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ELO 2015: The End(s) of Electronic Literature

Touch and Decay: Tomasula's TOC on iOS

Kathi Inman Berens (Portland State University)

Panel: Hybrid Books: Augmented Artist's Books, Touch Literature and Interactivity
Wednesday, August 5 • 11:00 - 12:30 (Sydneshaugen skole: Auditorium Q)

TOC's promotional tease – “You’ve never experienced a novel like this” – became awkwardly literalized when, after a Mac OS update, I could no longer open the novel. The tease inadvertently highlights the obsolescence that locks away so many works of electronic literature from present day readers. Even an exceptional work like TOC –  exhibited internationally, prize-winning, the subject of many scholarly articles, underwritten by a university press – is no less subject to the cycles of novelty and obsolescence that render many works of electronic literature only slightly more enduring than a hummingbird. “The accelerating pace of technological change,” N. Katherine Hayles observes, “may indicate that traditional criteria of literary excellence are very much tied to the print medium as a mature technology that produces objects with a large degree of concretization”. 

TOC’s adaptation to Apple’s mobile operating system (iOS) in 2014 is an end-run around a “generation” that lasts “only two or three years.” It’s a preservation strategy that achieves its absolute goal of restoring this brilliant, canonical work to readers. But this novel that was once available to anyone running one of the two dominant operating systems (PC and Mac) is now accessible only to people who own or can borrow an iPad, an expensive device that commands less and less of the tablet market share. TOC is too large a file set to load on the more commonly purchased iPhone; Apple doesn’t offer that option. The glutted Apple App Store surpassed 1 million apps for sale in October 2013, which means TOC must vie for smaller slice of the already-niche iOS population alongside productivity apps and unironic variations on Cow Clicker. TOC on desktop possesses an ISBN, which aligns it with books and makes it eligible for sale on sites like Amazon. But only e-book apps are eligible for ISBNs in the App Store, and Apple has a lock on all iOS app distribution.

What does TOC gain and lose in adapting to the iPad? This is rare opportunity to examine a canonical work of electronic literature where the identical content has been ported from desktop to iPad. In doing so, TOC programmer and co-author Christian Jara transformed its reader interface from click to touch, which in the iOS environment is stylized into a lexicon of eight gestures. The reader’s touch is a performance not an “end-point,” as performance theorist Jerome Fletcher puts it; touch is an act of writing that “performs throughout the entire apparatus/device”: story, machine, code, human body and the physical setting in which the performance transpires. TOC on desktop (2009), iPad (2014), and printed short stories (1994, 1996) is a medial evolution that prompts me to propose a device-specific reception history examining what's at stake in porting desktop-born works into the touch-intensive mobile environment. 


[1] Apple’s share of the tablet market declined from 52.8% in 2012 to 36% in 2013. During the same period, sale of Android tablets surged from 45.8% to 68.9%. See Frizell, Time Magazine. Despite Apple’s declining market share, mobile developers have been known to design for Apple's specifications first because they are more restrictive than Android's, and it's easier to adapt to Android than begin with Android and adapt to Apple. TOC has yet to be adapted to Android.

[2] On October 22, 2013, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced that the App Store had surpassed one million apps for sale. Ian Bogost created Cow Clicker as a game satirizing social games that promote monetization and mindless social interaction such as Farmville.

[3] In this essay “desktop” means “not an iPad.”

[4] A search on TOC’s ISBN within the Apple App Store yields no results. Accessed 1 June 2014.

[5] Those gestures are: tap, drag, flick, swipe, double tap, pinch, touch and hold, shake. See Apple’s User Interface Guidelines, part of its software developer’s kit.

[6] Fletcher, “Introduction,” 1.

[7] I owe a debt to Katherine Hayles’ concept of medium-specific analysis, of which device specificity is a variant. In the decade since she published “Print is Flat, Code is Deep,” Hayles’ MSA has been cited as a core assumption in digital humanities, media archeology, game studies, electronic literary criticism, and others.

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