January 22, 2008

EP 1.1: Media Machines

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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