Strict Standards: Non-static method installk2::installer() should not be called statically in /home/writerresponse/writerresponsetheory.org/wordpress/wp-content/themes/3k2w-b2r344/functions.php on line 23
Literatronica: an interview with creator Juan B. Gutierrez at WRT: Writer Response Theory



Literatronica Logo“Literatronica” is an adaptive hypertext system that transforms the delivery and experience of literary hypertext.  Earlier in the year, WRT posted about the system.  Now it offers this interview with Literatronic programmer Juan B. Gutierrez, who is also author of the literatronic adapative hypertext Condiciones Extremas or Extreme Conditions. 

WRT: You started your hypertext career with Condiciones Extremas? What inspired you to write that work? What did you learn from writing it? 

juanb.jpgJBG: I actually started my hypertext career with a novel called “El Primer Vuelo de los Hermanos Wright” (The First Flight of the Wright Brothers) for which I won the National Grant for Artistic Creation of the Ministry of Culture of Colombia in 1996. [The above link connects to a revised literatronic version of that tale.] The project itself started in 1995. I wanted to write a novel about the social vices of Latin-America. The grant proposal read: “This project aims to create a hypertext that reconfigures itself based on reader’s interaction.” The challenge proved beyond my technical ability at that time and I ended up writing a traditional static HTML hypertext.

Then it was the turn for “Condiciones Extremas” (Extreme Conditions) in 1998 thanks to a grant by the Bogotan Institute of Culture. I felt more satisfied, as an author, with this novel. The first version was a traditional HTML hypertext to which I applied what I had learnt in “El Primer Vuelo”: there are pages that attract too much traffic and pages that attract too little; therefore, the hypertext network has to be balanced. I developed algorithms capable of estimating these two situations. This is what I call “hypertextual friction” (probability of losing a reader’s attention) and “hypertextual attractors” (pages that disrupt reading by repetition or by stretching the lyric quality of links). One of the aims of the authors (human and digital) is to minimize the “hypertextual friction” and reduce the frequency of “hypertextual attractors.” Both quantities are calculated in Literatronica.

“Condiciones Extremas” has a marked social dimension. It is science-fiction novel in a not-so-distant future, in which the differences between social classes have peaked. After “Condiciones Extremas” I embarked in a long process of learning and building the foundations of my work that resulted in an advanced degree in math, top industry certifications as a programmer, industry experience as web systems architect, a few scholastic papers and more fiction works. One decade after my first work in hypertext, I can say: “I’m ready to start.”

WRT: How is Literatronica different than previous systems?

JBG: It is fundamentally different in two aspects. First, the author has to define for each page (unit, lexia, node, etc.) the closest other pages. Secondly, the author must assign his subjective estimation of “narrative distance.” The lower the “narrative distance,” the higher the probability that the reading makes sense to the reader.

For example, if you have a page P that could be linked to several pages {Q, R, S}, and you as an author would prefer the reader to access first, let’s say Q, when reading P, then assign a distance of 10 to Q, and 15 to R and S. This instructs the system to give reference to Q over R and S. You can use any number you want. You could even use 1 for the lowest distance and one billion for the highest. The numbers 5, 10 and 15 worked OK for the novel Extreme Conditions.

The system will show a page to the reader and will place at the bottom of the page three links that correspond to the closest pages at that point in time. This is dynamic, since the system automatically subtracts the pages that have already been visited. The idea is that the reader explores the narrative space following the paths that have lower narrative distance, i.e. greater narrative continuity according to the author’s view. It could happen in the previous example that even though the preference of the author was that reader visited Q after P, the system might offer R and S to the reader as first options, or even pages that the author did not even link to that page.

This is what I consider a very important characteristic of Literatronica: the author does not have to maintain the network, the computer does. The task of the author must be that of an author: design the narrative continuity. It is the computer the one that takes care of linking. This is radically different from other systems have been planned, such as Storyspace, Shark, Thespis, Connection Muse… et cetera. In all those systems, the author must define and maintain the links, which in large pieces is a formidable task.

The closest concept is sculptural hypertext, in which all pages are connected and the author removes links; however, the difference here is that it is the computer that creates the connections dynamically. The information system behind Literatronica is truly a “digital author.”

The concept developed in Literatronica does not allow the author to design dead ends. This was intentional. Other authors might prefer use them as narrative devices. The bottom line is that I do not claim to have the best system or a one-size-fits-all to produce digital narrative. My claim is that Literatronica is an implementation that tries to exploit to the max the main characteristic of computers: manipulation of logic rules.

WRT: What does Literatronica contribute to current literary hypertext projects?

JBG: The fundamental attributes of Literatronica’s literary hypertext have remained mostly faithful to the origin of electronic text: a set of linked episodes that contain hypermedia elements. Whether or not some features could be reproduced in printed media has been subject of debate by opponents and proponents of digital narratives. However, as the electronic media evolves, some features truly unique to literary hypertext have appeared.

The first objective: to create hypertexts responsive to the reader’s actions by making links dynamic. The second: to create systems capable of producing fiction, with varying degrees of success. Both approaches have in common that they grant greater autonomy to the computer, thus making of it an active part of the literary exchange. Literatronica attempts to achieve both. These changes have not only redefined the concepts of reader and author, but also created a new element in the reading and authoring processes: the “digital author,” which is a media element that *acts* on the message.

I have been interested in exploring the conditions and possibilities that arise when we consider the computer as some sort of “digital author.” This new element positions itself between the reader and the author to perform a task that did not exist in printed media: the adaptive optimization of the text according to rules set by the author and the interaction of the reader.

Literatronica is only my answer to this concept. You’ll notice immediately that there are many possible implementations of such a broad concept. More than a “how to do it” it is a “how I did it.” Of course, there are aspects of Literatronica that are general in nature.

WRT: What are your plans for the future of Literatronica?

JBG: The short-term and long-term plans are to use Literatronica to write as many hypertext works as I can. Literatronica is open to receive collaborations.

WRT: Is the system available for public use?

JBG: Yes. Any person could read the works available at www.Literatronica.com If it draws attention, I would allow other writers to use it as an open platform. The system is ready to accept multiple authors with multiple books in two languages (English and Spanish). My only concern would be to define clear editorial criteria, so writers know what to expect and feel fairly treated; there is no editorial policy for now. Are there any candidates to form an editorial board?

WRT: How can someone sign up to author in Literatronica?

JBG: For now, the two steps needed are: (i) send an email to literatronica at hotmail dot com and (ii) send a sample of work. I would prefer committed writers to amateurs. Let me clarify: by committed, I do not necessarily mean professional. I mean someone for whom writing is a way of life and has something to say, worthy of being read at least for the next decade.

Yes. Any person could read the works available at the Literatronic site. If it draws attention, I would allow other writers to use it as an open platform. The system is ready to accept multiple authors with multiple books in two languages (English and Spanish). My only concern would be to define clear editorial criteria, so writers know what to expect and feel fairly treated; there is no editorial policy for now. Are there any candidates to form an editorial board?For now, the two steps needed are: (i) send an email to literatronica at hotmail dot com and (ii) send a sample of work. I would prefer committed writers to amateurs. Let me clarify: by committed, I do not necessarily mean professional. I mean someone for whom writing is a way of life and has something to say, worthy of being read at least for the next decade.

WRT: How many people have tested the system so far?

JBG: Currently (August, 2006) there are approximately 200 registered users. People can use the system without registering, so I know there have been around 4000 unique visitors (excluding bots) between January 2004 and April 2006. I have paid close attention only to a few subjects among those who have used the system, in order to calibrate it.

WRT: When I tested Literatronica, I noticed a new creative challenge. Writers must now consider relationships of their text (in addition to chronology, sequence, plot), how does this change the writing equation? How have authors responded to this new task?

JBG: It changes the equation just a little bit. The key element is the plot. In traditional writing, deciding the plot is one of the main challenges. The dullest story could become breath-taking with a clever plot; that’s what some of the greatest writers do. Look for example at Jack London’s “A Piece of Stake” The remarkable aspects of that story are the plot and the language construction. The Piece of Stake’s story in itself is rather tasteless. But in London’s hands, it became a classic.

Writing in digital media has to take into account the possible ramifications of the plot that could be introduced by the hypertext. Literatronica requires the author to define what ramifications make sense for each page, from simply one connection (equivalent to “go to the next page”) to many connected pages (equivalent to classic hypertext). This is similar to classic hypertext writing, except that the author in Literatronica does not have to define all possible links; the computer does, freeing the author for a more productive use of his/her time.

So far, Literatronica has been closed for other authors. I have made few efforts to publicize Literatronica. I have been more focused on the production aspect of it.

WRT: Are there techniques for writing text chunks or lexias that might be encountered in any order?

JBG: You want to control attractor and friction. See the answer to the question about “Condiciones Extremas”

WRT: You’ve presented the idea to both mathematicians and literary folk? How have both groups reacted?

JBG: It has attracted interest in different ways. The mathematical community views it as an example of mathematical connections in the arts, but the interest for the content is rather low. Literary folks have been divided between the literary critics interested in the social dimensions of the text, and practitioners and theoreticians who have been more interested in the “how to.”

WRT: Why add the AI? Or what does the AI add to the literary experience?

JBG: Artificial intelligence is such a broad concept that it is really difficult to use it to describe something. It implies behavior, learning and/or adaptation in computer systems. From the perspective of Literatronica, there is adaptation (the system adapts the text to the reader), learning (the system uses past experiences to model future responses) and behavior (the system acts on the message, molding it for the reader). There are many ways to achieve one or several aspects of artificial intelligence. I chose one path that ensures every reader to have access to all pages. I consider every little sentence in a narrative piece, digital or not, worthy of careful design. Of course, we know that many writers of hyperfiction differ from this view. I write with reluctance the following paragraph:

The response of the reader can be modeled as a dynamic system. As a consequence, adaptivity in Literatronica is achieved by an algorithm that makes an approximation to a Hamiltonian cycle in a weighted graph with weights that vary in time according to a set of coupled ordinary differential equations. The solution of a multi-terminal network flow on such graph solves the optimization problem of minimizing hypertextual attraction (a measure of narrative continuity) and hypertextual friction (a measure of the risk of losing readers’ attention).

My reluctance to talk about it occurs because the concepts involved come from different fields, and to many people it simply sounds pedantic. That description sometimes causes allergies. Now, having said that, I ought to add: I don’t care. I use all the tools in my arsenal to achieve the artistic effect I desire.

WRT: How does a mathematician become involved with literary hypertext?

JBG: Last January (2006) I presented in the National Meeting of the American Mathematical Society the model behind Literatronica. It might seem an oddity to show a literary work in a mathematics conference, but I have found that mathematicians are among the most eclectic professionals. The proof ( 8-) ) is rather simple: When I tried to start my graduate studies in Tallahassee, FL, where the company I work for is located, I applied to the creative writing program at Florida State University. I was rejected. Subsequent efforts to contact the writer’s community in town were unsuccessful. The articles I have sent to two Hypertext conferences and JoDI have been rejected. The only field that took me with open arms was mathematics, more specifically, biomedical mathematics. Therefore, I have been doing research in brain mapping, bio-informatics, population dynamics, modeling of working memory, and a few developments in pure math. This is an advantage, because I have developed a theory of digital narrative that involves the functional aspects of the brain. So I continued my work from the base I had available, and that turned out to be the very inclusive and fun math.

Last January (2006) I presented in the National Meeting of the American Mathematical Society the model behind Literatronica. It might seem an oddity to show a literary work in a mathematics conference, but I have found that mathematicians are among the most eclectic professionals. The proof ( 8-) ) is rather simple: When I tried to start my graduate studies in Tallahassee, FL, where the company I work for is located, I applied to the creative writing program at Florida State University. I was rejected. Subsequent efforts to contact the writer’s community in town were unsuccessful. The articles I have sent to two Hypertext conferences and JoDI have been rejected. The only field that took me with open arms was mathematics, more specifically, biomedical mathematics. Therefore, I have been doing research in brain mapping, bio-informatics, population dynamics, modeling of working memory, and a few developments in pure math. This is an advantage, because I have developed a theory of digital narrative that involves the functional aspects of the brain. So I continued my work from the base I had available, and that turned out to be the very inclusive and fun math.This question you ask is rather interesting. I bet it would not cause surprise that a writer who majored in English created some fiction works on the web, but it causes surprise that a mathematician take a look outside his box. This has two interesting explanations: first, the web is part of the daily life; its technology is no longer viewed as advanced or elitist (not at least in the first world), and second, we still do not acknowledge the multidisciplinary nature of digital narratives. The integral author is an oddity (BTW, a team of about a dozen people collaborated in Literatronica). The ideal scenario would require a team comprised of specialized professionals in such disparate disciplines as English (or for that matter, Spanish or any other language), graphic design, computer science, mathematics, music, etc. From that point of view a digital narrative piece is closer to the cinema than to the book. However, the language element makes of it a very special case. More about that later.

WRT: So, you just work on literary hypertext content systems and math? What do you do with your spare time?

JBG: Plenty of stuff: two hairy dogs and my wife take most of the remainder. I also try to read fiction, but since my time is so constrained, I try to read only those writers that seem to have a deep understanding of reality. Among my favorites: Pessoa, Borges, Rufin, Márquez, Pirandello, Cortázar, Tolkien, and the classics: Cervantes, Plato, Shakespeare. Writing fiction is increasingly important. And play classical guitar too.

WRT: Are there characteristics of a hypertext that would make Literatronica more appropriate than other methods (such as being plot-driven, character-driven, random, combinatoric, surreal)?

JBG: That is a rather complicated question, and deserves a simple answer: it depends. Depends on the author’s intentions, the public to which the piece is directed, technology available, level of digital literacy, etc.Now let’s talk about the brain. The language and reasoning are located in the frontal lobe, at the upper frontal side of the brain. The image processing is performed in the visual cortex, in the bottom rear part of the brain. When a person demands high image processing, the flow of blood in the brain is directed toward the visual cortex (for that reason it is very difficult to have a conversation while playing a video game); likewise, when the frontal lobe is engaged in language activities, the visual cortex diminishes a little bit is processing capacity (have you noticed that when you are engaged in a conversation, visual clues a bout the environment might be ignored?) This is a cartoonish explanation of a very, very complex process, but still highlights a very important fact: reading causes development of the frontal lobe and associated areas, where the intelligence resides. Proof: Excessive TV is linked to low IQs, while reading is linked to high IQs in kids. I know some will claim my head for what I’m going to say: I feel sorry for the MTV generation. I believe that many young people have not achieved their full potential because of their lack of contact with written text and/or engagement in language-developing activities. Of course, expect a furious riposte from media-loving, media-funding and media-profiting subjects.

It has been really unfortunate that so much attention has been given to visual development of digital narratives in detriment of written text; some people have even abandoned hypertext to pursue game theory. Please do not understand this as an attack against visual arts. On the contrary, I enjoy them very much. What I’m saying is that written text cannot be replaced by an equivalent visual form. The processing in the brain and the associated development are different. I can almost hear the counter-argument:

But how is written text different from visual art, if both are perceived with the eyes? The answer is simple: written text causes language processing thus triggering activity in the frontal lobe (and associated areas). Explosions of visual stimuli trigger activity primarily in the visual cortex.

So, after that long excursion, here is your answer: Literatronica emphasizes the importance of narrative, language, and written text over the tyranny of the image. The system is designed to provide to the user a rich READING experience. Therefore, it is designed to favor development of the frontal lobe.

By the way, while “Condiciones Extremas” has images, they are secondary to the text.

WRT: Do you have any new hypertexts on the horizon?

JBG: Always. The next two large fiction pieces will be released early next year.

WRT: How do you feed your hypertext habit? Are you involved with any communities?

JBG: I have barely enough energy to keep my work moving ahead. Nevertheless, I was in August 2006 in London, in “Bridges Conference: Mathematical Connections with he Arts,” in September in Madrid in the “1st International Conference ‘From Text to Hypertext’” at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, and in November in the “III Online Congress of the Observatory for the Cybersociety,” a Spanish organization based in Barcelona. These events are catalysts for me, since they force me to keep working.

WRT: Who are three (or more) of la vanguardia of Spanish-language hypertext?

JBG: The Argentinian Hernán Asciari author of “Más respeto que soy tu madre,” 2003-2005, recipient of the Deutsche Welle International Weblog Awards 2005.

,” 2003-2005, recipient of the Deutsche Welle International Weblog Awards 2005.The Argentinian Hernán Asciari author of “,” 2003-2005, recipient of the Deutsche Welle International Weblog Awards 2005.The Colombian Jaime Alejandro Rodríguez, author of the novels Golpe de Gracia, “Gabriella Infinita” and an e-book of literary criticism “El Relato Digital” (The Digital Story).

The Spanish Xio-Mara Acosta, María Jesus Vidal, Álvaro López Santos with their web “Un Mar de Historias” (A Sea of Stories), in which folk tales mix with history and journalism.

And many others. You can find quite a few in http://www.artronica.org/http://dmoz.org/World/Espa%c3%b1ol/Artes/Literatura/Hipertexto/

And now that you ask, I have to include myself in the list ;-)




6 Responses to “Literatronica: an interview with creator Juan B. Gutierrez”

  1. 1 Cesar Ariza

    Electronic literature seems to promise a new and more humanised approach to the influence of computer sciences in arts. No matter of the availability of increasingly powerful software resources, the writting remains at the center of the creation. Works like the one presented by Mr Gutierrez deserve more attention and promotion.

  2. 2 Mark Marino

    Cesar, I agree. Juan continues to emphasize that what’s important to him is human brain development through reading activities. His development of the system corresponds to his research in neural networks and yet his personal interest in contributing his own literary texts show’s his investment in the continued development of electronic literature.

  1. 1 Hipertexto en Español at WRT: Writer Response Theory
  2. 2 Time Travel via electronic literature at WRT: Writer Response Theory
  3. 3 ELO May at MITH (2-3 May 2007) at WRT: Writer Response Theory
  4. 4 May 1: a show of hands at WRT: Writer Response Theory

Leave a Reply



Strict Standards: Redefining already defined constructor for class sk2_plugin in /home/writerresponse/writerresponsetheory.org/wordpress/wp-content/plugins/SK2/sk2_plugin_class.php on line 45

Strict Standards: Declaration of sk2_captcha_plugin::output_plugin_UI() should be compatible with sk2_plugin::output_plugin_UI($output_dls = true) in /home/writerresponse/writerresponsetheory.org/wordpress/wp-content/plugins/SK2/sk2_plugins/sk2_captcha_plugin.php on line 70

Strict Standards: Declaration of sk2_pjw_simpledigest::output_plugin_UI() should be compatible with sk2_plugin::output_plugin_UI($output_dls = true) in /home/writerresponse/writerresponsetheory.org/wordpress/wp-content/plugins/SK2/sk2_plugins/sk2_pjw_daily_digest_plugin.php on line 277

Strict Standards: Declaration of sk2_rbl_plugin::treat_this() should be compatible with sk2_plugin::treat_this(&$cmt_object) in /home/writerresponse/writerresponsetheory.org/wordpress/wp-content/plugins/SK2/sk2_plugins/sk2_rbl_plugin.php on line 342

Strict Standards: Declaration of sk2_referrer_check_plugin::output_plugin_UI() should be compatible with sk2_plugin::output_plugin_UI($output_dls = true) in /home/writerresponse/writerresponsetheory.org/wordpress/wp-content/plugins/SK2/sk2_plugins/sk2_referrer_check_plugin.php on line 78





thesis writing service


Deprecated: Function split() is deprecated in /home/writerresponse/writerresponsetheory.org/wordpress/wp-includes/cache.php on line 215