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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Reading the Source of "Seattle Drift"

Saturday, September 15, 2012

At the excellent Forms of Innovation conference, I very much enjoyed a keynote paper by Ian Davidson, in which he examined the treatment and representation of space and movement in a series of poems, moving from print sources, to the poem-film Dakota to Jim Andrew's hypertext "Seattle Drift." In this post, I want to challenge a casual comment Davidson made about the latter, which I think embodies an important lesson to learn when studying electronic literature.

The poem "Seattle Drift" consists of five lines:
I'm a bad text.
I used to be a poem
but drifted from the scene.
Do me.
I just want you to do me.
Taken at face value, the poem seems to embody a lightly sado-masochistic sense, with that teasing request to "do me" as punishment for being "bad." But this erotic tone is modified by the three hyperlink options at the top of the poem, which invite us to "Do the Text," "Stop the Text," or "Discipline the Text." The former causes the words to disperse and drift erratically across the screen. It has become literally a "bad text," moving restlessly and therefore being largely unreadable.

It seems significant that the hyperlinks are written in small red type which is difficult to read, and that they appear above the poem, which will be our natural first point of focus because of its larger white text. If the links appeared obviously below, the poem would seem to issue a command which we then automatically follow. As it is, though, the poem seems ironically unaware that we can indeed carry out the action it tauntingly asks us to. Yet even as we break apart this "bad poem" by "doing it," the poem breaks us as readers, because it becomes illegible as it moves.

If we "stop the text" mid flow, though, the movement pauses, and the words may form new quasi-phrases based on their new configuration. This perhaps invites us to think about how a poem or poetic forms may drift between different traditions: the starting form of the poem looks quite traditional - perhaps an example of modernist imagism; the animated poem is a child of the electronic era; and the paused animation is like a concrete poem that represents a different strand of modernist poetics (see below).

Disciplining the text puts the reader back into control, as the words return to their original shape, to how the poem "used to be." The irony here is that once we loop back to the beginning, the poem that we see on screen, which mockingly apologises for being a "bad text," is actually a more traditional (and therefore "good") poetic text than the scattered poem it can potentially become if we click the "Do the Text" hyperlink again.

There are, then, multiple ironies at work here that set up a dialogue between the poem and the reader, being both figuratively and practically interactive. The poem speaks to us - "do me" - little suspecting that if we discover the hyperlinks above it we can indeed "do it." But even as we carry out this command, the text wins back because it becomes unreadable. So far, then, this is a fairly conventional reading of the poem, treating it as text which happens to be interactive. However, it is important in looking at interactive literature that we also delve deeper.

In examining the middle, movement function Davidson made a passing comment that the jerky movement of the words in the middle phase is a result of the old technology of the web page coding ("Seattle Drift" having been written in 1997). This remark troubles me. There seem to be several possible ways in which "Seattle Drift" might vary depending on the particular technology on which the HTML is displayed. For example, an older computer might animate the movement more slowly than a modern one. Displaying the text on a larger screen (such as my 27 inch monitor) means that there is more black space to the right and below for the poem to move into, before the words drift entirely off screen. The poem would offer a different sense if played on a mobile phone screen. As a performative experience, the poem is not medium-neutral: changing the medium on which it runs also changes the range and representative possibilities of the poem.

Thus if we want to provide the fullest possible interpretation of the poem, we need to go to the original source code, which will offer clues as to Andrews' intention, prior to that code running on any particular device. The poem is coded using DHTML, which is indeed an older and now largely superseded technology, though still perfectly functional for the purposes of the animated poem; there is nothing in principle in DHTML which means that the words must jiggle as erratically as they do, rather than smoothly.

When we dig into the function that causes the movement, we find that actually the jerky motion is one determined by Andrews. The following code determines if a given word will move to the left or right, or up or down, with each given cycle:
function moveMe(aword, x, y) {
// This function handles text movement for IE 4+.
// The Math.random function generates a random number between 0 and 1
// If the x component random number is less than 0.5, then move the word
// to the left by doit pixels.
if (awordx <= 0.5) { aword.left = parseInt(aword.left) - doit; } else { // Else if the x component is greater than 0.5, move the word to the right // by x*doit pixels. aword.left = parseInt(aword.left) + x*doit; }
There is a further bit of code to ensure there is a bias towards downward and right movement, so that the words are highly unlikely to vanish off the left or top of the screen. It is important to note here that Andrews uses the random function only to determine if the word will move left or right, or up and down, at a given interval. He does not use a random function to determine how far each word might move. Instead, the range of movement is statically regulated by this function:
function moveIt() {
// This function is run upon loading the document (see the BODY statement).
// It is always running when the document is loaded. This is done by means
// of the setTimeout function. Essentially, there is a 15 millisecond
// delay between calls to this function.
moveMe(document.getElementById('SEATTLE').style, 4, 2);
moveMe(document.getElementById('DRIFT').style, 3, 2);
moveMe(document.getElementById('Im1').style, 4, 1);
moveMe(document.getElementById('a2').style, 5, 3);
setTimeout('moveIt()', 15);
The style elements in brackets determine how many pixels to the left or right or up or down each word will migrate. What this means is that certain words will move more than others. Thus "Seattle" will only move 4 horizontally and 2 vertically, whereas the first "a" will move 5 and 3 respectively. This can be seen easily when running the program, as the "a" very rapidly runs towards the bottom right of the screen, whereas the "Seattle Drift" title stays more or less towards the top left, its original position. So Andrews' intention here is that even though the words jiggle into a new configuration, they still retain a lingering sense of the original from which they have drifted (as best defined by the more static title which remains on top). Indeed, one could make a further observation that the elements given the largest movement ranges are the two "a" letters (allocated 5, 3 and 5, 5) and "the" (allocated 5, 5). Andrews allows these minor words to drift away and disintegrate from the original poem, whereas words which we might judge to be more important - such as "drifted" (range of 1,3) or "Seattle Drift" (4, 2 and 3, 2) - remain closer to their original positions. Of course, one could read Andrews intentions to the pixel-point of absurdity. But my point here is that Andrews has certainly wanted to achieve a markedly different effect to that which would have been achieved by assigning a random pixel movement to each one.

Furthermore, the jerky motion that Davidson noted is not due to technological limitations. It is instead a consequence of Andrews having assigned rigid rather than random movement ranges to individual words, coupled with the 15 millisecond delay between loops. If one alters the code so that the delay is 1 millisecond, with each word allowed to move 1 pixel vertically and 1 horizontally, the effect is much smoother.

Thus Andrews has determined that although the words will "drift," they will not do so with the subtle smoothness that word implies. Instead, the words deliberately saccade, so that even in movement this is a "bad" poem, not living up to its promise to drift but instead jerking somewhat (but not entirely) erratically.

What the above analysis shows, then, is that it is important not simply to read a text written specifically for the digital medium in the same way we would a printed text. It is possible to carry out a decent interpretation of "Seattle Drift" looking at it from a phenomenological point of view - that is, the ways in which we perceive the poem as we both read and then interact with it. However, the way the poem presents and generates these perceptive possibilities may also be affected by the medium on which it runs (for example, a larger monitor gives the poem more space to drift). To discount this effect, rather like a scientist tries to control for or eliminate mitigating factors we need also to examine source code. Oddly, this brings (electronic) literary theory back to privileging the notion of authorial (or coder's) intentions, something that mainstream literary criticism sees as somewhat unfashionable as a basis for interpretation.

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Posted by Alistair at 4:35 pm


Blogger Jim Andrews said...

"Well done, Dr. Brown!" said the author.

7:33 am  
Anonymous Leonardo Flores said...

Excellent analysis! I really enjoyed your nuanced reading of the code.

You might be interested in some of my recent writing on "Seattle Drift" on I ♥ E-Poetry, which links to my dissertation on Jim Andrews' poetry and poetics: http://iloveepoetry.com/?s=seattle+drift

10:48 pm  

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