Long Blog Post #2: Deep Surface

The electronic literature project that I chose to explore is Deep Surface. The project promptly caught my eye while I was skimming through the online Electronic Literature Collection, as it has a delicate and evoking cover picture— a young woman and a young man standing naked in deep water, both staring thoughtfully into the distance. We only get to see their backs and thus cannot tell the expression on their faces, the mysterious sense of which further rouses my curiosity for discovering the story.

After conducting some research using Google, I found that the project was written by a professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Stuart Moulthrop, who is specifically interested in the way hypertext works. Consequently, Deep Surface manages to exploit the functions of hypertext as well as exploring the differences between hypertext and traditional plain text. As Moulthrop claims in the “About the Work” section related to the project, the story is supposed to be about “a strange romance between a reading machine and a free-diving simulator”, where “literature at crush depth” and “hypertext gets wet”. While the introduction might sound weird and confusing, the project itself turns out to be fun and easy to manipulate after a careful read-through of instructions and several tryouts.

From a technical perspective, the project is designed as an interactive game that reproduces the process of diving. When you first get on the project page, you will see a square of greenish blue hear the sound of sea, indicating it being a simulation of water. On the right side top of the square is your “life indicator”, a blue circle that will change color if you drag it to the lower level for a period time. The level of the indicator decides the text that is displayed in the square, so the deeper you “dive” into, the more things you get to read. Nevertheless, if you spend too much time at the lower level and “run out of air”, the indicator will gradually turn into red, suggesting that you need to stop reading and go back up to the “surface”. The project/game will automatically pull you “up to the surface” the first few times you try, but after a while you will have to keep an eye on your indicator yourself—you will “die” if you stay too long in the bottom part and will have to start all over again. Meanwhile, a female robot voice will serve as your guide, where it will constantly warn you at the beginning stage that you are running out of air, as well as declare your “death” after failing an attempt. The project/game also calculates score for your each “dive”, where the score will go up as you “dive” deeper and read more different texts. You also get a picture after each “death”, which is also the cover picture that caught my eye, but the picture can be somehow different depending on your score. Below are four different illustrations I got after trying a couple of times, where it is clear that a higher score gives you more details in the picture:

Screen shot 2014-04-30 at 11.32.35 PM

(Scored around 30, only blurred shadows of the two figures)

Screen shot 2014-04-30 at 11.24.34 PM

(Scored around 80, a little below the shoulder)

Screen shot 2014-04-30 at 12.49.22 PM

(Scored around 120, entire upper body in a dark hue)

Screen shot 2014-04-30 at 12.58.11 PM

(Scored around 400, entire upper body with bright color)

Regarding the content of the texts, it was somehow hard for me to figure out the relationship between the texts from different levels. The contents at the first level, namely, the shallowest part of “water”, seem to consist of random excerpts from the news. For instance, there is news on announcements from NASA scientists, some kidney transplantation surgery, and discovery of a newly found creature. Those in the lower levels, namely, “deeper water”, look more like fragments from some mystery and love fictions. Unfortunately, because of the limited time you get to stay in the lower level, I hardly got to finish any complete paragraphs or even sentences, and thus could not tell what those stories are about or whether their contents are important. The lowest level, also the “deepest of water”, contains a creepy picture of a man wearing glasses, with a male robot voice talking about topics related to American politics. In general, the “deeper” you “dive” into, the more confusing and disturbing the texts get to be.

Multhrop claimed that the project was inspired by a 2004 report called “Reading at Risk”, where he intended to use it as a way to test whether people really understand the risks of reading. As far as my experience went, I think Multhrop did a decent job, as the possibility of “drowning” really urges you to keep keen caution on the time while reading through the texts, where the sense of intensity would otherwise be impossible to achieve during traditional print reading. Nevertheless, the ideas that the project is trying to convey appear somehow as contradictory to me. On one hand, the texts are fluid like water, which makes it tough for readers to grasp their meanings. Such effect seems to suggest that more information does not necessarily empower the readers with more knowledge; yet on the other hand, the picture in the end (which will display more details as you read more text) seems to be implying that further exploration will allow you access to a “final truth”. Regardless of the ambiguity, I believe the project/game is worth readers’ time and still has a lot for readers to explore.


4 thoughts on “Long Blog Post #2: Deep Surface”

  1. While I understand the concept of the project and the engaging factors of the game-like process, I struggle to see how it is literature.

    1. I do see your struggles, but here I would like to consider it literature. On one hand, the project does have some level of creativity and originality in it, as Moulthrop did make the recordings himself and had people draw the pictures. Also, this project does inspire you to some extent, or at least it kind of pushes me to think about the meaning and effect of excessive information. It is true that the information appears really unorganized and confusing, but honestly speaking, aren’t some well-known traditional literature works also look frustrating at the beginning? I remember when I read Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury for the first time, I had no idea what the story is trying to tell, and probably will never be able to understand it without the help of Sparknotes. Nevertheless, once I grasped the idea of the novel, I found myself deeply impressed by the story, and till today it is still one of my favorite books. In this sense, maybe this project will one day turn out just as profound as The Sound and the Fury, if we get to interpret it in the right way?

  2. I agree with Emmanuel in that this piece is not very clearly “literature” to me. While I can see the literature aspect, being a student of New Media, I can actually see this being both an art piece in the New Media realm, as well as a literature piece. “Deep Surface” could be commenting on what literature is and how significantly the read word can impact us, but that does not necessarily mean that the piece itself is literature. I don’t believe that this piece can be considered literature simply because it is confusing and enigmatic, and so are other works. The question is the method in which Moulthrop has approached the subject. Why are the images of the people necessary at all? Why can’t it be a description of them rather than the rendered 3d form? I enjoy the interactivity and the urgency and anxiety that comes with needing to pull yourself back up for air, but it is clear that the piece relies greatly on the finishing image that comes as a result of your points.
    Another factor that comes with this piece is that it blatantly attempts to distract you with all the urgency. This is so unlike traditional literature because one could read across the page and the only distraction is what surrounds you physically. The fact that the piece is playing us in a much more physical sense demonstrates an impact very similar to one resulting from art work. Instead of letting us read and coming to an understanding ourselves, we are actually engaging with the piece in a way that doesn’t allow the goal of the work to be as clear. In other words, we don’t read it and then understand it; we have to try it, invest in it, replay it, lose the game, win the game, note differences… It makes you do so much more work!
    This piece was a great find and very intriguing to say the least. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I think this is a great post, Joan. Deep Surface is almost like a game, and I think it is Buddhism embodied in digital literature. The name itself, “deep surface,” is Yin and Yang: depth is to the yin as surface-level is to the yang. The homepage is a very calming image: ocean blues and soothing greys forming two ocean surfaces at different altitudes, separated by the height of the sky. Perhaps there is a gap as wide as the sky as high between what one person and another see as the surface level of things. Perhaps it is not even the sky between the ocean surfaces, but water. Perhaps a certain level below the surface of the sea, there is another ocean surface. The name of this work unifies elements that are to each other as yin and yang – and that define each other. Without a notion of depth or height, how can one conceive of a surface level? A surface level occupies only one altitude, one particular horizontal rung on a ladder; a region with height or depth is a continuum of altitudes or ladder rungs. Or without a surface level, how can one conceive of height or depth? Height or depth is a distance between two surface levels. Depth and surface define each other, just as do Yin and Yang.
    This game is fun to play; one dives down to read tantalizingly brief, random, and catching blurbs – for instance, “somewhere disturbingly close at hand, something began to scream like an offended librarian.” It is fun to read these, but one cannot stare too long. One must click the mouse appropriately so as to return to the ocean surface, where the sounds of the ocean – which are almost in synchrony with a person’s breath rate – and oxygenated air restore the reader’s capability to dive down into the depths of Stuart Moulthrop’s clever thoughts. If one flies too close to the sun and drowns, the death screen is a naked man and a naked woman standing waist-deep in the ocean, looking out into the horizon of space and time. Man and woman, yin and yang, continue the balance of life and death; after death, life is restored through man and woman, yin and yang. In introduction of the game, a robotic female voice says, “If you run out of air, you will return automatically to the top layer.” The cycle will go on; there is rebirth out of death.
    Deep Surface is Yin and Yang embodied in digital literature.

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