Writing competition forges link between data and literature

Article dated: 23 February 2011

When the UK Data Archive announced the Born Digital writing competition last year, many scratched their heads. But when the winners were announced recently, their writings revealed the true creativity behind the idea.

The inspiration came out of a dinnertime conversation between Archive Director Matthew Woollard and the writer Marina Warner, a professor of literature at the University of Essex.

"Something is 'born digital' when it originates inside a computer", Woollard explained at the awards reception on 25 January. "As an expert in preserving digital data, this is an important idea, as it's very difficult to look after stuff – data – when it's inside a computer." He compared it to writing on a piece of paper. "The paper is just the carrier, something that's relatively easy to preserve – but the writing is the valuable data that can be easily lost along the way."

Warner was intrigued by the concept. "Before that evening, I thought 'born digital' was just a poetic phrase", she said. "But it then occurred to me that so much of literature has been informed by science." The two agreed to host a competition to see what creativity could be unleashed by staff and student writers who also ponder the philosophical issues of the idea.


The winners. (l-r) Jak Peake, Oliver King, David Batho, Sharmila Woollam
Photo © Gary Eason

The competition's first prize went to University staffer Sharmila Woollam for 'The Recording Angel', a short story that ponders nano-robotic engineering as a way to preserve life in the same way that digital audio recording preserves the sound of live music.

Second prize went to Oliver King, a postgraduate literature student, for his short story 'Girl in a Cat Shirt'. Third prize went to philosophy postgraduate student David Batho for 'Transcript', a play that portrays a digital recording of a live lecture exploring the subject of originals and copies. And another literature student, Jak Peake, walked away with an honourable mention for his work, 'Born Again'.

Discussions are now underway for a possible future competition. Details will be announced later.