“New Reading Interfaces”
Association for Computers & the Humanities
MLA (Chicago 2007)

Session organized by Rita Raley (UC Santa Barbara)

Friday, 28 December


12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., Missouri, Sheraton Chicago


Program arranged by the Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH)


1. Jeremy Douglass, “Tag Clouds: Reading the Poetic Interface,” Univ. of California, San Diego


2. Joseph Tabbi, “Toward a Semantic Literary Web: Three Case Histories,” Univ. of Illinois, Chicago


3. Elizabeth Swanstrom, “Reading Shaw’s Legible City,” Univ. of California, Santa Barbara


4. Sarah Jane Sloane, “Reading the Margins of The Magic Book,” Colorado State Univ., Fort Collins


5. Victoria Szabo, “Texts in Virtual Contexts: Reading Scholarly Work in 3-D Environments,” Duke Univ.


Jeremy Douglass, “Tag Clouds: Reading the Poetic Interface”


In "Tag Clouds: Reading the Poetic Interface," Jeremy Douglass theorizes tag clouds: web reading interfaces formed from dense clusters 'clouds' of weighted keyword links, or 'tags'. The poetics of tag clouds are best understood when situated in a history of spatially distributed text art, from contemporary visualization and net.art (e.g. "TextArc," Legrady's "Making the Visible Invisible," Fischer's "Word News," Khan's "Net Worth," Jean V_(c)ronis' "-ogue") back through earlier typographic experiments (e.g. the concrete poetry of Augusto de Campos and the Vorticism of Wyndham Lewis). While interfaces have become emblamatic of the contemporary 'web 2.0' internet era, tag clouds have been fundamentally misunderstood in recent scholarship. Both the close association of tag clouds with 'folksonomy' website communities (e.g. del.icio.us, Flickr) and the popularity of the misleading term 'cloud' have created a stereotype of tag clouds as reflecting a kind of aesthetics of prolific chaos. Yet, as a special kind of list (the aggregately weighed dense list), tag cloud interfaces are both highly utilitarian (in the Tuftian sense of information richness) and deeply poetic (in their superimposition of constraining order over a set of evocative juxtapositions). In tag cloud poetry, the poetics of proliferation and the system of software meet at the reading interface.




Joe Tabbi, “Toward a Semantic Literary Web: Three Case Histories”


In this talk, I introduce a new literary and arts collective, electronic text + textiles, whose members are exploring the convergence of written and material practices. While some associates create actual electronic textiles (the 'smart fabrics' produced by textile artist Zane Berzina in collaboration with materials scientists based in Greiz, Germany ), I myself have explored the text/textile connection as it manifests itself in writing produced within electronic environments. My online laboratory consists of two literary web sites, ebr (www.electronicbookreview.com), a literary journal in continuous production since 1995, and the Electronic Literature Directory (www.eliterature.org), a project that seeks not just to list works but to define an emerging field. Rather than regard these sites as independent or free-standing projects, I present their development in combination with the current (and similarly halting) development of semantically driven content on the Internet (e.g., The Semantic Web, or Internet 2.0).

My purpose is to determine to what extent concepts can flow through
electronic networks, as distinct from the predominant flow of information. The latter, in which documents are brought together by metatags, keywords, and hot links, is arguably destructive of literary value. Where tagging and linking depend on direct, imposed connectivity at the level of the signifier, the creation of literary value depends on suggestiveness, associative thought, ambiguity in expression and intent, fuzzy logic, and verbal resonance (where slight differences, not identifications among fixities, are the origin of meaning - "the difference that makes a difference," in Gregory Bateson's phrase; Emily Dickinson's expression of "internal difference / where themeanings are," and so forth).

Conceived as a fusion of verbal instruction and iconography rather
than a narrative reinforced, directed, or opposed by imagery, written texts on the Web can scarcely be expected to be read, considered, and interpreted as text. At a time when powerful and enforced combinations of image and text threaten to obscure the differential basis of meaning as well as the potential for bringing together, rather than separating, rhetorical modes, electronic text + textiles seeks to recognize and encourage the production of of nuanced, textured languages within electronic environments.

I take ebr as my primary example. Consistent with language that
emerged early in the development of the "web," I elaborate a
vocabulary of running threads, folds, and textures rather than links
and hotwords. The conceit of weaving, which was adopted as a visual metaphor in the early electronic book review interface design by Anne Burdick (ebr 2.0), has since developed (through the contribution of site architect Ewan Branda) in ways that affect the form and content of the journal, to the point where no single genre - criticism, fiction, poetry, advertising, visual arts - is ever presented apart from the others. Even the email messages announcing new material on the ebr site are a combination of pseudo-spam and poetry. ebr is not the only literary web site to have achieved a long-term online presence, though it is certainly one of the longest running. But where most established journals on the Internet have reproduced themselves by occupying ever more specific niches within the overall media ecology, ebr has remained open to the promise of media multiplicity. A look at the development of the interface, from version 1.0 in the year 1995 to the current, year-old version 4.0, reveals how the multiplicity of literary expressiveness can drive interface development, rather than the alternative where (in interfaces not designed with literary values in mind) expression is made to conform to categories and constraints imposed by commercial technologies.

Elizabeth Swanstrom, “Reading Shaw’s Legible City


Jeffrey Shaw’s “Legible City” is an immersive art installation comprised of an interactive reading interface that requires active, physical participation from its viewers.   To make the installation function, a “rider” sits on a stationery bicycle, pedals, and navigates through city streets and architectural structures made of letters, words, and sentences that are projected onto a large screen.  In this manner, the viewer both rides and reads as she navigates through this text-based virtual space.  Requiring as it does the active participation of the reader/rider, Shaw’s “Legible City” provides a very interesting expression of the act of reading.  I suggest that Shaw’s interface offers a way for us to imagine reading as a fully embodied, social, and shared experience and physical activity in which the human body is well integrated into its surrounding environment and in which the text is literally configured through the readers’ physical interaction with the reading interface.


Sarah Jane Sloane, “Reading the Margins of The Magic Book

Researchers at the Human Interface Technology Laboratories (HITL) at University of Washington in Seattle and University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand have designed a mixed reality (MR) interface that amplifies the conventional experience of reading by creating books that mix real and virtual content.  Using an interface known as “The Magic Book,” readers encounter “physical markers” within a traditional two-dimensional book that signal the text’s overlaid virtual content.  Like a pop-up book read through a handheld display, physical markers within the tangible text allow readers to move around three-dimensional illustrations of a story’s physical setting, encounter other readers in collaborative displays, and move objects.  In 2006-2007, Director Mark Billinghurst and other researchers at the NZ HITL worked with a traditional children’s book illustrator to use the Magic Book technology to recreate a Maori story about the effects of colonial powers on New Zealand’s native cultures. (That illustrator had to answer questions such as, “What does your character look like from the back?” to aid the design.) 

The first half of my presentation offers slides and video of the reading experience of the Magic Book interface.  The second half theorizes how our understanding of the “inside” and “outside” of texts shifts when confronted by Magic Book technology and other MR-mediated environments.  When NZ postdoc Raphael Grasset extends the setting of a text so that a reader can take a god’s-eye view down at the clouds and other weather over a scene, for example, what are the margins of that text?  How does perception change when users (readers) navigate two different environments simultaneously, the real and the virtual?  What happens to the margins of a book, literally and figuratively, when they are constructed in MR?  Using current definitions of immersion (Biocca and Delaney), interactivity (Stever), and virtual environments and teleoperation (Sayers), as well as Nedra Reynolds’ (2004) discussions of the geographies of writing, this presentation ultimately extends our understanding of the edges of reading. 

Victoria Szabo, “Texts in Virtual Contexts: Reading Scholarly Work in 3-D Environments”

How does (re)presentation in a 3D virtual environment affect the production and reception of scholarly student projects in an academic course setting? To what extent can we distinguish process from medium or product when assigning students to do work with new media tools and modalities? What rubrics of evaluation apply to individual or group projects whose virtual presence exceeds the bounds of the conventional course structure, classroom space, and university setting? What do these opportunities mean for our standard literary notions of what constitutes a “text” or even a “context”?

These questions will be discussed in relation to courses and projects in Duke University’s highly interdisciplinary Information Science + Information Studies Program. In Fall 2006, first-year students in the Focus cluster of courses (four courses around a common theme) created a virtual replica of the university’s museum in SecondLife in order to exhibit their own final class projects to the public. In Fall 2007 the next generation of students in the course expanded upon this beginning not only by expanding their SecondLife presence as a site for display, reception, and real-time critical communication, but also by exploring the collaborative authoring potential of the open-source 3d communal workspace in Croquet. The results of these interventions will in turn persist and propagate throughout the curriculum and research practices of those involved.

How do such texts generated in this new medium bear the traces of their production? What kinds of scholarly reading practices become necessary to understanding—and evaluating-- a multimodal, digitally native online production as a critical and analytical assignment that strives to critique the medium of its own production? At what point does the interface pf a 3D environment itself become invisible, naturalized as a consistently obvious characteristic of the medium (as has so often been the case with the printed text.)