Nerdy Dag Talk
At the Museum of Contemporary Art Sydney, 1999
I hope this doesn’t sound blasé but I’m so used to using the internet and email these days that I’m not sure I can make this talk interesting. To me, it’s a bit like talking about the telephone or tv - they’re simply communication devices that are integral to our lives. So I’ve opted for a dull talk.
TV has changed the way we react and interact. When the TV is on “People in the same room don’t do all that much direct conversing with each other. They sit & face the same direction and stare at the same thing, a visual display unit, and then structure commercial-length conversations” usually made up of a few keywords and some slang. The internet is a little different in that although there is a mass audience, it is composed of lots of single people sitting alone in a room experiencing infotainment. With TV the audience mainly reacts - now, with the internet we can interact. Digital tv will allow this as well.
Remember the pop song “Video killed the radio star” ? And the fear in the late seventies that videotape use and home video recorders would destroy cinema and that video would make books redundant . “Books are doomed” I remember a local publisher and distributor would proclaim to all her clients. Well similar fears surrounded (and still do) the use of the computer, especially the personal computer. Maybe it’s cities that are endangered - with a modem you can live almost anywhere & remain “in touch”.
Remember life before the internet? I can remember being stimulated by reading Marshall McLuhan - The Medium Is The Massage and by the idea of the global village and then Albie Thoms’ concept of the video village really wowed me back in the early seventies when we were discovering Sony portapak. Albie's concept was of a place where all the dwellings were interlinked and the inhabitants made their own news and other broadcasts. It seemed utopian, futuristic then. And remember not so long ago when the “Information Superhighway” was about to arrive and change our lives irrevocably? Well it’s here .. this is what we’ve all come to know as plain old Information Technology, components of which are electronic mail and the Internet or World Wide Web (World wide, depending on economy).
Before the web, in the days when data was entered into a computer and transformed into little cardboard cards full of holes, I think it was magazines that we flipped through looking for quick stimulation, information grabs and surprising images. Then the remote control device totally altered television viewing - it became possible to “surf” the channels - similarly, by using a mouse we can click our way around the internet and electronic mail. Point your browser this way, baby. We send little signals and pulses through ports along cables and fibres to servers and then to all across the world.
I’ll talk about the internet first and then a bit about electronic mail. When I first began to use the internet back in 1995 I experienced, at first, a kind of bewilderment. Would I be able to use this new thing? Then I became a little excited as I found that I could use it. The first site I found was a pop group in Alaska which had a sample of a song on their site - groovy, then I looked up the news - a report on the Rabaul volcanic eruption live online - this was quite easy and if I typed in a Uniform Resource Locator or URL (a fancy term for ‘web site address’) accurately it was a cinch. In relation to my job as a library assistant, the library catalogue and much more information and many research databases were and are also online. After about a year of using the net I did an introductory course in HTML - Hypertext Mark-up Language - and in October ‘96 I made a website. HTML is a universal system which tells the computer what you want your site to look like.
In the Sydney Morning Herald a few weeks ago yet another writer was saying that story-telling or narrative had been altered by the internet and it has. I’d say that some of the kinds of disruptions to the narrative that hypermedia makes possible have been around since the beginning of this century when the Dadaists began to cut up or dismember their texts and later, the experiments of Gertrude Stein and James Joyce et al ... then William Burroughs, Brion Gysin ... and my own participation in the early ‘80’s in “Generic Ghosts” a local montage group. At the end of the century we have the technological vehicle to carry those techniques. And this altering of narrative structure really suits poets. It’s condensed, non-linear and mutable ( even when discursive).
The interactive idiom is just that - an idiom - and you can be as mediocre in it just as you can be mediocre in English, or whatever language, on the page. (aside - English seems to be the dominant internet language - although French is holding out). There are unique characteristics in narrative in digital media that are not possible in any other medium. The reader can break up and enter and move around inside the text. So any chronological convention or linear progression can be discarded. Although not a narrative, an extremely apt example of an interactive site is “Wordstuffs - The City & The Body” made by Hazel Smith, Roger Dean and Greg White. To use this site you need some plug-ins - programmes like Quicktime, Java etcetera which you can download free-of charge from the internet. This is one of the terrific aspects of the internet - the gift economy - you can download all kinds of programmes and send them along to your friends and colleagues. You only pay for your time online.
So basically, I find the internet quite useful for my poetic interests - I’ve bookmarked many sites in America, England, France, Canada, New Zealand andAustralia that are either electronic journals or writers’ home pages or centres’ sites and I visit them regularly.
I also subscribe to a few email “literary” (in inverted commas) discussion lists. Austlit - the Australian one, British Poets and US Poetics.
Email discussion lists can often seem like junk mail.
You can “lurk” which means that you can read contributions to lists without ever participating. It’s quite easy to make a fool of yourself as there’s always some pedant or tut-tutter ready to pounce on your opinions or ideas and correct you .... especially on the rather dreary Australian list. So you have to be fairly confident and then you’ll probably avoid being “flamed”. There are sometimes little glitches where someone sends a private or personal email accidentally to an entire list rather than on the “backchannel”. The poet Ken Bolton described the US Poetics list as being sometimes like CB radio. “Hi poets - How’re you doodlin’. Over’n’out ... Hawkwind”. The British Poets are more like pen-pals. Or it can seem like the old party-line but email is cheaper than phone calls and you can decide when you want to read it.
I’ve met many other poets via email. (e.g. Susan Schultz, the Honolulu-based American poet and small press publisher. Susan and UK-based Australian poet John Kinsella published a booklet of their email communications - called voice overs). One of the other useful things about email is that as poetry editor of overland magazine I can easily stay in touch with its Melbourne office.
And you don’t need to own a computer to use email - when Australian poet Adam Aitken went to do a residency in Kuala Lumpur a few months ago he quickly found a local cybercafe so that he could stay in fairly immediate contact with his friends and colleagues in Australia. And library’s generally have a computer where you can connect to free email service providers like Hotmail.
Overland is starting up an e-zine called “overland extra” and we have a web site for the magazine. I’ve printed the URLs or web site addresses for the three sites I’ve mentioned as bookmarks - please take one.