Making the Book

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Visible language Volume 25 number 2/ 3

Making the Book

Paul Zelevansky
333 West End Avenue New York, New York 10023

This essay compares the form, function and experience of reading and writing books with the utilization and creation of narratives on the computer. Topics include: hand-eye coordination, gestures and rituals which characterize computer use; the speed, accessibility and flexibility of computer tools; rules and assumptions which inform the relationship between human and machine; the structural, technical and psychological functions of the interface; the experience of navigation within an electronic narrative structure; the computer user as audience, reader and creator; signs and symbols, the intersection of visual and verbal language; the manipulation of icons, formats, metaphors and scenarios which support computer environments and simulations.

Pa ul Zelevansky is a n artist a nd writer in New Yo rk City. His most rece nt books are The Shadow Architecture at the Crossroads Annual, 19_ (1988) a nd T he Case for the Burial of Ancestors, BooP (199 1). H e is cu rrently de sig ning inte ractive compu ter exhibi ts fo r the New Yo rk H all of Scie n ce and th e American Muse um ofNatural History.

Visible Language, 25 : 2/ 3 Paul Ze leva nsky, pp. 217-230 © Visible Language, 199 1 Rhod e Island Sc hoo l of Design Provide n ce, Rh od e Isla nd 02903


Visible Language Volume 25 number 2/3

"I want to do this myself, Hal" he said. "Please give me control."
"Look, Dave, you've got a lot of things to do. I suggest you leave this to me."
"Hal, switch to manual hibernation control."
"I can tell from your voice harmonics, Dave, that you're badly upset. Why don't you take a stress pill and get some rest?"
Conversation between Hal, a computer, and Dave, the captain of the spacecraft Discovery. Arthur C. Clarke, 2001, A Space Odyssey. New American Library, 1968.
Working with a computer requires a commitment to specific techniques, parameters, terminology and resources-to electricity, in particular, respect must be paid. While it is true that all tools, powered and selfstarting, make similar demands, most do not require twoway communication, and most are not expected to do your thinking for you. It is crossing this line that turns the creator/tool exchange into a relationship, and as with all relationships, shared responsibilities and needs generate some ambivalence between the parties involved. While my experience has been fairly specific, focused primarily on designing graphics and animations for interactive science exhibits and visual fiction, I have become interested in some of the expectations of this new relationship between human and machine: in particular, the ways in which the demands of language, form and structure engage and color the creative process. In 2001, Hal eventually loses the argument when Dave pulls the plug on the computer's memory, but Dave, cast adrift without Hal's technical support and prophetic voice, must face the future profoundly alone.

I. Getting Up to Speed

Paul Zelevansky


Whatever else is promised by the utilization of computers, the values of speed, choice and interaction are central motifs, if not guiding principles. That is, in practice, a computer should provide a solution to a problem or an improvement in service quickly, confidently, transparently and in a way that invites active participation by the customer, technician or creator in charge. But when the computer is asked to serve as more than an intelligent tool, when it becomes a medium to manipulate and explore, as with various graphics and design programs, the exchange becomes more complex. At its best, this relationship goes beyond one of master/slave, hand/ switch to become transformative, a fluid collaboration between a creator and a medium. While the same could be said for the experience of reading and writing books the "oldfashioned way," the process of engaging a computer for those purposes is distinct.
The multiple ways in which this human / machine exchange unfold in the process of writing are probably as varied as the circumstances of each attempt-there continue to be eight million stories in the naked city-but for those who work with word processors to write books, few would argue that the ability to correct, arrange and manuever through a manuscript at great speed does not in some way inform the end result. In the production of books, the most direct payoff of speed is more time, time that allows for expanded production at less cost. And that means the cheaper delivery of ideas to more people. Desktop publishing, the contraction of the publishing assembly line to desktop scale, embodies that kind of democratic ideal. It is also, analogously, an electronic model of the digestive system-consumption, digestion and elimination in one closed system. This means, at the very least, that the results of production are likely to be mediated primarily by the taste, opinion and judgment of the people present in the room, if not the person sitting alone at the desk. This transforms what was an industrial process-requiring the services of typesetter, printers, designers and editors-into a largely private one, much closer to the rarified domain of artists and writers. For example, the availability of electronic scanners and inexpensive sources of generic clip art make image production at the desktop level available to those who


Visible language Volume 25 number 2/3

have never even considered passing through the doors of an art school. But within the computer's domain, artists, writers, engineers and mathematicians are all subject to the same benefits and laws.
Whether word-processing or creating images on the screen, a series of particular gestures and procedures, rituals and signs, characterizes the creative act. Beginning with the choice to sit down before a screen and have a dialogue with it, and continuing into actions which both mimic and displace events in the tactile, sensory world away from the machine, this is a simulated relationship in which content and terms are dictated largely by the person at the controls. In this sense, the monitor screen functions like a mirror which reflects back a picture of the user's expectations, but because this is a world of fixed rules, inhabited by fugitive messages, the relationship requires careful negotiation. In the language of computing, word-processing and image-processing are substrategies of the work process. Clearly, there is a bias here towards the manipulation of discrete elements, over the gross handling of clumps of matter. Processing seems to be about passing something through a kind of filter which translates or reconstitutes it so that it is easier to assemble, rearrange or mix with something else. This engages a food-processing metaphor-digitize, blend, puree-which falls apart, for me, at the point where I must imagine vegetables or images put back together after they have been broken down and dispersed. Even if this were possible, the idea of a regenerating particulate structure underlying the image on the screen is too difficult to trust or sustain. I prefer to think of the construction of words and images as an additive, mosaic process, where a stable set of discrete elements called pixels (short for picture elements) can be selected and combined to form equally stable composite elements like words and shapes.
In the Macintosh "environment" where I reside when computing, the construction process is made concrete through the use of an auxiliary selection device called a mouse, and various accessible tools and techniques identified by graphic icons and visible and hidden menus (lists of tools and content). Moving and clicking the mouse activates effects and processes, or provides a way to literally build, move, alter or remove text or images on the screen. While there are ways in which working with the

Paul Zelevansky


mouse simulates the act of drawing, you are always at least one step removed from the traditional exchange between the tool and the paper. By extension, you are represented robotically on the screen by the cursor, which, in turn, represents the mouse.
Attached to the chain of command, you move the mouse, and the world moves with you. Drawing in this way is much less about the gesture of the hand or arm, or the pressure and shift of the fingers around a pencil, than about the plotting of a series of logical moves which will result in an image. The standard personal computer is not great at producing delicate lines and curves, but it can multiply, rotate, invert, scale, colorize, cut, paste and erase text and graphics almost instantly. Some of these effects verge on the magical in the way they replicate and extend the events they simulate. Then there are other functions which are not modeled on past experience: to select a word or block of type and instantly transform its font, size or style is a form of alchemy only a computer can provide. More than once, after a day building and destroying images in the pixel world, I have found myself trying to apply its laws to events in the real world. Erasing an error or imperfection is never quite as clean and complete as when it happens on the screen, and the multiplication or procreation of elements to generate a new whole touches on metaphors and techniques that have very little to do with making images.
One example in my own work involved the problem of drawing an image of a plaid bathrobe: I began by multiplying a drawing of a swatch of cloth into a larger cloth. Then, I drew a pattern, in line, for each of the components of the robe: collars, pocket, sleeves and torso. Then, by rotating sections of the fabric, I was able to suggest the folding of the garment. Next, I placed the parts of the pattern over the sections offabric. Finally, I assembled the robe: sleeves to torso, collars overlapping sleeves, pocket on the left, and then to bring things full circle-that is to give credit where credit was formerly due-l stuck a pencil in the pocket. Ultimately, the drawing owed much more to sewing and Butterick patterns than to art school.
The speed of the manipulation, the mutliplicity of choices and the accessibility of the tools can contribute to a fluid exchange of capabilities. Because the monitor screen is


Visible language Volume 25 number 2/3

II. The Site of the Narrative

the window or membrane through which the exchange is visualized, this relationship between human and machine can seem transparent, immediate and self-fulfilling. Speed demands more speed, choices generate more choices, and the interaction encourages more interaction. But what the computer gives, the computer can take away. The sense of loss, verging on betrayal, when a piece of work is damaged or inadvertently erased is as intense as the sense of power and control which accompanies the initial production.
An encounter between a human and a machine, considered in terms of its effect on the machine as well as on the human, is a more complex narrative than that inaugurated by a human and a simple tool. Because a computer supplies the stage for the work, as well as the tools, materials and storage space, and because it may even serve in the end product, it certainly seems appropriate to think of it as an environment, a word which is also used to describe a package of related hardware and software. An environment can make demands and respond in kind.
Consider the focus and goals of a typical ATM or cash machine in regard to function, service and audience response. Although the bland neutrality of the screen, its controls and textual cues, probably consumed many hours of the design process, the basic interaction provides no unexpected characterization of place or boundary. The screen remains reassuringly neutral, an electronic analog to a sheet of paper which, by way of a short list of choices on a menu and reassuring messages during pauses for processing, frames your response. This is the face of a machine which promises to reliably and objectively dole out cash. On the other hand, as with other human / computer interactions, ease and power can quickly turn to frustration when the authority of the human is called into question. A notification of an insufficient balance can provoke both guilt and fury, as if this dumb machine not only refused your request but discovered your insolvency as well. Using a cash machine is a silent exchange with an invisible, but ultimately powerful teller. As a narrative, it is limited: "take out money," with functions like depositing and balance inquiries making that possible. While the transaction actually continues after the cash and the "thank you" appear, the recording of the exchange in the

Paul Zelevansky


larger bank system is not visible, although it is implied in the optional receipt. This provides the kind of buffer that a credit card does in shielding the consumer from the direct realization of spent, and therefore, diminished funds.
Maybe it was my forced apprenticeship in the retail shoe business, but the checkbook and the ledger seem harder to ignore. Turning their pages, passing through handwritten listings of credits and debits, is neither magical or friendly. Of course, page-turning is one of the primary experiences the book provides and the computer denies. A derogatory term in computing which implies limited interaction and control, page-turning is one the pleasures of reading, as well as a necessary form of navigation. Within a book, a general narrative terrain is carved out where time and space are characterized and implied. Somewhere a page turns, and "Ten years have passed, and Tom, now sporting a gray beard and forty extra pounds in his gut, is living somewhere else."
In a computer program, on the other hand, boundaries can be more literally defined and more easily transgressed. Navigating through a narrative structure is less about moving through the pagination than about making decisions and forming links between choices. Because there is no apparent front or back of the book, the computer must provide some clear affirmation of an underlying, consistent structure within an essentially open-ended space, framed, but not limited, by the borders of the monitor screen. This must continue to be true whether there is text or image involved, because any evolving information that appears on the screen is essentially gone, invisible, erased when a new choice is made. For it to return, it will have to be reconstituted or called up from storage.
The concept of being "in memory," which is where a computer places information no longer visible on the screen, not only suggests the existence of other states and versions of the data, but also other levels in space where they can reside. On the Macintosh, specific files are represented both by a graphic icon and by a name and description on a menu. These icons and lists function like a kind of floating index, accessible at different stages in the process. To get to the material in a file, you depart from a listing in this index and return to it when you are


Visible language Volume 25 number 2/3

done. In this way, whether located at some distant point in the larger coordinate system, enclosed in an icon or some collection device like the Macintosh Scrapbook, text and image are, barring human error and machine dysfunction, retrievable. They may appear gone, but they are not forgotten. Instructions (programming) which provide the basis for all functions, including the hierarchy of representations which form the visible interactive controls (the interface), are likewise out of sight but not out of mind. Don ' t worry, the computer has it under control. As with the invisible authority of the cash machine, disbelief is suspended by a great leap offaith in the system and the constancy of the ~creen. IfTom were the progeny of a word-processor, his former self, ten years younger and minus the gray beard and the forty excess pounds, would be somewhere in memory at this very moment.
Ill. The Flavor of the Interaction The pencil and paper Treasure Hunt, above, presents its means and ends in one visible package. The goal is defined, all possible paths laid out; even the obstacles to success are not hidden. This map of the hunt is the interface, the channel between you and the treasure at the end. While all means and ends are not visible in a book or a computer program, plot structures and flow-charts both trace the lines and connections through which identified goals may be reached. Just as in a game or puzzle, all the routes may not be taken, but boundaries, syntax and rules must be stable for playing to unfold-and not unravel. The map of the Treasure Hunt and the role of the player remain the same. It is the pattern of the interaction that changes. What a computer program adds to this equation is both the layering of alternative scenarios and the potential for transforming the qualities of the map itself. Participation may require solving problems, following a set of graphic or textual relationships, uncovering the logic of the system, or experimenting with various strategies and manuevers for their own sake. But whatever the level of involvement, the fit between the rules of the game, the clarity of the boundaries, and the consistent functioning of the tools must be clear and immediate. Anyone who has ever been cast adrift on a subway platform in New York City trying to interpret a garbled public address announcement, or found themselves on a moving train which has unexpectedly been transformed

Paul Zelevansky


from a local to an express, knows what it means for a complex interactive system to break down.
Like a road map, a computer program is built around defined locations and links. There may be more than one way to arrive, and the choices will inevitably fork at a given destination to encompass at least a return to the beginning, if not a whole new set of locations and links. The developing narrative accumulates rather than unwinds. Each choice not only takes the reader (or user) through the material, but in forming connections and generating new branches provides the experience of collecting, if not building, the content. In a programming application like Hypercard, which was designed for the Macintosh, this linking idea becomes a tangible function of the process. A user can creat "buttons" or hot spots on the screen out of words or images, which when contacted by the cursor make a direct and visible connection to related elements or ideas. Once established, a path traveled in this way is a field of the user's creation. Because a computer program can also offer multiple, simultaneous destinations and entry points, any location can lead to any other so that where you start is less important than the sequence of the interaction.
This browsing approach to exploring information reflects a social as well as an aesthetic or pedagogical bias. In this democracy, choice is an unassailable value, but the responsibility for making decisions and coping with the results brings up the question of the nature of the audience being "targeted" for the experience. Are they students to be encouraged, peers to be engaged, or consumers to be taken in? Choice implies freedom; interaction promises power. Where within the multiplicity of competing ideas does someone acquire the tools to make judgments and decisions? If the freedom to browse among alternative experiences is the aesthetic and cultural model, then advertising could be considered the ethical sword of democracy, and the right to choose Coca over Pepsi would truly exemplify "the real thing."
In contrast, books are familiar, domesticated objects at this point in our cultural history. They can be opened or closed, shared or carried around without resort to special training, equipment or surroundings. Print literacy is considered an unassailable value as well as a necessity. While bookstores and libraries are certainly for browsing,

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Making the Book