Modern literature and technology

From the telegraph and the gramophone to cinema and cyberspace, 20th-century literature frequently addressed the wondrous and weird nature of emerging technologies. Here Roger Luckhurst explores the ways in which technological innovation impacted on key literary works of the period.

Every technological breakthrough tends to be accompanied by anxious announcements of its catastrophic effect on literature. TV or tablet computers or smart phones threaten the book’s cultural authority, shatter the attention or destroy reading. Each new technology is heralded by someone as the death of serious literature. In 1992, just as personal computers were becoming genuinely pervasive (although before the World Wide Web had been invented), Sven Birkets wrote The Gutenberg Elegies, in which he predicted that the printed book would rapidly decline and become merely part of a ‘vestigial order’, taking with it not just our sense of historical depth and continuity but our very selves as selfhood gets distributed into limitless, random access networks.

It is true that new communication technologies often produce new frameworks that adjust the ways in which literature appears: the page, the screen, the website, the file window. The innovation of the printed book itself is a good example, a technology considered dangerous by many elites when it first appeared for its ease of reproduction and dissemination. However, a grasp of the history of cultural interactions with technology suggests that while doom-laden proclamations accompany every novel kind of communication, literature itself demonstrates a consistently inventive capacity to adapt and evolve to new material conditions. This can be illustrated using the electrical revolution of the late 19th century to compare with reactions to our own digital revolution a century later.

Science fiction novel La Vie électrique

An illustration from La vingtième siècle (The Twentieth Century, 1882), a book that looked at everyday life in the mid-20th century, depicting such things as the ‘teléphonoscope’ (an interactive television), aerocabs, food factories, submarine homes, and homes with piped food. 

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Victorian technology: short stories, science fiction and pulp

Victorian nerve doctors often attributed a rising tide of nervous breakdown to the overstimulation of unprecedented urban concentration. Humanity in the West lived increasingly enframed by artificial, technological environments. The illness neurasthenia was sometimes called ‘Americanism’ or ‘Londonism’ to reflect its modernity. The writer Grant Allen complained about data overload in the 1890s: there were now several morning and evening newspapers, two postal deliveries a day, telegrams that could shatter the calm at any time (let alone the new-fangled telephone), and new kinds of transport that travelled far quicker than the natural rhythms of the horse. Cities offered a bewilderment of distractions and entertainments – plays, music halls, drinking dens, newspapers, magazines, popular literature – long into the night. No wonder everyone, Allen included, suffered nervous exhaustion.

Grant Allen is actually a very good example of a late Victorian writer whose career was effectively invented by new technological platforms for print. A man of science unable to find a professional role, he started writing short pieces of science journalism for a rapidly expanding print culture of daily, weekly and monthly journals that thrived in part because of educational reforms but mainly by innovations in printing press techniques that pushed costs down. By the 1890s, reproduction of sketches and photographs were cheap and ubiquitous and a lavishly illustrated mass literature sold millions daily. Allen discovered almost by accident that the new journals had created spaces for fiction in short forms (the term ‘short story’ was invented in this environment), and that they paid far better than factual reportage. He wrote ghost stories and Gothic horrors, despite his contempt for the supernatural, and accidentally helped invent the scientific romance. The more famous H G Wells followed exactly the same trajectory from science education to journalism to fiction in the 1890s, and acknowledged a debt to Allen for his debut, The Time Machine, sometimes claimed as the first ‘science fiction’.

The War of the Worlds illustrated by Henrique Alvim-Corrêa

Illustration of the Martian cylinders attacking houses in a suburban street, by Henrique Alvim-Corrêa, 1906.

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Allen and Wells were created by the modern mass market for literature. Genres like serial detective fiction with recurrent characters, spy fiction, or invasion fantasies were the result of the serial logic of huge selling magazines like the monthly Pearson’s Magazine or the Strand. It was in the Strand that Arthur Conan Doyle began to publish his Sherlock Holmes short stories from 1891, establishing the enduring success of this serial form. Where Sherlock Holmes had been a modest success in the novella, A Study in Scarlet (1887), but the monthly serial stories became a major cultural phenomenon, alone securing the success of the Strand.

This was the new mass literature, but these developments also helped shape the form and structure of ‘serious’ literature as well. The new commercial forms for literature killed off the three-volume novel very quickly by 1894, effectively ending the main vehicle of Victorian Realism. The Decadent movement of the 1890s and the modernists that followed have often been understood as producing difficult, opaque literature to oppose the easy immediacy of mass modes. It is more complicated than that, but it is important to acknowledge the role of changes in the technology of print culture in the emergence of the modern distribution of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. We still call some literature ‘pulp fiction’ precisely because of the cheap acidic paper that it was printed on.

The voices of the dead

The late 19th-century literature that followed the revolution in electrical machinery produced a number of enduring fictions that addressed the weirdness of this emerging technology as content, not just form. A lot of these stories focus on uncanny phenomena. Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Story of the Japanned Box’ (1899) finally reveals that the voice of the dead heard through the locked door every night is preserved on a phonograph. In fact, Thomas Edison first invented the machine in 1877 with exactly the purpose of preserving the living voice beyond death. The material trace of the voice through fragile wax cylinders of figures like Tennyson or Walt Whitman, digitized by the British Library’s Sound Archive, still carry this unnerving sense of posthumous survival.

Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Wireless’ (1902) is about early radio experiments communicating between ship and shore, but which slowly turns into an odd ghost story when a tubercular young man seems to accidentally tune in to the long dead spirit of another consumptive, the poet John Keats. Kipling explored the same shivery effect in relation to the cinematograph (invented in 1895) in his story ‘Mary Postgate’ (1915). A little later, Sigmund Freud explained his belief in telepathy – distant communication between minds outside known channels of communication – using the analogy of the telephone. Tele-pathy and Tele-phony were conceived together and often theorized together in the 1880s. W T Stead, the great editor, journalist and new technology lover even set up ‘Julia’s Bureau’, a switchboard of psychic mediums that promised to connect mourners with the dead through their telephonic exchange.

All about the Telephone and Phonograph

All about the Telephone and Phonograph

Illustration of Queen Victoria trying out the newly invented telephone from All about the Telephone & Phonograph, 1878.

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Meanwhile, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) foregrounds all kinds of new recording devices in its very form, turning into a ‘mass of typewriting’ all manner of telegrams, newspaper reports, wax cylinder voice recordings, case notes, travel diaries and data collection from handbooks and timetables. It is the superior information technology of Van Helsing and his team of modern professionals that will outpace and finally defeat the ancient cunning of the vampire.

This is a common logic: every new technology makes us think ‘magically’ about it, before it becomes integrated into normal experience. They amaze and creep us out in equal measure. Writers have produced an occult double for every major electrical technology, from the spirits that sped along the wires of the telegraph in the 1840s, or emerged as filmy presences in the photographic emulsion of the 1870s, to the ghosts that hide in the white noise of untuned radios or in the unexplored lower bandwidths used by mobile phones. At times when rapid technological change transforms our connections to our own bodies and to others, literary narratives can imaginatively investigate these uncanny consequences.

Cinema: montage, close-ups, jump cuts and flashbacks

There is a celebrated moment in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) when Bloom ponders putting a gramophone in every grave to help remember the dead. But the technology with the most impact on early 20th-century modernism was undoubtedly cinema, since both came into being at the same time. Philosopher Henri Bergson was already using analogies from cinema for conceptions of mind and memory in the 1910s, and the psychologist Hugo Munsterberg produced the first theory of ‘photo-play’ in 1916, exploring the new grammar of close-ups, jump cuts and flashbacks as devices that echoed (but also helped define) the patterns of human consciousness.

Commentators like Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer in Weimar Germany in the 1920s, the home of Expressionist film, understood cinema to offer a language that best reflected the traumas of urban modernity, while also showing its transformative and emancipatory possibilities. Benjamin, in particular, incorporated a style of rapid intercutting and jump cuts into the very form of his writing. This was not just one-way traffic, literature absorbing the techniques of film. The great Soviet innovator in film, Sergei Eisenstein, explained the idea of montage, the poetics of generating new meanings from the collision of images, by turning to Dickens’s novels and showing how they worked by breaking them into a rapid series of images and cuts. Dickens was proto-cinematic. For Eisenstein, the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses was a cinematic event rather than a novelistic one, since Joyce took the logic of montage to revolutionary extremes, wildly intercutting styles, voices, genres and modes into one mock-heroic epic.

Movie poster for Strike by Eisenstein

Strike by Eisenstein

Poster for the 1925 silent film Strike by Sergei Eisenstein, a Soviet film director who pioneered the theory of montage.

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Copyright: © Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Cutting up the author

Writers repeatedly exploit new technologies to break open literary form. In the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, William Burroughs used Brion Gysin’s ‘cut-up’ technique, typing out prose and then cutting it into short fragments that he then let chance re-arrange into ‘objective’ forms. Burroughs also explored this technique by cutting and splicing audiotape and, with Anthony Balch in 1967, celluloid film. Burroughs used newly available mass recording devices to mount an assault on authorship because he was intent on displacing any authorial meaning. Instead, the inhuman voice of the machine would speak. It was as alarming as artist Andy Warhol declaring ‘I want to be a machine’ and abandoning painting for factory production of silk-screens untouched by the human hand. These acts by Burroughs and Warhol were quintessentially avant-garde uses of technology.

Beneath shiny surfaces

In 1960s London, where Burroughs lived for a period, this kind of experiment was explicitly linked to a new technological environment by the writer J G Ballard. Ballard was acutely aware that a new level of instantaneous global communication and media saturation – called ‘the society of the spectacle’ by theorist Guy Debord in 1967 – was re-wiring the human psyche, creating new kinds of perverse psychopathology. Ballard was insistent that the conventions of domestic realism could no longer respond to this reality and instead produced a series of experiments in what he called the ‘condensed novel’, violent and disjunct works that dispensed with linear narratives and often used found texts on plastic surgery, old text-books or reworked advertising copy. He even produced collages juxtaposing pornographic imagery and avant-garde prose that existed somewhere between art, advertising, provocation and narrative possibility. Even after Ballard returned to a more conventional storytelling form, notorious books like Crash and High-Rise undercut the niceties of the novel-form with icy satirical intent, exploring how the environments of motorways and privileged enclaves of luxury living could tease out aggressive and murderous instincts from the beneath shiny surfaces. While some lamented the imminent death of culture in this media-saturated domain, Ballard explored how literary forms could absorb, occupy and critique these new environments.

Text collages by J G Ballard, c. 1958

Text collages by J G Ballard, c. 1958

J G Ballard’s experimental text collages, later titled Project for a New Novel, combined scientific and technical material cut from science journals.

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Typescript draft of Crash by J G Ballard, revised by hand

Typescript draft of Crash by J G Ballard, revised by hand

Opening paragraphs from a draft of Crash, heavily revised by Ballard in blue and red ink, c. 1970–71.

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Cyberspace and hypertext

The reactions to the ongoing digital revolution since the advent of personal computing in the early 1980s make more sense with some of this history in mind. Famously, William Gibson coined the term ‘cyberspace’ in his novel Neuromancer (1984) about hackers and the internet before hackers and the internet really existed. Gibson’s work spawned a whole genre of ‘cyberpunk’, which mixed hard-boiled detective fiction with science fiction to convey a grimy near future of digital grifters and improvised solutions rather than the shiny happy people typical of glossier techno-futures. Gibson’s work has remained suffused with a melancholia about the accelerated digital world, often resisting it by exploring the old technologies of typewriters, chemical photography or analogue adding machines. This very early vision of digital cyberspace is haunted by ghosts of technology past. Nowadays, even the internet needs its historians to preserve digital erasure. The British Library Web Archive exists to collect and preserve freely available online publications long after the temporary platforms where they first appeared will have vanished.

By the end of the 1980s, advocates of computer processing had embraced ‘hypertext’ fiction as the next technical revolution in literature, since random access transformed narrative possibility and freed text from linear, successive logic of the static page. Michael Joyce’s afternoon, a story (1987) was delivered by disk and offered short chunks of prose that could supposedly be read in any order, and changed each time you read it, so creating many potential narratives through forking paths. Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl (1995) was even more dynamic and married its ‘patchwork’ form to its exploration of Frankenstein monster myth. Geoff Ryman’s 253 (1996) was an early internet novel, the title taken from the number of people occupying the carriages of a London Underground tube whose stories could be accessed in any order (the Print Remix of 1998 developed a more linear, cumulative plot).

Hailed as a revolutionary overthrow of conventional narrative, in typically hyperbolic rhetoric, the prose novel has survived the hypertext fad just fine, adjusting again to the new digital dispensation.

It is possible to read many pronouncements on the death of literature or the publishing industry or the physical book with the rise of free internet content, self-authoring, e-readers, or the terrible effect of smart phones and tablet computers. Yet technology often has unpredictable outcomes (the internet itself being the accidental product of military research on linking computers together to hide nuclear launch codes from the enemy). A dialectical relation exists between new ventures in vast online bookselling and the wholly unexpected return of the small independent bookshop or the rise of small presses. It is now possible to find many classic literary texts online for free through the Gutenberg Project or print-on-demand almost anything from literature’s vast archive. Open access policy is transforming how to publish research, too. Through all these technological revolutions, literary fiction has been itself a sensitive recording device that both records these shifts and generates compelling narratives that make sense of them.

  • Roger Luckhurst
  • Roger Luckhurst is Professor of Modern Literature at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is a specialist in Late Victorian literature, Gothic and Science fiction literature and film, and the history of the supernatural. He is the author of Science Fiction (2005), The Mummy’s Curse (2012) and editor of the Oxford World’s Classics editions of Jekyll and Hyde, Dracula, and H P Lovecraft. His book on the film Alien appeared in 2014 from the BFI and one called Zombies was out with Reaktion Press in 2015.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

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