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Ends of Electronic? A Report from ELO2015

I spent last week at the Electronic Literature Organization Conference 2015, a gathering of scholars interested in work that plays with technology towards literary ends. The international festival is always a showcase of both scholarly and artistic work, and thus never fails to provide me with inspiration for next year’s projects. This year, as “electronic literature” in various forms has been going undeniably mainstream, some of the questions raised at the conference hold particular resonance with the broader interests of digital scholarship and methods. This theme emerged early on, as a joint keynote from Espen Aarseth and Stuart Moulthrop opened the conference by questioning the “ends” of electronic literature, and Aarseth even suggested the word “electronic” might no longer be viable as part of the organization name (although “literature organization” on its own perhaps lacks specificity.)

This is a question that I find of interest as a scholar of “electronic” narrative who employs “digital” pedagogy.” Just look at the ProfHacker tagline: a blog for teaching, tech, and productivity. Ignoring the larger critique that books and pens are as much a technology as anything, there’s still a question lingering: can anyone really teach without digital means at this stage of web integration? Is the choice to use words like “electronic” or “digital” to designate our work and pedagogy simply a reflection of a moment of transition, soon to be abandoned as such methods become universal, or is it still important to call attention to the use of technology as we push it towards new frontiers?

The collection of ideas shown at ELO might offer some inspiration, as they offer conscious exploration of digital methods. Here are a few of the works on display at this year’s ELO that might offer provocations or ideas for digital pedagogy, student work, and interactive textbooks:

  • Interactive Books. There were several great book apps on display this year. “The Computer Wore Heels“ is an interactive book from documentary film-maker LeAnn Erickson allows the readers to participate in writing women back into the history of early computing. Designed as a potential textbook, it’s also an intriguing model of playing with history and a good combination of film and app. “Death of an Alchemist,” by Chris Rodley and Andrew Burrell, explores the idea of “big data” by using external content to fuel a narrative surrounding the death of a mysterious 16th century alchemist. An app version is forthcoming and worth watching for.

  • Dead Technology as Art. Our technological waste was at the center of “RestOration: Kalfarlein 18,” Kathi Inman Berens, Alicia Cohen, Kerstin Juhlin, Eva Pfitzenmaier. This exhibit paired haunting audio and epoetry with relics of digital eras gone by (shown above.) This monument to obsolence contains once-expensive technology that now has less than no value, and in many cases the parts were still sitting in boxes waiting for use. Every campus IT department likely has the makings of their own monument sitting in a back room, a reminder of how quickly technology fades.

  • Data Visualization. Maria Mencia’s “Gateway to the World” is an app designed for exploring the flow of data and more literally cargo and vessels through the port of Hamburg, Germany. The metaphor is both visually and poetically striking and also useful in grasping the scale of networks. I can imagine this type of project on a smaller scale as a way for students to think about their environment and its own “harbors.”

Conferences dedicated to innovating through technology are great spaces for experimentation, and thus always get me excited about new platforms and projects. I highly recommend checking out the ELO2015 archives for more ideas to explore.

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