Urs Schreiber’s Java-based German Internet opus Das Epos der Maschine ("Machine Epic") epitomizes the control of the "machine" over its user both practically and (meta-) theoretically. As the title suggests, the text regards itself as a poem of epic dimensions, i.e. poetic narrative that acts as a symbol of an entire national or, as in the case of the Internet, virtual paradigm. In other words, Schreiber positions his work in the tradition of the great ethnic and religious epics (e.g. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Nibelungenlied and Milton’s Paradise Lost). By the same token, it follows in the tradition of concrete poetry, which critically and playfully reflects on language itself as well as its inextricable determination by the medium in which it appears. The Epos is a joint venture. Text and programming were done by Urs Schreiber, the graphics by Kai Jelinek and Cesare Wosko, the photographs by Claudia König, and the sound by Die with Dignity.
Thematically, the text deals with the processes and results of cyborgization between the (archetypal) machine and its (archetypal) user, whose "eyes were resting in the head section of the machine," and who remembers "in horror how all those human lives were literally drained away in order to build the machine, this particular one" (translation mine)—an unmistakable intertextual reference to H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. In an interview with Roberto Simanowski (2000) Schreiber summarizes Das Epos as follows:
"A machinaut sits inside his machine—a mysterious something, black and egg-shaped. Being the nucleus of his machine, he drifts through outer space, a foreign body in an otherwise perfect artefact. He drifts through diverse layers and incidental zones, indeed he errs through them. His only signpost is a black basalt stone the size of the head of a child, a product of filigrane craftsmanship, run through with infinitely meandering lines. He gazes into it to get a sense of what lies behind the whole thing and of where to navigate. At the same time, the authorial spirit of the reader floats through the convolutions of the machine, exploring the egg-shaped cabin and learning a lot wherever he looks closely. Soon he also finds the spaceborn radar, which shows him the past and future stages of his journey." (Translation mine)
The text operates via animated script, image and sound. Its key element is autonomously moving text, which appears, vanishes, expands, diminishes and wanders across a highly interactive user interface. It does so virtually of its own accord, as reader interaction controls textual performance only to a certain degree. At times, script melts with image, which conveys the major semiotic property of digital media, the shared underlying code. The visual experience occurs against the audio backdrop of the sound of an electric guitar, playing distorted sequences of recurring, monotonous, sinus curves, superimposed with a synthesized knocking, evoking the impression of being surrounded by heavy machines. The overall image is that of a quasi-gothic, electronic macrocosm, which, unlike science fiction and cyberpunk literature, does not endeavor to remediate First Life reality but rather to take the effects of linguistic, auditory, and visual symbolism to an extreme. On the whole, various semiotic levels are juxtaposed in an indexical fashion, partly complementing and representing each other, partly conveying independent aspects of meaning.
Although the cursor triggers certain mechanisms and developments in the presentation of text, it also activates operations that are out of the reader’s control. So it happens that, upon mouseclick, diverse text sequences are opened, while in a different place on the same screen, another script line appears, meanders, and disappears before the eyes of the bewildered perceiver. The overall impression is that of a text-based dream, of subconscious currents, incoherent, illogical, and arbitrarily conjoined. Text is presented in a state of flux, and the author challenges the reader's aesthetic nerve by going beyond conventional enlightenment expectations of visual harmony, musical consonance and cognitive logic.
This entry has been adapted from Ensslin, A. (2007) Canonizing Hypertext: Explorations and Constructions. London: Continuum, pp. 109-111.