It’s hard to remember sometimes that I actually have my own life, my own interests outside of sitting in hospitals and nursing homes—the activity that has dominated the last month for me. I had conferences with students this week and it felt good to get back to being a different sort of care provider. Maybe it’s just that I’m in a generous mood, but the professional and technical writing class I’ve had this semester has been one of the best of my career. People are engaged and involved for the most part, and have picked projects that have some relevance to their career paths. That always makes a difference. Although Krista has taught a unit for the past month so that I could tend to my mother, I still think of them as my class.
One thing that has really made this class click is the use of more technology—I used google docs for the first time with great success, and Krista has taught the instructions module using wikis. I am a firm believer in technology in the classroom, and this has been effective both as a way of presenting material and concepts, but also in just plain getting the job done. Being separated by several states has not made me lose touch with the class at all. It may have its dark side, but I really do think that technology is mostly good.
In the shower this morning, it dawned on me that at the core I really believe that technology has the ability to tell us more about the world. The danger, ultimately, though is losing sight of the world part of that equation. Fantasy has its uses, but in the end, reality is what matters.
I’m still working through thoughts about the relationship between visual art and narrative, but I want to record some observations about the present and future of interfaces, music, and paintings occasioned by Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings (now in its second edition) and an Edward Hopper retrospective at the National Gallery of Art. Oddly enough, both involve music—and unusual interfaces. But the central concerns of these two exhibitions are different, as is the web presence used to market them. I’ve written briefly about Eno before, but the Hopper thing is relatively new to me.
To begin, Brian Eno is alive. He can speak for himself, and does so on YouTube, in galleries, and even in Second Life. Hopper’s dead. He won’t be getting any more paychecks from his work. Eno’s monetization scheme is pretty traditional, i.e. limited editions:
My copy came from the first edition (just barely, from the numbers on the case). The normal concept of a “limited” edition is that the price is driven by scarcity—but Eno does not use any sort of DRM to keep you from installing the software on multiple computers. The success of the concept (into a second edition) allows him to improve or alter the software for newer machines, to expand the book (I can’t tell for sure, but the Amazon page suggests that the second edition is better than the first) and generally to surpass the original. Not to mention the fact that the software is meant to generate a nearly unlimited number of original works of art (hence the title, of course). Why the heck is the software’s package attached to the ploy of a “limited” edition? Seems absolutely the conceptual opposite of the package’s contents.
. . .Why does this matter? Ideally, it wouldn’t if web media were merely a new platform for distributing the same content found elsewhere. However, more and more of this audio and video is being provided as web-only content: “webisodes” of popular programs, exclusive webcasts of news broadcasts and reports, even traditional newspapers are getting into the multi-media game on-line. There is also new media and citizen journalism sites such as The Daily Mole, TheUpTake, and even YouTube, which promise to cover stories and perspectives that have been neglected or ignored by traditional media outlets in the past.
While the frustration of not being provided similar options to participate in and enjoy the same entertainment and cultural opportunities is significant, it is the potential lack of accessibility to the expanding news and information sources that concerns me the most, as that impacts the ability of the deaf and hard of hearing to be informed citizens on an equal footing with others. This a problem that I fear will only get worse if, as often predicted, we are in the midst of a paradigm shift away from traditional print and broadcast to the internet.
*It is shameful that the hearing impaired are denied the pleasure of the Daily Mole’s weatherman:
When I first taught first year writing in Arkansas, I took a cue from my literature background and required the students to write a bibliographic essay in order to establish the distinction between research and opinion. I expressly forbade offering excessive opinion about their sources; I wanted them to place the sources into some relationship with one another. The results were mixed. I got a lot of opinions.
I changed my approach just a bit this time. One of my grad instructors in Minnesota last year required an annotated bibliography and I was confused—I wrote a bibliographic essay instead, and was forced to revise it to fit the alternate form. It dawned on me that an annotated bibliography is a completely different animal that is noticeably easier to write than a bibliographic essay. No relationships are required; an annotated bibliography is simply a string of summaries. When we organize things, opinions seem to be the requisite glue to hold things together. I could more easily eliminate the opinions by eliminating the creative possibilities inherent in structure.
Railway journeys and tabloid newspapers have not had the dire effects that were predicted. Even the most radically transformative technologies have not had the impact we might have expected. The dramatic electronification of everyday life that has taken place over the last few decades has not fundamentally altered the way we relate to each other. Love, jealousy, kindness, anxiety, hatred, ambition, bitterness, joy etc, still seem to have a remarkable family resemblance to the emotions people had in the 1930s. The low-grade bitchiness of office politics may be conducted more efficiently by email, but its essential character hasn’t changed. Teenagers communicating by mobile phones and texts and chat rooms and webcams still seem more like teenagers than nodes in an electronic network. I have to admit a little concern at what we might call the e-ttenuation of life, whereby people find it increasingly difficulty to be here now rather than dissipating themselves into an endless electronic elsewhere; but inner absence and wool-gathering is not entirely new, even if it is now electronically orchestrated. It just becomes more publicly visible. What’s more, there is something reassuring about electronic technology: because it is widely and cheaply available and because it is so smart, it allows us to be dumb, and so compresses the differences between people.
I’ve grown to really enjoy museums in the last few years. As a kid, I visited a place in Bakersfield called “Pioneer Village” which was a weird mélange of natural history and historic site—a complex of buildings and a structure filled with dioramas. When I became a teenager, the “art” museum was my favorite—you had to go to Los Angeles to find those. Now, I’ll stop into any place that claims to offer an interesting viewing experience.
During this last trip, we stopped at several places that made me think heavily about the path one takes through a museum space. Usually, I’ve thought of these places as somewhat “random access” because I seldom march in a line, even when a trail is clearly marked. But after visiting the Henry Ford Estate where the only option was a guided tour, my opinion began to change. My preference now favors a semi-structured theatrical approach. After visiting the Mohammed Ali Center where a visitor is guided along uniquely loose pathway towards an overwhelmingly affirmative message, conventional sites such as the Country Music Museum and Hall of Fame in Nashville seem positively lame. At the most basic level, the paths of the Country Music Museum and the Ali Center are similar—a visitor ascends to the top of the building and works their way down. But in practice, the journey to the top couldn’t be more different.
First it was tubes, now it’s pipes. I was watching a video from the New Media and Social Memory conference and feel as perplexed as ever about “folksonomies.” It seems natural that pipes (which obviously have walls as a matter of course) would reemerge as a useful construct to deal with the multiple types and pathways of information on the net. I think the difficulty of this conceptualization is the huge gap between thinking of pipes as vectors (a direction which information can be made to follow) and as physical “pipes” subject to the limitations of physicality—notions such as “bandwidth.” To consider a pipe without thinking of some limitations (as half-baked as Ted Stevens argument was) means that the meaning of “pipe” is akin to the concept of “vector” or “path” instead. I suppose I’d be much happier if Yahoo elected to call their approach “pathways” rather than pipes. But vector is really best of all, because a vector passing through any information cloud is sure to encounter information that has been mislabeled, or ultimately doesn’t fit. It’s the byproduct of aiming to universalize information.
As I was researching, trying to remember what was different about the programming concept of “pipe” and the physical one, I was sucked into a weird time loop. I haven’t programmed anything in decades—I started working with the 6502 processor in the early 1980s and then stopped completely about 1986. The 6502 is credited as having the first “instruction pipe,” but it dawned on me reading the wikipedia entry that it was actually more of a cache holding a single instruction ready to go. The Yahoo effort, and Apple’s automator (another “pipe” technology) are great if you already know what you’re doing. But the real hazard of these sort of vector approaches is that in order to be effective you must limit the array of available operations to a carefully controlled, universal vocabulary (or instruction set). This is not the same as tying the tubes (as Ted Stevens would have it) but rather a matter of charting only predetermined destinations—the path to the CPU, to another process, or to executing a complex query. In short, walking only in the ruts.
I digress. Back to the folksonomy thing.
In information design class today, I had a long conversation with a guy who is familiar with most of the user interfaces out there but largely unfamiliar with teaching writing. He said he’d done some tutoring, but hadn’t really taught. Our project for the class is to design materials for writing instruction for a new 3D multi-user networked environment under development called Open Croquet. I find it hard to get past the constraints of a “simulated” space which reduces the density of information a person can access. He found it hard to get past the constraints of the basic question—how do you teach writing?
The primary strength I see in the interface is that it is truly a multi-user environment. It might open up new levels of collaboration and erode the normal “preach mode” of which instructors, including myself, are very prone to. One problem is locating your “self” in relation to other collaborators in the environment given only a mouse and keyboard with no tactile or other sensory feedback. But worse than that is the problem of critical mass—how do we populate such a strange space?
I have recommended a short film to many of my colleagues, with virtually no reaction. Real life vs. internet seems like a masterpiece to me, particularly regarding “internet parties.” Early adopters of any new technology usually spend a lot of time standing around wondering where everyone else is. It seems to me that the most successful (in terms of broad adoption) interfaces of the last few years work by providing a higher density of information in the same amount of screen space—windows, tabs, feeds, etc. A 3D interface seems almost retrograde because there is actually less information and higher processing overhead. I can see attempting to demonstrate some writing heuristics (Burke’s pentad, the rhetorical triangle, tagmemic grid, etc.) in 3D but as far as the actual writing, well, writing is a 2D activity.
When asked “how do you teach writing” the only reply I had is that I sort of use a shotgun approach. I use as many creative metaphors as I can to compare it with other activities, offer frameworks for different aspects of the process and hope that something clicks with the student. I use peer review so students can compare their response to the assignment with other responses. A classroom is a multi-user environment, not merely a stage where the teacher “performs.” Somehow, in online instruction, this aspect gets stripped away. But the primary difference in classroom vs. internet is that the student has to be in the classroom. The internet is purely optional. Social activity on the internet, it seems to me, requires a lower “critical mass” to click—as Weinberger observed long ago, it only takes around ten or fifteen people reading for you to have some sense of “fame.”
I think that sustained effort is the key to learning to write. It is also the same thing that gives people mastery of the weird keyboard interfaced 3D simulated environments. It would be nice to bring these things together, but at this point, I still don’t have a good idea of how this could be achieved.