The introductory chapter introduces the author, explains the book's motivation, summarizes its thesis and scope, and discusses the materials covered. An extended theory section gives the project its intellectual framework, which builds on Viktor Shklovksy and Villem Flusser's work to develop a theory of media settlement and displacement. Computational poetics, the author argues, involves the estrangement of familiar media environments. A new perspective allows us to begin articulating the difference between print on paper and pixel. A methodological section follows, which places the book in the tradition of critical theory and experimental humanities. A chapter summary and a note on the book's geographic perspective concludes the chapter.
The second chapter begins with a question. What does it mean to turn a page, when neither pages nor the action of turning them correspond to the implied analogy? A close reading of the metaphor leads to an intellectual history of human-computer interaction. It progresses from "conversational programming" to "direct manipulation" schools, the latter shaped by cognitive linguistics and immersive theater. The logic of "directness" culminates in the rapidly developing field of brain-computer interfaces. The chapter concludes with a moment of speculative formalism, in which the author considers the possibility of affective literature, of the kind that eschews language and representation.
At the core of the book's third chapter lies the notion of a modernist literary device, understood both as literary technique and thought experiment about intelligent machines, directly connected to the birth of modern computing. A section on literary technique in the thought of Viktor Shklovsky, Percy Lubbock, Walter Benjamin, and Mikhail Bakhtin opens the discussion. Materialist poetics rise concomitantly alongside a mechanistic, rule-based view of language. The author continues to reconstruct a series of thought experiments first in the writing of Ludwig Wittgenstein and then in Alan Turing's seminal paper on computable numbers. The reader is finally introduced to a range of broken reading and writing machines, which challenge our intuition about software and hardware, artificial and natural intelligence.
Two rich intellectual histories collide here: form in literary theory and format in computer science. The English "form" renders at times the material, outward, and apparent shape of something said, written, or pictured. Just as often, it is used in the sense of a Platonic ideal: abstracted from matter, inward-facing, and in need of explication. Form in the latter sense is closer to the idea of an algorithm or formula: it signifies according to implicit rules. The author augments these two concepts of form with the concept of format, which developed from simple machine instructions for typographical layout into complex meta-literary directives related to intellectual property rights, trade agreements, and the politics of surveillance. The chapter ends with the "smart document," an increasingly common instrument of record capable of policing its own encoded rules of reader engagement: what can be read, how, and where.
A camp of media theorists and textual scholars in the 1990s conceived of electronic texts as an ephemeral, almost immaterial, phenomenon. Text shimmered and glared: it was spoken of as hypertext, light writing, and electricity. Then, the generation of theorists that came after insisted on the weighty materiality of electronic media. Reading began to engage the morphology of rare metals, media archeology, hard drive forensics. Both accounts, the author argues, capture an aspect of the same underlying condition. The sign plausibly resides both on screen and hard drive. Using materials from the history of telegraphy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the author charts the gradual fracture and the ultimate illegibility of the newly composite sign. In conclusion, the chapter identifies a milestone in the history of human textuality: the moment at which the inscription passed from view, giving rise to accounts of digital textuality.
This chapter charts the emergence of screen reading. Screens restore a measure of visibility lost to electromagnetic inscription, with one major side-effect. Fidelity between visible and archived inscription cannot be guaranteed. Further, screen reading happens on screens that refresh themselves at a rate of around 60 cycles per second (Hertz). The digital word is technically an animation; it moves even as it appears to stand still. This property attunes the reader to a particular mode of apprehension, affecting not just the physics but also the aesthetics of digital media. Works by philosophers Henri Bergson, John Haugeland, and Nelson Goodman construe a phenomenology of screen-based digital perception. The digital emerges ultimately not as a medium's intrinsic property, but as structure imposed from without. It matters not what the text is, but what we can do with it.
A short conclusion gestures toward the contemporary consequences of fractured inscription, discussing also the possibility of machine phenomenology in relationship to humanism. Whatever their politics, the author argues, literary scholars, philosophers, and historians, must negotiate the tactics of reading alongside law makers and software engineers. The right to access—share, repair, remix, modify—underlies the possibility of interpretation.