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Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s News Reader (2003) (with David Durand, Brion Moss, and Elaine Froehlich)

Research Report by Brooke Belisle
(created 2/21/07; version 1.0)
[Status: Draft]

Related Categories: New Approaches to Reading Print Texts, New Reading Interfaces

Original Object for Study description

“It is difficult to get the news…”

In 2003, New Radio and Performing Arts commissioned two artworks by Noah Wardrip-Fruin for their website, Turbulence.org. [1] Wardrip-Fruin produced Regime Change and News Reader, both of which he titled “Textual Instruments.” News Reader offers an interface for reading current news stories, and for what Wardrip-Fruin calls “playing” these stories or “playing” the online news environment. [2]As the user interacts with the news stories by clicking highlighted text, the stories multiply and warp in unpredictable ways.

When News Reader is launched, an initial window opens which allows the user to scroll through the headlines and first paragraphs of the current “top stories” listed on Yahoo!’s news page. Clicking on highlighted words in a story opens an additional window with an alternate “version” of the story. Clicking on highlighted text within this new window opens yet another version in another window, and so on. The relationship between the text in the original and the supplemental windows is not entirely clear in interaction. The text in the new window seems to sometimes repeat or scramble the original text; sometimes it offers an altogether different news story that also contains the linked word or phrase. Descriptions of the project explain that when a user clicks on a word or phrase in a story listed in the original news window, an new window opens which repeats that story but with additional material inserted from alternative media sources. Sometimes the material comes from an alternative media source’s version of the same news story but sometimes it comes from an alternative media news story that just happened to include the search phrase. The intercut texts have varying degrees of legibility because the inserted material is cut at word level; although the additions are taken from alternative news media, they are more legible as ‘other words’ rather than as ‘other stories.’ While knowing that the added text is drawn from alternative news sources adds an extradiagetic dimension to the original news story, it affects the original story as interference rather than by adding dimension in the sense of offering different information or a contrasting point of view. News Reader it not designed to offer a functional way to get ‘better’ news, but as an artwork about the politics implicit in the language and distribution of the news.

Research Context:
Perhaps the main interest of this project stems from its repurposing of a common style of news distribution. Newsreaders are software programs and interfaces that pull news stories from a variety of sources and display them in a condensed format, usually one page with links.[3] They cut and condense to display what has been determined most relevant, or according to the parameters they are given. People use newsreaders to create a personalized “front page” which they may read instead of a mainstream publication; a news reader helps you get more of just what you are looking for. Yahoo! news is a customizable news reader, pulling stories from mainstream news channels and presenting them as a series of headlines and summaries. Wardrip-Fruin has created something like a meta-newsreader that takes the content of the Yahoo! newsreader, as its source. Or his program could be considered something like a reverse newsreader since it expands, complicates, and differentiates news stories that have already been syndicated and condensed by a normal newsreader. News Reader exposes the way in which an ordinary newsreader organizes and excludes information, even suggesting that such ‘alternative’ reading strategies repeat a “mainstream” logic of efficiency and centralization.

Technical Analysis:
News Reader, like other newsreaders, uses RSS feeds from news sources, “reading” the RSS files of the latest news articles. Wardrop-Fruin claims that his software models Claude Shannon’s technique of “n-grams,” n representing the number of words in a syntactical series.[4] Shannon manually searched printed texts for corresponding chains in order to build unpredictable sentences word by word; Wardrip-Fruin’s software searches for textual chains and uses them as indexes in order to link and intercut multiple texts. When a user clicks on a highlighted word in the main window of News Reader, the software indexes another news story that includes this same word. It opens a new window that inserts the text around the selected word into the original text of the story. It also creates a new highlighted link, consisting of the original word selected plus the word found immediately following it in the new text. Clicking on this new series of two words would index a text that included this series, and would create a new link consisting of these two words plus whatever word followed them in the new text. Re-clicking a link will branch to another possible chain, the original series as found elsewhere and with a different word immediately following it, yielding a different link.

News Reader has already garnered attention as a “new reading interface”; so the question only remains to what end? Wardrip-Fruin describes News Reader as enacting a political resistance to the “mainstream” news and the logic of its language and repetition. He compares it to Burrough’s cut-up method and considers it a political kind of play:

By using this approach to make text playable, by taking the logic of word chains to defamiliarizing and sometimes humorous extremes, Regime Change and News Reader provide ways to perform William Burroughs’s injunction to “cut word lines” – to break the chains of conceptual association that say this follows from that, the constant association of these words in the speech we hear and echo to others on a daily basis.[5]

Wardrip-Fruhin claims that News Reader was intended as an instrument of resistance against the “chains of conceptual association” that news stories not only are in themselves, but which they propogate as we “echo” them in their own terms. The linguistic confusion News reader introduces is meant, then, as a deliberate frustration and defamiliarization, in the hope that this could interrupt a kind of conceptual ‘programming’ worked by the language of the news.

Marie-Laure Ryan, scholar of interactive narrative, has called what Wardrip-Fruhin deemed a productive ‘breaking up’ an “aleatory” process. She describes News Reader’s mode of reading as a kind of digestion of narrative, governed by chance and producing something like “mad libs.” She suggests that while such a game may be fun, or achieve a political statement through its process, its product is amusing but flushable. [6]Presumably she does not think this of Burroughs. Does scrambling news stories makes a mess instead of a work of art because the language is not rich enough to begin with, because the ‘news’ is only defined by its narrative logic, its ability to inform? If News Reader were used on literary texts rather than news stories, would the result be more poetic? What if it was used on statistics or grocery lists–would it produce patterns and meanings where none were apparent before? Maybe monkeys on typewriters could not write Hamlet, but with the right input could News Reader write Tender Buttons? If News Reader breaks down the syntactical coherence of a news story as Wardrip-Fruin argues, then it may, as Ryan argues, fail to produce an alternative structure for meaning. But is this just because its randomness indexes what Katherine Hayles has called the unconscious of code rather than that of language or the author? Or could this assumption explain, instead, why the end user may fail to read meaning into the texts News Reader writes?

If News Reader produces illegible texts, in what sense can it be said to “read”? The “digest” suggests not only a print precursor to current online news readers but also offers a metaphor for reading itself as a process of organized break-down, an analysis that synthesizes and obtains meaning. News Reader’s “digestion” of the online “digest” format of Yahoo! news enacts a different model of reading, a machinic processing that undoes syntactic and narrative organization, rendering the ‘news’ unreadable or meaningless to the end user. If this scrambling and fragmenting is the opposite of reading, perhaps this opposition, this reading as “playing,” would have to be understood in the complex sense of what Derrida might call an auto-immunization–a kind of reading that attempts to protect the mode of meaning-making that reading represents from new ways in which that seems to be automated or threatened.

Wardrip-Fruin’s description claims that News Reader is “designed for daily use,” but to me this would numb its effect. The fun of “playing” with News Reader may wear off with such use. The occasional enjambment or pun is not funny enough, enlightening enough, or most of all frequent enough to justify a daily practice. These texts, produced through the sampling of word chains rather than a by the montage of facts or ideas, do not promise to repay those who struggle to read them; their strings of words may only be as meaningful as the mad libs Ryan compares them to. Because News Reader is not ‘useful,’ those who used it often would, I suspect, begin to read it rather than to “play” it, attending primarily to the Yahoo! news page that it initially repeats.

Reader does not offer a particularly satisfying user experience or very useful–or even consistently interesting–content. Its impact rests, instead, on the way in which it interrupts and reconfigures meaning at the level of format and distribution. In reversing the process of condensation and centralization that news undergoes in its distribution, News Reader exposes how our reception of the news is shaped by more than the story or even the language of the story. It reveals that the news is not made up of interchangeable units variously fitted into neutral formats. News Reader frustrates the transmission of what would seem the most straightforward information to insist that concepts and ideologies are promulgated through structural elements that extend from the grammar of a sentence to the graphical layout of a website–and further, to the arrangements of corporate partnerships and constellations of national interests. The mass syndication and sampling of news stories, as in online ‘newsreaders,’ reiterate kinds of “constant association” that telescope from syntactic and narrative patterns to economic and political alignments. To some extent, the ‘news’ from News Reader may be McLuhan’s old news that the medium is the message–or, at least, that until many other things change, the modes of reading offered by ‘new’ media will tend to repeat rather than escape the many kinds of formatting they reconfigure.

[1] Announcement of News Reader by Turbulence:

[2] Download Regime Change & News Reader at turbulence.org:

[3] Paper by Wardrip-Fruhin that mentions the project and n-grams: http://hyperfiction.org/texts/textualInstrumentsShort.pdf

[4] The first desktop Newsreader, Carmen’s Headline Viewer:

[5] Description of Regime Change and News Reader on Noah Wardrip-Fruhin’s website: http://www.noahwf.com/rcnr/index.html

[6] Two versions of a Marie-Laure Ryan article mentioning News Reader:

  Brooke, 02.26.07

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