Reflections on the Digital World (3): How Cryptography challenged the theory of electronic literature

One fundamental problem faced by the Digital World is the security issue of data transportation. When we are entering password into a website, how can we be sure that no one else will see the password? When we are discussing sensitive business decisions with our partners online, how can we make sure that our conversation hasn’t been wiretapped and intentionally distorted by our enemies? When we’re making online transactions, how do we know that our money will go to the right place? To make sure every of these procedure works safely, cryptologists have designed all kinds of cryptosystems with which online data transmissions can be securely encrypted, and so that only entities that are authorized to share the data can understand what the data actually means.

Example of an RSA crytosystem featuring asymmetric keys

We have encountered tons of digital literature examples in the Digital World and have analyzed them in a theoretical way. However, when dealing with encrypted information, we cannot simply apply those rules in our analysis. Here, the fundamental question is “can encrypted literal works be considered as digital literature?” If they can, then how do we interpret their meaninglessness? Or in the first place, are they meaningful or meaningless? Actually, to the entities who know the key to the cryptosystem, the information are necessarily meaningful—its not different from an unencrypted plaintext digital literature; however, to those who do not know the decryption key, the information can be virtually meaningless. As we can see, same digital text generates contrastly different significance to different entities, and this discrepancy has not been addressed by any theoretical framework we’ve encountered so far. The procedural, encyclopedic, participatory and even spatial characteristics of digital space are only apparent to the authorized entities who know the key. For those unauthorized entities who do not know the key, the encrypted digital space only looks like some random generated data and therefore no such characteristics as described by Janet Murray can be discovered (probably except for spatial, because random and meaningless data can be trivially filled in a “spatial place”).


The small ratio between the number of authorized parties and that of unauthorized parties makes this issue even more important. Usually, only very limited amount of parties are authorized to understand some certain encrypted digital information. However, in most of such cases, there would be unlimited number of unauthorized parties (entities that are not related to the digital activity). This means that most of the entities, when dealing with some encrypted information, will find it meaningless. If existing theoretical frameworks can only be applied to the minority, then we will need some new frameworks, or at least some amendment over the existing frameworks to properly address this issue. For example, it might be useful to add that “Janet Murray’s Four Affordances only apply to unencrypted plaintext digital world.”



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