Expressive Processing: On Process-Intensive Literature and Digital Media

Critical Writing
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2006
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Most studies of digital media focus on elements familiar from traditional media. For example, studies of digital literature generally focus on surface text and audience experience. Interaction is considered only from the audience's perspective. This study argues that such approaches fail to interpret the element that defines digital media -- computational processes. An alternative is proposed here, focused on interpreting the internal operations of works. It is hoped that this will become a complement to (rather than replacement for) previous approaches. The examples considered include both processes developed as general practices and those of specific works. A detailed survey of story generation begins with James Meehan's Tale-Spin, interpreted through "possible worlds" theories of fiction (especially as employed by digital media theorists such as Marie-Laure Ryan). Previous interpretations missed important elements of Tale-Spin's fiction that are not visible in its output. Other story generation systems discussed include Minstrel, Universe, Brutus, and Terminal Time.These reveal the inevitably authored nature of simulations of human behavior. Further, the persistently anthropomorphizing approach to computational processes present in traditional artificial intelligence (and many critiques) is contrasted with authorship. Also discussed is Christopher Strachey's love letter generator for the Manchester Mark I -- likely the first work of digital literature, and arguably the first digital art of any kind. As with Tale-Spin, an interpretation of its processes offers more than output-focused approaches. In addition, this study considers works with algorithmic processes carried out by authors and audiences (rather than within the works) created by Raymond Queneau, Tristan Tzara, and Claude Shannon. Prior theoretical concepts are engaged, including Espen Aarseth's "cybertext," Michael Mateas's "expressive AI," and Chris Crawford's "process intensity." A set of concepts and vocabulary are proposed, beginning with the simple distinction between "surface," "data," and "process." Further chapters introduce the terms "implemented processes," "abstract processes," and "works of process." The most unfamiliar new term, "operational logics," names behavioral elements of systems that can be as elemental as gravity or as high-level as a quest structure. The computer game Fableembodies the strengths and weaknesses of using the same logics to drive graphical and linguistic behavior.

(Source: LABS: Leonardon ABstract Service)

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Scott Rettberg