Narrative Potentials of the Digital Loop

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Although Manovich, in his 2002 The Language of New Media, speculated about the digital loop’s future as a narrative element within database culture, the singular loop remains a mostly non-narrative, highly expressive form that thrives in a network of scarce attention. The gif animation, the looped Instagram video or cinemagraph are forms that capture moments and montage effects. They are images of change with little narrative development. A digital animated loop is made from a simple instruction to link the end of an image sequence back to its beginning. In a computer system, the loop is simply an efficient, cost-effective method to repeat an action. Significantly, there is no labor in this return to origins, no "rewind." In digital representations of time and space, every point is virtually next to any other point. While a loop may certainly have a beginning and an end, the seamless cycle introduces a perceptual novelty: an image of the infinite. The computational loop, a central principle in programming, can be applied to any digital media (scripted event, text display, animation, audio or video) of any length and in any combination with other loops. In its long form, a loop can repeat a linear program of immersive media. As a very short form, the loop compacts information into a sign that gestures toward narrative. A loop that calls attention to itself, that is in the foreground of a user's experience, puts a frame around temporal sequence, holds it up for inspection rather than narrative immersion.

Loops in assemblage with other loops, however, offers a new picture of time. The gaps between different scales, speeds and lengths of time, produces a total picture that is generative, fractal, recursive–and potentially narrative. Gaps in a conventional narrative, that come from the linear sequencing and montage of discrete elements, produce the illusion of a continuous, unchangeable, story-world. But gaps between loops in hypertext, generative and database structures, so prevalent in electronic literature and digital art, do seem at odds with traditional narration and immersion–unless we think in new ways about narrative’s role in the description of experience. If beginnings and endings are multiple, colliding in a collage of temporal variability, what kind of experience is being narrated? What is linearity's relation to the cyclical? What insights about thought, experience, time and event does the digital loop offer as an expressive element? Drawing on examples of loops in electronic literature past and present, this paper will explore how loops of digital media, along with scripted loops, offers new ways of describing contemporary networked experience.
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