May 21, 2003
MarkBernstein.org

I was a director of the Electronic Literature Organization from its inception to May 2003. The bitter animosities of that time remain, and they continue to distort the field.


It is with sadness and regret that I observe that the Electronic Literature Organization, of which I have been a director since its foundation, has ceased to make any positive contribution to the field and has, instead, become an active impediment and a continuing embarrassment.

No qualities are more essential to scholarship and research than accuracy and truthfulness. The ELO has repeatedly failed to adhere to these demands, upon which research ultimately depends. Most recently, the central document upon which ELO's primary surviving initiative rests, the Provisional List of Endangered Works, presents a distorted, partisan, and false view. Some of the "endangered" works are in print from major electronic publishers. Others can readily be found on the Web. Some never were written, and others were bagatelles and sketches, privately circulated amongst friends. Another PAD report, published on the Web and later silently withdrawn, discussed details of Eastgate business practices with which its authors could not ethically have been acquainted and which, in any event, were inaccurately described.

To undertake a mission of preservation and archiving on such grounds invites ridicule. Facts are not checked, and errors remain uncorrected; this amounts to deliberate and knowing publication of a falsehood.

Broadly viewed, ELO's role has become primarily destructive and backwards-looking. Instead of promoting wider and deeper understanding of the best of electronic literature, ELO officers pretend that our greatest accomplishments are endangered antiquities. Instead of appreciating the wealth of tools available to today's electronic writers, ELO officials persistently denigrate those tools not marketed by Microsoft and Macromedia.

Captive to the interests of a faction, the ELO has failed to create, or to foster the creation of, significant tools or significant hypertexts. Its publications are so slight, insubstantial, and inaccurate as to call the entire field into disrepute. Over the short term of its existence, ELO has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and expended the efforts of numerous and highly talented volunteers; it is time to take steps to ensure that such resources be applied to the benefit of the field at large rather than to enhance the resumes of ELO officers and donors.

After much reflection and discussion with many of the most active artists and researchers in our discipline, I conclude that ELO obstructs progress in the field it was formed to serve. It dismays those whom it should encourage, disparages or ignores work that it should honor, and invites the derision of those who prize accuracy and rigor.

It is time for the field to reclaim the integrity of its literature, to enjoy the many pleasures of the fine works that so many have labored to create and to interpret, and to continue the ongoing work of creating innovative tools that build upon and extend the accomplishments we have collectively achieved over the course of two decades.

I therefore regretfully tender my resignation from the Board of Directors of the Electronic Literature Organization, with effect from the close of business on Tuesday, May 20, 2003.

Mark Bernstein


ELO responded to my resignation with its own open letter, and then Matt Kirschenbaum affected surprise that "any reasonable person" could hold such opinions as these. He concluded that "One wonders what other motives might be underfoot."

It's nice of ELO to send me an open letter. No doubt they thought it looked like fun. I think everyone in the field understands the issue by now. (Matt Kirschenbaum say he doesn't understand, but I think he's too modest. Don't you?)

But, if you do want to go into it more deeply, let's take a look at one item in the ELO list of lost or threatened work.

Kathryn Cramer, Jacuzzi, Subpeona, Vacation, Black Mark . HyperCard stacks on floppy. Scattered copies on threatened platform

ALERT: This is about to get all pedantic. Sorry. The PAD People want to be archivists and librarians. Let's take a closer look at this first, preliminary bit of archive-making.

Jacuzzi was written in and around a jacuzzi at a conference. Some other famous writers were in the hot tub, too, and they lent a hand. It was sketched in Storyspace, not HyperCard, and was later incorporated in the Brown's Hypertext Hotel MOO.

Subpoena Vacation is one work, not two. Note that the ELO entry misspells Subpoena, too. (Spelling complaints are pernicious, but librarians care about getting the spelling right because a misfiled work is proverbially a lost work) Subpoena Vacation started in Storyspace, and later was moved to Macromind Director. It never was a HyperCard stack. It remains unfinished, and has been under contract to Eastgate for many years.

Black Mark was a joke, a small, satirical pamphlet Cramer and other student volunteers produced at the end of Hypertext '96 with caricatures of Ted Nelson, Michael Bieber, Mark Bernstein, and other Hypertext research folk. It was not a HyperCard stack, it was not even an electronic work.

We started with an impressive list of four threatened or endangered works. Poof: there's not much left.

Fact checking this wouldn't have been hard. Cramer is a rather well-known and exceedingly well-connected anthologist and editor. She's in the phone book. She's in the Eastgate catalog. She's a regular at many conferences and conventions. She runs The NY Review of Science Fiction. She has a Web site. When I phoned, she returned the call in fifteen minutes.

Nobody bothered to check. The rest of the list is full of stuff like this. Works attributed to the wrong author. Works that moved to a new server and are easily found by Google. Works that are in print -- works you can pick up the phone and order from their original publisher.

Scholarship matters. Scholars have a public duty to the truth -- just as policemen, judges, and physicians have their own special duties. Let's face it: reasonable care would have caught these errors, and reasonable care is what we expect from scholars -- and librarians. These aren't subtle questions of classification or technology; before you tackle those, you simply have to get the basics right. And, when mistakes get published, correcting them is vital. It's that simple.

Benediction: Everyone, take a deep breath. Calm down. I'm a scientist; scientists, too, have duties. I've been in this field for 20 years, I'm hoping to be around for a long time. Let's get back to work. The work matters. Getting it right matters. You know this.