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”

Metamedium Nugget

NMR Ch. 26: Personal Dynamic Media

Jordan asked us to think about a nugget or app that best represented Kay and Goldberg’s vision of the Dynabook.  I’ve worked with the flute / pizza / Theremin metaphor before, and also thought about the dialogic qualities of personal dynamic media and their value in the classroom.  So this time I’m going with a nugget that speaks for itself:

What would happen in a world in which everyone had a Dynabook?  If such a machine were designed in a way that any owner could mold and channel its power to his own needs, then a new kind of medium would have been created: a metamedium, whose content would be a wide range of already-existing and not-yet-invented media.

Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg, NMR, p. 403

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.

What kind of symbiosis?

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Co-existence – only 1 in 10 of our cells is human by chrisjohnbeckett / © Some rights reserved. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license

Writing in the late 1950s, Norbert Wiener and J.C. R. Licklider both saw the future of computing as an interdependent relationship between people and computational machines. Wiener, founder of cybernetics, framed the information age as a second industrial revolution. The first  had replaced the energy of humans and animals with that of steam engines. In the second, computers (machines) would become sources “of control and communication.” We would communicate with machines and machines would communicate with us and with each other. This worried Wiener, who feared that advances in automation would cause massive unemployment and our veneration of  newly powerful computers might lead us to sacrifice our humanity to them. The latter concern grew from his understanding of computers as evolving entities “capable of learning.” Machines that could learn might quickly outpace their human masters, a haunting prospect that Wiener framed as a genie who could not be talked back into the bottle.(NMR, p. 72).  Current studies of human-computer interaction suggest that his fears were not entirely unfounded.

Licklider  also anticipated computers as new enablers of communication and problem solving, but was more sanguine about their relationship with humanity. Indeed he looked forward to a productive human-computer partnership, a relationship of interaction and interdependence he described as symbiosis.

I am struck by how both men invoked physiology and biology to explain computers. Wiener found them analogous to the nervous system and the homeostatic mechanisms that regulate bodily conditions and functions. As one might expect in the heyday of behaviorism, he described the nervous system in mechanistic terms, equating  the firing of synapses to a binary switching operation in a computing machine. Licklider also invoked the nervous system in his vision for computers, but seemed more open to the creative possibilities presented by machines that would not only assist in problem solving, but also “facilitate formulative thinking.”

Computing machines can do readily, well, and rapidly many things that are difficult of impossible for man, and men can do readily and well, though not rapidly, many things that are difficult or impossible for computers.  That suggests symbiotic cooperation, if successful in integrating the positive characteristics of men and computers, would be of great value. (NMR, p 77)

Biologists think about three kinds of symbiosis — mutualism, where both parties need each other; commensalism, where one partner benefits but has no effect on the other, and parasitism, where one party gains at the expense of the other. Licklider’s vision of symbiosis seems most closely aligned with the mutualist model, which is often invoked to describe the relationship between humans and dogs, or between clownfish and sea anenomes.  For Wiener, parasitism offered the more powerful paradigm, and I doubt he found comfort knowing that even the nastiest parasites still need the host to survive.  What I find most intriguing about all of this is the invocation of biological concepts that help us understand evolutionary relationships.  Even if the machine is us(ing) us, it seems clear that we are in this together and changing each other along the way.