Tag Archives: cybertext

Oblique Strategies

oblique strategies

Whenever I’m trying to find my way around a creative block, I like to consult Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies. The Oblique Strategies are (basically) a deck of cards, each containing a cryptic instructional aphorism. The deck came to be when Eno, a musician/producer and Schmidt, a painter, discovered that they both

…tended to keep a set of basic working principles which guided them through the kinds of moments of pressure – either working through a heavy painting session or watching the clock tick while you’re running up a big buck studio bill. Both Schmidt and Eno realized that the pressures of time tended to steer them away from the ways of thinking they found most productive when the pressure was off. The Strategies were, then, a way to remind themselves of those habits of thinking – to jog the mind. (Gregory Taylor, “A Primer on the Oblique Strategies”)

Schmidt and Eno suggest several possible ways to consult the deck: “They can be used as a pack (a set of posibilities being continuously reviewed in the mind) or by drawing a single card from a shuffled pack when a dilemma occurs in a working situation. In this case the card is trusted even if it appropriateness is quite unclear. They are not final, as new ideas will present themselves, and others will become self-evident.” Of course, the best way to get a sense for what the Oblique Strategies are all about is to try them yourself.  I recommend the online version here.

Since Aarseth counts the I Ching among his examples of “cybertext,” I wonder if he would also count the Oblique Strategies? While the deck itself is finite, the game-like format of consultation is designed to apply to any situation and hence yield limitless results. However, there’s some question as to whether consulting the deck really constitutes a “nontrivial effort” on the part of the consultee. Since the playing field of the game is real life (and not a more controlled cybertextual space) it’s entirely possible to consult the deck and not follow the suggested course of action (bearing in mind that the suggested course is totally open to the reader’s interpretation). Or is it?

Hypertext to Cybertext

Cyber, cybertext, hypertext – these are all terms that we hear repeatedly, but rarely do we analyze the definitions and differences between these terms. Aarseth attempts to do this in his book Cybertext.

“Hypertext,” a term coined by Ted Nelson in 1965, refers to a mechanical system of reading and writing where text is organized to be read in a sequence that is chosen by the reader. Reading and writing become a single process. This use of hypertext can be seen as postmodern and never ending. Furthermore, a reader cannot just sit down and read hypertext; they must gain an intuition of the spatial structure. Notice that this term was used significantly before the use of computers. Hypertext is best known as part of a computer text, but it is not necessarily so. Aarseth talks about a conflict of hypertext where the computer’s purpose is to aid in user freedom. However, what happens when hypertext, through confusion and reader responsibility, takes away our freedom?

“Cybertext” comes from the book Cybernetics by Norbert Winer. Cybertext allows for an expansion of the limits of hypertext, widening to a perspective on all forms of textuality. The “Hypertext Murder Case,” evaluates Aarseth’s work and defines cybertext as a term that includes hypertext but also expands to all forms of computer based writing. Cybertext becomes the most powerful computer machine (a Turning) while hypertext is also a machine, albeit the least powerful one.

Computers have always been integrated into my student life. Therefore, it is hard to really conceptualize hypertext on paper, or what that would really look like. I think that our analysis of these technologies may be impeded by the fact that we take them for granted and do not see a true before and after scenario.

Aarseth connects these terms by asking us to analyze technologies beyond just their practical uses. An emerging media technology is not important in itself. We should really be studying what they can tell us about human connection and evolution. The concept of cybertext allows us to really study politics and communication, analyzing the new ways that users and authors have power over content. I may have especially liked this part because it directly connects to my thesis. However, I do think it is interesting and important. The fact that Interaction Fiction did not stick as a popular genre allows us to analyze societies reluctance to abandon the narrative structure. As a society we have a hard time with the avante garde, the new, and the different. We all want a concrete beginning, middle, and end, with little guesswork and a conflict that arises, yet is resolved. I even found myself frustrated with the Interactive fiction, reluctant to really explore, and constantly searching for a linear direction of the projects. Will we ever leave our attachment to the narrative?