Reality Fix

I don’t really care if Brenda Laurel got Attic drama “right,” because thinking about networked human-computer interaction as drama (“to do or act”) and “enactment” (to represent through action) opens up so many creative and important possibilities.  Our “make” for today was to identify a current  example of human-computer interaction that has most or  all of the six elements (action, character, thought, language, pattern (melody) and enactment), and I had a hard time finding an example of computers as theater that surpassed the power and creativity of the David Bowie exhibit I exerienced in Chicago last fall. Continue reading “Reality Fix”

The Web We Want and the Stories We Tell

We’ve been thinking through the “Awakening” of the Digital Imagination all semester, and today the New Media Seminar concludes with Scott McCloud’s “Time Frames” and Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal for the HTTP protocol that created the World Wide Web.  Now that the Web is in it’s twenty-fifth year I wonder how we might think about what’s behind us (there’s a cool timeline to help with that here) as well as the road ahead.

Berners Lee intended the World Wide Web to be “a pool of human knowledge, which would allow collaborators in remote sites to share their ideas.” (NMR p. 792) Initially geared toward the needs of physicists and engineers, the suitability of hypertext to scaling allowed the the Web to quickly transcend the Particle Physics Laboratory where it was born and move across the internet over the entire world.  Indeed the web has become so ubiquitous that we often take it for granted.  As John Naughton pointed out in 2010: “A funny thing happened to us on the way to the future. The internet went from being something exotic to being a boring utility, like mains electricity or running water – and we never really noticed.”  Now, the web and the internet are not the same thing (internet = infrastructure, web = particular kind of freight or traffic on that highway), but Naughton’s  suggestions for how we might reflect on the great changes that the internet — and the web — have brought and will continue to bring are still salient.  There are nine of them, and of course I find those that invoke historical contingency (a popular topic this week) and frame the current transformation in terms of past revolutions (Gutenburg 1450, Russia 1917) especially resonant.

Earlier this year, the web’s inventor looked back on “the Web at 25” and proposed that we write a Magna Carta for the web.  Like Naughton and many others, Berners-Lee acknowledges the powerfully positive as well as the scarily negative possibilities for the web’s future. You can check out his short  TED talk and view the transcript here, but the nugget that seems most relevant to the kind of learning the web facilitates is this one:

What sort of web do you want? I want one which is not fragmented into lots of pieces, as some countries have been suggesting they should do in reaction to recent surveillance. I want a web which has got, for example, is a really good basis for democracy. I want a web where I can use healthcare with privacy and where there’s a lot of health data, clinical data is available to scientists to do research. I want a web where the other 60 percent get on board as fast as possible. I want a web which is such a powerful basis for innovation that when something nasty happens, some disaster strikes, that we can respond by building stuff to respond to it very quickly.

For me, a web that would serve as a really good basis for democracy would be a web of innovation, collaboration and creative exchange — a highly social, highly interactive web, where transparency was the norm, but where one would remain firmly in control of one’s digital identity and could opt out of (or into) the communities, aggregators, surveillance regimes, etc. of one’s choosing.  This web would also be the best foundation for the kinds of active co-learning and peer-to-peer collaboration we’ve been exploring all fall in the Connected Courses Cmooc.  And it would implicitly further the project of “de-Schooling” our educational institutions by networking information, artifacts, expertise, resources, and people in ways that would erode the silos or at least make them more porous.

Check out the World Wide Web Foundation’s report for 2014-15 to see how far we’ve come — but more importantly, how far we have to go in this regard.

The connection between comics and the Web We Want might not be obvious, but it’s important. In Understanding Comics, The Invisible Art (1993), Scott McCloud showed how comics use visual space to represent time and shape narrative, thus suggesting how users of the graphical user interfaces that were becoming more widespread at the time would engage the web and each other in ways that facilitate the construction of meaning and the creation of networks. Where Brenda Laurel invoked the principles of Attic drama to understand human-computer interaction, McCloud, also known as the “Aristotle of Comics” adapted the ancient conventions of analog comics to the digital medium by making the frame optional and offering the vision an “infinite canvas” which treats the screen as a window rather than page.

The nugget that best explains why this vision for an expansive, recursive, multi-media and interactive comic art is vital to my imagining of the web and connected learning I want comes from McCloud’s 2005 Ted Talk (The Visual Magic of Comics):

I think this is important because media, all media, provide us a window back into our world. Now, it could be that motion pictures — and eventually, virtual reality, or something equivalent to it — some sort of immersive display, is going to provide us with our most efficient escape from the world that we’re in. That’s why most people turn to storytelling, is to escape. But media provides us with a window back into the world that we live in. And when media evolve so that the identity of the media becomes increasingly unique. Because what you’re looking at is, you’re looking at comics cubed: you’re looking at comics that are more comics-like than they’ve ever been before. When that happens, you provide people with multiple ways of re-entering the world through different windows, and when you do that, it allows them to triangulate the world that they live in and see its shape. And that’s why I think this is important.”

I think that’s right.  We do use windows and stories to escape, but cubing adds perspective, dimension, meaning and connection. Windows and stories also offer openings and insight. The web we want, the one so many of us engage every day, offers all of us the opportunity to make meaning, discover something new about ourselves, to work with and learn from others, and to narrate a meaningful canvas of our human experience.  It also needs the attentions of the humanists — the Scott McClouds, the Brenda Laurels, The easy, tigers, the musicians, and the librarians, (all the librarians ;-)) as well as the mathematicians and the historians of science and technology.

Ground Control to Brenda Laurel

David Bowie Is Museum of Contemporary Art, November 2014
David Bowie Is
Museum of Contemporary Art, November 2014

I caught a glimpse of the orange sign on my way to the conference hotel.  “David Bowie Is.”

“I am going,” I promised myself.

Best. Decision. Ever.

Even if you are too young to remember Ziggy Pop, or cringed through the “Let’s Dance” era, this exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art is worth whatever it takes to get you there — especially if you found yourself reading Brenda Laurel (1) this week for the New Media Seminar.

Because experiencing David Bowie Is puts you right into the middle of a drama that is organic, whole, collective and unique. Like the pioneer-master of the multi-media spectacle it honors, the exhibit integrates, re-mixes, and poaches creative juice from the breadth of human culture and wealth of digital technologies. It abounds in cool artifacts: the letter documenting David Jones’ decision to change his name to David Bowie to avoid confusion with David Jones the Monkee, Brian Eno’s EMS Synthi AKS synthesizer used for the recording the album “Heroes”, handwritten lyrics, and costumes — the amazing technicolor dreamcoats, moonboots, and kabuki inspired pants. And of course there is video — lots of video — clips from famous performances, interviews, session tapes, highlights from Bowie’s film and stage career (including a wrenching clip from Elephant Man and a haunting scene from The Prestige). But what makes the installation so powerful is the modality of its execution, which is both collective and highly personal.

Groups are admitted to the exhibit every thirty minutes, and each person receives a player and headset at the entry. Push the green button and off you go. But this is much more than the self-guided audio tour one can take in any number of museums these days, because the players are wireless receivers that sync your physical location in the room to feed in the audio that goes with what you are seeing. (2) As you approach the screen where Space Oddity is playing, the soundtrack appears and gets louder in your headset — AND it is synced perfectly to Bowie’s lips on the video.  Stand near the other people hearing, “This is ground control to Major Tom” and you can feel them savoring the chorus, lost in their own space, or smiling at the two little girls in pink uggs rocking out at knee level. Take a few steps to the side and the soundtrack shifts. Space Oddity fades away and as you look at the display case you hear a different song, or a narrator providing background for the artifact. Step up to the recessed video a bit further on and hear Bowie describe the development and use of the Verbesizer, the computer program he developed with Ty Roberts to generate and re-order random phrases into lyrics.  Want to go back and hear quasi-alien-alienated Bowie singing while you contemplate a gorgeous glimpse of Earth from space? No problem. The receiver picks up the right audio feed as if by osmosis.

It will take you at least ninety minutes to make your way through the entire exhibit.  You will savor every immersive, personal-dynamic, media-is-the-message moment. I promise.  You are together and alone, experiencing David Bowie.

(1) More focused responses to “The Six Elements and the Causal Relations Among Them” are here and here.

(2) For a more technical description of how the audio works and a more detailed review of the exhibit click here.

Dare we say beautiful?

Our reading for the seminar today is “Two Selections by Brenda Laurel,”  and I am eager to hear what some of the experts in our group have to say about her insights on human computer interaction. My own thoughts about her conception of agency are here, but I’m wondering if they might change a bit after today’s session.  We will have visitors who will surely prompt us to think about, and maybe even experience, human-computer interaction in a whole new way.

Re-reading Laurel’s “The Six Elements” just now, I was struck by this passage:

The notion of beauty that drives Aristotle’s criterion of magnitude is the idea that things, like plays, can be organic wholes — that the beauty of their form and structure can approach that of natural organisms in the way the parts fit perfectly together…..If we aim to design human-computer activities that are — dare we say — beautiful, this criterion must be used in deciding, for instance, what a person should be required to do, or what a computer-based agent should be represented as doing in the course of the action.

Laurel’s focus on organic beauty reminded me of Bill Viola’s holistic conceptualization of data space.  The whole is already there, just waiting to be discovered, engaged, or enacted. In a recent interview with Laurel, Henry Jenkins noted that over the last decade or so, the emphasis in human-computer interaction has shifted from a focus on interactive design and the relations between humans and computers to a focus on participatory design and the social interactions between users.  Laurel sees social media as being more narrative than dramatic, but remains committed to the ideals of the six causal elements of classical drama… which is good, because I need to stay tuned to the whole and the beautiful on a day that came with a good measure of fracture and loss.