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Born Digital

A poet in the forefront of the field explores what is–and is not–electronic literature.
“E-poetry relies on code for its creation, preservation, and display: there is no way to experience a work of e-literature unless a computer is running it—reading it and perhaps also generating it.” Stephanie Strickland outlines 11 rules of electronic poetry.


E-poetry relies on code for its creation, preservation, and display: there is no way to experience a work of e-literature unless a computer is running it—reading it and perhaps also generating it.

This “rule” is important for what it rules out: e-books, digitized versions of print works, and other word-processed documents, on- or offscreen. Today all communication is computer-mediated, except for face-to-face encounters and handwritten, typewritten, or letterpress sheets. Print books are made from digital files, as are newspapers and films. Print is but one form of digital output. What is meant by e-literature, by works called born-digital, is that computation is required at every stage of their life. If it could possibly be printed out, it isn’t e-lit.


E-poetry does things rather than says things. To read e-works is to operate or play them (more like an instrument than a game, though some e-works have gamelike elements).

Minimally, the work must be loaded into a browser. That act might start a Flash file playing, which could resemble a video. Brian Kim Stefans’s “The Dreamlife of Letters” is a long, beautiful example of such a work. To interact with Eduardo Kac’s work of bio-poetry, “Genesis,” a web reader or gallery visitor must push a button to cause real biological mutations in bacteria. To engage with a piece of interactive fiction, for instance Emily Short’s “Galatea,” a reader must type in commands, such as “ask Galatea about her awakening” or “touch her shoulder.” Playing Marko Niemi’s Word Toy, “Stud Poker,” users click on choices that result in bet, raise, and call results onscreen. Anyone can enter an entire text into “Wordle: Beautiful Word Clouds” to see what happens when it is acted upon by a simple algorithm. Some works, such as Geniwate’s “Concatenation,” require a patient, exploratory reader who builds up experience with the piece over a number of readings, because it is a generative work. In a generative work, the reader starts a process that results in an unpredictable output that neither author nor reader can preview. A piece of code, like the genetic code, is let loose on a lot of variables. No one knows what the specific output will be—they can only know the rules that constrain it.

Even if it is not generative, a work can be complicated enough that one is unlikely to encounter it the same way twice. For instance, the interface of a work can be very complicated, requiring clicking and dragging and other mouse or keyboard movements, as well as close attention to the changes that occur onscreen. Such pieces may be accompanied by explicit directions—but often not, as in Talan Memmott’s “From Lexia to Perplexia” (requires Internet Explorer on a PC), a piece that requires long acquaintance and high degrees of interaction. Each of the user moves in this piece carries part of the philosophical meaning of the work.


E-lit is the mode of literature appropriate to new social conditions.

Reading is being redefined in cultures that use programmed and networked media: a surfing, sampling, multitasking kind of reading is often elicited online, while in some online and video games, a problem-solving, focused, remembering attention is required. Deep, focused attention is what print readers are trained to have, but attention itself is being reshaped, becoming a mix of deep and hyper, or focused and mobilized. E-lit, like Deena Larsen’s “Carving in Possibilities,” requires, shapes, and comments on just this type of new attention.


E-poetry is a poetry requiring new reading skills.

E-poetry is a poetry of intermedial performative signs. “Intermedial” means that any media type at all can be represented as a number on a computer, and any number can become any type of media: sound can appear as image, image as print, diagram as sound. Not only are multiple types of media used in e-lit, but careful attention is usually paid to their interrelation.

Literary theorist Janez Strehovec suggests that reading e-lit requires taking an aesthetic attitude toward the textscape as an object that stimulates the senses. This approach calls for skills such as viewing words as 3-D objects, tracking visual units and anticipating their next appearance, zooming and entering textual objects as one would a 3-D object, mousing over or clicking to link or activate a program, decoding by reading software, attaining a gestalt or snapshot-like perception, listening to the audio soundscape, and navigating spatial patterns and animations.

Some works of intermedial performative signs that engage these skills are “Translation” by John Cayley, “ii - in the white darkness” by M.D. Coverley and Reiner Strasser, and Dan Waber’s “poidog.”


E-lit is based on an aesthetic that arises from networked programming practice.

Programming practice requires that human reading and machine reading work together. The human programmer’s code and the machine’s processing steps both involve many hierarchical levels. Information is transferred up and down these levels: think angels flying up and down ladders in a blaze of light and confusion. Multiple encoding and decoding steps occur at each rung. The programmer and e-poet, who may be the same person, are interested in bringing forward perceptions of these levels as well as the transitions and disturbances between them. “The Set of U” by Philippe Bootze and Marcel Frémiot has an aesthetic based on programming practice.


E-literature is built as much as it is written; one could speak of text engineering as a new kind of writing. As with engineering and big building projects, many kinds of expertise are involved in its production; in some cases, a number of readers are required as well as a number of writers.

One might think of the great oral epics of Greece, India, and other ancient cultures as also being pieces of text engineering. In each case, a number of generators, reciters, and receivers were involved in the production of the text; in fact, their practice of generating, reciting, and receiving helped to form them as members of one culture. Today, as with online games and activities in Second Life, the people co-creating a work or a reading may never have met one another, and they may be acting from highly dispersed geographical and time locations. Perhaps utopian practices of worldwide collaboration are being foreshadowed in such literary projects. An example of a project requiring many readers is Simon Biggs’s data browser “Babel,” which uses the Dewey Decimal library classification system to map the Internet, the Dewey number for each subject mapping onto websites about that subject. Biggs explains:
. . . viewers . . . are confronted with a 3D visualization of an abstract data space mapped as arrays and grids of Dewey Decimal numbers. As they move the mouse around the screen they are able to navigate this 3D environment. All the viewers are able to see what all the other viewers, who are simultaneously logged onto the site, are seeing. The multiple 3D views of the data-space are montaged together into a single shared image, where the actions of any one viewer effects what all the other viewers see. If a large number of viewers are logged on together the information displayed becomes so complex and dense that it breaks down into a meaningless abstract space.
Note that “affects” and “effects” are the same here; in the electronic literature situation, where the basic activity is not saying but doing, to affect the image is literally to effect it, to make it present. “Babel” constructs the Net as a place full of linguistic information, if incoherent (babble/Babel) at times.


E-poetry describes or reflects upon worlds by building them.

Poems have always “built worlds,” in a sense: Dante builds the whole of Christendom for his time. But this is not the kind of world a reader can enter and change; nor is it the kind where authors choose the very rules of life, physics, evolution, and succession. An example of a world where different physics apply is seen in the background of Alan Sondheim and Reiner Strasser’s short poem “Tao.” The rules of evolution and succession are author-chosen in generative poems.


E-poetry explores three-dimensional space in three ways: on screens, in gallery installations, and by directing people using mobile devices as they move around on earth.

Such poetry leads to exploring the interaction of surface and depth when reading words; it allows such effects as reading from front to back instead of left to right, reading texts in motion or reading overlapping texts, all of which simultaneously explore the texts and their effects on human perception and neural processing. Aya Karpinska’s “the arrival of the beeBox,” Karpinska and Daniel Howe’s “open.ended,” and Dan Waber and Jason Pimble’s “I, You, We” are examples of this kind of work.


E-lit is a result of feedback processes between humans and machines, between human intelligence and machine intelligence.

The author/coder can control the structure of the text by controlling the lines of written code, but she cannot, even in principle, control the execution or processing of those lines of code. That job is done by the processor of the original machine, by an unpredictable series of computations that takes place within the network (via browsers, protocols, error-“correction” routines, etc.), and then again by the processor on the receiver machine. Because the writer never knows the current state of the reader’s machine—how much memory it has, its screen resolution, how many tasks it may be doing simultaneously, or any other particular fact about it—the writer cannot know exactly how the work will play on that machine.

The author creates an object, like a book, the code document. The various machines create a process: they act on the code, they run the code, activating the “angels up and down the ladder” routines. The reader has only a transient screen state to respond to, and possibly a set of navigational or interactive activities to perform upon that appearance.

The reader does not know whether what she did actually caused the effect she sees—it is too multiply determined. If she learns to read code, she will know better, but still not entirely. She actually must reread to know anything at all beyond a surfing glimpse or glance, which may prove satisfying, but may also prove intensely frustrating. She must, in many respects, become a metareader, reading her reading, her reaction to this new reading-condition, in order to experience the work fully, to judge where the creativity and point of the work lies. This task resembles, or analogizes, the work of any citizen enmeshed in computer systems that are not optimized toward the individual. The reader’s dilemmas as a citizen and as a reader are mapped onto each other in this way.


In print poetry the interface (reading surface) and the storage surface are one and the same; in e-lit they are not.

The reading surface and the storage surface are not the same in oral poetry, either, nor in a live stage production. A very strong awareness of the fragility and transience of the medium, as well as of the importance of social networking and presence, are important to oral, folk, stage, and e-lit. A very simple work of my own, “The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot,” uses only links, color, and images plus text to investigate the relation of Sand and Soot—avatars of the machine reader and the human reader, respectively. Simple as it is, there are three suggested different possibilities for reading it: by the links, by the images, and by the navigation bar; and it is highly unlikely that one would reproduce the same reading twice. Thus, by revisiting it, the reader is not simply pulling it from storage (pulling it off the shelf). Instead, when the work is pulled from storage (loaded in a browser), the reader’s interaction with it will provide a different reading (surface) than it did on prior reading occasions.


E-literature permits and requires new and different kinds of time-space experience that are inherent in a networked environment.

Print literature plays in many ways with space and time. Its rhetorical tropes let it seem to preview the future, remember the past, reside inside the head of another even while retaining one’s own voice, and so on. Time-space processing in e-lit is of another sort. It encompasses the anomalies that one encounters routinely online, and other kinds of time-space processing that authors set out deliberately to explore, because the computational situation allows them to imagine and build with their (code) writing.

Among the many possibilities for spatial use of language onscreen are the effects of rotation, pan, zoom, scaling, translation, split screen, flip, pitch, yaw, roll, overlays, speed control, fly-through, highlighting, generativity, micromovement, stratification of content, and navigational choice. Work in actual 3-D gallery or public space opens yet other opportunities.

Among screen options for language time are the ability to pace text’s appearance; the ability to change appearance based on whether it is a first or later reading; and the creation of time lapses, time scans, sequences, replays, freezes, resumption of text, altered speed, interpolation-extension replacements in “real” time (stretch-text), and stroboscopic flashing.

The works of Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, such as “Traveling to Utopia: With a Brief History of the Technology,” play brilliantly with text pacing, stroboscopic flashing, presentation of multiple languages at once, and sound-syncing of text.

When one considers how time is coded, other choices arise. A keyframe could be considered a privileged instant. Tweening or morphing refers to the movement from one keyframe to the next. How many motion- or deformation- or color-change steps should occur in the 24 seconds that separate images? Each must be handled separately, overlaid on one another. The aesthetic timing of the in-between is taken up explicitly in digital writing as it is not on the page.

The time of the privileged instant, providing for the time of multiple outcomes, the time for putting things back together, creating new forms of continuity—all of these are aesthetic issues with a poetic history in the play of metamorphoses that return in e-poetry. Is a thing live, or felt to be alive, only when it is changing its shape? Must it change its shape at the “right time,” the fruitful moment to which the Greek term kairos points?
  • Poet Stephanie Strickland was born in Detroit. She earned a BA at Harvard University, an MFA at Sarah Lawrence College, and an MS at Pratt Institute. She is the author of numerous poetry books, many of which have been published in print and in interactive hypermedia formats. Her work includes...


Born Digital

A poet in the forefront of the field explores what is–and is not–electronic literature.
  • Poet Stephanie Strickland was born in Detroit. She earned a BA at Harvard University, an MFA at Sarah Lawrence College, and an MS at Pratt Institute. She is the author of numerous poetry books, many of which have been published in print and in interactive hypermedia formats. Her work includes...

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