the material obsolescence of digital forms

I just watched the “run” of William Gibson’s poem “Agrippa” on The Agrippa Files website. I found it totally mesmerizing and a little bit haunting–I definitely recommend taking a look if you haven’t already.  The experience of seeing a 1992-era Mac desktop and watching the poem disappear made me think of Fitzpatrick’s comment that “digital forms may be more prone to material obsolescence than is print.” In Planned Obsolescence, she says:

Technologies move on, and technological formats degrade, posing a set of dangers to digital textual figures that the Electronic Literature Organization has been working to bring into public view, both through its “acid-free bits” campaign and through its more recent work with the Library of Congress to archive digital literary texts. (see, e.g., Liu et al. 2005; Montfort adn Wardrip-Fruin 2004). Without such active work to preserve electronic texts, and without the ongoing interest of and commitment by publishers, many digital texts face an obsolescence that is not at all theoretical, but very material.

Personally, the stack of CDs sitting in my closet is an example of so much data that, if I don’t convert soon, will become obsolescent. In any case, this has got me thinking about the urgency of preservation efforts, both private and public. Hopefully we’ll get to talk about this in class.

2 thoughts on “the material obsolescence of digital forms

  1. Elissa Myers

    I started to watch the poem’s emulation on a modern computer, and was struck by how slowly it scrolled. Something I have always liked about poetry is how you have to read it slowly to get much out of it. I think this sort of simulates the effect of reading a poem slowly, and forces you to take it at the pace Gibson thought you should. I also wonder if the team who put this event together specifically stipulated how fast it should scroll as part of the aesthetic point, or if that was just an unintended consequence of the coding or some other aspect of the technology involved.

    1. Catherine Engh Post author

      That’s a really good question. I sort of assumed that the timing of the scroll was intentional and chosen by Gibson, but I don’t know! The slowness does seem to emphasize the poem’s elegiac tone.

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