We Descend is a hypertext work by Bill Bly, which was published by Eastgate Systems in 1997 and made using Storyspace 1. Created to be run on a floppy disk, it can be experienced on any Macintosh computers using System 7 through MacOS9, though versions were also made available for Windows 95 up to WindowsXP. Bly has also continued this work in We Descend Vol. 2, a web-based work created with Tinderbox in 2011. The presentation of Volume 2 is different, with the addition of fully colored imagery and horizontal passages that utilize a scroll bar.
When Robert Coover published his essay “The End of Books” regarding hypertexts and the demise of printed books, Bly realized that this new platform was just what he needed to help him tell his complex tale. By converting his handwritten scrawls into hypertext, Bly could present his work as a large archive of written information. Keeping this structure in mind, Bly wrote the story around a scholar studying a researcher called Edgerus, whom the main character learns more about (among other things) as they search through written notes that had been collected and transmitted over the centuries. And as with many hypertexts, We Descend is not told as a linear storyline. Rather, it is chopped up into raw fragments of texts written by various authors in the narrative, leaving it up to the reader to piece together the story on their own. The work adds another layer of complexity by incorporating three bands of time, each one covering the age that an author existed. In this way, the work reflects how researchers go about their studies while also helping users visualize time.
Bill Bly created We Descend while keeping in mind the phrase “if this document is authentic.”. Essentially, he created the work to mirror the evolution of recorded events long past through the lens of a scholarly researcher. Bly raises the point that what is thought of as the truth changes over time as stories are passed on, forgotten, recovered, reorganized, destroyed, and then stitched back together again. It is then the duty of the scholar to uncover these lost truths and share them with the world.
When a reader begins to traverse the work, they are first presented with a main menu containing links to helpful resources. One of these link to what Bly calls the “inventory,” which is a list of notes categorized by their authors. These authors are listed in descending order, with the top being the most recent writer and the bottom as the most ancient.
Because of these multiple bands of time, Bly argued that the work is structured like an archaeological dig in the sense that as the reader goes deeper, older information is unearthed. This metaphor is expanded upon in Volume 2, where the lexia are organized in layered boxes with darkening shades that establish a sense of depth.
Rather than viewing the “inventory” list, the reader may choose to start the story from the beginning. If this is the case, they are presented with passages written by these authors one window at a time. These passages take advantage of the pop-up windows which are already built in to the Mac and PC computer systems. Each of these windows are simple in design, and only vary in size and passage length. When the reader presses Command + Option on the keyboard (which have been dubbed as the “tinkerbell keys” due to the magical results they produce), rectangles appear around the words within the passages that double as links to other windows. In this way, the reader can choose which information to look further into, or to keep up the metaphor, in which direction to “dig”. They may also navigate with the Arrow tool provided by holding Shift while double-clicking on a direction.
Over time, Bill Bly saw We Descend as a conversation about authenticity within the digital medium, where information must be validated before accepted as true. As a species, it is our nature to seek out this truth to aid our understanding of the world around us, but we must first uncover the layers that hide it.
We Descend is a work unmatched in its levels of complexity and thoughtfulness. As a result, it has captured the attention of scholars (such as Dene Grigar, Mark Bernstein, and Susana Tosca) who have written essays on the subject, and has been showcased at the Electronic Literature Organization’s media art show State of the Arts in 2002.
This entry was composed as a part of Professor Will Luers’ course, DTC 338, at Washington State University, Vancouver in March 2019. We include this information for organizational purposes.
“Authoring Electronic Literature- Bill Bly.” Content, Code, Process. http://narrabase.net/bill_bly.html. Accessed 10 March 2019.
“Bill Bly’s We Descend.” Pathfinders, http://scalar.usc.edu/works/pathfinders/bill-bly. Accessed 10 March 2019.
Girgar, Dene. “We All Descend.” Pathfinders, http://dtc-wsuv.org/wp/pathfinders/2014/02/09/we-all-descend/. Accessed 10 March 2019.