Homo Ludens and the Electronic Text [Book Excerpt]

Homo Ludens, or man the Player is the species, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, argues is as significant as Homo Faber (Man the Maker) and Homo Sapiens (The Reasonable Man).

Written in 1938, Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens discusses the importance of the play as an element and manifestation of culture, with, in and through which civilization unfolds. When it comes to language, Homo Ludens is “playing with the wondrous nominative faculty”

Take language, for instance – that first and supreme instrument which man shapes in order to communicate, to teach, to command. Language allows him to distinguish, to establish, to state things; in short, to name then and by naming them to raise them into the domain of the spirit. In the making of speech and language the spirit is continually “sparking” between matter and mind, as it were, playing with the wondrous nominative faculty. Behind every abstract expression there lie the boldest of metaphors, and every metaphor is a play upon words.

cit. Huizinga, J. (1949). Homo ludens. London, Boston and Henley, Routledge & Kegan Paul [available as a scanned copy here: http://art.yale.edu/file_columns/0000/1474/homo_ludens_johan_huizinga_routledge_1949_.pdf]


The reasons I bring up the concept of  Homo Ludens are two.

First, the concept of Homo Ludens helps us see text and writing on the web as a tool for experimenting while collaborating, for sense-making through unseen before interactive activities that  give us out-worldly rich opportunity as both readers and writers to play (in the sense of “sparking between mind and matter”) with language, being and doing.

Second, because of the bird’s eye view we gain when thinking through writing and computers from the perspective of Man the Player. It is then that we see our relationship with  the analytical and presentational powers of computers intricately and tightly connected to the way we use (and play with) language and meaning to synthesize and reimagine ways of denoting and evoking concepts. The play we engage in with the written word on the web and the interactivity of text are not only unimaginable creativity that the screen or the electronic device brings us but are also an invitation for play and interaction with the way we imagine, think and do things

An Electronic Text for Interplays of All Kinds

Seeing text on the Web as an object we tinker with to find new ways of conveying information and exchanging knowledge is revealing.

Saved from the tyranny of hierarchy and print, liberated to fly and adapt or bend according to the recipient’s mind, computer-mediated text is  a complex creature. It might well be seen as a new medium, enjoying greater versatility and nimbleness than any other of his predecessors (oral texts, manuscripts, print text). To get back to Ted Nelson and his vision for the computer:

The computer as a meta-medium – allowing the delivery of all sorts of media, in a new theatre of the mind, impacts the way we think.

Writing in an interconnected, real-time, digital environment, we use one of our best “technology” to conserve and transfer knowledge. We also explore the limits of language and words playing with this complex creature – the text on the web. It’s complexity stems from the multiple inherited features, functions and forms, blended with new, native to the digital environment manifestations and goals.

Electronic and connected, text has the potential to enter endless connections, combinations and rearrangements.Writing our texts on the digital surface of a hyperconnected cyberspace, we draw massive circles of thought forms… Click To Tweet

And these are not just spaces for dialogues but opportunities, at a scale, to bring more voices and perspectives to any experience of sense-making.

Internet memes included…

“Scroll Down! We need to go Up” [An Interlude]

Before we go on to the second conceptual part of this essay to see more of what Man the Player and the inherent dynamics of texts and the constantly moving lava of the electronic words have in store for us, let’s look at an internet meme – that phenomenon of an idea, usually framed with a visual, that spreading rapidly from person to person across the Web.“Scroll down, we need to go up” read the text  of a meme, written over  on a visual with an a bunch of people stuck in an elevator. Seeing this  my Facebook stream I  imagined being an archeologist and having to understand this text without having the full  context it was living in. What would down and up mean? Who are these people? What is the purpose of the writing and what realia is it dependent on?

keep scrolling from r/funny

To find an answer and gather the information I needed for the proper perception of the text I would have needed to understand the very ingredient of electronic text and even of content on the Web in general and that was – interactivity and the fluidity of the environment language and the written word unfold.

Most of the meaning this meme carried revealed itself in the space where interaction happened. And this is yet another perpective to keep in mind hen thinking about information. It is the engagement with that text and the context it stood it when understanding happens. As Frode Hegland put it in his slides about Interactivity:

We need to be able to interact with the information in more efficient ways, more liquid ways, to increase our understanding.

Ref. The Future of Text, Frode Hegland interactivity

The Book of Sand by Borges and the Inherent Fluidity of Text

Interactivity allows text to be more of what it essentially is – a living ecosystem of constant signals exchange,  an interplay of perspectives, a continuous dialogue between ideas and paradigms, and thought forms. It allows it to be what Borges touches in his short story – The Sand Book, namely, the terribly infinite.

On the Web and with an electronic text all is terribly infinite and ripe with opportunities to connect: to another text, to another self, to another person, to yet another device or dataset.

On the Web and with an electronic text all is terribly infinite and ripe with opportunities to connect: to another text, to another self, to another person, to yet another device or dataset. Click To Tweet

This was an excerpt of my essay called Homo Ludens and the Electronic Text, part of my book The Brave New Text.


The featured image of this post is Juan Miro’s “Personajes , pájaros , estrellas”, used in one of the editions of Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens

Homo Ludens and the Electronic Text [Book Excerpt]

by Teodora Petkova time to read: 4 min