University News

Lecturer traverses the digital writing universe

By
Contributing Writer
Thursday, November 15, 2012

In his lecture Wednesday night, Michael Stewart, lecturer in English, differentiated between the “labyrinth” and the “maze” methods of exploring content on the Internet. 

The Internet had been expected to revolutionize the way users collect information, drawing them through unknown corners to obtain information in a satisfying way, much as traveling through a labyrinth can be a meaningful, often religious, experience. But most people today limit their explorations to a predetermined set of websites to get information efficiently, as one would strive to escape a maze as quickly as possible. 

Google is the main thoroughfare in this maze, Stewart told an audience of about 20 people at Smith-Buonanno Hall, and it requires users to specify search terms before maneuvering through the web.

“It’s a maze where you try to find something, but the walls keep coming up.” Stewart said.

Stewart’s lecture, “Digital Nonfiction: Exploring the Possibilities,” began by exploring some Google search techniques,  keeping in mind that searches have to be specific to yield useful results.

Knowing how to use a search engine more efficiently can “create smaller universes for you to move in,” which allows users to better locate  helpful results. 

In an Internet universe composed of almost 30 percent of “searching” through sites like Google, users must be able to distinguish between the relevance of different keywords in their searches. The use of operators like “AND” and “OR” can add clarity to the regular search tool,  thereby “creating filters within a filter,” he said. 

“A simple search takes about five seconds, depending on where you are, but people tend to not follow the suggested methods,” Stewart said, pointing to the search button on the big screen.

The act of searching can also provide insight into the collective psyche of the society, he said. 

Stewart then moved from the search-focused portion of the “Internet universe” to discuss the field of digital writing, which incorporates technology that can include images, light and shifting text. 

Stewart warned that the current implementation of such tools in nonfiction works have yielded disappointing results. 

“As most of you may have noticed, digital writing is terrible,” Stewart said, adding that many practitioners have focused on creating new technology instead of exploring the gravity of the textual search. 

A writer must understand the readers’ way of reading to use the digital medium effectively, he said. Movement that happens digitally is not always born into the writer’s intention, he added. 

“Reading becomes a creative task: an act of curation,” Stewart said. Writers, and in this case, “searchers,” do not always know the reader’s way of “playing in the labyrinth.” Stewart stressed that writers must adjust their work to respond to readers with the same amount of playfulness readers bring to the medium.

“The big part is about conversation.” Stewart said, adding that a story should employ structure that creates a conversational form with the reader. “There is great digital form which does not work on this, but I think it moves against its own gravity.”

He also discussed the idea of a “New New Sentence,” which “states that there will be a collage of information between idea A and idea B,” instead of simpler causal relations. 

The potential deviation from the text is the distinguishing characteristic between digital text and non-digital text, and technology helps reorganize that text more easily. 

“Reading becomes a creative act,” Stewart said.

In the brief question-and-answer session that followed, Stewart was asked if he thought the digital platform would ever fully replace books. 

“Absolutely not,” Stewart said, adding that reading traditional books creates a physical engagement with texts that cannot be replaced. “Did horses disappear when we got cars?”

There is a reason that electronic texts exist, Stewart said. Online books are easier to read than going through stacks, and they are much cheaper as well, he said.

Stewart said the work he presented will become part of a book analyzing the world of digital nonfiction. It will most likely be published next year.

The audience left the lecture with a taste of how digital nonfiction can apply to day-to-day lives. 

“I actually work a lot with Google, so the lecture only helped my way of thinking about the nonfiction world in an educational sense,” said Celine Katzman ’15.

“The talk was a great way to think about searching for facts on Google. It brought to light factors that I have never thought about,” said Shreena Thakore ’16.