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Increasingly inaccessible

Dene Grigar Interview

All of these works have a very short life. It’s like the life of a butterfly – ephemeral. And it’s beautiful. I’ve always thought of my specialty as ephemerality. I love ephemeral objects. They live for a moment, and they’re beautiful. And then they die. There’s a beauty in that death. OK, that’s romantic, that’s lovely, but what the hell? We’re not going to have that stuff anymore? That doesn’t sit well with me. If we lose works, we’re not going to have a notion of evolution. We’re going to lose that whole historical moment where we were making these leaps. So, we can’t afford to do that. We did that in the period of the invention of writing – how much did we lose in that period. We’re not going to lose it again – not under my watch.

The Pathfinders Project

Digital Fiction Curios

Scott Rettberg – The American Hypertext Novel and Whatever Became of It

Sadly, though most of the Eastgate hypertext fictions are still ‘in print,’ in the sense that they can be bought on physical CD-ROM, few of them can be read on contemporary operating systems. The technical challenges of updating individual works to make them operable with new versions of the Mac OS, for example, have proven to be too much for Eastgate to handle. In other cases, such as that of Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse, the whole platform (Apple’s Hypercard) is no longer supported. After teaching the Eastgate hypertexts for more than a decade, I can no longer use them in the curriculum of my electronic literature classes, except as a past reference. They no longer work on any of the computers I own or those available in our university labs. Short of setting up a dedicated lab with old computer equipment (as Dene Grigar at Washington State University and Lori Emerson at University of Colorado Boulder have done), the classic hypertexts are now difficult to access and operate. While critics and archivists have provided valuable references that to an extent document and describe these works, it is not sufficient to read about works of e-lit. Students need to be able to access the primary texts themselves.


I think the issue of preservation is becoming increasingly important. Digital works will potentially become inaccessible or lost as some technology becomes obsolete. It’s an issue that we haven’t had to deal with before because while some books might go out of print, for example, those books can still be printed potentially. With digital media, once the software or hardware disappears, access to the digital works is lost. Pathfinders is incredibly important in this respect because the project is finding ways to preserve access to digital literature.

I am currently collaborating with One-to-One Development Trust’s Dreaming Methods on the Digital Fiction Curios project which aims to preserve works of digital fiction produced in Flash which will become technologically obsolete once Flash is removed from web browsers in 2020. This initial project is preserving three works by Dreaming Methods but we are hoping that this will act as a proof-of-concept for a much bigger project that would preserve a wider variety and larger number of works in future.

Scott Rettberg – The American Hypertext Novel and Whatever Became of it…

The short history of electronic literature has proven that works produced and distributed in nonproprietary, open-access and/or open source platforms, and using open standards, have tended to have a longer shelf life than works produced using proprietary software. If a software developer is purchased by another company or goes out of business, the platform itself can cease to be operable. If a publisher holds on to copyright but ceases to release updated versions of the work to operate with contemporary operating systems, then even the authors themselves cannot release their work in an operable format. One hopes that the list of hypertexts published by Eastgate Systems will soon be made available again in a more accessible and durable way, so that their important list of early hypertext fictions will not be lost to contemporary and future readers.


Likewise, what happens to Bandersnatch if Netflix goes under? The existence of Bandersnatch seems far more fragile than any movie that can be copied ad infinitum …


James O’Sullivan – Electronic Literature’s Contemporary Moment: Breeze and Campbell’s “All the Delicate Duplicates”

At Washington State University Vancouver, there is a densely packed room in the heart of the campus that resembles something of a Mac museum. It is Grigar’s Electronic Literature Lab, and it holds what is possibly the greatest collection of first-generation e-lit in the Western world. Grigar has dedicated her career to ensuring that future generations know that this stuff existed — she does so because she loves it and wants to see it survive. Electronic literary history is already fractured, with many of the canon’s earliest works now rendered obsolete as a consequence of their reliance on defunct proprietary formats. The ELL contains a wide catalog of e-lit works, largely from the 1980s and ’90s, alongside the hardware required to experience them as their authors/creators/coders intended.

Grigar has also worked with University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor and e-lit pioneer Stuart Moulthrop (Victory Garden, 1992) on the aptly named Pathfinders project, which seeks to preserve the experience of first-generation e-lit works through author interviews and reader traversals. Their work has done much to secure the legacy of the field, and it is a good thing, too, considering electronic literature’s newfound significance. Someday soon, a lot of gamers may realize that they are in fact readers, and both they and scholars of their favored form will want access to that origin story.


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