Digital Culture

Poetry by Drone: Literature and the Digital Age

Poetry by Drone image

Photo credit: Dr Richard A. Carter

Micah MacKay
Twitter: @micahmackay

The digital age is upon us. Every day, our eyes flick from phone to computer to television screen. Technology is now ingrained into our society, permeating nearly every aspect of our existence, including our thoughts and how we express ourselves. So, how are literature and technology interacting in the digital age? To get a better sense of this I sat down with Dr Richard Carter, Associate Lecturer in Digital Culture at the University of York, to discuss his project, Waveform, which explores the relationship between technology and literary expression.

According to Carter, Waveform focuses on “how digital machines read the world”. To summarise it briefly, the project uses drones to take pictures of the landscape, recording the movement of waves. A rough outline of the edge of the wave is then determined and data points from that boundary line are used to combine a series of pre-programmed words creating what is, essentially, a poem. The words that comprise the glossary of the program come from a variety of literary sources pertaining to the subject matter (the sea). Consequently, by using drones in order to encapsulate the landscape, Carter draws together that which is both within and beyond human experience. Aspects of the visible landscape are combined with the analytical powers of the drone’s sensors to produce a literary reflection upon the gathered sensory data.

Carter emphasises that this process retains text as the “central experience but utilises some of the things that digital and multimedia [technologies] can bring to the table”, challenging our notions of “colour, shape and context and how we might interpret this”. The project arose from an interest in “the fact that digital technologies are material objects and exert a kind of agency, they do things without us prompting them.” Motioning to his window Carter goes onto state that the natural world is very similar, needing no human prompt and, as such, “technology is a wonderful connection point between the natural world and the human world”.

But if the program uses existing literary sources to produce its poetry, surely this is not an original response at all? As T.S. Eliot writes in Tradition and the Individual Talent, “no poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone”. Carter lingers on this a moment — “I’m very much a believer that the original is not an essence” he says, “it’s something that emerges, it’s something in terms of how different elements come together in different contexts, and contexts themselves may be the same old thing, but when they come together, that’s when you start to see something curious and interesting”.

Technology advances day by day, hour by hour, altering our perceptions and experience of the world. Waveform does exactly this — it demonstrates the compatibility of the human and the non-human, the natural and the manmade, and what can come from such interactions. Perhaps literature is starting to reflect upon, as Carter states, “the fact that we live in this world with all these non-human agents running around”.

For more about Waveform visit:


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