It all started quite innocently. On January 2011, I traveled to Tanzania with the purpose of working with a group subsistence farmers, and engage them in the creation a collaborative, online knowledge base of their practices, needs and innovations. My intention was to propose this knowledge base as an interface for cross-sector communication between farmers and agricultural researchers. I developed an architecture which follows a functional and aesthetic program that seeks to include both forms of knowledge, wanting to interweave the audiovisual narratives of the farmers (oral tradition and observation) together with the text-based analyses of scientists.
I was motivated to create this project upon reading the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, Technology for Development (IAASTD) Report, a 600-page document published by an international team of agricultural scientists in 2009. One of the innumerable contributions of this report is the acknowledgment that scientific knowledge, by itself, is not able to provide solutions to the incredibly complex challenges that agriculture is facing around the world. As the predominant knowledge system, science has failed to stop poverty and hunger. It has failed to link these problems to other non-scientific fields, such as the global markets and political instability. It has also neglected other forms of knowledge, such as the one that farmers have passed on from generation to generation across centuries. By becoming the dominant knowledge system and by resisting to engage in true interdisciplinary, cross-sector research, most scientists have effectively become the blind leading the blinded.
As I learned these lessons, I tried to find out how they could relate to a field in which I have been an active contributor during the past decade: Electronic Literature. A very popular “catch-phrase” started to run around in my mind: “think out of the box”. I immediately transformed it to “think out of the book“. All of us who have created works of electronic literature, and also those who study it, know that e-Lit strives to exist out of the book. But my new catch-phrase referred not to the book as an object, but as a metaphor to describe the scientific-academic system of knowledge that has formed around e-Lit. It became an invitation for me to stop thinking exclusively from within our discipline, and ask myself:
“What the hell am I doing?” Do I even know?
These are my thoughts: I refuse to go on creating works of e-Lit only for the sake of exploring new formats and supports, and I strongly disagree with studying e-Lit exclusively from within the academic field of Literature. By its own definition, electronic literature “lives” within electronic media. But have we, as an academic community, realized what electronic devices are doing to the environment? Do we know where the minerals that are necessary to manufacture computers come from, and under what conditions they are extracted? What about the slave labor involved in the manufacturing process? Have we deeply studied the economic implications of using computers as literary tools, in a time in which all our economic systems are collapsing? In one word, are we being responsible? I have seriously asked these questions to myself.
As of today, I have decided to temporarily stop creating new works of e-Lit. I feel that the issues involved in creating artworks with computers are too important to be ignored. So I call for a truly trans-disciplinary, cross-sector research on electronic literature: one that also involves a profound understanding of its environmental and economic effects. One that doesn’t ignore the social and cultural contexts which are being effectively destroyed for the sake of our technology. I am thinking specifically about Africa, and many other places around the world in which land is being grabbed and exploited, and where societies are being condemned to suffer so that we, the lucky ones, can remain connected. Is it a mere coincidence that e-Lit is not being produced or studied in those places? I don’t think so.
I am not saying that you should stop too. I deeply respect and admire the work of the international e-Lit community. I believe in individual freedom, and because of that I also expect (and hope) to be challenged. My words do not mean that we should go back in time and flatly declare that electronic literature (or computers, for that matter) is unsustainable. I will always be in love with writing and programming, and I sincerely believe that it is neither possible nor desirable to “think inside the book” again, both literally and metaphorically. But what I really need to express, before I can continue creating e-Lit, is that I feel an urgent need to achieve a more complex and holistic vision of what I am doing and reflect on its implications, unless I agree to just blindly collaborate in the vertiginous destruction of our world. I finally wish to reach out to those of you who also feel this need: let’s think out of the book together.
UPDATE (the day after)
Dear friends: this morning I went for a walk along the Naviglio Grande in Milan, and I entered a shop selling second-hand books. There I found a small book, “The Computer in Art”, by Jasia Reichardt, published in London in 1971. The book described the works of pioneers of Computer Art, such as Charles Csuri or Michael Noll, who were active at that time. A real gem. But the biggest surprise came when I turned to the last page, on which the previous owner had written: “I married on 23, November. I would like to be a man, not artist, not engineer, a man.”
I took the book with me.