Coloring Outside the Lines

In my Electronic Literature class today, we had the chance to video-chat with a pretty famous e-lit creator, Jason Nelson. Nelson has worked with a dizzying variety of digital projects and mediums, from Flash games and smartphone apps to VR headsets and Roomba vacuums.

Nelson makes it difficult to sum up his style with a single word, but one that seems to at least describe a good number of his works is “messy.” In fact, we asked him directly during our call today if harbors some kind of hatred toward clean, minimalist design. His response (paraphrased):

 “Hell, yes! I can’t stand it. Modern design doesn’t feel natural; in fact, it feels hollow and artificial. Humans just aren’t built like that. We’re the opposite. We’re incredibly messy creatures. We have tons thoughts that don’t lead anywhere, and we leak a ton of fluids every day. Humans are super messy.”

As soon as he said this, my own messy thoughts jumped back to our recent discussions in this class, on the importance of historical accuracy, and where we draw the lines between fact, exaggeration, and fiction. And Nelson’s comment got me thinking: if humans are messy, why on earth shouldn’t we expect a field dedicated to telling the stories of humans throughout time to be pretty messy, too? Accuracy isn’t a bad ideal to strive toward, since it lets us pull together data to make reasonable arguments, just like any other science.

But there’s still a danger, I think, of getting so caught up in the facts and statistics that we lose sight of the people behind them. I, for one, have read (and likely written) way too many research writings that treat their subjects as variables in some big equation for making sense out of someone’s life, as if showing that a person did X thing and Y thing can explain with complete certainty why he/she did Z thing. Most of the time, it doesn’t add up.
Michael contemplates in his post if the ideals of data curation are too lofty to possibly achieve. I would say yes, if the ideal data curation is a completely factual and accurate one, then this isn’t just impossible, it’s simply not something we should concern ourselves with. If humans defy cleanliness and straight lines, then history’s goal should be to revel in and account for this messiness – certainly not to correct it.

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