Literary Machines: Newspeak

“Imagine a rebirth of literacy.”

Theodor Holm Nelson’s report Literary Machine’s discusses hypertext, “non sequential pieces of writing … that branches and allows choices to the reader, best read on an interactive screen.” He discusses how this degree of choice, lack of restriction and control of thought pathways by the reader allows greater degrees interaction between audience and text. The audience is no longer passive but plays an active role in the reading of a text. Readers are encouraged to follow their own line of thought, rather than one created for them. He states “imagine a new liberation literature with alternative explanations so anyone can choose the pathway or approach that best suits him or her; with ideas accessible and interesting to everyone, so that a new richness and freedom can come to the human experience; imagine a rebirth of literacy.”

Nelson dedicates the book and his vision of a world of hypertext to George Orwell, referencing Newspeak, a language spoken in his book 1984. Newspeak is an example of a language created to control thought. While the language we speak was not created with thought control in mind, it is interesting the limitations that words can have on thought. The Saphir-Whorf hypothesis for example suggests that the grammatical framework of your first language shapes the framework of your thinking, while Foucault’s discourse analysis, suggests power hierarchies in society are expressed and maintained through language. Though I think Derrida says it best when he states, “there is nothing outside the text” suggesting that the meaning is derived from the relationship of words to other words.

There is much debate on the effects of hypertext of both the reader and the writer and the relationship between the two. Literary critic Sven Birkerts believes that hypertext is destroying the role of literature in our culture, weakening our standard of writing and replacing order with chaos. Professor of English and Art History, George Landow suggests that audiences have not become active due to hypertext, reading has always been active, but rather they have become deliberate; reading a text in accordance with your own interests.

I’ve often thought about the effects that not only hypertext but also “literary machines” have on my writing and thereby the manner in which I think. I’ve kept a journal since I was six years old. When I was nineteen this stopped being in the form of a physical book, in pen to paper style, and transferred onto the screen, into a Word Document. Instead of thinking about what I wanted to say before letting my pen hit the paper I was now able to write freely and have the option to go back and alter my words or expression without consequence. I now prefer to write creatively on my computer rather than on paper. My fifteen year old self would be disgusted with this and I wonder if this has changed the way I think. Seeing words now in font, in neat lines, instead of scrawled chaotically in my own hand. Having freedom to erase words completely, leaving behind no trace of editing.

I do believe that the structure of language that I’m exposed to plays a role in not only shaping my own writing, but also my own thinking. Hypertext definitely plays an important role in my communication and research, allowing me to chose my own pathways and follow threads that interest me.

“Everything in contemporary society discourages interiority. More and more of our exchanges take place via circuits, and in their very nature those interactions are such as to keep us hovering in the virtual now, a place away from ourselves.”
― Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age

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