N. Katherine Hayles: Effects of digital media

Posted
Thursday April 11, 2013

TROY, N.Y. -- It’s a world straight out of Issac Asimov or Phillip K. Dick: Written stories that come with their own ambient music, poetry that changes based on who is reading it, and interactive novels. But these are not from the annals of speculative fiction; they are just three examples of the relatively new medium of electronic or digital literature.

Electronic literature is one aspect of Duke professor N. Katherine Hayles upcoming talk in the EMPAC Theater at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, "Performing Technogenesis: The Affective Power of Digital Media," Wednesday, April 17, at 6 p.m.

"Electronic literature can be thought of as literature written on the computer and designed to be read on the computer," Hayles said.

It’s an attempt to take all the rich tradition of print literature and afford it all of the benefits of digital media, she added.

"Some of them are flash implementations, they have animations and in many cases music," Hayles said. "Some are text adventure games."

Hayles worked with the Electronic Literature Organization to put together the anthology "Electronic Literature Collection," which takes the best and most innovative pieces of electronic literature and brings them together in a Creative Commons online collection and CD/DVD.

"These are kind of the electronic literature equivalent of the Norton Anthologies," Hayles said in reference to the standard college literature textbooks. "A lot of people would say to me, but there’s so much out there I don’t know where the good stuff is."

Hayles also authored a book on the topic, "Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary," in 2008.

Technogenesis

The overarching theme of Hayles talk, which is part of the "Observer Effects" series at RPI, is technogenesis.

"The word simply means: human evolution has been bound up from the beginning with technological objects," Hayles said.

One basic example she gives of this is the advent of bipedalism in humans, which co-evolved with tool usage.

Standing on two feet left our hands free to hold and use tools, she said. Technology accelerated the development of certain human traits and those same traits accelerated the development of technology.

This relationship between humans and technology extends back millions of years, but Hayles points out that in the last few decades we’ve seen massive changes to that relationship with the advent of digital technology.

"From an evolutionary standpoint this is an eyeblink," she said.

While a few decades has not been enough time for there to be any genetic changes in humanity, Hayles said there has been plenty of evolution on an epigenetic level. Epigenetics, literally "over genetics," is the study of alterations caused by effects other than DNA changes. Part of Hayles work looks at the epigenetic effects that digital media has on humans.

"Our intense engagements with digital media have consequences," Hayles said.

One example she used was the psychological and neurological changes humans have experienced with the ubiquity of digital media. She explained the trend of a switch from what she calls "deep attention" to "hyper attention." Deep attention would be when a person spends a great deal of time on one task, while with hyper attention people tend to switch between information sources quickly, as with Web surfing.

Hayles is professor of literature and director of graduate studies at Duke University, writes and teaches on the relationships of literature, science, and technology in the 20th and 21st centuries. Her book "How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics," won the René Wellek Prize for the Best Book of Literary Theory for 1998-99, and her book "Writing Machines" won the Suzanne Langer Award for Outstanding Scholarship. Her most recent book is "How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis." Hayles has received numerous awards and fellowships, including a Guggenheim, two National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships, and a Rockefeller Residential Fellowship at Bellagio.

Evelyn’s Café in EMPAC will open at 5 p.m. with a full menu of meals, snacks, and beverages as well as a selection of wines. Service continues after the event. Parking is available in the Rensselaer parking lot on College Ave.

Andrew Roiter is the arts editor of the Bennington Banner. He can be reached at aroiter@benningtonbanner.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Banner_Arts.


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