Terms of Reference: Situating Certain Literary Transactions over Networked Services

Presentation by John Cayley (Brown University).

Since the 1990s, to read and write with a computer has implied that we read and write with a network. We have been placed—you and I have placed ourselves—in the position of ‘using’ hardware and software configurations while employing the ‘services’ of networked applications. Merely by doing so, we have agreed to ‘terms’ set out by corporate providers that govern our use of their ‘services.’ Clearly, some reconfigured regulation of media is implicit. Moreover and perhaps more pointedly, our reading and writing is being mediated on terms: explicitly, although usually without our conscious acquiescence. The momentous consequences of these admittedly long-standing circumstances are only now beginning to become clearer as the accumulation of data provided by our networked transactions is processed and rendered manifest to us in ever more effective feedback. Who or what is regulating these transactive loops themselves? What are their terms of reference?

Even for those writers who may be in overt denial of any digital mediation of their practice, networked services are likely to provide crucial points of reference during the composition of their texts. If this is the case, then terms have literally been agreed. The writer has conceded that he or she is happy both to supply something—typically a large number of search phrases—to various services and then to receive, read, and transact with results produced by algorithms. We may claim that we have a generalized understanding of these algorithms’ behaviors, however the detailed workings of such processes are jealously guarded as proprietary and are considered highly valuable for reasons that may be entirely divorced from or at odds with the intent of the writer’s queries. The underlying transaction is very different from looking up a word in a dictionary.

This paper will address these circumstances and attempt to think through selected consequences for digitally mediated, aesthetically engaged practices of writing.

John Cayley writes digital media, particularly in the domain of poetry and poetics. Recent and ongoing projects include The Readers Project with Daniel C. Howe, imposition with Giles Perring, riverIsland, and what we will … Information on these and other works may be consulted at http://programmatology.shadoof.net. Cayley is Professor of Literary Arts at Brown University, where he teaches writing in and for digital media, including electronic writing, and writing for immersive artificial audiovisual environments. Presently Cayley is obsessed, agonistically, by Writing to be Found with=against Google and other similar ‘services.’

John Cayley presents at "Network Archaeology."



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