Judy Malloy: Notes on the Creation of Uncle Roger

Judy Malloy, artists books that were keyed by graphic images and/or
text: The Woodpile, (1979) and Hearst Strip, (1980).
The photo was taken by Bruce Handelsman for a 1980 exhibition at the
Berkeley Art Center and also used in Judy Malloy, "Stories, Information
as an Artists Material", Whole Earth Review,
Winter, 1987, pp. 48-49; and in Judy Malloy, "Uncle Roger,
an Online Narrabase", Leonardo 24:2, 1991
, pp.195-202.

In the spring of 1986, I was invited by my friend, video and performance art curator Carl Loeffler, to go online and write on the seminal Art Com Electronic Network (ACEN) on The WELL where -- with a focus on electronic publishing for experimental art and literature -- Carl and Fred Truck were setting up an online system that would include discussions, such as "Software as Art", and ACEN Datanet, an early online publication that would soon feature actual works of art, including works by John Cage, Jim Rosenberg and my own Uncle Roger.

Once in a while in a lifetime, everything comes together. In 1986, it was my experience in database programming, the idea I had been working on since 1977 of using molecular narrative units to create nonsequential narrative, the availability of personal computers that would make what I had been trying to do with "card catalog" artists books more feasible, and the arrival of ACEN, a place to create, publish and discuss the work.

In the summer of 1986, I began writing Uncle Roger. Beginning on December 1, 1986, I began telling File I of Uncle Roger, A Party In Woodside by co-opting (with permission) an entire discussion system topic on ACEN on The WELL. Every time I logged on, I posted a few lexias. (including a keyword field) It was a somewhat like creating a narrative on Twitter.

In 1987, for ACEN Datanet, I programmed Uncle Roger with UNIX Shell scripts, and it actually ran online as a live hypertextual work, Concurrently, from 1987-1988, I created a floppy disk version on Uncle Roger which I programmed in BASIC. The first World Wide Web version was created in 1995, in the early years of the Web.

The writing of Uncle Roger was influenced by the experimental artists books I had been creating; by the narratives that I performed in the early 80's -- using live spoken word accompanied by slides that were tableau photographs of characters, who appeared and reappeared on the slide screen -- and by scene-based Renaissance comedy.

In later works. I wrote hypertextual lexias differently, in its name was Penelope, for instance, creating with words the filmic photographic imagery developed in the "card catalogs". Yet twenty-five years after it was first told online on Art Com Electronic Network on The WELL, Uncle Roger remains redolent of the pop conceptual progression of imagery in my early 80's performance art and of the vibrant early online network in which it was produced.

A Party in Woodside

As Uncle Roger begins, The narrator, a young woman named Jenny, has come to California from the East Coast as a babysitter for the family of Tom Broadthrow, who owns semiconductor-related industries both on route 128 outside of Boston and in Silicon Valley, California. It is the mid seventies in the little-documented era before the advent of Internet biz, when the chip industry ruled The Valley, and there was intense competition over who could make the fastest chip. The Broadthrow family live in Woodside, a small town in a wooded area South of San Francisco where other wealthy Silicon Valley CEOs also live.

Several threads -- a love story; the California chip culture; contrasts between the East and West coasts; and the activities of Jenny's Uncle Roger, an eccentric semiconductor market analyst -- weave in and out of the narrative.

In A Party in Woodside, during the course of a dream-laced night after, Jenny remembers a party at the Broadthrow's house. Because nights of insomnia often follow unsettling experiences -- and replay them as dream and memory fragments -- such long and sleepless nights can approximate nonlinear narratives.

The party, as parties usually are, is experienced in fragmented scenes. As at any party, the reader may see some occurrences but not others; may meet some of the people but not others. As at any big party, neither the narrator, nor the reader understands every observed action. Yet as the reader explores the narrative, an individual picture of the party emerges.

The original A Party in Woodside was a database of 75 lexias which was searched by keywords, resulting in chains of links -- ie, the reader followed a link chain of lexias about "Uncle Roger" or any other phrase of his or her choice. It was flexible -- for instance, the Boolean operator "and" was incorporated so that combinations of links could be searched -- ie "Jenny" and "Uncle Roger". And it was elegant in an historic Apple II and early online systems sense.

The instructions included in the packaging of the Apple II version of A Party in Woodside.
Produced in 1987 by Judy Malloy, using Apple BASIC, and distributed via the Art Com Catalog

To read A Party in Woodside on the World Wide Web, follow the links in whatever way you choose.

After you select a link from the menu, you can continue to follow that link through the party by selecting it from the links below the narrative. Eventually all of the lexias so-linked will be read, and the path either returns to the beginning or to somewhere on the same link path. And there is always an option to return to the original menu by clicking on "Uncle Roger" at the bottom of the screen and then selecting A Party in Woodside. For the most part, this approximates the original version. But note that in the web version, all of the minor characters are not listed on the entry menu; they exist in the links at the bottom of certain pages, often appearing in the form of a short loop that simulates repetitive memory of unexplained or disturbing incidents.

Or, to experience the party in a more diffuse World Wide Web fashion, once you have begun, you can select any link at any time in the reading process.

Clicking on the graphic icon, will follow a trail through the party in the order that each lexia was written. (which is not necessarily sequential)

The Blue Notebook

In Silicon Valley, things do not happen simply and clearly. In File 2 of Uncle Roger, The Blue Notebook, parallel yet intertwining narratives advance the story in sometimes conflicting ways -- reflecting the increasing complexity of Jenny's life.

The story is framed by a formal birthday party for Tom Broadthrow in an elegant hotel dining room. The party is punctuated by an encounter with Uncle Roger in an unlikely place. And while Jenny sits at the banquet table, other narrative threads -- a car trip with an old lover, a visit to a semiconductor house in San Jose -- come and go in her mind. Parts of the story are taken from Jenny's notebook where reality is difficult to separate from fiction and dream. As Jenny herself says: "The things I wrote in the blue notebook didn't happen in exactly the way I wrote them."

Based on the interface for A Party in Woodside, the original versions (UNIX Shell scripts; BASIC) were created with a database of lexias which was searched by keywords, resulting in chains of links -- ie, the reader followed a link chain of lexias about "Uncle Roger" or any other person or phrase of his or her choice,

But in 1995 when the World Wide Web version of Uncle Roger was first created, I wanted to take advantage of the visual aspects of Web that were unavailable in the text-based online UNIX system where Uncle Roger was first created. Thus -- based on the icons that I used to key narrative in early Card Catalogs (illustrated at the beginning of these notes) -- the web version visualizes the links as a choice of graphic icons.

To read the story, the reader chooses an icon and clicks on it to produce another lexia. Continuing to click on the same graphic image approximates the trail that the reader followed by selecting keywords in the original version.


Terminals was written shortly after the time when computers had replaced typewriters in corporate offices. In this File, the narrator, Jenny, has left the Broadthrow family and started working for a market research firm in San Francisco. As she sits at in front of her computer at a desk in large room in an office building, memories of a Christmas party in Woodside, time spent with Jeff, a trip back East for the holidays; and other things that happened in the last month, come and go in her mind at random.

In the original telling of the story, a random display of lexias simulated the diffuse, unsettled quality of the narrator's changing life, where the reader had no idea of what would happen next, and in the end, an unpredictable relative was the deus ex machina.

The instructions for Terminals included in the packaging of the complete Apple II version of Uncle Roger.
Produced in 1988 by Judy Malloy, using Apple BASIC, and distributed via the Art Com Catalog

In the web version of Terminals, the random number generator (technically a pseudo-random number generator) used in the original version is simulated by a set of unlabeled computer keys. To read the story, click on any key. The story can also be paged through (approximately in the order it was written which was not entirely sequential) by clicking on the "typewriter bar" at the bottom of the screen.

Twenty-five years later, Uncle Roger lives on in the World Wide Web version, which utilizes the display clarity, the inherent hypertextual nature of HTML, and the ability to reach wide audiences that the World Wide Web has made possible for web-based works of hypertext fiction.

The original programs and the 1987 and 1988 versions of the packaged software as well as printouts from "runs" of the work are available in the Duke University Library at:

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These notes on Uncle Roger were last updated on March 30, 2012.