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Steven Levy skypes with Rick Holland

Steven Levy skypes with Rick Holland In the jungle of digital communication, user generated content? has become increasingly designed for temporary consumption; here today, gone (or irrelevant) later today. That is, until the posts, tweets and streams of digital consciousness are turned into books—a somewhat bizarre measure of the literary value of new media. For British poet and blogger Rick Holland it‘s clear that as users become innovators, the content of their digital narratives isn’t just becoming more complex, it’s also being taken more seriously. Fresh from his musical collaborations with Brian Eno, Holland took time to skype with author and new media expert Steven Levy on the development of electronic storytelling and the relationship between digital literacy and digital literature.

Rick Holland: Steven, in anticipation of our discussion, I’ve been writing down ideas non-stop on how new forms of digital literacy have changed conventional literary narrative. After a lot of brain bashing I’ve reached the conclusion that writing poetry or novels these days hasn’t changed all that much, but the process of amalgamating things to write about has changed enormously. The ideas we collect and how we collect them—where we cull them from—seems to me the domain of real evolution.
Steven Levy: I agree that writing a book or telling a larger story hasn’t changed all that much in the past few years. But the daily forms of communication and storytelling have changed drastically, and?I think that affects how we think.?I think our brains are hard-wired to respond to narrative and storytelling, so it’s not surprising to me that we construct narratives out of all possible forms of communication and expression, and that’s why platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs and instant messaging have become such rich wells of ideas: because they each present different forms of spontaneous narrative. It adds a lot of adrenaline to the production process?when you know how quickly you can reach a massive audience by posting something in one form or another. And posting or tweeting doesn’t benefit from careful rewriting—which is otherwise key for a certain kind of written excellence.

RH: Your last sentence about rewriting is particularly interesting to me. When I was growing up, I always thought that anything in a book or recorded on a tape or CD had reached this level of authority that was so removed from the world that I lived in. I never imagined I could reach that world. These were musical or literary narratives I could access but I could never really take part in. In the past few years that barrier has come down dramatically. For me, there’s a real kick in publishing and posting things in their imperfect form. Somehow the world is starting to understand that maybe being wrong, and being wrong publicly, isn’t such a bad idea. And while some get their knickers in a twist about privacy, slowly people are also starting to understand that there isn’t so much about them that is so unique or so important to protect.
SL: I grew up in a lower middle class section of Philadelphia and the idea of breaking into the world of print and public storytelling seemed just as unrealistic for me as it was for you. The thing is, I actually can pinpoint the moment for me when that barrier between “authoritative” media and what I could produce at home completely burst. As a kid, it was always the concept of ital?ics that got me. I couldn’t produce them on my typewriter, and even later when I started writing for newspapers, I would still have to underline stuff for the printer to know that it should be in italics. But only a professional typesetter could really do that. Then I saw the Macintosh computer while writing an article about it for Rolling Stone. I remember we all gathered around this thing in the office and were blown away by how you could set something in italics with a simple mouse click. And that, to me, was the first step towards more professional self-publishing. Now the tools are all accessible, but they’ve become harder to master.

RH: I would never say I’ve been able to “master” any aspects of digital technology. I’m still very much a consumer in that sense. But what I have been able to do is use the technology that other people have developed and refined to air my own ideas in a way that remains . . . live. At least in terms of the editing process.
SL: I think you’re being modest here, Rick.

RH: New forms of digital literacy basically help different people with different skill sets to get together far more easily than in the past… and produce hybrids. For me, that’s the single most interesting thing to emerge from new technology. Although my last big collaboration with Brian Eno came about from meeting in person, not from trolling online.
SL: Brian Eno casts a big shadow in the digital world, as well as in music and art in general. I was involved early on with the Whole Earth Catalog and Eno was good friends with editor-in-chief Stewart Brand, so our paths would occasionally cross. I remember his participation in this thing called the Cyberthon, which was put on by the Whole Earth people around 1990. It was a twenty-four hour virtual reality happening, so it had this media-art bent. These days we’ve become far more interested in augmented than virtual reality, but back then all things “virtual” made a big splash.

RH: What’s the difference between augmented and virtual reality?
SL: Well, virtual reality implies that you’re tricking your senses to think that you’re in a different world. You’re putting on a helmet and gloves perhaps and replacing your sites and sounds with an artificial environment. Augmented reality is more like adding a layer of digital content to the existing world, like holding up an iPhone to the street and seeing Yelp reviews floating in front of restaurants. It’s interesting that virtual reality never really caught on all that much. I guess people don’t really want their senses completely hijacked.

RH: No, they want their say, too. I recently spoke to somebody who’s developing technology for interactive music, where your environment, heart rate, and personal input all affect the piece you’re listening to—not unlike Eno’s Bloom app or Björk’s new album, actually. It seems like technology is really pushing the consumer towards creating.
SL: It is. But that’s balanced out by other inane forms of digital narrative like LOLcats.

RH: What’s that??
SL: Trading pictures of silly cats with bad captions.

RH: If I had to choose, I would say that first-person-shooter games would be my least favorite form of digital narrative. And I don’t care how interesting it is that you can play online against people from all over the world. I just don’t understand the romance in everybody blowing everything to hell.
SL: Rick, I’ve read quite a bit of your poetry on your blog. Do you feel like reading a poem on a screen is different than reading on the printed page?

RH: I don’t think the process is so different, really. But you’re probably more likely to be in a relaxed brain state when you’ve happened upon a poem in a book, which seems like a more private moment, one which potentially allows for a deeper experience. But with tablets and e-book readers, it seems like that difference is disappearing as well. I mean, people are so completely unselfconscious about using technology wherever they are that it’s become the most normal thing in the world. I’ve always been most interested in presenting poems where they’ll be found very easily. I tend to write short poems that are very condensed and contain lots of imagery. I’d like to compare it to writing code. The idea of saying a lot with few words or not much code is an attractive one.
SL: I think we’re in sort of a transitional state at the moment. We’re still figuring out ways to adapt older media formats to newer ones. I do think that new forms of digital literacy will change the way we express ourselves in the analog world.

RH: It might seem almost crude nowadays, but when I first saw Memento I was really intrigued? by the fractured narrative. I think these days people are ready for narratives to become even more fractured and multi-sensory with poetry and other art forms moving together. But maybe we’re not there yet. Maybe new forms of narrative are still getting in the way of experiencing something on a deeper level.
SL: In the very beginning, film was still searching for its narrative voice. It took a few years before the camera could tell the story without the need for conventional text appearing on the screen or spoken by a narrator. Little by little people discovered the grammar of film: quick cuts, fast forward, fades. And this stuff, which is now conservative, was radical when it was being developed. And it went on to transform literature, too.

RH: Like all of us, I like to imagine what “radical” new forms of narrative we’ll encounter in the future. I know you’ve written extensively on neuroscience as the next frontier. I can see the presentation of poetry and art tapping more into what’s happening in neuroscience, although I think it’s starting to happen already, with the interest in pre-lingual activity, that is. The poem has moved from the page to the screen—I can only imagine the more abstract forms and different representations it will assume in the future.
SL: Yeah, but there is generally still a significant divide between how digital media is consumed as opposed to print. Most new forms of digital narrative, metaphorically speaking, are like rivers or streams. Think of the flow of tweets or Facebook posts, which people usually only read once. You don’t step into the same river twice. Print these days is more lake-like, more static. But deep.

RH: I think that’s a wonderful way of explaining that. Actually, I read Hackers recently and my brain was just exploding with ideas.
SL: That’s a good “lake” example.

RH: Yes, especially because you wrote it years ago and it also took you years to write, didn’t it?
SL: Yeah, it did. It had rereading written into it, in a sense.

RH: I needed a good day of just thinking to process the experience. Luckily, living in Dorset, I had a chance to do that down by the sea. I think the hard part of consuming media these days is doing it in a river-river-lake fashion, to use your metaphor—to temper and balance the different experiences with different media. Information burnout is a real and regular danger, however sophisticated we are at processing many threads at once. It’s just so easy to get excited by the immediate gratification of digital media.
SL: That’s actually a really important discussion these days: whether constantly consuming temporary media and never having to memorize anything because you can look it up online is affecting brains and changing the way we think.
I think it does, but I also think that combining digital literacy with lake-like knowledge will give people evolutionary advantages.

RH: Steven, I have yet to read In the Plex, but I’m very curious to know what you make of people’s concerns about the ability to “independently” navigate their way through the web using a Google search engine. There are fears that Google has too much power to direct a user’s interests towards or away from a certain direction.
SL: Well, Google has stepped up the personalization of searches. These days, if you let them know you’re vegan, then when you search for restaurants in your area, you won’t find anything that serves meat or dairy. Google knew that this would be a big step for a lot of people, so they’ve created a toggle switch that allows you to turn off the personalization. But in my opinion, when we’re checking out publications in a newsstand, we tend to focus only on the things that interest us and block out the stuff that doesn’t. So somehow it seems like asking Google to keep all options open for searches isn’t just impractical—it’s also something we tend not to do in real life anyways.

RH: People think they’re being led down and trapped in ideological or informational cul-de-sacs . . . I think they’re afraid. Would you agree? Do you think that’s a legitimate concern?
SL: Absolutely. But if you want to find things online you don’t agree with, it’s never been easier than today. I think the enemy is still ourselves. You know, you get an idea of just how broad Google’s reach is and all of the things it encompasses just by looking at the history of your own searches—or even better: the history of thousands of other people’s. In Google headquarters there’s actually a stream of endless searches that’s on display in the lobby. It doesn’t include people’s names, but they have everything else. The associations are incredible. It’s like some sort of beat poetry . . . or a probe into the psyche of the world. When I was doing research for In the Plex, they told me that a third of all searches were completely unique, totally virgin.

RH: I never would have guessed it would be that many. That’s quite promising for the human race. Sometimes I get the feeling technology is very much inspired by fiction.
SL: I think science fiction is especially inspirational for tech people, but I think it’s really a question of mutual influence, because obviously writers are strongly influenced by new technology. In terms of the former, Andy Hertzfeld comes to mind. He’s a classic hacker who worked for Apple and is now over at Google. He actually designed the circles for Google+. Andy’s an avid and very sophisticated reader and every time I talk to him, we’re always going back and forth about fiction. I have the feeling that one day, if he ever stops coding, he’ll write a great novel.

RH: As a writer, you’re endlessly fascinated by documenting technological and computer-related leaps forward. That necessarily involves the meta-narrative of describing new formats of digital storytelling and representation. In a sense, you tell stories about new ways to tell stories. What other things inspire you aside from technology?
SL: Well, one of the most inspiring things that have ever happened to me was rediscovering Einstein’s brain, which, in and of itself, was kind of technology independent. Well, not entirely, of course . . .

RH: I beg your pardon?
SL: Like, his real brain, in a jar.? I had an editor at the New Jersey Monthly who told me that Einstein’s brain had somehow disappeared after it had been removed from his head for the autopsy. Strangely, there was nothing ever published about the disappearance. Mind you, this is around 1979, almost twenty-three years after Einstein’s death. So my editor told me to go find it, and I did. Einstein’s estate denied knowing where it was and nobody really wanted to help all that much, but eventually I ended up contacting the guy who conducted the original autopsy and, lo and behold, he had it in a jar in a cardboard box in Wichita, Kansas. It was just sitting around his house.

RH: No way…
SL: Yes way. It was pretty incredible. The thing is, you’d think that maybe it wouldn’t be so incredible just looking at a brain. I mean, take somebody like Steve Jobs: I’m sure his brain doesn’t look that much different than anyone else’s. But he was such a unique and powerful person, so people obviously wonder what maps out to that. And when you’re staring at the thing itself, the feeling is pretty overwhelming. Looking at Einstein’s brain, I thought I was staring into the mystery of life itself.

RH: Believe it or not, I had a similar experience staring at the bodies on display at Gunther von Hagens’ exhibition in London. I actually had no plans of going, but then a friend of mine convinced me with some free tickets and I ended up being absolutely amazed and inspired by the mechanics of the bodies. There is this massive, untapped field of potential that emanates from the physical objects that produce such complexity. How to represent the mind’s pre- linguistic, unfiltered consciousness is what constantly pushes me forward, artistically speaking.
SL: Sometimes it can feel like a wild goose chase, no?
RH: Absolutely. But on good days I prefer to think of it as my own personal search for the Higgs boson. ~

Steven Levy is a senior staff writer for Wired and the author of numerous award winning books on digital culture, including Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution and Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government – Saving Privacy in the Digital Age. His most recent book, In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives, explores the infrastructure and “creative disorganization” that’s led to Google’s unparalleled web dominance. Levy is also a regular contributor to Electronic Beats.

Rick Holland’s recent spoken word collaborations with Brian Eno have been likened to Eno’s previous work with David Byrne: joyous, experimental, and distinctly melodic. Their double LP Drums Between the Bells and the recent EP Panic of Looking were both released on Warp Records in 2011.

Photo: Rick Holland by Luci Lux.
Photo: Steven Levy by Miguel Villalobos.

Published April 13, 2012.