Pretending and Intending

“Animate pretension with intention” enjoins Bum in a Suit, in what is surely one of the most engaging and conflicted “about” posts I’ve yet to read on a new blog.  Taking his cue from Kurt Vonnegut, Bum in a Suit zips straight to the heart of that ambivalence many of us confront when we begin to blog.  For if the internet and its affordances are increasingly implicated into every aspect of our work and daily life , starting a blog is often one of our first deliberate endeavors to create content by claiming and building on a piece of digital real estate.  As Bum in a Suit notes, beginning to blog can feel like an act of pretension: How could the tiny droplets I offer here ever matter in the bottomless ocean of the web?  What agency might my lone ideas exercise against the ever-more-sophisticated algorithms of Google, Facebook and the like? Starting a new blog might also seem futile and /or passe.  As the internet of things rises over the horizon of the internet of information and communication is there really any point to continue to talk to each other?*

I’m going with YES to all of the above (some with more certainty than others), and affirming Bum in a Suit’s decision to blog as an intentional, affirmative and creative act —  one that can, should, must even, make the life of the mind richer and more interesting.  I realize these are bold propositions and not everyone will agree with me.  And that’s fine.  I hope we take all of them up during the seminar this semester. For now I want to note just a few of the many benefits of blogging:

1) Blogging offers an amazingly easy, fast, and durable modality for sharing ideas and research

2) The medium naturally lends itself to thoughtful, documented, distributed conversation about problems and ideas ranging from the practical to the esoteric.

3) Blogging makes it easy to leverage the affordances of a networked environment and tap the infinite and expanding knowledge that the web places at our finger tips.

4) If you are an academic searching for a broader audience or a parachute out of the ivory tower — a blog is your best friend.

I look forward to a seminar loaded with pretentiously intentional posts.

*John Udell has some timely thoughts on the need for “engineered filter failure” here.

Comic Relief

Today we concluded the New Media Seminar with Scott McCloud’s now classic Ted Talk and a free-ranging discussion about why McCloud’s approach to “visions of the future” affords so many insights about the narrative potential of new media, and why a course on new media might conclude with McCloud’s work.  We all agreed that McCloud packed a lot into seventeen minutes, so I’m posting it here in case anyone needs a second look.

We talked about different ways of learning and remembering, and how our perceptions of space and time depend on a particular symbolic syntax. I was intrigued by testimonials from a mechanical engineer and literary scholar about their use of graphic novels to review physics concepts and teach rhetoric.  I’d welcome references to those books if you have them handy!  For those of you who love the space program or share my interest in historical animals, I’d highly recommend Nick Abadzis’ graphic novel, Laika, which tells the story of the first living creature to orbit the earth.

Although McCloud’s talk highlighted how the print revolution compromised the narrative flow of comics, some of us confessed to a lingering attachment to the printed word.  It turns out that our brains do prefer paper for some things (such as reading), which doesn’t mean that we’ll be doing less reading on screens but might encourage us figure out how to make that experience more beneficial.  The Scientific American article I mentioned is here.

There was more, but I’ll stop now. Thanks, everyone for a wonderful first semester.  I’ve learned a lot and enjoyed our meetings tremendously.  I’m sure next semester’s group will be terrific as well, but their footwear can’t possibly compete with this.


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.

McLuhan, Value, and the Message

I’m sympathetic to Claire’s and Lauren’s assertions about technology itself being value neutral, and echo their claim that it’s how we use the technology (or the medium, since this is McLuhan’s week) that makes it positive or negative. And it is easy to criticize McLuhan for over-reaching and over-synthesizing by reducing the message to the medium and visa versa.

But I fear that stopping at such critiques might make us miss the important things that McLuhan got right, especially the insight about how new media not only condition how we do or experience something, but facilitate a kind of interaction and creativity that opens up more possibilities (and yes, “expands human intellect”).  Like Lauren, I am very interested in the implications of this transformation for my field, which I’m going to claim broadly here as “doing history.”  I could (should?) go on about this for a long time, but wanted to take up her invitation here to (briefly) think out loud about the change in “containers” as it affects historians.

For us, the shift from (printed) book to on-line databases and journal articles is both exciting and perilous.  Like any mode of knowledge production and dissemination, history definitely benefits from having endless (and ever expanding) amounts of information, data, texts, etc. on-line and instantly accessible beyond the physical walls of the library and the printed page of the book.  But shifting “the book” from a codex-paper-format to a digital medium involves much more than changing the container for a certain kind of information. On the one hand, the possibilities are eye-poppingly awesome: hyperlinking and multi-media could liberate most, if not all, of the web of documentation and example that supports the analysis and narrative of the book from paper repositories (archives and libraries) that few readers will ever visit or experience.  There have been a series of discussions in the field about the shape of born-digital history works to come, and Writing History In the Digital Age, just published by the University of Michigan Press, offers many intriguing possibilities.
On the other hand, however, the “e-books” promoted by commercial vendors for research libraries are merely digitized versions of print books with minimal functionality and maddening limitations on their use.  On a good day, these “ebooks” might work for key word or phrase searching, but I don’t know anyone who has successfully “read” one.  And this seems like a real problem, because a book is not just a container for information.  It isn’t a database or a catalogue. It’s a coherent, organized, structured presentation of knowledge and interpretation — A product of human intellect.  New media are transforming the book, and I think we owe it to ourselves to make sure that happens in a way that augments human intellect and makes books better.

I leave you with the parable of the cereal:

“Do Something Boring”

Oblique Strategies

This was not the advice I was looking for when I consulted my Old Media version of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies this morning.  The new media version’s offering was more intriguing: “Be Dirty,” it suggested.

Oblique Strategies Be DirtyOk.

I started cleaning my office.  Boring, but not dirty.  The opposite of dirty in fact.  The instruction to “Be Dirty” made me take a mental step to the side, which prompted me to clean, which cleared my head, and brought brought the seven most important things that need to happen to today into focus: Write this blog post; find an article in Nauka v Sibiri, figure out what Dmitrii Belyaev was thinking when he started breading silver foxes for tameness in the 1950s, make pet care arrangements for upcoming travel, get ready for the NMFS, find a way to fix the broken shade in the entryway, sign-up for a flu shot, fold clothes from last week’s laundry.

Oblique Strategies helped me get unstuck, but I would need the internet for everything on my list except for folding the clothes.

Lateral thinking, the kind of indirect approach to creativity and problem solving that Oblique Strategies stimulates, might not be the first thing that comes to mind when reading Vannevar Bush’s, As We May Think.

In the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Bush summoned scientists to develop technologies that would make the “inherited knowledge of the ages” accessible to all.  He was particularly interested in making vast realms of information immediately available. From our vantage point today, his vision of the memex with its monoculared user and stores of microfilm seems almost quaint, and at the same time eerily anticipatory of the latest wearable computing technology such as Google Glass.

But the last sections of As We May Think suggest that Bush recognized that the real power of the future Memex depended on the process of association – not just locating bits of information, but connecting them in meaningful and unique ways.  He knew that leveraging the selection of information by association, rather than indexing, was the key to extending the power of human beings’ creative, symbolic and associative reasoning capacities.

And to me, this is the most prescient moment of the text.  Yes, it conditions the ground for the development of Oblique Strategies (Old Media).  But more importantly it suggests the power of the future we are now living, where the internet and digital media not only put infinite amounts of information at our disposal, but enable us to make meaningful associations, create new knowledge, and form networks that leverage expertise and mutual interest in ways that must have seemed truly fantastic (if not fanciful) in 1945.

Lauren talked about the connections she sees between the associative powers of new media and her work as a librarian in her post here:

“I’m really interested in exploring how the changing information/communication/media landscapes impact peoples’ access to information, their ability to learn and contribute back, and, ultimately, their understanding of the world. Library work gives me a concrete “lab” in which to explore this, and the information I find then can be directly fed back into my library work to make the library more relevant.”

I am examining a similar process with my students this semester by using a blogging project to crowd-source content for a course on Soviet History.  We are only a few weeks in, but I’ve already seen a significant uptick in the level of engagement and quality of the research students produce when they use the associative powers of the web to turn information into knowledge reflecting their unique interests and aptitudes. At the same time their work as individuals contributes to a networked and globally accessible repository of insight about the Soviet experience.  It might be a living Memex.  And it is certainly not something boring.

Late Adopter

Last January, I stumbled into a workshop on student blogging, spent the weekend revamping the course I was about to teach on the history of humans and domestic animals, and, without really realizing what was happening, fell into the slipstream of a richly rewarding, compellingly complex, and insistently dynamic network of practices and technologies.  I knew these “new media” were reshaping the intellectual and physical landscape of higher education, but had never really thought about them in any sustained or systematic way.  The opportunity to do so appeared a few days later, in the form of an invitation from Gardner Campbell (he who dispensed the student-blogging kool-aid the previous week) asking me to join the New Media Faculty-Staff Seminar.  I wasn’t sure what might be involved in such a seminar, but found its title alluring: “Awakening the Digital Imagination.”

Over the next twelve weeks I read, watched, talked, listened, blogged, and learned. I met and got to know a talented and diverse group of colleagues, many of whom had shared the university’s physical campus with me for years in that completely anonymous way that is both bizarre and completely normal at a giant institution such as this one.  After twenty years of teaching, it was incredibly fun and interesting to be a student again. Taking a couple hours a week to consider the cultural and historical context of technological change and the creative potential of new media started out as a welcome variation in the ordinary routine of the semester, but soon became much more.

By the end of the term I had overhauled my teaching, re-imagined my scholarship, and was having more fun doing both than I’d had in years.  Along with working on a book about the Soviet space dogs, the summer held out the promise of developing a crowd-sourced blogging project for my Soviet history students that would use a proprietary database of translated primary materials as well as openly accessible resources on the web.  When I heard Gardner was leaving Virginia Tech to become the Vice Provost for Learning Innovation and Student Success at VCU we met for a farewell lunch, where I was somewhat shocked to learn that he thought my digital imagination had developed enough for me to carry on his work as facilitator of the NMFS Seminar with new cohorts of seminarians. Over the last several weeks I’ve been working with a quietly persistent learning revolutionist and Tony Brainstorms to do just that.

But I’ve been late to start my own blog. Of course this doesn’t mean I haven’t been blogging:  I have several blogs related to various courses at Virginia Tech, including the two predecessors of this one and a monster motherblog my students are using for the Soviet History project this fall. But getting to a place where I am ready to strike out on my own has taken a while.  I’ve been tweeting and tumbling and ravelrying and facebooking for years.  I’ve embraced the transformative potential of networked learning environments in my classroom and have started to imagine libraries in ways that confound my training and twenty-years of practice as a historian.  But I’m a late adopter of the personally-professional blog.

For brevity’s sake I’m laying a large portion of the blame for this on the traditions of my craft.  Where their discipline is concerned, historians are pre-occupied with time and venerate print, but tend to distrust speed.  And we all know the internet is fast. Furthermore, the solitary and painstaking nature of our research mitigates against the kind of collaborative openness that animates digital scholarship.  We like to keep our ideas and our work under wraps until we’re sure “we have it right.”  And here’s where my own temperament compounds the challenge of presenting a public, transparent, professionally-informed presence on a blog like this:  I don’t write quickly, and I like to revise and revisit what I write a lot before committing it to print or anything else, including, and by that I mean especially, the World Wide Web.

But here I am, ready to relax my grip, at least a bit, on my own predilections, and embrace, or at least try, a digital scholarly practice David Parry describes as an ongoing conversation and process of knowledge formation.  I’m starting the NEW New Media Faculty-Staff Seminar on the very edge of my comfort zone.  It’s an exciting place to be, and experience suggests that rich rewards await the awakened digital imagination.