Online Texts as Hyperobjects

by Keith Hamon (@kwhamon): teaches college composition and literature at Middle Georgia State University, Macon, GA, USA. He has a doctorate in composition and rhetoric from the University of Miami, though most of his professional life was devoted to managing and integrating technology into college and K12 classrooms and programs. He blogs at Learning Complexity and tweets from @kwhamon.

Shadowy image of people walking up and down lines

flickr photo by kevin dooley shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Information technology is changing not only the way we write, but the way we imagine a text, which can no longer be thought of as a discrete, self-contained object that we can hold, analyze, and describe. Rather, texts such as shared Google Docs, blog posts, and tweets are better imagined as hyperobjects in the sense that Timothy Morton uses the term in his 2013 book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. For the past two years, I have been writing various texts with a swarm of scholars around the world. These texts are not what we thought they were, and I have been forced to rethink what a text is. To my mind, this rethinking holds serious implications for those who write and those who teach writing as I do.

Morton lists several characteristics of what he calls hyperobjects, things such as global warming that are so massively distributed across space and time that they reveal features of objects that we usually ignore on the human scale. I suggest that modern information technology is similarly creating massively distributed texts that make obvious some features of traditional print texts that we have ignored. A Shakespearian sonnet or a student paper, for instance, can seem so self contained: easily held in the hands and readable at one place and time. Such a tidy object.

Or so we have told ourselves. Well-written texts are hard, round, and precise. Like bullets.

Or maybe not. The electronic texts that my swarm of scholars has been producing over the past two years reveal a different side of texts. To get a feel for hyperobjects, listen to Jimi Hendrix’s guitar on Voodoo Child (Slight Return), emphasis on the slight return.

Like other hyperobjects, electronic texts are viscous. They are at our fingertips, in our faces, and sticky. We do not put them down or place them back on the shelf. For instance, a swarm of us wrote The Untext, a Google document that refuses to stay on Google Docs; rather, it squirts out into the margins of the document, and then out through Gmail, text messages, blog posts, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and other channels. Someone in Egypt or France makes an edit, and my smartphone in Georgia, USA, buzzes to let me know. I turn away, and there is The Untext. I cannot put The Untext away, for as Morton notes, there is no away. Rather, the text is massively distributed across all the spaces and times that I inhabit. It is always already there.

Watch your children with their smartphones to understand the stickiness of the texts they are writing with each other. Join a Twitter-fest and let the tweets wash over you. Of course, I’ve been reading The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock in print for forty years, which means that even print texts are spread out, smeared across years, decades, or centuries—massively distributed, viscous. However, I can deceive myself about print texts by returning Prufrock to its place on the shelf. I can’t deceive myself about The Untext. It is always just t/here—at my fingertips, in my face. It’s here in DigiWriMo.

2D representation of a 3D slice of a 4D cube

By Tomruen (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Then, electronic texts are nonlocal. Nonlocality is a term Morton borrows from quantum physics to describe the entanglement of quantum particles so that a change in one particle is instantly reflected by a change in the other, regardless of distance—what Einstein called spooky action at a distance. Electronic texts are spooky action at a distance. They are in the cloud, not actually present in any one location, but smeared and smudged across a half dozen Google, Twitter, and Facebook server farms. They occupy all places and time zones simultaneously. They are copresent—here and not here. My students no longer hand in pieces of paper to me; rather, they share their documents with me, or they share access, for they don’t know where their documents are any more than I do.

When my swarm writes on a Google Doc, edits come from elsewhere, nonlocal. My text morphs before my eyes, or behind my eyes. My sense of myself as a writer—once an object like a text—is undermined, decentered, smeared. I become, as Kevin Hodgson says, editable—by forces beyond my ken. Shifts are lateral, from out of left field, obscured. Even as the text zooms into me, at my fingertips, it recedes from me into its inky depths like an octopus. Ink hides as much as it reveals.

Electronic texts go through temporal undulation. Just as a hyperobject stretches across space, it stretches across time, fading away into the uncanny. As we worked on The Untext, I would go to sleep only to awaken to a different document that had emerged in a different spacetime. The Untext writers stretched across half the world and a dozen time zones. The text created its own time, speeding up or slowing down, quite apart from what any one writer did, or didn’t do. Writers faded for a time, returned, phasing in and out, so that at times the document seemed to crawl, at times race, under its own speed.

Indeed, electronic texts are phased, a fourth characteristic of hyperobjects. All texts are distributed across multiple scales, but because electronic texts are seldom reduced to a single printed, handy object, we cannot ignore their multi-dimensionality. The Untext is, in fact, a stream of electrons, at the same time it is a Google Doc, at the same time it is distributed across world-wide networks (the absolute grammar of TCP/IP is important to electronic texts), and it functions through and across all these scales: micro, meso, macro. Thus, The Untext appears to come and go, to phase in and out like the Jimi Hendrix solo. I can never see it all at once, as I imagine I can with a printed text. Rather, it zooms in or out, left or right. At times it is clear, other times distorted. It disorients me, and I must work harder as a writer or reader to interact with it. Anyone who reads The Untext can attest to this disorientation even at the meso-Google Doc scale. I am certain that I am never interacting with all of The Untext. The stream of electrons recede from me, though I am confident that they are somehow important to the text.

Finally, electronic texts are interobjective, a term Morton uses to describe how objects emerge as a system of interrelated objects within a system of interrelated objects, systems within systems. The Untext, then, is not one text, a single thing, in Google Docs; rather, it is an “emergent propert[y] of relationships between enmeshed objects” (Hyperobjects, Kindle Location 1492). The Untext is an emergent property of relationships among electrons, electronic networks, phonemes, morphemes, graphemes, words, sentences, paragraphs, and memes in English, TCP/IP, HTTP, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Keith, Kevin, Maha, Sarah, Simon, and countless more. I can touch the text here and there, collapsing its wave function, so that it appears for a time to be a single thing, a particle, but as soon as I look away it morphs back into a wave and field, smeared into always already there. There is always already more to the text than I see at any given place and time, though what I see indeed acts like a text.

So what does this say about writing and teaching writing? I really don’t know, though I suspect it should change the way we treat a text from our students. We can still collapse a student paper to the few sheets of paper they hand us, put a grade on it, and hand it back. Such behavior still works in a small way in some classrooms, but it does not work so well with electronic texts. That way of thinking about the writing process and about the reader, writer, and text has never been totally accurate, but it did have utility—now it isn’t even a useful fiction. We’ve work to do.

We hope you will share your work across the various Digital Writing Month spaces that you inhabit. That could be right here at the Digital Writing Month blog; at your own blog or writing space; on Twitter with the #DigiWriMo hashtag; in the DigiWriMo Google Plus Community; at the DigiWriMo Facebook page; or wherever you find yourself writing digitally.