Broken Links and Bad Code

This blog post is broken. It meant to be about something entirely different than it is. I sat down to write about Stephanie Strickland’s V: WaveSon.nets/Losing L’una and the accompanying website (http://vniverse.com) by Strickland and Cynthia Lawson. However, sitting down to write turned into staring dumbly with fingers at the ready while a little rainbow-colored beach ball rotated endlessly on the screen in front of me.

It begins as I navigate to the cleverly-named site. First, I get a message from my computer telling me to download the Adobe Shockwave player, instructions I follow in excited anticipation. During the installation process, I’m asked to shut down and restart all open web-browsers on my system. I comply. Minutes later Shockwave is happily installed. I reopen Safari and navigate again to the site. This time an error message appears: “Shockwave Player Error” in bold, menacing letters. Then, in a smaller, more polite font, “To view the movie, open your browser in the 32-bit mode.” This requires shutting down Safari again, setting new preferences for the application and reopening.

Still unphased, I navigate once more to the site, where I find the following message from Strickland and Lawson: “If you see the stars turning below, click HERE to launch Vniverse. Otherwise download the free Adobe Shockwave plug-in here.” These words are followed immediately by an empty black box, which almost immediately turns to white as I watch achingly. A virtual hush falls across the room as I inch forward in my chair, eyes pressing closer and closer to the screen. I wait, growing restless and becoming suddenly curious about the wording of Strickland and Lawson’s message. Eager to analyze, I wonder whether “seeing stars” has metaphorical import. Must I first see stars (both literally and figuratively) in order to properly read/view the work? Their coy use of the idiom would suggest that I must be dazed by a blow to the head before reading/viewing, and not that said blow will be provided by the work itself, but must come first, perhaps by the unique character of the interface (since the interface of a digital work–and really of any work–is encountered before the content). I feel like I’m over-reading as I begin to wonder whether my trouble with the Shockwave player might somehow signify this blow to the head.

Then: Stars. Spinning. Slowly. Jerkingly. Little pixelated monsters. I don’t think this is right. I see them, but it’s not quite the triumphant show I’m expecting. I look back to the message above the stars: “If you see the stars turning below, click HERE to launch Vniverse. Otherwise download the free Adobe Shockwave plug-in here.” I feel intimidated by the all-caps of the first “HERE,” in stark contrast to the puny letters of the smaller-case “here” that follows. I’m not confident, but after a brief moment of hesitation, I click the larger “HERE,” and that’s when the little rainbow beach ball appears. And there it remains still as I write this, mocking me from the other side of my screen.

Marie-Laure Ryan writes in “Between Play and Politics: Dysfunctionality in Digital Avrt,” “Most readers of digital works have experienced situations where the text does not seem to work properly. This can lead to a feeling of distress, especially when users cannot tell whether the apparent problem is a feature, a bug, or simply results from their inability to operate the textual machine. By inadvertent dysfunctionality, I mean situations where failure is due to the designer or to the system and not to the user’s incompetence.” I imagine that the failure I’m experiencing is due to the system in this particular case, but I wonder if inadvertent dysfunctionality is an expected aspect of this (or any) digital work. (Can it be both “inadvertent” and “expected”?) The messages on the first page of the work presume that many users will have difficulty viewing the work, so this difficulty must be considered part of the work, even an integral part given that potential difficulty is foregrounded by the work itself, which has the viewer encountering these messages/instructions about failure first.

Difficulty, dysfunctionality, and failure are themes throughout V: WaveSon.nets/Losing L’una. Within the first several pages of “From Sails to Satellites” (reading now from the print edition of Losing L’una), there is “dying” (1.4) described as a body that “stops to wait” (1.5), an “order” made of “zeroes” (1.6), advice to “look away” (1.13), and references to “the blind spot” (1.14) and “blindness” (1.15).

One last bit of instructions from the Vniverse, “If Vniverse does not play on your system, click HERE to download a standalone version.” I find something almost sad about the phrasing. Since my system refuses to let the Vniverse “play,” it must suffer to “standalone.” Once downloaded and finally running on the screen, I find Vniverse both thoroughly and thoughtfully broken. The program continues to malfunction on my system, and the work itself appears to be purposefully malfunctioning as well, with letters that disappear from words as lines are superimposed atop one another. There is something beautiful and distracting about the text that appears and disappears before me, but I begin to see that the instructions at the start of the poem are, in fact, more of a warning: the interface of this work will frustrate your attempts to engage it. The technical difficulties of my encounter with the work resulted in my reading it wrong, but maybe it can only be read wrong.

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