|Title:||Forensics and Memory: Hyperhistory and Liminal Experience|
|Publication info:||Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
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Forensics and Memory: Hyperhistory and Liminal Experience
vol. 4, no. 1, Spring 2004
|Article Type:||Web Project|
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Forensics and memory: hyperhistory and liminal experience
Images excerpted from Life After Wartime by Kate Richards and Ross Gibson
Increasingly history is being produced in computer-based environments that owe conceptual debts to hypertext theory and computer games. This media facilitates liminal, process-based, explorative experience. What happens when history becomes a liminal experience? I will discuss four different works of hypertextual and programmed media, and consider what sort of history is facilitated. The computer has been appropriated as a means to examine or reflect upon the past in different ways. Competing principles of forensics and memory, which reflect competing technoscientific and humanistic ways in which the computer is put to work in contemporary culture, means that representations of the past in computer-based media are evolving, and with them, understandings of the role of the past on the present. I will discuss the way forensics and memory reveal different relationships with the past in computer-based history with specific reference to one work, Life After Wartime by Ross Gibson and Kate Richards (2003). In a rudimentary way this article suggests new ways in which academic writing may be produced, by exploiting intersections between networked communication, academic writing, interface design and programming.
History and liminal experience
If, as L P Hartley (1963) alleges, the past is a foreign country (p. 9), then it is a space and time which we can only access as foreigners. Perhaps the aim of an historian is not to destroy that foreignness, but to make it approachable. Historiographers have long been concerned with defining an appropriate methodology for making history approachable.
Issues in historiography of particular relevance to this article include whether history is fact or fiction, and whether history is a science or an art (Iggers, 1997, p. 2; Kelley, 2003, pp. 340-343; Kemp, 1991, p. vii). The fact/scientific attitude to historiography prevalent in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has, since World War Two, increasingly given way to the idea that history is a diffuse discipline (Iggers, 1997, p. 7), owing its interest as much to the art of writing history as to its engagement with objective fact (Kemp, 1991, pp. vi-vii).
Debates about historiography have been further complicated by the greater range of media that now present historical material. Whereas academic history was formerly a text-centric discipline, historical documentary has, for example, become a staple of television entertainment, and debates among academic historians about the strengths and weaknesses of television-based histories have occurred (Kuehl, 1976; Watt, 1976).
This paper explores what happens to the past when its representation (history) is produced by and contained within computer-based media. I will suggest that this media is a particularly interesting way to make the past approachable because it facilitates liminal experience more easily than other media can. However, at the same time, it further complicates issues in historiography.
The idea that computer-based media can create liminal experience can be traced to Victor Turner's (1967) idea that "in the history of societies and in the lives of individuals, [there are] ... organized moments of categorical disarray and intense reflexive potential" (as cited in St John, 2000). Liminality is an ambiguous psychological state (Turner, 1986, p. 103) arising from the virtual status of computer-based media: that is, while experiences derived from computers are "real," their relationship to the material world is difficult to define (although not, perhaps, impossible). Rob Shields (2003) suggests it is the fluid, potential, ambiguous status of these virtual environments that results in a type of liminality (p. 79). In such moments we can be caught in the act of interpretation, before we have managed to reconcile the simultaneous existence of material and virtual worlds. When Sue Broadhurst (2002) speaks of a space that is "between"—rich in potential, in the process of evolving, we can imagine moments during which meaning and interpretation are tumbling through various combinations and possibilities.
Clearly, the liminality of computer-based media is derived from its relationship with the material world. Darren Tofts (2002) suggests that liminal experience is an experiential consequence of humans existing simultaneously in computer-based and material worlds. Experience comes to consist of:
We tumble through various realities and consequently interpretation is never allowed to "settle". You might be concentrating on this text on the computer, nevertheless you are aware of the material environment that encases and embeds you; your attention is split between them.
The psychology of liminality is contrasted with that of immersion. In the latter state, an operator is supposed to be so completely engaged with the media that her sense of material reality is completely subsumed (to the extent of forgetting the existence of the computer itself). Perhaps an operator's consciousness can be successively engaged in a liminal or an immersed way, but not both at once.
Liminal experience juxtaposes real and virtual space. It also juxtaposes real and virtual time. This is particularly important when the computer-based media takes the past as its subject . Collusions between computers and history can create "alt-tab" migrations between past and present  as well as here and there. Perhaps all historical media have this effect, however, computer-based historiography enables particularly intense liminal experience, as I shall go on to show. Computer-based historiography may "extend, amplify and enrich our capacity to think, feel and act" (Laurel, 2001, page 113) and as such may create a range of psychological and personal consequences beyond the scope of this article .
Four texts which explore the idea of computer-based history will be referred to. They are:
The Flight of Ducks (1995) by Simon Pockley, a hypertextual remediation of the primary document, the diary of his father's 1933 visit to outback Australia, further embellished with links other texts, and Pockley's own poetic reactions to his father's diary.
The Vietnam War Internet Project (1996-2003) by John Tegtmeier, a web of information and resources from many different sources concerning the Vietnam War.
Life after Wartime (2003) by Ross Gibson and Kate Richards, a CD-based Shockwave work that associatively explores a series of crime scenes from post-World War Two New South Wales (Australia).
The first three of these projects are available online. Life after Wartime is not, however some of its images are included in this paper, and a website about the project is available. Some of these texts may not meet a conservative definition of history, however I am more interested in the attainment of a receptive psychological state than the acquisition of historical facts (although no doubt there is a relationship between the two). In a rudimentary way, this article itself is designed to display ways in which computer-based media may create liminal environments . My intention is to create a text which is a pointer to engaging ways that history, and other types of academic texts, can be produced.
Hypertext and history
Many types of history media have liminal effects, but the specific affordances of computer-based media make it particularly open to liminal response. One reason for this is the combination of different types of sensual engagement (see "History as computer game"). Another reason is the historically situated nature of the computer (see "Nostalgia and complexity"). A third reason is derived from the nature of hypertext.
Jean Baudrillard (1994) suggests that we need to stockpile the past in plain view, for without it "our entire linear and accumulative culture collapses" (p. 10). Print media history traditionally does this. However, while the book is a document that unifies its content (Bolter, 1991, p. 10) thus suited to stockpiling, hypertext  and database-driven  programmed environments offer multiplicity in place of an ordered progression of paragraphs and pages, and the stockpile of information is transformed into a dynamic, networked web (p. 24). Hypertext thus promotes:
The idea that learning becomes a process suggests that computer-based histories are actually "potential history," in the same sense that interactive fiction has been described as potential literature (Montfort & Moulthrop, 2003, p. 120): these histories are performed. While there are limits to the range of freedoms that hypertext offers as Virginia Kuhn (c.2000) points out, the operator nevertheless makes choices and constructs the past, in real time. The past inhabits the present, and during this temporal hiatus fixed cultural categories that we rely upon for organizing everyday existence are "temporarily suspended or rearranged" (St John, 2000, para. 4). The operator's body inhabits a space in front of the computer while her consciousness is engaged with a different virtual space, and a parallel situation exists for the operator's temporal experience: it might be 2004 New Zealand in the material world, but 1974 Saigon in virtual space. Stuart Moulthrop (2003) argues that hypertextual structures create liminal responses. Via hypertext a liminal experience of history can develop.
Hypertextual histories are multiplicitous: open to permutation and recombination. Multiplicitous texts may have no univocal sense (Bolter, 1991, p. 36). In Landow's Victorian Web (2002), operators construct Victorian Britain with reference to a grid of links that summarize a database of information referenced by the links. The node and link structure facilitates a rhizomatic spread of facts and associations out from the homepage . In the Vietnam War Internet Project (1996-2003), a series of links from the original "portal" site leads me to the voices of Vietnamese communists and the relatives of recently suicided Vietnam vets: I go from academic history to personal tragedy in a few clicks, accompanied by an intense emotional rush. While I am not creating "history on the fly" myself (as I might be if I were involved in some sort of weblog history project ), I am making conscious decisions about my path through the material to a greater extent than if I were reading a book from start to finish. The author/s of the material are even inciting me to do this, in a way that rarely happens in books.
When academic history is produced within rhizomatic hypertextual structures that surrender authority to multiplicity, it approaches the associational way that memory functions. This is indeed what Vannevar Bush and other founding hypertext theorists had in mind . Personal memories can be like reading a hypertext—not only events, but temporal progression can become confused, or even fused. As, in true liminal fashion, we explore and juxtapose, but never really resolve our memories, so we experience hypertextual history.
History as computer game
Hypertextual histories like the three web-based works discussed in this article tend to be text peppered with still images. However more interactive and sensually engaging history is possible. As a result "...the properties of encyclopedic capacity and spatial navigability create the experience of enclosure in explorable, extensive spaces" (Murray, 2003, p. 6). I will consider the computer game as a model for representing the past, and then explore its implications for liminal constructions of the past.
As it happens, commercial computer games often have historical themes. First-person shooters such as Castle Wolfenstein (1992) reprise World War II scenarios. Many computer games exhibit the quixotic relationship to the past long enjoyed by historical novels and cinema. Developers choose the extent to which they are "true" to events.
Of the works discussed, Life after Wartime (2003) comes closest to a computer game, although it lacks role-playing characters and the goal-oriented behavior that killing a series of bad guys encourages . Interactive combinations of image, text and audio create a spatial environment which the operator explores. The result is a "spatial story" that Henry Jenkins (c. 2001) suggests is the narrative type peculiar to computer games.
According to Barbara Tuchman (1984), "...chronological narrative is the spine and the blood stream that bring history closer to 'how it really was' and to a proper understanding of cause and effect (p. 9). However, computer-based texts promote structures that can thwart chronological progression. Nick Montfort and Stuart Moulthrop (2003) summarize the tension between narrative and ergodic games:
In Life after Wartime cause and effect narrative is confounded. Connections between images and text are associative and exploration becomes the major mode of interaction. By thwarting our expectations of progression from cause to effect, issues of temporality are foregrounded and the liminal experience of being "betwixt and between" alternate temporalities results. Meanwhile, sensually rich combinations of audio and visual material make the text engaging on various levels. Historical narrative in such texts may be decentered as operators seek different types of connections and interpretations. Such is the effect of Life after Wartime. I would describe this as a liminal effect rather than an immersive one. Narrative is a technique of immersion; juxtaposition and multiplicity are the techniques of liminality.
Nostalgia and complexity
Nostalgia is difficult when its source is trapped in a desktop computer. Computers cannot escape their own technoscientific history (Crogan 2003) and therefore they are tied to cultural associations that alienate us from pre-computer time. The subject-matter of Life after Wartime (2003) stems from the largely pre-computer mid twentieth century. The work pivots around a series of stark forensic photographs, but enclosing these grubby, poverty-ridden crime scenes within the contemporary computer causes us to hover between past and present in a way that a book of the same content would not achieve. Because books have existed for hundreds of years, they lack the temporal specificity that computers, at least for now, enjoy.
In Life after Wartime the forensic past is also enveloped by the computerized present's hallmark layers of text, music and interactivity. As a result the forensic past becomes complex and nuanced. Its status as evidence for an official criminal interpretation is undermined as the media of another era "contaminate" the evidence. The experiential effect is similar to the difference between indicative and subjunctive moods. The past ceases to be a state or a fact and becomes a mood in which supposition, desire, hypothesis or possibility are at play (Turner, 1986, p. 101).
A hypertextual work like The Flight of Ducks (1995) is more textual and linear than Life after Wartime. Nevertheless, the computer-based materiality of the medium creates its own resonances for the author: "It is no longer just about expeditions into Central Australia, it is also a journey into the use of a new medium for which we have yet to develop a descriptive language" (Pockley 1995).
As we progress through the pages of the diary, we accompany Pockley Sr. deeper into the desert and at the same time "travel" more deeply into the hypertextual "space". At both the narrative and structural levels we are offered few means of egress. The hypertextual structure acts as a metaphor for crossing space and passing time. This self-conscious exploration of the affordances of a new historical medium facilitates a sense of entrapment similar, perhaps, to "really" being in the desert.
The Vietnam War Internet Project (1996-2003) is more multiplicitous than The Flight of Ducks (1995). Lacking unified voice or a clear sense of preferred pathway, this material reinforces at a structural level the anti-nostalgic state of contemporary attitudes to the Vietnam War. As Tegtmeier says:
The problem, of course, is that there is no one TRUTH about the Indochina wars. Instead, many different truths coexist and compete. To be sure, there are facts, a myriad of them—the tonnage of bombs dropped by the US during the war, for example. But facts, while useful and necessary, do not lead to understanding without a framework, a matrix, upon which to place them. And there is the rub. In analyzing and making sense of fact, cultural and social reality is constructed. By this process, past events and actions become part of the historical sense of self of a society. In the case of the Indochina wars, there are many such realities, each with its own truth, each with its own understanding. The sense of self connected with these wars is still very much a contested issue in many of the countries that participated in them. (1996-2003)
Tegtmeier's hypertext reflects the complexities of representing the Vietnam era; the more voices that participate, the less coherent it becomes. Negotiation of and thresholds for significance become the modus operandi for interpretation. Computer-based media thus seems to function as "the art of memory" (Shields, 2003, page 41). Memory is "never individual, but instead ... socially negotiated, multivocal, and with sometimes contradictory narratives" (Goodall, 1997, Introduction, para. 13) like the Vietnam War Internet Project (1996-2003) itself. We construct the past by constructing a path through events, opinions, emotions. The complexity of these liminal negotiations threatens any nostalgic hope we might harbor that the past is easy to understand and safely archivable.
Forensics and memory
The historiographical tension between science and art, fact and fiction is reflected in the tension between forensics and memory. This tension is also reflected in the way that computers are used in our culture, and it is specifically explored in Life after Wartime (2003) by Ross Gibson and Kate Richards.
Forensic medicine  is the "science" of the past. Contemporary Western culture is consumed by forensics: the ability of experimental method and technological apparatus to empirically determine a sequence of events. Forensics uses medical science to establish legal facts. Several contemporary television series are driven by forensic investigations of crime, and populist reductions of archaeology are increasingly presented as a locus of forensic triumphalism, thus extending the reach of forensics beyond the law courts into other historical arenas .
Forensic approaches seek to narrow possible interpretations of events down to one option which solves the crime / mystery and can be appropriated by the legal system. The past is always available for forensic analysis, however the "porous and slippery"  nature of human memory offers an alternative relationship with the past. Memory suggests a different concept of truth—more psychological and impressionistic. Memories converge and compete; they even evolve. In contrast, according to Keith Simpson (1985) "vagueness and theory have no place in forensic medicine" (Simpson & Knight, p. 1). The divergent principles of forensics and memory reflect Paul Virilio's (2002) distinction between effectiveness, which science can attain, and a more humanistic concept of truth (p. 2; see also Hayles, 2001, p. 310) .
The tension between forensics and memory is reflected in the ways that computers are enlisted to analyze the past. Instrumental uses of computers seek greater effectiveness. Hypertextual and ergodic approaches to history reverse the ambition: we are no longer trying to "solve" history but to complicate it. The computer becomes an explorative environment with parallels to human memory. Computer-based histories do not create "efficient" human labour in the cybernetic tradition (Crogan, 2003, p. 2), which is the way they are employed by forensic science, but rather seek to create liminal spaces in which to play with interpretation.
Life after Wartime (2003) explores the significance of forensics for historiography. Juxtaposition of poetic texts and forensic photography foreground different approaches to the past. The subtext at work concerns the limits of technoscience to get beyond effectiveness to truth propped up by a dialectic that pitches scientific thinking against humanistic thinking. In Life after Wartime (2003) the operator is forced to juxtapose these different conceptions of what history can be, and the role of the computer in constructing the past. The implication is that forensics is a poor substitute for the nuances of human experience, and forensic evidence can only be comprehended if it is situated in an encompassing humanistic framework. History is an art, not a science, even when it is produced by the computer.
Transience and permanence
Forensics and memory represent two different approaches to thinking about the past. This distinction ties in with attitudes to contingency in history. Different media also imply different things about the contingency of events. Computer-based media is characterized by change (Bolter, 1991, p. 9; see also Eskelinen, 2001, p. 1). In their semi-historical work The many voices of St Caterina of Pedemonte (2003), Alison Walker and Silvia Rigonpresent countless retellings of Saint Caterina's life which the operator shapes into a narrative. Caterina's story is therefore constantly changing (Walker and Rigon, 2003). This is an example of how the materiality (N K Hayles, 2002) of computer-based history encourages engagement with transience and permanence . Baudrillard comments on the permanence-making and objectifying impetus that some media seem to impart to history: "Photography and cinema contributed in large part to the secularization of history, to fixing it in its visible, 'objective'form at the expense of the myths that once traversed it" (p. 48).
Cinema is an immersive medium. Ideally, viewers are persuaded to forget or ignore their embeddedness in the material world which embeds the cinematic one. However, liminal, computer-based media promote consciousness of the self embedded in various perhaps contradictory realities. Forensic methodologies and permanent states are the casualties. Operators inhabit an inter-tidal zone between the "dry land" of the material world and the "ocean" of transience communicated by hypertextual and ergodic media.
Operators come away from these liminal interactions with a sense of the contingency of both history and the present. As we negotiate between material and virtual worlds, we make comparisons between them and possible alternate worlds . The past is destabilized (and with it, perhaps, both present and future). In this liminal zone, perhaps the remythologization of history based on process-based exploration develops.
The history of transience
Barbara Tuchman (1984), a historian from and of the twentieth century, argues that "...the best book is a collaboration between the author and reader" (p. 24). She implies that reading history requires us all to be historians. Furthermore, the historian should "... submit himself to his material instead of trying to impose himself on his material" (p. 23), which is actually an object lesson on how to read hypertext: follow the links, explore the connections.
Michel Foucault (1991) invites us to make anti-metaphysical history which assumes no "...timeless and essential secret, but the secret that they have no essence or that their essence was fabricated in a piecemeal fashion from alien forms" (p. 78). As if offering the material solution that Foucault seeks, Pockley observes:
The transient and mutable nature of what I shall now refer to as hyperhistory is compounded by its virtual relationship with the material artifacts of history—locations, objects, primary documents, etc. The notorious malleability of digital reproduction and their dubious indexical relationship to material objects places hyperhistory in a quizzical relationship with historical fact. If the status of historical artifacts is undermined by computer-based media, the liminal qualities of such media may be further enhanced, because the past becomes an arena for possibility, exploration and play rather than the acquisition of incontrovertible fact.
We have no doubt not yet seen the gamut of ways that the past can be presented using this more mutable media . Whether, as a result of liminal engagement, we gain not only a new understanding of specific past events but also a more relativistic, less causally oriented concept of time itself, requires exploration elsewhere.
Returning to the scene of the crime?
If history is "the examination of past events" rather than "the past events themselves" (Tuchman, 1984, p. 25), then history only exists in the present, which is when the examination occurs. I have been arguing that this examination becomes particularly interesting if it is carried out in a way that facilitates liminal experience: that is, when material and virtual realities juxtapose. Hyperhistory—computer-based history using hypertextual and computer game techniques—facilitates liminal experience.
Hyperhistory is potential history; it only becomes actual when it is performed by the operator. Hyperhistory imposes (sometimes) subtle and complex structures on material that requires an active and present engagement with conundrums of time, geography, cause and effect. For the producers of such environments, the question surrounding the delivery of hyperhistory becomes, "Where are the critical and productive affinities between a field's materials, methods and epistemology on the one hand, and the inherent structure and capabilities of interactive technologies, on the other?" (Bass, c.2000, [original italics])
For hyperhistory, suspended between these two poles is the contested and evolving relationship that an operator has with the past. This is a liminal moment described by Turner (1986) as one in which "...people are allowed to think about how they think, about the terms in which they conduct their thinking, or to feel about how they feel in daily life" (p. 102). So much of who we are is tied to our beliefs about and relationships with the past; these assessments are up for review when we enter liminal space.
As a consequence of liminality, hyperhistory opens up a new ways of interrogating our temporal and geographical situatedness in the world. Tegtmeier implies this in his introduction to The Vietnam War Internet Project (1996-2003), and indeed, in cyberspatial environments in general "...identity is often chosen, played with, subverted, or foregrounded as a construct" (Bailey, 2001, p. 335). Using the "now" to explore what was, reverberates on what is, and what will be. As liminal approaches to the past outlined in this article conflate past present and future, the scene of the crime becomes a mythical place permanently available for reconstruction.
Jenny Weight is a lecturer, researcher, and artist in the field of networked and programmed media. She teaches at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (Melbourne, Australia) where she is currently completing her Doctorate. Under her pen name "geniwate" she has published many artistic projects, most notably "rice" which co-won the 1999 trAce/alt-x International Hypertext Competition and "concatenation", which won the 2004 Mayne Award for Multimedia. She can be contacted directly at email@example.com.
Thanks to Adrian Miles and the Post Identity peer reviewer for valuable feedback.
1. 1. Laurel, 2001, p. 113.
2. 2. In this article I do not investigate or distinguish between factual and fictional histories. "History" for this article is above all a psychological experience. As a consequence, the texts I am referring to may not be called historical at all on some readings of what history is.
3. 3. No doubt such migrations could be also developed in relation to the future, but I won't explore that here.
4. 4. For example, Sherry Turkle (2001) suggests that computer-based virtual spaces (specifically MOOs) are useful in constructing identity (p. xvii).
5. 5. Some projects sponsored by The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH), for example The Salisbury Project (2001) by Marion E Roberts could also have been used. My focus is on less conventional histories than these works, consequently it did not seem appropriate to include more than one such work in this paper. (The IATH site also contains many valuable archival works.)
6. 6. This ambition follows Bass (ongoing), who incites us that "What is needed, in part, are disciplinary scholars who are willing and able to cross boundaries with hypermedia design theory, pedagogical theory, and interface design, at least to the extent that material and medium can be creatively and rigorously made to interact".
7. 7. Hypertext is "a body or written or pictorial material interconnected in such a complex way that it could not conveniently be presented of represented on paper" which can grow indefinitely (Nelson, 2003, p. 144).
8. 8. According to Manovich (2001), there are two kinds of software objects which are complementary: data structures and algorithms which have a symbiotic relationship. "...a computer databse becomes a new metaphor that we use to conceptualise individual and collective cultural memory, a collection of documents or objects and other phenomena or experieces" (p. 214).
9. 9. The inclusion of more intext links would make the potential connections even wider.
10. 10. For example, doxagora.com by Watchful Babbler is currently tracking the machinations of Democrat and Republican presidential candidates, on a near daily basis.
11. 11. See Bush (2003) and Nelson (2003).
12. 12. Computer games have a level of instrumentality that more explorative texts like computer-based histories generally lack.
13. 13. According to The Shorter Oxford Dictionary (1987), one meaning of forensic is "medicine in its relation to law; medical jurisprudence".
14. 14. An example of the increasing use of a forensic approach to archeaology is the analysis of the corpse of the "iceman", who died 5200 years ago on the Italo-Austrian border (Beaumont, 2003, p. 10).
15. 15. Referred to by Sutton (2002), pages 130-135.
16. 16. This insight about the different ways in which a computer can be conceptualised is reflected less polemically in Murray's (2003) distinction between engineering and humanities.
17. 17. Indeed, the history of cyberculture itself is dominated by this trope according to Tofts (2003 p. 2).
18. 18. For the theory of possible worlds, see Kripke (1980), pages 16-20.
19. 19. No doubt the best examples of such media are yet to come: for example, a dynamic database-driven website in which operators can add material, something along the lines of Wikipedia, suggests possible directions.
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