TECHNOFILE 4

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The Independent Culture
The epigraph on the "Welcome" page for the Derry / New York / Dublin Hypertext Narrative Workshop is Yeats's conceit about how much harder than menial labour it is "to articulate sweet sounds together". Sure, it was tough in the old days. But the software was stable, and you don't get screen headaches from the trembling blue-green of the sky. And it's a fair bet that Flann O'Brien would have regarded Multi User Dimensions, or MUDs, as a powerful argument for the superiority of steam technology.

O'Brien might have appreciated the air of absurdity, though. MUDs are the vehicles for role-playing games - the "D" also stands for Dungeons, as in Dungeons and Dragons - in which participants are required to appear in character. Most participants in the MOO (a subspecies of MUD) used by the Irish-American workshop use their real names, but whimsies persist. As MOOers can both "speak" and "act", the resulting text resembles a play script, punctuated with bits of knockabout stage business: Speakeasy backhands Eisenhower as retribution and turns back to the important business at hand. Swerdloff goes west.

The important business at hand, several months into a project due to end in May, is "to map the void that exists, despite absolute proximity, between the two estranged Irelands". One group of writers is based in Derry, another in Dublin, and a third set of participants hail from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY. In the MOO session I joined, all three teams took part. The previous week, the two Irish groups had considered a piece of hypertext writing called Derry Walls, structured around a tour of the city; this week we pored over a series of images based on the gates of Derry, with cartographic references.

Some of us pored faster than others, though, since the connection from the North to Dublin was much more sluggish than to New York or London. Nobody picked up the metaphor at the time, being more preoccupied with the symbolism of walls and navigation. The hypertextualists began to sound like astronauts ("maiden6.html came up with a 404") as they co-ordinated attempts to load the images. The "polylogue" seemed to have an inherent tendency to go out of synch. One person would make a point; another would respond, but by the time the reply appeared it would be separated from its target by several lines on different matters. As well as the bottleneck in the channel to Dublin, and the backchat, there was nobody in charge. It seemed unlikely that anything more structured than the transcripts could emerge from the workshop sessions.

But it was exciting to be there; like being at a party in the form of writing. There was a choice of conversational threads, just as one can turn from one conversation to another at a table. Somebody posted addresses for a Web site showing Republican and Loyalist murals: I found myself able to swop between the MOO text and a screen full of King Billy.

As the session wound down, the talk turned to dualism. Terence MacNamee, author of Derry Walls, noted that while a city could be seen as a maiden, it was also construed as masculine in opposition to Nature, which is feminine. "A construct, a hard stony thing imposed on the rolling hills," he expanded. Lily sits on the hard stony thing - came the stage direction.

Your point of departure for Web sites and CD-Roms discussed here is now the Technofile home page, at www.poptel.org.uk/technofile/.

Technofile@pop3.poptel.org.uk

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