Ergodic literature

(This is the third post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

Ergodic literature is a fancy term for being intentionally over-wrought and difficult. Sometimes this can be an effective tool, much like when a psychotic gym teacher forces you to run several times around the Reykjavík Pond the exercise makes you appreciate a coke and a hot dog (with ketchup and crispy fried onions) that much more. Or, you know, the effort makes arriving at the destination that much more blah blah blah.

(Actually, the only thing the psychotic gym teacher accomplished was to teach us how to sneak off and get hot dogs when we should have been jogging around the pond.)

The app Fish, for example, plays with being deliberately difficult and not allowing you to tap back and revisit earlier chapters. Reading it is a one way trip. You go from the beginning, to the end, and then you can start over. You cannot flip back. You cannot browse forward. You read it, in order, or you don’t read it at all.

Author control over the reading process also used to be a feature of many early hypertexts. What? That wasn’t just because they were a UI mess? Well, yes, that as well. They were an UI mess compounded by a severe case of ‘intentionally difficult’. Arseholes!. Lesson learned: only let yourself be deliberately difficult in a feature when the others are easy peasy.

The non-psychotic rationale behind this approach is often (mistakenly, in my view) conflated with a school of thought pioneered by John Dewey. You may know that school of thought by the more commonly known facile formulation by pseudo-intellectual bildungsphilister catchphrase artist Marshal McLuhan:

"The Medium is the Message."

So, making something difficult, making it require some sort of effort, skill, foreknowledge, or time, changes the meaning of that something, because the medium with its difficulties has an inherent meaning. A piece of text that is only visible when you’re constantly drawing circles on your phone while hopping on one foot means something different than the same text on an otherwise straightforward website. Text that can only be read while standing in a bus stop in Croydon means something different from the same text in an ebook.

Academics love this line of thinking.

—Let’s wrap barbed wire around the reader’s iPad while I stomp on their toes and you threaten to defenestrate their pet Chihuahua.

—Ooh, what if we attach a GPS to the Chihuahua so the reader can see on the iPad where it lands? Locative media!

People obsessed with ‘innovation’ and doing ‘edgy’ things also like this approach. Computers are already a difficult pain in the arse. Making things difficult is easy and—bonus!—turns out it adds arty meaning to shit you don’t care about enough to do properly.


(Err, no. Most of the time readers will astutely observe that interactive ergodic literature is hostile to the reader. It also alienates every sensible person on the planet.)

It’s conceivable that this approach might be appropriate under some circumstances. Such as when the source material really does benefit from being closely tied to a location, or when the effort involved demonstrates something meaningful for the text. But even then the benefit is undercut by the fact that it’s fucking annoying.

Does my antipathy towards ergodic literature make me a populist. Yes. Fuck off.

This trend is particularly tragic because Dewey’s ideas (and McLuhan’s by virtue of being derivative as hell), as far as the artist and author are concerned, have more in common with wabi-sabi than ergodic literature. It’s about embracing the imperfect means by which you tell a story or create art, acknowledging the means, their flaws, their strengths as a fundamental part of your creation. It’s not about pissing off the reader.