Presentation: Time Capsules for True Digital Natives

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Here’s the text of my lightning talk at ELO 2015, titled “Time Capsules for True Digital Natives.” You can watch a video recording of my presentation, which starts at 35:00 minutes.

How will electronic literature be remembered and studied a century or two from now? Will there even be a concept of electronic literature? Will terms like electronic, digital, or whatever comes next have disappeared back into literature as computing becomes ubiquitous to new generations?

I suspect as much, but I can also imagine e-lit will become framed in historical, literary, and technological ways. The periodization done by Funkhouser and Hayles into “prehistoric,” and “generations” will be fused into a single period spanning from the early computer generated works to a few decades from now. What characterizes our moment? We’re the transitional generation that was raised in a print-centered world and saw its dominance challenged and replaced by the digital. We are the early adopters: the ones who test and explore the expressive potential of digital media in its infancy while living in the late age of print. And that includes our children, who are not as digitally native as we might think.

The notion of digital natives was coined by Marc Prensky in 2001 when he sought to address the educational needs of contemporary students in the face of rapidly developing digital media technologies. It gestures toward a generational shift marked around 1980 This concept has been applied to the generations born after 1980 because they were raised around digital technologies such as video games, personal computers, the Internet, smartphones, touchscreen and wearable devices. The term digital immigrant was applied to everyone born before 1980 for whom such technologies were not as naturalized, who to a greater or lesser extent struggle with adapting to new digital media technologies.

As convenient and problematic as those terms are, I want to suggest that we’re all digital immigrants. Even our children. And our children’s children. Because we still live in the world of the book. Let me explain: I have two children, aged 8 and 5, for whom my wife and I bought pens, pencils, markers, notebooks, and other paper based products for school. In 3rd and 1st grade, respectively, they’ve been learning to write on paper. They are learning to learn on paper. They are learning cursive writing—a writing technique designed to speed up their ability to write, so they can commit to memory ideas presented through lecture and dictation. What’s ahead for them? Will they be taught shorthand? Touch typing would be more relevant, but for how long? How about programming, scripting, coding?

Sure, these skills are available as electives in high school, but as such they reinforce a division between writing and programming. When writing with code and multimedia authoring tools become adopted in primary and secondary schools as the kind of literacy that students need at a foundational level. Those generations, true digital natives, will produce what we now call e-literature, but they’ll just call it writing. And writing will not just be the selection and arrangement of words with an inscription technology, but will include scripting what those words (or variables) do and under what conditions.

Then electronic literature will become naturalized, just as manuscript and typing have become to us.

But we are a bridge generation. We were raised in the world the book built and have embraced these new digital technologies and have an important role to play. In addition to creating and studying electronic literature, we need to preserve our work, so that future generations can look back and understand what people raised with the book made with early, rudimentary, digital tools. They will find the seeds of their developed literary genres in our video games, hypertexts, bots, kinetic and multimedia works, and the many forms electronic literature takes. We must build digital time capsules, for whatever future awaits, including apocalyptic ones.

The ELO has long been committed to digital preservation of electronic literature. Its main contributions are white papers on Preservation Archiving and Dissemination, the Electronic Literature Directory, two (soon to be three) Electronic Literature Collections, curating collections in the Internet Archive, and most recently with the Consortium of Electronic Literature. These ongoing efforts are essential to the longevity of the field, but there’s a piece missing. We need digital repositories of electronic literature, archives that not only store published works of electronic literature, but also editable source files, building materials, multiple drafts or versions of works. This improves their long term preservation prospects because they offer the raw materials of a work so that future media archaeologists can port them or emulate our computational environments to run the works.

And we should also contemplate apocalyptic scenarios. I want us to send a copy of the ELCs and the Electronic Literature Archives on the next Voyager probe launched out of the solar system. We should get e-lit to be included in Humanity’s Greatest Hits.

To achieve that, writers and artists need to continue doing what they do: create great e-literature. Scholars, librarians, and archivists need to continue their work, applying their training towards the study and preservation of this work. Let us keep doing what we do well but with an eye towards the big picture: we are exploring the literacy and literature of our present and the future.

And let us work together to create electronic literature archives so these works can survive the the test of time and what comes after electronic literature.