Electric amateurs: literary encounters with computing technologies 1987-2001
Butchard, Dorothy Keziah
This thesis considers the portrayal of uncertain or amateur encounters with new technologies in the late twentieth century. Focusing on fictional responses to the incipient technological and cultural changes wrought by the rise of the personal computer, I demonstrate how authors during this period drew on experiences of empowerment and uncertainty to convey the impact of a period of intense technological transition. From the increasing availability of word processing software in the 1980s to the exponential popularity of the “World Wide Web”, I explore how perceptions of an “information revolution” tended to emphasise the increasing speed, ease and expansiveness of global communications, while more doubtful commentators expressed anxieties about the pace and effects of technological change. Critical approaches to the cultural impact of computing technologies have tended to overlook the role played by perceptions of expertise and familiarity, and my thesis seeks to redress this by identifying a broad range of imagery, language and cultural references used to depict amateur or inexpert encounters with computing technologies. My interest in literary representations of amateur or marginalised users of computing technology reveals how the ease and speed of reading and writing promised by technological expertise can be countered by uncertainty arising from limited understanding of the complex processes involved. In a pre-smartphone age, the computer loomed as an object which was simultaneously baffling and enchanting, filled with potential but also obscure in its fundamental workings. Examining instances within experimental literary fiction and poetry which portray, imply, or respond to, encounters with personal computing, I demonstrate how individuals’ attempts to understand a technologically-inflected world can be described and enacted by the use of unusual narrative and poetic devices, where experimental literary strategies work to recreate the complex sensations associated with thrilling, difficult, or incomprehensible aspects of information technologies.