May 8, 2008

Digging Digits

by Nick Montfort · , 1:48 pm

Prehistoric Digital Poetry cover A Review of Prehistoric Digital Poetry:
An Archaeology of Forms, 1959-1995

By Christopher T. Funkhouser
University of Alabama Press
408 pp.
$75.00 cloth/$39.95 paper

This is an incredible compendium of decades of seldom-noticed work, guided by poetics, that has been done with language and computers. The work surveyed in this book is not “prehistoric” in the sense of being before history was developed; nor does it include pre-computer work that anticipated or laid the foundations for digital practice. But Funkhouser’s effort is clearly archaeological in terms of its scale and effort, and it is an attempt to recover a prehistory in the sense that our awareness of digital media history usually has the graphical, popular Web as its starting point. This recognition of our digital blind spot, or dark age, was what also motivated me and Noah to try to fill in a similar gap with The New Media Reader, which collects materials from WWII to the WWW.

Funkhouser succeeded in his ambitious dig by making his way though unexplored territory, but also by setting boundaries. Instead of exploring the whole heritage of today’s digital poetry, he began after digital computers were up and running. He also kept a tight focus on poetry, saying nothing about Tale-Spin, the most famous story generator, or about the Manchester Mark I love letter generator, even though it must have influenced Byron Gysin and Ian Sommerville’s permutation poems, which are discussed. With that austere but probably necessary definition of the category as a starting point, he goes on to plow through time, across the globe, and into every imaginable poetic tradition.

Four types of digital poetic practice are characterized by the was the book is divided: The development of text generators, the creation of visual and kinetic poems, the structuring and writing of hypertext and hypermedia pieces, and the “other” category, which includes pre-Web networked writing. One of my many delights in reading this book was seeing text generation, a type of digital poetry practice that I particularly enjoy, included along more established threads. It is also discussed well – as is the case in every category, Funkhouser quotes from and discusses at some length numerous fascinating pieces of work that I had never even heard of. Alan Sondheim’s poem generator for the TI-59 calculator is one luminescent example from this section.

The exploration of a forgotten time is laudable enough, but Funkhouser’s exploration also extends beyond the typical North American and British projects. He discusses numerous works from France and Brazil, broadening the horizons of electronic literature. The discussion is supplemented with excerpts from the works (typeset as print poems would be) and screenshots. It is supported by notes and a bibliography of secondary sources.

I have to note that there are some technical glitches in the book, one of which is seen in the sentence “A Markov table produces randomness so that at any given moment the text’s future is independent of its past; one piece of information in a text bears no influence on another” (p. 71). This is in fact exactly the opposite of what is done by a Markov table, which relates transition probabilities to current and previous words so that words are not generated independently, but based on conditional probabilities. (The Scientific American article by A.K. Dewdney that is cited in the book does give a reasonable and correct explanation.) This is the sort of error that can easily appear during editing; It’s also unlikely that readers will come to this book for its one-sentence description of how a Markov process works. They will probably arrive at Prehistoric Digital Poetry in search of the many riches that have been uncovered by Funkhouser’s thorough research, careful eye, and close and deep reading of digital poems.

Prehistoric Digital Poetry is a must for digital poets, of course, but it will also be of great interest those who study digital media more generally, particularly if they are thinking about how to recover and discuss our largely forgotten pre-Web past. Others who would do well to read the book include future-looking poets, digital fiction writers, fans of Oulipian and similar practices, and computer historians looking to learn about how culture, and not just industry, has tangled with computing. All in all, it’s a book that will enrich the future of digital poetry and probably make those in other sectors of the new media landscape jealous.