One Down

I had to go ahead and turn in a design proposal pertaining to adapting rhetorical heuristics into three dimensional multi-user computer environments tonight. I should feel relieved that I’ve finally let the thing go, but ultimately I feel pretty badly about it. I’ve already presented the concept to the programmers last week. They seemed to like it—and more importantly, the technology is available to do it within their current alpha state.

The thing that makes me sad is that I only just now figured out why a 3D environment might be a good thing for writers; the answer came from completely unrelated research into Walter Benjamin. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” Benjamin argues that new media (in his example, film) would profit from paying attention to architecture.

Buildings, according to Benjamin, are apprehended in a state of distraction—they do not rely on steady concentration to make sense of what they are all about. Aside from an architectural critic who might ponder them for hours, normal people don’t. They navigate buildings through habit. Benjamin saw film, with its emphasis on shock and distraction, to be a possible instrument for changing people’s habits—learning not in spite of a lack of concentration, but because of it. Apprehension through distraction. Buildings do not require, and seldom reward, sustained concentration.

Art, in Benjamin’s view, is apprehended primarily through concentration. I would say the same of writing in general. The confusing 3D interface does not seem a useful tool for someone concentrating on producing coherent writing. However, the set of relationships revealed through the distracting projection of the same words or concepts into three-dimensional space might be pedagogically effective for visualizing new relationships in a state of distraction. Like games, a 3D writing interface might promote entirely new habits. A 2D writing interface, however, remains essential as a method of concentrating attention.

Of course, this thought was too ill-formed to include in my final submission. I doubt that the programmers would have cared that much about it anyway. But I do. Adorno and most of Benjamin’s compatriots wrote at length against his proposed “learning through distraction.” They felt any dilution of concentration was a bad thing. I’m not so sure.

3 thoughts on “One Down”

  1. I’m hoping to attend a summer seminar with DeLuca and Cara Finnegan; I remember your entry well. I keep meaning to write something about it.
    Looking into DeLuca, the connection makes sense. He’s got some published work on the Frankfurt School.

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