AS FOUNDER/DIRECTOR OF THE MEDIA ARCHEOLOGY LAB IN COLORADO, LORI EMERSON HAS (since 2009) been surrounding herself with "dead" media technologies in order to help make sense of (and critique) today's much-hyped alive ones. Being also a scholar and critic of contemporary poetics, she is keenly aware of how such devices are equipped to influence and constrain our writing/thinking. Emerson's work celebrates and calls for a "frictional media archeological analysis" aimed at the continual "unmooring" of the accepted conventions of reading and writing. Towards this end, she critiques consumer-oriented trends in computing--trends which unfortunately seek to "efface the interface" in the name of so-called user-friendliness. Montgomery Cantsin conducted the following interview by email upon the release of Lori's new book, Reading Writing Interfaces (recently published by University of Minnesota Press).
Montgomery Cantsin: First, I want to point out that your new book is part of a series which was founded by Mark Poster, who passed away not too long ago. Can you talk about how your work fits into his "Electronic Mediations" series and what (if any) influence Poster has had on you?
Lori Emerson: Mark Poster has been an underlying, though subtle, influence on my work as I first read him in a graduate seminar I took on "cybercultures" in the mid- to late-90s with the Victorianist and early hypertext theorist Christopher Keep. That class and Poster's work--his deeply political readings of digital media structures--stayed with me long afterwards. In fact, about seventeen years ago I gave a presentation on "Postmodern Virtualities" in that class and while I have no memory at all of what I said or even what I learned from reading his work back then, it's remarkable that his opening sentence rings so true to the kind of work I now find myself doing--he writes that "a critical understanding of the new communications systems requires an evaluation of the type of subject it encourages, while a viable articulation of postmodernity must include an elaboration of its relation to new technologies of communication." And so the point at which I realized I was, to my surprise, writing a political book that meshed together poetics and media studies was the point at which I realized that my work would likely fit in best (or, given its reputation in media studies, I wanted to make my work fit in) with the Electronic Mediations series, especially because of their books on tactical media, glitch and error, as well as the politics of archives and networks. It's such a thrill and an honor to have my book included in that series.
MC: How did your Media Archeology Lab come about?
LE: I was fortunate enough to have the support of the past director of the Alliance for Technology, Learning, and Society when I was first hired here at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2008. In 2009, the director, John Bennett, offered me a $20,000 startup grant to build a lab, any lab, that Atlas and English Department students could both use. I then began looking for a way to build a lab that wasn't just another venue on campus to celebrate the perpetual new in computing and, since I was at the time fascinated with how the Canadian poet bpNichol wrote one of the first kinetic digital poems, "First Screening," in 1983 using Basic on an Apple IIe, I decided to create a lab that had enough Apple IIe's to teach bpNichol in a classroom full of 20 English majors. It didn't take long before I moved on to acquiring Commodore 64's and then to where we find ourselves now, with a collection of about a thousand pieces of still functioning hardware and software from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s. I also have to admit that the MAL wouldn't be what it is now if we weren't flying under the radar of the university for the first three years or so. The relative obscurity of the lab in those early years meant that we had little to no oversight, no one to report to, no metrics or outcomes to adhere to, and so on which meant we were free