Following is a review of After Photography by Fred Ritchin which I wrote for the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival column in the Bali Advertiser expat newspaper. I hope it is a contribution to the discussion about this important book that follows in the tradition of Sontag, Barth, and John Berger.
Digitized: After Photography and the Hypertext novel
“ We have entered the digital age. And the digital age has entered us. We are no longer the people we once were. For better and for worse.” Fred Ritchin
By Uma Anyar
As we each make our own way through the digitized media world of information and fantasy, we marvel, stumble, criticize and tremble over the vast changes and challenges that are taking place. Meaning itself has become a slippery and shifting paradigm in our postmodern times. This is disturbing to say the least. What can anyone who feels overwhelmed do?
After Photography is a fascinating examination of the possibilities and perils of new media in the digital age. http://www.amazon.com/After-Photography-Fred-Ritchin/dp/0393050246. Fred Ritchin has not written a book for photographers alone, because as you will see the boundaries between image, text and film have blended and blurred on the computer screen. This is a book that will broaden your perspective about how the Internet is changing or affecting reality. Yet, it is not an alarmist diatribe about the evils of the web nor is it a futuristic utopian promise of better living through technology. The changes in media, especially media as pervasive as the digital, require that we live differently, with shifting perceptions and expectations. We think differently. “Our sense of time is different. Example: It’s 8:17 now. Not a quarter past eight. Not a little past first light.” We can talk and look at someone on the other side of the planet with Skype. Smart phones are the first step toward the ‘cyborgization’ of humans as we used to know them. The device’s compact world seems to be more engrossing than the one we physically occupy. Witness any group of folks in a restaurant or party or meeting, at least one or two are texting someone. This is both cool and weird and there is no stopping it. And do we really want to stop it?
Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, Second Life, have altered our sense of community and ourselves in bold and subtle ways. And we all know that more is on the way. We are rapidly becoming part virtual and part human. “We no longer think, talk, read, listen, and see in the same way. Nor do we write, photograph, or even make love the same way as we have for generations,” writes Ritchin.
“The planet was once thought to be flat, but Columbus did not fall off. Now the world is flat again, on the television or computer screen-except that we do not fall off: we enter it, and it enters us, we become ‘users,’ and it uses us. Meanwhile, our world, or what is now called RL (real life), is reduced to a reference point.” The real world has been slipping away gradually, “from television we now know that war can be entertainment, and that stardom is worth any humiliation. Most of all we know that an alternate world can be put onto a screen. And it wants us to reside there. We are not so much traveling as emigrating.” Think parallel universes or The Matrix or consider the fact that successful rich promoters of ‘how to be rich like me’ kind of books are teaching us how to become a product, a brand and no one seems to find this abhorrent. Why? It’s good for business. For many of us our livelihood is now linked to the Internet.
“After Photography” is rich with new ways of thinking about the technological changes that envelop us. The knowledge that facts and veracity are up for grabs in documentary photographs has been around since 1982 when the rather conservative National Geographic magazine, admired for its documentary photography, manipulated the pyramids of Giza by moving them closer together in the Photoshop program so they would fit into the magazine’ vertical format. It distorted the veracity of the photographic image that was the backbone of documentary and journalistic photography. Today this seems like a banal change because we have grown soft on image manipulation. We like it. We expect our wedding portraits to be improved with the blend tool that irons out wrinkles, acne scars and pimples. We want our image to enhance us not merely represent us.
None of this is that important, one might argue, but let’s consider how Time, a major US magazine weekly that is read around the world manipulated the same mug shot of O.J. Simpson at the time of his murder trial in 1995. The photograph was heavily darkened and vignetted to give an ominous feel to the ID picture. Newsweek ran the same photo straight, no manipulation. The difference is palpable. You can view this, the Pyramid images and 12 more examples of altered ‘fact’ pictures on http://www.famouspictures.org/mag/index.php?title=Altered_Images.
By now you have noticed that I have been including hypertext addresses in a print newspaper. But BA is not only a print publication it is also digitally available on the Internet. http://www.baliadvertiser.biz/
For the time being print media is a parallel product, but how long before virtual newspapers are the only product? Think of all the trees that will be saved. But not everyone has the money to buy a computer or the knowledge of how to operate it. No way around it, there is an elitist element still present in this digital revolution. But, I suspect it won’t be long before we are all wired in and online constantly. How will this affect our relationships, our world, and us?
As a writer I was intrigued by Ritchin’s exploration of the ways digital technology has affected both non-fiction and fiction.
“Journalism schools are now focused on ‘convergence’- the need to impart skills to students in multiple media techniques (video, photography, writing, sound, and new media)- in order to meet the needs of a multiplatform industry. But they miss the essential point: stories will not be told in the same way. The power relationships among author, subject, and reader will evolve, as will filters, and the linear narrative based on the authority of a single voice, is up for grabs in an increasingly nonlinear, decentralized media environment.” Over the past year we have witnessed this more democratic form of journalism as the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street news stories and images have been provided by those who are part of the action, rather than only by professional journalists.
Changes in the nature of fiction are already in play and it is likely that many books will be multimedia apps that one can download. Take a look at this example:
So what has the digitized Internet have to contribute besides paperless eBooks?
Hypertext fiction is a genre of electronic literature, characterized by the use of hypertext links, which provide a new context for non-linearity in “literature” and reader interaction.  The reader typically chooses links to move from one node of text to the next, and in this fashion arranges a story from a deeper pool of potential stories. Its spirit can also be seen in interactive fiction.
Afternoon, the first hypertext/ interactive novel was written by Michael Joyce in 1987 on the HyperCard software program which approximates a deck of index cards. And permits new possibilities for non-linear novels. “Think of it as something like a (RL) real conversation. While all reading is a conversation between the reader and the author, the hyperlinked nonlinear narrative is more similar to oral tradition. Those in a conversation pick up on different ideas and follow them in what ever ways interest them and feel appropriate, assuming that others involved in the conversation can and will follow.”
Ritchin states, “Hypertext fiction is an individuating medium. It allows the reader to click on a single word, an image, then continue to read or peruse according to these choices.” Sounds empowering and interesting. But, why aren’t Afternoon and other hypertext novels really well known? Because, I suspect that like their grandparents Tristam Shandy and Ulysses they are vexing reads.
Readers still complain about getting confused, lost, and frustrated and Jill Walker, who wrote a thesis on the book, made a similar confession about Afternoon. ttp://jilltxt.net/txt/afternoon.html
But after reading her online digital ‘paper’ I clicked on Amazon Books and read the review: “Afternoon is to the interactive novel what the Gutenberg Bible is to publishing.” — Toronto Globe and Mail.” Hyperspace sells it as a CD-Rom
There is no print version. There can’t be.
I found a free trial version of Afternoon, a story by Norton anthology if your curious go to http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/pmaf/hypertext/aft/index.html
Check my blogs and I’ll report my progress with Afternoon, in a week or so.
Letters from Bali:
Imagin.ary matters- image based fiction