January 22, 2008

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 3:07 am


A computer is a strange type of machine. While most machines are developed for particular purposes — washing machines, forklifts, movie projectors, typewriters — modern computers are designed specifically to be able to simulate the operations of many different types of machines, depending on the computer’s current instructions.


This is why a computer can simulate a movie projector: showing a set of image frames in quick succession. It’s also why a computer can act like a tape player: reading and amplifying a stream of sound data.


And it is for this same reason that computers can be instructed to act like previously-impossible types of machines. A computer can simulate a typewriter — getting input from the keyboard and arranging pixels on the screen to shape the corresponding letters — but it can also go far beyond a typewriter, offering many fonts, automatic spelling correction, painless movement of manuscript sections (through simulations of “cut” and “paste”), programmable transformations (such as “find and replace”), and even collaborative authoring by large, dispersed groups (as with projects like Wikipedia). This is what modern computers (more lengthily called “stored-program electronic digital computers”) are designed to make possible: the continual creation of new machines, opening new possibilities, through the definition of new sets of computational processes.

“Digital media” are the media enabled by this possibility. This includes web projects, like Wikipedia, and also all computer games. The first modern computer games were created on early stored-program computers, and since then we have seen a major cultural impact from the fact that a computer can not only simulate a pinball machine but also act like game machines never seen before: a Tetris machine, a Doom machine, a SimCity machine, and more.


Personally, I am fascinated by the possibilities that digital media open for fiction. A blossoming of new models of character, story, and language is being enabled by computational processes. From computer games with epic structures to experimental interactive films, digital fictions are providing diverse experiences for a wide range of audiences. From ambitious artificial intelligence experiments to straightforward uses of weblogs and email, authors are creating digital fictions at a wide range of technical complexity. The field is already too vast to cover in a single book.


Luckily, quite a number of books have already been written about digital literature, and many more have been written about digital media more generally. However, almost all of these have focused on what the machines of digital media look like from the outside: their output. Sometimes the output is considered as an artifact, and interpreted in ways we associate with literary scholarship and art history. Sometimes the output is seen in relation to the audience and the wider culture, using approaches from fields like education and ethnography. And there are, of course, a variety of other perspectives. But, regardless of perspective, writings on digital media almost all ignore something crucial: the actual processes that make digital media work, the computational machines that make digital media possible.

On one hand, there is nothing wrong with this. Output-focused approaches have brought many valuable insights for those who seek to understand and create digital media. But, on the other hand, it leaves a big gap.


This book is my attempt to help bridge the gap. As far as I know, it is the first book focused on computational processes that comes from the perspective of media, games, and fiction (rather than software engineering or computer science). It is a first passage across the gap, and we will want to move much more weight across over time. But hopefully it demonstrates that there is something to be gained by being able to move between the gap’s two sides, being able to see the inside and outside of digital media’s machines.

Having drawn a broad outline, the rest of this introduction will include four things. First, it will discuss the three perspectives from which this book will consider processes — perspectives which are creative, critical, and political. Second, as it presents these perspectives it will also develop a model of digital media; one that underlies the rest of this book. Third, the book’s two meanings for the term “expressive processing” will be explained. Finally, this chapter concludes with a brief outline of the book as a whole, with a focus on its three major waypoints.

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Terry on paragraph 5:

That’s one of the things which really impressed me about Missing: Since January– it turned a CD-ROM based game into a controlled ARG setting where the player received e-mails, scrolled real websites and ones fabricated for the game, while solving conventional puzzles.

January 22, 2008 11:49 am
noah :

Yes, and I realize that this paragraph doesn’t yet point to the fact that — of course — combinations of these different forms, cutting across levels of technical complexity, can be quite effective.

January 22, 2008 9:28 pm

[…] – Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s introduction to the experiment – The Institute for the Future of the Book’s introduction – Coverage in The Chronicle of Higher Education – First section of Expressive Processing […]

January 22, 2008 2:02 pm

[…] Expressive Processing peer review experiment begins today (the first actual manuscript section is here) and will run for approximately ten weeks and 100 thousand words on Grand Text Auto, with a new […]

January 22, 2008 3:33 pm

[…] on Grand Text Auto, Noah Wardrip-Fruin is running an interesting experiment in peer-reviewing: a blog-based peer review. Visit the site to read portions of his text and comment on […]

January 22, 2008 6:43 pm
Lord Yo on paragraph 3:

This paragraph touches upon the interesting and mindboggling topic of recursivity (systems within systems within systems…), also present within reproduction through DNA. Douglas Hofstadter wrote an excellent book about it (Gödel, Escher, Bach).

January 23, 2008 8:27 am

[…] – Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s introduction to the experiment – The Institute for the Future of the Book’s introduction – Coverage in The Chronicle of Higher Education – First section of Expressive Processing […]

January 24, 2008 4:38 am
Dega Lancaster on paragraph 5:

I think it is amazing how alot of the games that would typically be a singular activity are now digitally interactive with the computer as well as people connected through the Internet. Previously, I read about literary moos which are interactive chat rooms created like the settings of a particular book. Chat room participants take on the roles of characters via living in the book. I would love to see this technology available to all combining games with learning… edutainment.

January 25, 2008 2:22 pm

Matt Kirshenbaum’s Mechanisms focuses on storage — which seems to be an important part of the computational process. (I’ve just started reading my copy.)

February 4, 2008 3:09 pm
Julius Valsson on paragraph 3:

lies in it’s ability to repeat certain tasks with a great speed and to execute multiple tasks simultanously.

January 27, 2008 5:36 pm
Julius Valsson on paragraph 3:

The real strength of a modern computer lies in its ability to repeat certain tasks with a great speed and to execute multiple tasks simultaneously.

January 28, 2008 3:27 am
noah :

There’s a little more discussion of this in the next section, including a mention of the potential numerousness, repetition, and complexity of computational processes carried out during the time of audience experience.

January 28, 2008 9:28 am
Julius Valsson :

Thanks Noah!

January 28, 2008 11:54 am
Barbara on paragraph 6:

the last sentence is important – you point to the core issue of your book, but it is not clear for me; what do you mean?
the processing of the computational machine – but not the use of the machine? or do you mean both the use including the processing?

you talk about about “the actual processes that make digital media work” and than about “the computational machine”
process and machine is not the same.

February 4, 2008 11:44 am
noah :

Ah — this is probably poor word choice on my part. In the last part of this paragraph it might be clearer if I said “the simulated machines that make digital media possible.” I don’t mean “computational machines” here in the sense of CPU, memory, etc. Rather, I mean something like “machines defined in terms of computation.” In this sense, the computational machines and the processes are the same thing.

February 4, 2008 10:02 pm
Barbara :

No – then computational machine is better.

I am not accustomed to your language. There are some commonalities between your concepts and mine – but maybe some differences too. I just ask to find out.

Regarding your understanding of process: is process for you the functioning of the abstract machine?
the functioning without any physicality?

If so and it seems so – you can leave your paragraph unchanged.

February 5, 2008 1:17 am
noah on paragraph 6:

What I’m trying to get at is the design of the system’s processes. Such designs are very much in dialogue with the physical machinery on which they are intended to operate. For example, the textual output of Tale-Spin/Mumble (coming up in a later chapter) is produced by a set of processes that had to be kept deliberately simple (more simple than other natural language generation work from the same lab at the same time) in order to co-exist with the world simulation on the available computer hardware. Or, to take a more contemporary example, the graphics-focused hardware design of consoles like the PS3 and Xbox 360 make a smaller amount of their processing power easily available for AI-style processes. But, on the other hand, I’m not trying to consider the physicality of how, say, the hardware storage operates. For a good example of that, see Matt Kirschenbaum’s new book (Mechanisms).

February 5, 2008 8:20 am
Julius Valsson on paragraph 1:

“able to simulate the operations”

I would say: “..able to simulate and preform the operations “

February 8, 2008 4:06 pm
Mark Marino on paragraph 2:

Hi, Noah, I’m finally getting to my par. by par. notes. Hopefully they won’t be too picky. I’m having trouble with the causality implied in this sentence.

March 17, 2008 12:20 pm
noah :

I’m not sure what you mean. Can you expand?

March 18, 2008 10:06 pm
Mark Marino on paragraph 6:

Is “ethnography” the field or sociology or anthropology? Isn’t ethnography a methodology?

March 17, 2008 12:24 pm
noah :

It’s true — this probably isn’t the clearest way to use “ethnography.”

March 18, 2008 10:10 pm
Mark Marino on paragraph 6:

Also, would this be a good time to footnote some of the texts that do look at the insides? I know you are in your intro and probably don’t want to break stride here, but it could situate your book more.

March 17, 2008 12:26 pm
Mark M. on paragraph 2:

This is why a computer can simulate a movie projector: showing a set of images frames in quick succession.

The fact that computers can simulate machines does not explain why computers do simulate the particular machines that they do (movie projectors, slide projectors, etc.).

The fact that computers can (meaning do) simulate those now is the result of a set of cultural, consumer, and producer priorities.

For me, in those sentences, the meaning of “can” slips from “potential purpose” to the “contemporary functionality” that we are familiar with.

Does that help?

March 20, 2008 10:45 pm
noah :

Well, certainly what you say is hard to argue with, but it seems like it leads away from the main point of this section. These paragraphs are about what computational processes can do with media, not about social processes that make us want those things to happen. But if you think there’s an audience that will be distracted by wondering which I’m talking about, maybe I should clarify?

April 25, 2008 2:23 pm
Matt Barton on paragraph 6:

I agree very much with this paragraph. My friend Bill and I were recently trying to publish a book that examined how gaming hardware has influenced/determined the gaming industry over the decades, starting with the old mainframes and moving into more modern eras (Intellivision, NES, CP/M, etc.) However, the publishers we talked to insisted that people would only be interested in the games (i.e., the “output”) rather than the machines. We insisted that an understanding of the machinery was crucial, but, alas, our pleas fell on deaf ears.

April 24, 2008 8:22 am
mark :

Is the MIT Press book series on platform studies close enough to the sort of thing you’re looking for? If so, they seem to be actively soliciting book proposals.

April 24, 2008 7:13 pm
nick on paragraph 6:

Indeed, Mark, Platform Studies does take this perspective, and Ian and I are seeking proposals for books in the series. Thanks for noting that.

April 25, 2008 5:56 am
noah on paragraph 6:

Wow — it would be great if the outcomes of the blog-based review of this manuscript included finding a home for another manuscript!

April 25, 2008 2:25 pm

[…] Q: Is this site still up and running? A: Yes. (Otherwise, how would I be typing this? But the person asking the question had trouble finding the chapters themselves. Here’s section 1.1.) […]

May 23, 2008 10:07 am
Todd on paragraph 3:

“and even collaborative authoring by large, dispersed groups (as with projects like Wikipedia)” – This may be nit-picky, but this example is not just talking about a computer on it’s own, but a network of machines. It doesn’t necessarily fit with your other examples.

March 20, 2009 7:01 am
Todd on paragraph 3:

“This is what modern computers (more lengthily called “stored-program electronic digital computers”) are designed to make possible…”

Is it? This makes it sound like you are defining the intention of the people responsible for designing modern computers. Is that what you are trying to do?

March 20, 2009 7:05 am

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