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Read / Write
by Daniel Canty

"Nobody reads online." Heard that one before? Or perhaps you read it somewhere? Either way, widespread perceptions of the Internet and World Wide Web sometimes seem to be governed by the sort of tenacious assumptions that show no sign of disappearing despite all evidence to the contrary. In fact, if one believes in the questionable wisdom of statisticians, then email - certainly a form of reading and writing - is still overwhelmingly the dominant use of the Internet (while downloading pornography finishes a close second). Reading, it seems, is what most people do online, even if many simply do it while waiting for more interesting things to happen.

Let us examine, for a moment, the nature of the word on the Web. Does not language, the lightest form of online content (in terms of download times, and mark-up possibilities), mark the path of least resistance through the Web? Words - bread crumbs for the labyrinth of the Internet - reveal the architectures of online information, but also underlie them: the reading and writing of code are necessary skills for speaking to the machine, and making the machine speak back to us in our own language. In multimedia, whether online or in published formats, telling a story often calls for writing to be visible (text is still the best way to structure complex arguments), while sometimes writing must become invisible, a script for other media elements. Still, visible or not, language is always present. Why then might we not term the Word - in its written incarnation as code, and its reincarnation as multimedia content - the very "soul of the Web"?

"There are too many words" is often invoked as a worthwhile editorial comment, and audiences often use the excuse as a good reason not to look too closely. But the crux of the issue is always what story the words tell, and how they tell it. Whether or not there are many or too many words in the end is not the real question: the real question is whether what words there are, or are not, do justice to the story they attempt to tell.

Sweeping condemnations (as well as high feats of rhetoric) generally demonstrate a lack of rigour, and often imagination. All those questions we think we can answer in advance are the same questions we should learn to ask ourselves again, with the certainty that their meaning has metamorphosed while we were busy not really considering them. Maybe it's not true that "nobody reads online." Yet it could be true that "nobody reads online the same way they do on paper." Or maybe that's a half-truth. In fact, probably a lot of people read online the way they do on paper. Perhaps that is part of the real problem - the one we haven't yet named. Perhaps we should be asking ourselves something else altogether: for example, is it true that "nobody really writes online"?

Write / Read
Our Horizon One: Write issue concentrates on adaptations of that most intense form of writing - literature - from paper-bound book to computer screen. Read, of course, is the implied second name of this issue, to be taken as both an invitation and an imperative, and as only half the story, always.

The works presented here involve Canadian writers and artists who share a common desire to reinterpret (or read) the Web on the terms of literature, or to recast story on the terms of multimedia. Each adaptation does this in a very different way, as though all were asking the same question without ever expecting a common answer.

These texts, whether visible or invisible, represent a range of formal uses of multimedia and the Web - a set of approaches that vary in complexity: Douglas Cooper's Delirium was an Internet serial before its final incarnation as a novel; Geoff Ryman's 253 was a hypertext novel before it was "remixed" in print; Einstein's Dreams: The Miracle Year evolves the poetics of Alan Lightman's book into a sort of interactive theatre where image, sound, and interaction redeploy the universe of text; and Ceremony of Innocence unfolds the potentialities of the illustrated storybook into the participatory dimensions of multimedia.

All of these projects represent more or less successful attempts to move literature into the realm of new media and see it transformed. What should we make of this? I will, for once, risk an answer: the beauty of any work of media can be read in what it attempts, and in what escapes from it, returning us to the neverending story of the world. That is the real object of literature, and maybe everything else.

The writers and creators of the works featured here have all asked the same questions: what does it mean to tell a story on new media's terms? More importantly, what does the story itself tell, whether it uses new media or not? Though all fail to provide definitive answers, all succeed in evoking a certain sense of wonder at the potential this medium has for creating new experiences. These projects are all, in some way, beautiful failures: Douglas Cooper wishes he could rewrite his novel, 253 is hard to get in its paper format, Einstein's Dreams: The Miracle Year remains unpublished in its final intended form, and Ceremony of Innocence, despite enormous critical success, enjoys dismal annual sales.

In addition to critical reflections on all of these works of art, as well as interviews with some of their creators, we have provided access to excerpts from most of them. Also to be found within this issue are two interactive reinterpretations of what it means to be a book in a digital context. In The Book, we provide a "dead" counterpart to all books: an original interactive that can be played like a strange and brittle, not-quite-musical instrument. And pressing our "Print" button will recast this entire issue into the role of a downloadable, printable book that you can assemble yourself.

We hope these reimaginings of the book might convince you that, if the Word was there at the beginning, much else followed, and that if one can say (or write) the phrase "the book is dead," it is mostly because the slogan reads well.

Daniel Canty is Director of HorizonZero.

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