Leaving Paper Behind

Vilém Flusser

Translated from the French
by Aviva Cashmira Kakar

Vilém Flusser (1920–1991), who had successive careers as a linguist, philosopher, Media theorist, anthropologist and artist, to name a few, was a pioneer who anticipated the profound implications of electronic media. His work remains relatively unknown in France since only a small portion of it has been published, nonetheless the scope of his work is considerable. Flusser wrote in Portuguese, German, English and French, rethinking concepts in their guest language. Flusser’s French texts (for the most part unpublished), were written from the 1970s on, when he settled in the south of France and, since 2007, have been preserved in the form of facsimiles at the Berlin University of the Arts (UdK).

This unpublished article from 1987 is as much evidence of Flusser’s investigations into the future of writing as a glimpse into the singular literary quality of his research. It was initially written in the context of the Création Artistique–Découverte Scientifique (Artistic Creation–Scientific Discovery) symposium, Marseille–Luminy on the 14th and the 15th of May 1987.

Alphanumeric and iconographic information is in the process of detaching itself from material media, such as paper, in order to take flight into the “magnetic fields” of the electronic realm. The consequences of such an emergence cannot as yet be foreseen. Culture works as a construct to enable the production, distribution and storage of information. Virtual information is produced, distributed and stored in a different manner than information printed on material objects (such as in shoes for example) and that printed on material surfaces (such as texts). This study is confined to a consideration of the evolution in the production of alphanumeric texts and the foreseeable consequences that the computerization of texts will have upon a writer’s creativity.

First, a word about the term “creativity.” If you free it from its legendary and ideological connotations (such as “creation ex nihilo”), the term becomes one that is accessible from a scientific standpoint (possibly even quantifiable). The term would then signify the production of new (i.e. unexpected) information. It can be said that all new information is based upon the data that has preceded it. Its novelty consists of the restructuring and reformulation of one or several bits of preexisting information, and/or the introduction of anomalous elements [which one might refer to as] “noise” into the preceding data. Such a redefinition of the term “creativity” does not render it more transparent, on the contrary, it becomes even more obscure. It raises difficult problems: is processing ;the restructuring and reformulation of information—predictable, deliberate, or a product of chance? What is “noise”? However, this has the advantage of shifting the theory of creativity from the realm of the impossible to that of the possible. It becomes conceivable that, in the future, we could create—not just empirically (through intuition, inspiration, etc.), but also technically (using a theory). In this scenario, we can expect a veritable explosion of human creativity.

Regarding textual creativity in an alphanumeric format, it is a matter of processing two levels of information: that of thought, and that of language. In terms of thought, we process ideas stocked within the memory of the writer in order to formulate new thoughts; we reformulate, condense, analyze, and synthesize the accumulated ideas. In terms of language, we process information on syntactic, semantic, phonetic and rhythmic levels in order to formulate new articulations. “Noises” can be introduced on both levels. For example, in terms of thought, they could consist of elements of the subconscious, in terms of language, words in a different tongue. Both levels are mutually implicated and interdependent. This is why a writer’s creativity is presented as a highly complex phenomenon, and it is also the reason why we still have not managed to make a truly creative word processor.

When one writes on paper, one creates lines that advance unequivocally towards a final period. A text produced in this manner is one-dimensional and discursive. It begins and it ends. It presents itself as a finished “work” that is completed and perfected, as in the case of a book. This “closure” of a text is not due solely to the structure of the lines, which proceed towards a period, but also to the limits dictated by the material nature of the medium used, i.e. paper. Even writers who are opposed to the closure of a text, who refuse the concept of the period, cannot circumvent this. They produce interrupted texts, mere fragments. Nor can those who wish to push the limits by creating prodigious roman-fleuves escape this. All texts written on paper will end in one way or another; the longer the speech, the fewer the listeners. The ending of written text on paper is inscribed within the program of this technique. Furthermore, this termination is in opposition to the very dynamic of creativity, which by its nature is indeterminate.

This is why creative writers seek to transform the limits imposed upon them into advantages. Hence the strategy of condensation: created information is obliged to confine itself to a minimum of characters on a minimum amount of paper. It’s a powerful strategy and one to which we owe the most precious aspects of literature. Brevity is the soul of wit: the shorter the text, the greater its beauty, excellence and truth—the concept of Occam’s razor. Still, it remains that this strategy clips the wings of creativity, even as it stimulates it. The question raised here is the conundrum of poetry in the traditional sense of the term.

When one writes electronically, for example using a computer to write onto a disk, a virtually infinite pad of paper, one is still creating a series of lines. However, these lines are no longer univocal; they have become plastic, malleable, manipulable. One can twist them, break them, open windows and make them run backwards. They move along the screen. Moreover, the movement on the screen is the very process of creativity. The movement is a result of the processing of thought and language. The text that appears on the screen is no longer the mere result of creativity (as is the case of text on paper), it is creativity itself. Plato considers creativity to be an internal dialogue. When one writes electronically, this internal dialogue is projected outwards: it becomes an external dialogue. It is perhaps too early to evaluate the impact of such exteriorizing upon creativity. The critical distance that is established in terms of one’s own creativity, taking a step back from oneself (which one is obligated to do before a screen), can only have a profound influence upon the act of creation.

However, there is also another sense in which a text thus composed ceases to be a speech and becomes dialogical. It is no longer directed towards readers required to stock it in memory, critique or comment upon it. Now it is directed towards readers required to process it, to manipulate the data received in order to render new information. It is received by creative readers who are also “responsible” in the strictest sense of the term.

Moreover, one could argue that this is the case of all texts. Every text, including those on paper, is only a link in a chain of texts. They follow the texts that preceded them, “processing” them in a sense, and will be followed by other texts that will “process” them in turn. All texts run beyond the full stop, towards some sort of reader. Nonetheless, this argument is not a very valid one. Each paper text is maintained as a closed unit, even as it is part of a vaster context. As for texts stored on disks, each text mixes and mingles with other texts. This is to say that paper texts are “works” resulting from creativity, while texts on disks are creativity itself at work. This is why a text on disk is set within a “menu.” These are methods of work that the writer suggests and proposes to the reader. The latter can accept it, or elaborate their own rules to process the text. For the sake of this argument, what matters is the elaboration of a menu by the writer. In terms of their text, it requires that they assume the point of view of the reader ;namely that one becomes one’s own critic and commentator. Moreover, such a perspective, which is no longer “subjective” (as in the first case), but rather “intersubjective,” restructures the creative process. Creation becomes both subjective and intersubjective—it becomes dialogical.

As for the readers, they process the information thus created by manipulating it and introducing “noises.” This transforms it into new information. They can then return it to the writer, or towards other readers of the same text, thus establishing a series of creative dialogues. In this manner, the threads of lines of text form bundles, networks, nodes. The unidimensional nature of text on paper is transformed into an equivocal pluridimensionality. The historicity of text on paper will be superceded by a cybernetic post-historicity. In point of fact, the network thus established would have no limits, neither in time or space. It would be a creative process, divested of any material resistance.

In such a situation, in terms of writing, it is the editor who takes on a completely new function. With texts on paper, an editor is a sorter and an intermediary. They receive lines of text, refuse many of them, and process the rest, spreading the processed lines into space in the hope that they reach a presumed audience (for example in a bookstore). In terms of texts on disks, an editor receives a text, puts it on a disk and sends it to a virtual readership who possess personal computers, receives their feedback, processing that in turn, taking up more disk space, ad infinitum. They become a sort of database. As a platform for the creative process, there is then no longer a distinction between an author and a reader; despite that, creativity is not however, “collective.” It merely becomes cybernetically structured. Perhaps one might even say that the brain is a model of such an intersubjectively structured and regulated creativity?

Nevertheless, what is decisive in the mutation of writing incurred by the abandonment of paper is that it is no longer a case of producing “works” (new self-contained units of perfect, closed information). It is not even a case of producing what Umberto Eco has referred to as “open works.” On the contrary, it is a process of committing to the act of the production of the information itself; it is a matter of immersing oneself in creativity as an unlimited process, even as one maintains a critical distance, and the conscience of a responsibility towards others. This is what makes the heads of those who attempt this adventure spin.

On the other hand, those who observe the displacement of writing externally, who do not share this dizzying sensation, are far more reserved. They have stringent objections. There are those who insist upon the intangible, inherently mysterious quality of the act of creation, a process of which they consider only a few privileged spirits to be capable. The dialogical writing discussed here is not creative in their sense of the term. There are others who emphasize the spontaneity of the creative act as a sort of eruption of interiority, a type of madness even. Far from being creative, dialogical writing is seen to be a method of killing spontaneity through an overly aware consciousness. There are still others who see nothing radically new about the electronic migration of writing. In their view, we have always written dialogically (in response to previous writers, and by provoking future ones), and the newness of electronic writing is merely a technical gadget of which one must be wary. These are serious objections, all the more so because they cannot be refuted. The consequences of electronic writing on future creativity cannot be foreseen, and possibly, those who are against it are in the right. What can be said in response to these conservative and reactionary objections is that comparable objections were made to the Industrial Revolution. They were, in part, justified, but that did not prevent the Industrial Revolution from radically changing lives on both an individual and social level.

Again, we cannot know what changes will result from leaving paper behind, but one thing is certain—our experience of the act of writing has undergone a profound change. Presently, we write with a new critical perspective, fully aware that we are writing for others. Also, the words that we write have taken on a life of their own (habent fata libelli). In short, as we write, we think, create and live dialogically; also, it should be said, we do so in the context of Martin Buber, for whom a dialogical life was in essence a religious life.