My battery is low, and it’s getting dark. Last week, the Opportunity Mars rover was declared dead by NASA, 15 years after it first landed on the Red Planet. However, these aren’t technically the rover’s last words — they are, however, a translation tweeted by science reporter Jacob Margolis of the rover’s last battery power and light sensor readings. Nevertheless, this statement and the popularity it has achieved in recent reportings regarding the rover’s death speak to the great power of human imagination, and the lengths we go to empathize. When we age and die, isn’t this effectually what happens to us, too? Yet to hear it from the mouth (as it were) of a machine strikes a different — and strange — emotional tenor.
At Cornell, often it seems as though STEM and the humanities are quite disparate. When I tell engineers my major, the response is often something like: “Wow, you have to read and write?” (Then again, it’s not like I don’t become a little queasy at the sight of math). However, their intersection is often the place where the most interesting things happen, especially in an age where digital technology has become so entrenched in our daily lives.
This was especially the case around the ’80s and ’90s, when home computing and the Internet were just starting to become a thing. One of the most well-known pieces of electronic literature, Michael Joyce’s afternoon, a story, is about Peter, a technical writer who sees a car crash and later suspects it might have belonged to his ex-wife and that his son was in it. The hypertextuality of the story’s format mirrors Peter’s confusion and fear, as well as his role as an unreliable narrator. If the reader chooses different paths while reading it, the story might also change with each read. Joyce comments, “When the story no longer progresses, or when it cycles, or when you tire of the paths, the experience of reading it ends.” In electronic literature, then, the reader has far greater agency in the creation of the narrative itself.
afternoon was first presented in 1987 to demonstrate the usage of the hypertext fiction software Storyspace. Though there are now countless apps and programs designed for writers, the fact that this one was created specifically for the writing and editing of hypertext fiction so early on surprised me. It seems that electronic literature was expected to be a bigger phenomenon than it currently is. One of its biggest drawbacks is the fluidity of technology and media. While physical books have remained relatively stable in their form for centuries, the diskette on which afternoon was first published in 1990 is now a relic. If it hadn’t become such a classic of its genre, it probably wouldn’t still be distributed as a USB flash drive.
Yet electronic literature is a reminder that new technologies and new media don’t necessarily cause the death of old ones. Rather, they re-conceptualize them and allow us to see our art in new ways. “Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts,” confessed Nietzsche when, due to blindness, he first began to use the Malling-Hansen Writing Ball. Is this a bad thing? Sure, there are a lot of dumb things we do with our writing tools (no, the Electronic Literature Organization does not count memes — yet), which are either relatively harmless or turning us all into unthinking sheeple. But if our writing tools are working on our thoughts, don’t we have a responsibility to be more cognizant of how and why we use them?
That there is something so achingly sad and human in the death of Oppy who we sent out to explore the universe for us shouldn’t surprise us. Neither should the power of technology to connect us more deeply to our own humanity, if we embrace the poetic possibilities we have to offer. After all, as a friend of mine so succinctly put it, “we built it.” Homo ex machina, then?
Ramya Yandava is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ramya’s Rambles runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.