Technoscience / Ecomateriality / Literature

With technology revolutionizing all aspects of life, it is no surprise the humanities have been altered by its advances. Electronic literature is a medium through which the written word can be observed and taken in from a different perspective, and like many technological-based advances, “electronic literature is entwined with the evolution of digital computers” (Hayles). The types of e-lit pieces swirling around in the Internet can only exist with the help of computational programs such as code and other types of elements that bring these literary ideas to life.

One example of electronic literature is Alan Bigelow’s Because You Asked. Alan Bigelow is an artist who produces interactive stories on the web, and Because You Asked is an interactive version of his autobiography. It is found on a website with a blank, faceless canvas that decodes a portion of his face every time a button is pressed and abstract music playing in the background. Each button is a symbol of an idea that helps make up his personality. For example, by clicking on a button shaped like a home, words under the canvas convey that he “always had the comfort of home” and the next button, which is a symbol of a clock, tells us he “works to support [his] art” (Bigelow). After each button shows us a Bigelow truth, the picture of his face slowly begins to appear. Apart from the house and the clock, there are eight more buttons that represent specific ideas that help decipher his personality as well as his facial construct. With both technology and the humanities intertwined in this type of project, Because You Asked is an example of electronic literature, a “born-digital literary art that exploits, as its muse and medium, the transmedia possibilities of the digital” (Gould).

Before being categorized as electronic literature, Bigelow’s interactive story had to be qualified by specific criteria that distinguish the electronic from the nonelectric. It had to possess elements that allow it to fall within the definition of electronic literature. “Electronic literatures have rearranged the literary and reconfigured textual potentialities” (Gould). It is clear that this project utilized the computer interface to create an interactive project through where a story can be told. It took the humanities and technology and synthesized them together to create electronic literature. Katherine Hayles, a literary professor at Duke University, states “because electronic literature is normally created and performed within a context of networked and programmable media, it is also informed by the powerhouse of contemporary culture, particularly computer games, films, animations, digital arts… and electronic visual culture” (Hayles). Bigelow’s humanistic qualities were brought forth with the help of computer digitalization. Because You Asked constitutes as an example of electronic literature since it holds the elements Hayles describes as what makes a project e-lit worthy.

Bigelow’s project caught my attention in particular due to the way he presents his story. Although quite simple, the fact that he engages us in his project helps with the way the story is being delivered. We place ourselves in front of Alan Bigelow. With every single fact about himself that he shares with us, we are able to see his personal self as the self-portrait demystifies through his past and his human intentions. This in itself is a type of electronic literature that’s both immersive and thoughtful. Because You Asked captures the idea that behind every face, there are everyday thoughts and decisions that help construct a personality for said face. By immersing his audience, apart from getting to know him and how he looks like, we allow ourselves to be self-reflective on the message the project is trying to convey.

The literary element of the project is seen through the narrative that the author himself shares with us. We see the thoughts he has of himself, and he uses that to not only tell, but also show his audience a story about himself. We are then able to infer the meaning of the project and the reason for why he utilized the form of electronic literature to show his story. Another element this project possesses that gives it literary merit is the fact that it poses dialogue. People are able to talk about this piece and find the meaning behind it. People can relate to the story he tells and offer their opinion over his reason for creating something that exposes his human qualities.

Through the use of computers and technology, electronic literature is able to advance contemporary literature. We live in an era where technology touches everything, and there is no doubt that there is dialogue disagreeing with literary scholars intertwining literature and technology. Some state that “the place of writing is again in turmoil” and they question whether “electronic literature is even literature at all” (Hayles). Many more argue whether a literary piece should even be seen of literary merit if it has various aspects of digitalization, but to question whether “literary quality is possible in digital media” is futile due to the pace technology is advancing. It was only a matter of time until a book was published electronically. Now, contemporary literature is seeing a phase shift in the way it is being presented. Sure, it may not just be written and printed in paper, but electronic literature holds as much merit as a narrative bounded in paper. Transitioning the humanities from the written form to the electronic form should not have a negative impact on the audience.

Electronic literature is simply yet another medium through which a story can be told. Because You Asked is a narrative of Alan Bigelow’s life and thoughts. Through this piece, the audience can infer different meaning and see how it shares a single story, what it means to be human. After all, literature should be used as a medium of self-expression through which humanistic disposition is offered, regardless of whether it is printed word or digitalized word.

Electronic literature helps augment the reading experience through the different mediums it is presented. Through electronic literature, “the academic world and the world of popular culture” are being bridged in order for today’s generations to interact with the humanities (Mott). In a society where technology dominates a wide part of our lives, we have to find ways to hold on to our stories and allow them to survive. Electronic literature is a new medium through which stories can be shared, but it helps engage readers and keep them attuned with the humanities.


Work Cited:

Bigelow, Alan. “Because You Asked.” Web. 28 Oct. 2014.

Gould, Amanda. “A Bibliographic Overview of Electronic Literature.” Electronic Literature Directory. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2014.

Hayles, Katherine. Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary. Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame, 2008. Print.

Mott, Chris. “Electronic Literature Pedagogy: A Questionable Approach.” Electronic Literature: New Horizons For The Literary. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2014.