reading.10 In these debates, e-book reading is often feared to usher readers into a state of utter dematerialization, producing highly distracted and multitasking subjects no longer able to enjoy either the deep absorption or the attentive criticality of previous generations.11 As displayed on tablets or cell phone screens, the objects of reading are often seen to lose any sense of integrity, that is, the kind of authority they may require to incite curiosity, prolonged attention, critical engagement, and aesthetic pleasure. Instead, screen reading is perceived to foster reading habits that value narcissistic self-management and uncommitted window-shopping over deep engagement, identification, and learning. Moreover, as practiced with the assistance of paperless e-books, digital reading continues to be seen as a cultural practice that threatens the fabrics of memory and tradition, the fleetingness of pixels and code undermining the materiality of the archive, the preservation and storage of cultural treasures, and the physical infrastructures necessary to retain and revisit important texts.
Similar to historical debates about the cultural impact of virtual reality in the 1990s, the majority of conversations about the transformation of reading in the age of the digital today remain deeply Manichean in nature. While presumed technophobes continue to battle with apparent technophiles and utter enthusiasm clashes with profound skepticism, participants in these debates often feel pressed to assume positions as if the only options were either to go fully digital with electronic devices or to stay entirely analog with the help of print-based books. Though certainly no technophobe hostile to the transformation of reading under the aegis of the digital, Naomi S. Baron perhaps expresses the array of lingering suspicions best when at the end of her Words on Screen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World she passes the ball of judgment to the reader without really questioning the presumed binary of digital and nondigital reading:
Today’s digital technologies place no limits on text length or complexity. Richardson’s complete Clarissa is available as an eBook from Amazon, keeping company with Kindle Singles. You can read Aristotle on your mobile phone if you choose, and no one is stopping you from rereading Pride and Prejudice on your tablet as many times as you please. The real question is whether the affordances of reading onscreen lead us to a new normal. One in which length and complexity and annotation and memory and rereading and especially concentration are proving more challenging than when reading in hardcopy. One in which we are willing to say that if the new technology doesn’t encourage these approaches to reading, maybe these approaches aren’t so valuable after all. Is this the new normal we want? In case not, the ball is in your court.12
Four scholarly positions on digital reading entail more than what may happen between e-book screens and users, each of them recognizing readers of digital text as more than mere effects of hardware configurations. Though all of these positions accord specificity to the concept and practice of digital reading, at the same time, they move beyond the binary of pixel and print, screen and page. One example of digital writing and reading indicates the need to think of the digital as dynamic, not simply displacing older practices of reading but recalibrating the very notion of what it might mean to read and thus transcending the Manichaeism that continues to inform mainstream approaches to the question of digital reading.
Digital Reading and Cognitive Remodeling
Curiously never published in any e-book format, N. Katherine Hayles’s 2008 Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary13 remains one of the most seminal explorations of literary changes in the era of the digital. Primarily meant to map new forms of creative writing and formal experimentation under the sign of computational culture, Hayles’s book offers an important window on what processes of digital mediation might do to acts of reading. Contrary to the agendas of many fellow literary critics and media theorists, her effort is to understand new media as complex negotiations of technological innovations, social infrastructures, and cultural practices, rather than to present media—deterministically, as it were—as authoritative structures fully controlling what users might want and can do with them. “Many scholars in the humanities,” Hayles argues, “think of the digital computer as an inflexible brute force machine, useful for calculating but limited by its mechanical nature to the simplest kind of operations. This is both true and false—true in that everything computable must be reduced to binary code to be executed, but false in the belief that this inevitably limits the computer to simple mechanical tasks with no possibility for creativity, originality, or anything remotely like cognition.”14 In order to overcome common assumptions about human-computer interactions, Hayles’s analysis focuses on experimental literary texts that use computational devices such as cellular automata and codelet functions that bootstrap digital and analog processes. Her interest is in literary works that rely on dynamic hierarchies between digital computer and user, namely, multitiered systems of reciprocity that rely on various feedback and feed-forward loops and are designed to allow the computer’s algorithmic and the user’s cognitive operations to continuously inform and mutually determine each other.
Rather than thinking of the computer as a machine producing and processing data and the human brain as an organ generating interpretations and meanings, Hayles considers the neurological and the computational as mutually implicated, one interpreting and enhancing the other in such a way that—in Edward Fredkin’s formulation—“the meaning of information is given by the process that interprets it.”15 What Hayles calls intermediation, that is, the process by which certain emergent patterns or operational structures of one medium are captured, represented, and further developed by another, is also seen at the heart of electronic literature. Discussing the work of authors such as Michael Joyce, Maria Mencia, and particularly Judd Morrissey, Hayles argues that electronic literature has the unique ability at once to perform and allegorize, to represent and re-represent the intermediation of machine and user intelligence, of code and cognition, of information and knowledge. Electronic literature, she concludes, evokes this ability whenever its texts perform
actions that bind together author and program, player and computer, into a complex system characterized by intermediating dynamics. The computer’s performance builds high-level responses out of low-level processes that interpret binary code. These performances elicit emergent complexity in the player, whose cognitions likewise build up from the low-level processes interpreting sensory and perceptual input to high-level thoughts that possess much more powerful and flexible cognitive powers than the computer does, but that nevertheless are bound together with the computer’s subcognitive processes through intermediating dynamics.16
To read in the age of digital computing, then, is to engage in complexity-generating processes of intermediation. Rather than crunching human subjectivity, intelligence, and expressivity with their soulless abstractions, computers have the capability to train readers to read with categorically different forms of self-reflection. The effect of computational processes, as they permeate all aspects of literary production and consumption today, is to empower new types of readers uniquely able to explore the feedbacks loops and mutual interpretations of human and machine cognition. It redefines reading as a cultural practice that reimagines literary works as open-ended games to be played, as challenging dynamics that augment cognitive and interpretive processes and define language and code, consciousness and program as reciprocal agents. To read in the area of the digital is not simply to consume text on screen but to participate in an exciting drama of adaptive coevolution. It is to invite the human reader to investigate the operations of his or her own consciousness and cognition, and to allow machinic intelligence to learn from and in turn impact the workings of neural processes. Instead of dumbing down the cultural practice of reading, digital textuality offers readers sites to understand themselves better, remake their cognitive capabilities, and—in a word—become smarter.
Digital Reading and the Senses
If Hayles’s concept of intermediation is meant to stress how digital reading can at once explore, reveal, and allegorize the reciprocal cognitive advances of algorithmic machines and human brains, a second strain of thought has sought, from a more phenomenological perspective, to highlight the extent to which digital reading may expand the body’s sensory, tactile, and kinesthetic interactions with its environments. Hayles herself has certainly contributed to this line of thinking as well, ultimately trying to fold cognitive and somatic, neurological and phenomenological arguments into one conceptual dynamic. But the strongest advocate for this argument has been Mark B. Hansen, arguing in books such as Bodies in Code: Interfaces with New Media (2006) and New Philosophy for New Media (2004) that digital technologies have a unique potential to foster and complicate processes of embodiment.17 Rather than usher users into an age of bleak abstraction and sense-less intellectualism, what makes new media new in Hansen’s perspective is their unique ability to recalibrate the body’s sense of place, its extension into the world, and its self-perception as a moving entity amid other things in motion.
Hansen’s point of departure is the dual assumption (1) that human bodies, long before the arrival of digital tools, always already operated as media, constantly developing models and schemata of how to relate sensorily to their environment, and (2) that digital technologies and code, though often seen as mechanisms of virtualization and cerebral weightlessness, own bodies and material existence as well and hence are as much part of the physical world as the bodies of their users. Rather than inhabiting radically different ontological universes, then, technologies and bodies share common ground: the former cannot exist in the world without a physical base; the latter cannot do without certain technics and technologies of mediation to relate to the world. Due to their advanced way of interacting with and responding to a user’s input, Hansen argues, digital technologies assume a privileged position to “lend support to a phenomenological account of embodiment and expose the technical element that has always inhabited and mediated our embodied coupling with the world.”18 With installations such as Text Rain (1999) by Romy Achituv and Camille Utterback in mind, Hansen concludes that computational culture produces readers for whom performative acts of reading reveal the technological substructure and sensory technics of the human organism as much as the ineluctable, albeit often denied, physicality of digital code. To read in the age of the digital is to link bodies and machines in such a way that both can map their material specificities onto each other and co-develop the physical, physiological, and psychological underpinnings of mediation. To read digitally is to explore and reposition the body’s relation to the world and to probe different structures and technics of embodiment.
Perhaps less philosophical and complex, yet also more specific and tangible, versions of Hansen’s intervention can be found in the accounts of scholars such as Roberto Simanowski emphasizing the kinesthetic dimensions of digital reading without necessarily insisting on the material coevolution of code, technology, and the human organism.19 Due to the platforms, devices, and interfaces that circulate it, digital literature in 2016 mostly entails that textuality is consumed on the move. Digital text makes and marks our built environment through ubiquitous screens and wraparound news tickers, ambient monitors, and handheld displays such as smartphone screens and portable tablets. Literary texts are thus not merely consumed in mid-stride and with different degrees of attention; they also rely on the reader’s own sense of motion, a text’s shapes and meanings animating as much as being animated by a user’s kinetic energies. Moreover, as the work of media artists and digital “writers” such as Achituv and Utterback, Julius Popp, and Noah Wardrip-Fruin indicates, digital literature reckons with a user’s interaction and feedback, stress textual surfaces over hermeneutic depth, and valorize audience experience and the performativity of reception over an author’s modes of self-expression. Most of all, however, it anticipates and puts to work readers whose sense of motility—their often unpredictable movements, contingent pathways of interaction, and individualized durational commitments—is critical for unlocking the full potential of particular works. A reader’s movement through space, his or her kinetic engagement, is thus constitutive for the construction of meaning of digital textuality. Because the digital has unmoored texts from their former sites and invites readers to be with, produce, and consume text in ever-changing places, to read digitally is to use the body and its motions as an active element in the making of what might count as text in the first place.20
Rather than providing avenues into sensory abstraction, then, digital reading unfolds in likeness to the way in which viewers navigate the environments of screen-based installation art, probing ever different angles and routes to engage with a particular work, or of gamers who traverse the virtual landscapes of a videogame, using sensory stimuli and input to steer a path through worlds characterized by real rules and fictional setups.21 It calls for literary critics willing to suspend former models of hermeneutic analysis and close reading and instead consider reading as an architectural practice, an activity in space relating different movements, trajectories, and temporalities, a form of spatial practice ceaselessly negotiating the relation of words, ambient environments, and bodies (in motion).
Digital Reading as Finger and Multimodal Reading
A third approach to digital reading can be found in efforts to retrace the concept’s etymological past and see it as something familiar to human readers with a much longer history than the recent arrival of modern-day computing devices. The word digital derives from the Latin digitus, meaning the finger or toe, that is, corporeal extremities that have the ability to point at, touch, identify, and manipulate worldly matter in a controlled fashion.22 The digitus is an organ of intentional recognition and deliberate separation. It sets apart what is continuous for the purpose of better orientation; it renders calculable and fragments what may be contiguous into manageable units. The digitus is at the origin, not simply of our ability and desire to count, but of the measurability of the world and the reign of modern instrumental reason. It is for this reason that the finger has always had a troubled relationship to the aesthetic. To be sure, Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel or Steven Spielberg’s E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) celebrate the finger as a direct conduit to the divine and transcendental, as the self-effacing portal to touch on and be touched by spiritual forces. But much more influential is the image of the isolated finger as a mere tool that debases aesthetic creativity and experience, that fragments coherence and fluidity, that brings death to what should showcase abundant life. One may only think of late 19th-century writers resisting the coming of typewriters, being fearful that the hammering of individual keys would drain the power of the poetic imagination. Or think of the children in the opening of Fritz Lang’s M as they use their fingers to count each other out and thus anticipate their own future as objects of a mass murderer’s urge to kill. An advocate of what is discrete and therefore computable, the finger—the digitus—often seems to lack what artistic creation and experience has been understood to be about. It aspires to count and control rather than synthesize. It hopes to point at and identify something as something rather than open the door toward the incommensurable. It wants to arrest objects in time and space instead of liquefying hardened forms of subjectivity and probing the habitual mechanisms of perception.
And yet to associate the digitus solely with a logic of willful classification and goal-oriented action, dispute its aesthetic potentiality, and then in turn project such assumptions onto the scenes of contemporary digital culture so as to rebuke it as the downfall of true art and aesthetic experience falls short of the historical richness of “finger” reading. Consider, for instance, the fact that Braille, developed in the early 19th century as a tactile writing system to allow the blind, or those with limited vision, to read all kinds of texts, relied and continues to rely on the capacity of individual or multiple fingers to recognize embossed code and translate it into meanings.23 Designed in the wake of the upsurge of individual reading around 1800 and of widespread concerns about reading’s effects on the bourgeois subject’s soul (in particular those of female readers), Braille’s code tried to bring literary masterpieces to blind readers and hence to situate the reader’s finger as a dependable portal or interface to the aesthetic and its imaginary elsewheres and elsewhens. It is therefore no coincidence that Braille code plays a central function in digital touchscreen projects such as the iPad novella Pry, developed by the art collective Tender Claws in 2014.
Rather than seeing the etymological history of the digital and its association with both the tactile and the measurable as a burden on reading in the age of the digital, scholars have come to recognize it as an important reminder that, first, the history of reading is not simply a history of visual and hence silent, solitary, essentially spiritualized reading as cultivated by poets, image makers, and pedagogues since the Renaissance, and, second, digital reading at heart is multimodal reading, engaging multiple sensory channels and platforms as interfaces to access extant textualities. Contrary to its theorists of the 1990s, digital writing and electronic textuality in the new millennium do much more than simply put to work the decentering force of hyperlinks. Instead, text has come to aggregate or combine different modalities of communication: it often relies on written language as much as on still or moving images, on sound and music, on embedded graphs and charts, on the combination of certain elements with relative stability and others that may refresh and hence change with varying frequencies. Moreover, given the ever expanding functionality of positioning systems and locational mapping, what scholars may call text encountered via the screens of mobile gadgets increasingly responds to the movements and geographical positions of the reader. What this all means is that reading text and literature today is by no means a merely visual exercise of decoding written language. Electronic literature at once presupposes and trains readers able and eager to competently follow the train of fictional narratives across different media platforms and multiple channels of information. It situates the poetic not simply in the visual gestalt of written letters and lines, but in how these may interact with fleeting images and atmospheric sound bites. To be a reader of electronic literature is to be touched by literary or poetic objects, not simply because they enter the reader’s soul through the eye, its proverbial window, but because the reader will literally touch on these texts and in so doing affect their existence in the world. As indicated by the etymological origins of the word “digital,” then, digital reading engages multiple sensory channels and modes of input, including the sense of touch, to embrace multimodal streams of information as unstable objects of knowledge, imaginary travel, pleasure, and meaning.
Reading, Writing, and Being Read
Though certainly known at early junctures of cultural developments and media history as well (think for instance of the readers of highly ornamented medieval and early modern folios), multimodal writing and reading today are largely energized by how digital hard- and software platforms support the convergence of different channels of information. Because the 0s and 1s of digital code are agnostic to what kind of files, documents, or computational objects are to be encoded with them, the digital breaks down ontological boundaries between images, sounds, and words, enabling the principal possibility of converting or transposing one into the other, and aggregates or fuses all into the unity of one document. To read digitally is to be an adept navigator of contemporary convergence culture,24 the way in which stationary or mobile computing devices today—in Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin’s words25—easily remediate former media technologies such as the printed book, the record and tape player, the photographic image, and the cinematographic camera and projector, and combine their respective logics for the sake of making and disseminating new hybrid media objects.
No account of reading in the age of digital computing is therefore complete without addressing how computational convergence culture destabilizes former boundaries between processes of production and consumption, writing and reading. What earlier generations of theorists applauded as the death of the author, and what caused many a critic of 20th-century modernism to understand readers, listeners, or viewers as co-participants in the creation of aesthetic objects, has become commonplace under the sign of 21st century convergence culture and it rise of the so-called prosumer. Digital prosumers see no principal difference in receiving and remaking or down- and uploading, between accessing, recalibrating, and making accessible digital data. They understand the instability of digital objects as the baseline of cultural practice and creativity, and they symbolize the cultural conditions under which former distinctions between (and hierarchies of) makers and theorists, between creative and analytical processes, between originals, copies, remakes, samples, and mash-ups increasingly lose their former clarity and validity. In her 2014 book, Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound,26 Lori Emerson has suggested the term “readingwriting” to conceptualize the impact of digital feedback loops and prosumer practices under fully networked computational conditions. While also meant to advocate experimental practices that could probe and denaturalize the ideological transparency of contemporary interfaces of reading and writing—the masking of underlying templates in the name of user-friendliness—Emerson’s concept is helpful to underscore the fact that in our computational culture of ongoing remediation, convergence, and 24/7 networking, no act of reading can be considered as being independent from processes of writing, whether intentional or not, and that every act of writing is enmeshed in various reading processes, whether carried out by instant readers on other screens or by machines as they translate—read—a writer’s input into code, transmittable information, or measurable data.
Emerson’s concept of readingwriting reminds us of the fact that computational culture has come to promote everyday forms of reading—of machine reading—that have no real equivalent in the era of book print. Any attempt to develop a viable concept of digital reading must address how digital computers might carry out considerable reading efforts for human readers while also reading each other in ceaseless feedback loops of data processing.27 While computers may struggle with offering hermeneutical complexity or deconstructive textual finesse, digital soft- and hardware operations perform certain acts of reading at all times, with and without a reader’s awareness.28 Search engines such as Google read billions of web pages with the help of constantly refined search algorithms; they rank pages according to the number of other pages that link up to them and display this metric interpretation of available data whenever users request and read their advice. Amazon reads its customers’ search and purchase history when suggesting future readings to them and whetting their appetites for similar products. Web browsers read markup language such as HTML in order to convert code and embed digital objects into user-friendly representations. Network servers and routers constantly read incoming blocks of data to reverse the Internet’s primary mode of transmitting data, the process of packet switching. No single email comes to its reader in one piece solely along one route: with a single email broken into separate bits of information and sent along a multiplicity of different network paths to ensure the speed and robustness of communication, email readers unwittingly rely on a computer’s ability to interpret invisible headers and read metadata to receive even the most trivial email as one coherent message on-screen.
What all these examples illustrate is the fact that in the world of digital media platforms and networked information flows, the blurring of stable boundaries between reading and writing coincides with a radical increase in the number of possible agents of reading. Rather than silence words with images, digital convergence culture has drastically expanded existing practices, sites, technologies, and subjects of reading. As perhaps most poignantly investigated in installation work such as John Cayle and Daniel Howe’s How It Is in Common Tongues (2012), machines not only read like they have never done before, they read our own reading and process information thus gained for the production of new text, code, and data, whether we are meant to read them or not.
To read in the age of the digital, then, always also means to be read. To study the topologies, histories, and practices of reading in the age of networked computing is to consider and include processes often highly technical in nature and far beyond the expertise for which literary scholars and critics are traditionally known. Though often seen as soulless mechanisms draining the spirit from the humanities, machine reading today is too prevalent and too central to any act of reading to be ignored by those who profess to study the role and meaning of reading in society. And, as Emerson persuasively claims, whatever scholars in our age of digital networking and multimodal computation want to understand as the concept of literature needs to reckon with how reading today is not simply embedded in processes of writing but involves the feedback loops of machine reading, of being read by automatized algorithms and distant apparatuses, at all possible times:
Now that we are all constantly connected to networks, driven by invisible, formidable algorithms, the role of the writer and the nature of writing itself is being significantly transformed. Media poetics is fast becoming a practice not just of experimenting with the limits and the possibilities of writing interfaces but rather of readingwriting—the practice of writing through the network, which as it tracks, indexes, and algorithmizes every click and every bit of text we enter into the network is itself constantly reading our writing and writing our reading. This strange blurring of and even feedback loop between reading and writing signals a definitive shift in the nature and the definition of literature.29
Far from reducing digital reading to a mere matter of what e-books might do to the attention spans of individual readers, these various contemporary critiques emphasize how digital computing affects and is being affected by neurological, sensory, kinetic, and apparatical processes. These bootstrap readers and computational devices in sometimes symmetrical, at other times asymmetrical feedback loops. As it turns out, reading in the digital age is not always as radically new and different as many critics claim, whether with fear or praise. It may, for instance, tap into practices to which readers of medieval folios or 19th-century Braille code were already well accustomed. And yet it is difficulty to resist the thesis not only that reading in the digital age is qualitatively different from what it used to be during the Gutenberg era of print culture, but that the advent and proliferation of computational technologies indeed call for readjustments of what scholars and critics might want to understand as text, literature, interpretation, and reading in the first place. Instead of seeing digital reading as a fall from the grace of traditional reading practices, or—conversely—a revolutionary foray into a posthumanistic paradise, the positions discussed here all indicate that the true challenge is in understanding digital reading as an expansion of previous models of reading, one that invites us to recognize the historicity of all concepts of reading and in so doing inevitably makes us see even the past in a new light.
In closing, I wish to profile a work—Julius Popp’s bit.fall—that encapsulates all the different aspects in paradigmatic form, envisioning a reader for whom reading in the digital age might entail cognitive, sensory, and kinesthetic adventures as much as it may mean to be drawn into complex processes of machine reading, of being read. Installed in various locations—museums, art galleries, public spaces—ever since it first exhibition in 2006, bit.fall consists of hundreds of water nozzles mounted along a metal construction several meters above a capture basin.30 Magnetic vents allow each nozzle to emit individual water drops in a measured and controlled fashion, thus not simply producing a technological recreation of a waterfall but mimicking in highly ephemeral form the operations of both a computer screen and an inkjet printer and their respective abilities to represent data with the help of discrete units of information. Each of Popp’s nozzles is connected to and controlled by a central computer, which scans the websites of select news organizations in real time for their use of statistically relevant keywords and then issues the command to “print” these words using the water contraption. Seemingly endless cascades of words thus fall with high frequency from the metal beam into the capture basin. Just as we are able to identify one of the buzzwords of the day, we will see the concept disappear again, briefly replaced by yet another one. The text offered to the eye of the reader is highly fragmented and heterogeneous, and yet—or precisely because of this—it communicates the conflicts, obsessions, and dramas of our accelerated present effectively. Bit.fall invites the viewer to read its texts from all possible angles and sides, to walk around the installation and probe different bodily relationships to the words on display, to look through the cascade of falling water as much as to stretch out one’s hand to read its words haptically or even, on hot days, to step straight through the gush of drops to cool down.
By using water drops as a medium of presentation and representation, Popp stresses not only the fleeting and amorphous character of our age of global networking and instantaneous connectivity but also the ontology of flow, instability, and openness often seen at the very heart of the digital. To write, here, means to empower machines to read other machines, yet precisely in so doing also to wrest brief moments of legibility, reference, and meaning from the contemporary noise of information overload. Yet to read is to engage in a continual effort to identify traces of writing in the first place and to explore possible connections between isolated text fragments. At first, Popp’s human readers might be reminded of The Matrix and the image of downward streaming code in the film’s opening sequence as it offers a prelude to what turns out to be the digital backbone of a postapocalyptic world of pure simulation. Popp’s bit.fall, however, remains distant to how most works of science fiction—The Matrix included—indulge in images of calamitous futures. As he at once visualizes and rubs against the ceaseless streaming of data and information in digital culture, Popp encourages the viewer of his installation to read in a new, and yet not entirely unfamiliar, key. On one level, bit.fall allegorizes and puts to work what Hayles calls intermediation. The work reveals the extent not only to which the meaning of information today requires processes that interpret them, but to which in the era of digital reading algorithms and human cognition may affect each other. While rapid neurological operations try to keep pace with the machinic production of text, computational mechanisms process and break down for us the unmanageability of human data and interpretation in a fully connected world. On a second level, Popp reckons with and (re)trains readers eager to engage with text haptically. Like Hansen’s subjects of digital culture, Popp’s readers, as they stretch their hands into the waterfall (or at least toy with the idea of doing so), seek to read words with their skin rather than their eyes. Yet in contrast to the prisoner of Franz Kafka’s story “In the Penal Colony,” Popp’s readers do not experience such forms of bodily reading as an administering of physical torture and death but as an exhilarating way of rendering the abstraction of today’s information flows more concrete and precisely thereby as a territorializing extension of the boundaries of one’s own body. Third, Popp’s installation challenges dominant traditions of reading that consider it at its best when engaged in as a silent, immobile, private, isolated, and absorbed activity. To read bit.fall is always also to read moving text on the move; to probe different viewing angles and distances; to watch the sight of falling text and watch others watching it; to allow the rhythmic sounds of falling water to energize one’s own sense of pace and movement. It is to understand how the reduced materiality of the digital has the power to produce readers who—like the viewers of installation art in general—embrace physical movement as a medium to engage with and in fact call forth text. Fourth, and finally, Popp’s bit.fall illustrates nothing less than the intricacies of what Emerson calls the rise of readingwriting in digital culture. Popp’s water drops document machinic processes of reading as much as they write words right in front of another reader’s eye. Popp’s visitors read the writing of the apparatus, as much as their physical movements and forms of ambient attention rewrite what becomes visible briefly before the machine’s text disappears for good.
Rather than seeing expanded practices of reading in the digital age as the downfall of concentrated reading, Julius Popp’s installation presents it as way of mapping the complexities of digital culture itself. And instead of seeing digital reading as the joyful rise of the nonrepresentational and post-human, bit.fall sets up a space in which readers can learn how to read with and against the ever growing culture of machine reading, how to critically negotiate the shifting landscapes of code and cognition, information and interpretation, algorithms and bodily movements. Neither is all lost, nor all won, when readers engage with Popp’s choreography of falling words. What bit.fall reminds us of is the fact that the future of reading has too many different aspects to be discussed by scholars of one discipline or field of study alone. Digital reading is as much a matter for neurologists as for literary scholars, for engineers as much as ergonomicians, for psychologists, physiologists, media historians, art critics, critical theorists, and many others. Scholars of literature will need to consult many fields to elaborate a future poetics of digital reading and examine how literary texts in all their different forms are and will be met by 21st-century readers.
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(1.) For an informative overview of current scholarship on digital textuality, see Matthew Kirschenbaum and Sarah Werner, “Digital Scholarship and Digital Studies: The State of the Discipline,” Book History 17 (2014): 406–458.
(2.) W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994); and Mitchell, “Showing Seeing: A Critique of Visual Culture,” Journal of Visual Culture 1.2 (2002): 165–181.
(3.) These debates, in the North American context, found perhaps their most dramatic expression over time in two widely discussed reports issued by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2004 and 2007, respectively: Reading at Risk and To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence.
(4.) See, for instance, Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (New York: Free Press, 1997); Espen J. Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997); and Michael Joyce, “Notes toward an Unwritten Non-Linear Electronic Text,” Postmodern Culture 2.1 (September 1991).
(5.) Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck, 10.
(6.) For important mappings of the newness of new media in the new millennium, see among many other works, Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001); Anne Friedberg, The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006); and Rita Raley, Tactical Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).
(7.) Important works exploring the relationship of new media and issues of embodiment include Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); Laura U. Marks, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002); Mark B. N. Hansen, New Philosophy for New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004); Hansen, Bodies in Code: Interfaces with Digital Media (New York: Routledge, 2006); Caroline A. Jones, ed., Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology, and Contemporary Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006); Anna Munster, Materializing New Media: Embodiment in Information Aesthetics (Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2006); and Bernadette Wegenstein, Getting Under the Skin: Body and Media Theory (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006).
(8.) Johanna Drucker, SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 19.
(9.) For an insightful reading, see Alan Galey, “The Enkindling Reciter: E-books in the Bibliographical Imagination,” Book History 15 (2012): 210–247.
(10.) A good overview of the fault lines of these debates can be found in Andrew Piper, Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
(11.) Detailed research done under the umbrella of the European Cooperation in Science and Technology across different European settings certainly provides a much more nuanced picture than what concerned pedagogues and pundits often articulate in the public sphere. See: “Evolution of Reading in the Age of digiti#sation (E-READ)” and “Reading in Europe: Contemporary Issues in Historical and Comparative Perspectives.”
(12.) Naomi S. Baron, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 235.
(13.) Katherine Hayles, Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008). See also, of course, Hayles’s pathbreaking My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
(14.) Hayles, Electronic Literature, 44.
(15.) Quoted in Hayles, Electronic Literature, 52.
(16.) Hayles, Electronic Literature, 56.
(17.) Mark B. Hansen, Bodies in Code: Interfaces with New Media (New York: Routledge, 2006); and Hansen, New Philosophy for New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004).
(18.) Hansen, Bodies in Code, 26.
(19.) Roberto Simanowski, Digital Art and Meaning: Reading Kinetic Poetry, Text Machines, Mapping Art, and Interactive Installations (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
(20.) Rita Raley’s work has been important to explore many of these aspects. See her Tactical Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), but also Raley, “TXTual Practice,” in Comparative Textual Media, ed. N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 5–32; and Raley, “Walk This Way: Mobile Narrative as Composed Experience,” in Beyond the Screen: Transformations of Literary Structures, Interfaces and Genres, ed. Jörgen Schäfer and Peter Gendolla (Bielefeld, Germany: Transcript Verlag/Transaction, 2010), 299–316.
(21.) Kate Mondloch, Screens: Viewing Media Installation Art (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010); and Jesper Juul, Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011).
(22.) Byung-Chul Han, Im Schwarm: Ansichten des Digitalen (Berlin: Matthes & Seitz, 2013); and Lutz Koepnick, “Digitus: Bausteine einer Poetik digitalen Lesens,” forthcoming.
(23.) See Evelyn J. Rex et al., Foundations of Braille Literacy (New York: AFB Press, 1994).
(24.) Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: NYU Press, 2008).
(25.) Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999).
(26.) Lori Emerson, Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).
(27.) This is not the place to address the question how developments in the digital humanities, by employing computing resources to perform big data analysis and so-called distant reading, add categorically new methods to scholarly reading practices or simply recast with new tools older strategies of empirical research and sociological analysis. For overviews, see Franco Moretti, Distant Reading (London: Verso, 2013). See also, among many other works, Anne Burdick et al., Digital_Humanities (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012); Jerome McGann, New Republic of Letters: Humanities Scholarship in an Age of Digital Reproduction (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014); and Sarah Werner, “Where Material Book Culture Meets Digital Humanities,” Journal of Digital Humanities 1.3 (2012).
(28.) For an extended version of this argument, see Lutz Koepnick, “Can Computers Read?” Distant Readings: Topologies of German Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century, ed. Matt Erlin and Lynne Tatlock (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2014), 333–346.
(29.) Emerson, Reading Writing Interfaces, Kindle edition.
(30.) For more extended discussions of Popp’s installation, see Sabine Eckmann, “Take I,” in [Grid <>Matrix], by Sabine Eckmann and Lutz Koepnick (Saint Louis: Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, 2006), 26–30; and Lutz Koepnick, “Abenteuerliche Reisen? Walter Benjamin im Zeitalter neuer Medien,” Text+Kritik 31–32 (February 2009): 130–133.