Why I have stopped creating e-Lit

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.

10 Responses to “Why I have stopped creating e-Lit”

  • zota:

    The reason this makes me sad is you aren’t wrong about the problems of the word. But you haven’t really thought through just how deeply complicit you are.

    In increase in exploitative coltan mining in the Congo isn’t due to desktop computers as much as it is mobile devices and lightweight components. So if you were serious about avoiding personal complicity, the first thing you’d do it get rid of all cell phones and mobile electronics, and vow to never communicate to anyone through one. You’d also need to disavow air travel. And sadly, you’d have to avoid getting any electricity from wind turbines. Which would increase your use of electricity from coal, thereby pushing us all a little closer to death.

    And if you really wanted to disconnect from the slave labor of capitalism, you cannot stop with “e-literature.” Aside from a few letterpress editions, all books today are produced with digital tools. And many (most?) books are physically produced in China, under the same labor system that produced electronic devices. Disconnecting from “e-lit” s not enough — you would need to stop creating and consuming *all* written language.

    I don’t mean to belittle your sense of distress at the justifiable outrages around us. But you are utterly, systemically complicit, and you can’t disentangle yourself by ceasing one very specific form of cultural production. Even your symbolic disavowal of e-lit was typed out on a computer, uploaded to a computer, transmitted from computer to computer, where I finally read it on the screen of my computer. It’s blind collaboration all the way down.

    As a gentle challenge to your symbolic gesture, I would suggest that instead of puling back and avoiding action (stop creating a particular mode of literature), you find a positive gesture. I don’t know what it would be. But if it were something that people could do, it would be far more powerful than boycotting something that already has so few practitioners.

  • As always, that’s a very thoughtful piece, Eugenio. I appreciate that in you and your work. And the way your work differs from the usual. And it’s genuinely interesting programmerly dimension toward an art of programming that is not simply like what Knuth refers to.

    So I hope your temporary hiatus is not too long.

    But, in any case, I’m glad you’re posting about these sorts of issues on netartery. I also followed your links and read them. I don’t know much about the manufacture of computers. What’s in there and where it comes from. And how it affects life in the places where the resources are extracted, etc. But I agree it’s an important issue we should know about.

    Where are you these days? What are you doing? Are there projects you want to start?

  • Right on, Eugenio. At the very least we ought to be asking how we can create works of art that empower the reader (both in developing nations and not) rather than only deal with academic literary issues. But you seem to be moving in the valuable direction of critiquing how the insularity of e-literature supports a digital colonialism, and developing alternatives.

    I suspect most of this discussion is occuring on Facebook, but I hope you post occasional updates here on the open web.

  • Zota’s remarks strike me as on target, though possibly a little bit harsh regarding your eloquent statement of withdrawal, Eugenio. Yes, we are all complicit, meaning that we are all accomplices, gearing up “the machine”, from the computers on our desks and in our studios to the insanely destructive ways we produce food, habitat and clothing. But the meta crisis behind everything else that is crashing and burning: a massive failure of human imagination. The world is starved for media (e-lit, films, broadcasts, podcasts, music and on and on) that feeds, sustains and changes the imagination. Unless we can imagine a better future via the powers of art, I very much doubt we will be able to create any sort of lasting change out in the world. In any event, many thanks for such an informative and courageous post, and please do send updates as you have them. I am very curious about the next phase of your work.

  • Dear friends,

    Thank you for your comments. I think that we all face a tough challenge, and there are many choices that we can make to deal with it. We can choose to do nothing. Or, as zota suggests, we stop our creation and consumption all written language. But these are two extremes, and I believe that there are many things we can do in between.

    Obviously, I am writing this on a computer. If I really believed that we have to go for a radical solution, I wouldn’t have this opportunity to communicate with you. And that would be really disastrous. If you read my note carefully, you’ll see that I am just stopping to think. There are many things I don’t know, many threads I haven’t followed yet. I have to provide answers to myself before I can continue with my work. Yes, Coltan is used primarily for mobile phones, but other minerals are also present in the computer. Again, I ask myself: where are they taken from? How is the life of the miners who do that sort of work? These are just a couple of questions I want to map out before I can sit again in front of my computer to create a piece of e-Lit.

    What’s next for me? Research. A lot. The information is out there for all of us to find. What we do with it depends on ourselves, but we no longer have the excuse of “not knowing”.

    Thank you for your solidarity and interest. Thank you Jim for your kind words and for allowing me to share my thoughts here. I have the responsability to come back and tell you what I’ve found. Be certain that I will do so when I’m ready.

  • Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Eugenio. I admire your integrity and feel much sympathy with your position. Certainly raising awareness about injustice, inequity and exploitation is crucial if there’s to be any change and I agree with gregorious, that it’s important to “imagine a better future via the powers of art.” I look forward to hearing more from you and, when you’re ready, seeing what you create out of your reflections and research.

  • dude, maybe if you were a little more focused on actually doing something new and interesting with e-lit, and a little less self-absorbed with solving all of the problems of the human condition, boasting of your academic, travel, and reading conquests… maybe you could be an e-lit artist — the rest of your whine is just rubbish

    good luck

  • “Turns out that creating a game with the explicit purpose of criticizing Apple will get you banned from the App Store. Who would have guessed? The app called Phone Story was designed as a game that allowed players to force African miners to extract the minerals used in the manufacture of iPhones at gun point, among other things. The App only lasted a few hours in the App Store before disappearing.”

    From http://www.pcworld.com/article/246134/5_apps_banned_from_apples_app_store_in_2011.html

  • Hi I appreciate the well considered blog posts. Are you planning further use for these posts or would you allow me to post these on face book? I am a concrete poet and writer in other media. Thanks

  • Hi Judith. Please feel free to share this post.