One Truth, Data Space, and The Limits of Organization (RA 1/2; 1/3)

Last week I posted about research agendas. And a few days before that I posted about reading Bill Viola‘s Will There Be Condominiums in Data Space. And in the following seminar I realized that since grad school I have rarely talked with anyone about my core area of academic interest around libraries.

I say “core area of academic interest” because I’m hard pressed to choose if I prefer this topic over the practical issues associated with libraries, the pedagogical issues of instruction, or the strategic approaches to helping libraries be what they need to be. But, at the end of the day, the one that I’d likely lose myself in is the “academic” one.

So, for my own record I’m going to spend a few posts outlining that area here. In part to help me wrap my head around it. In part to see if any of you share a similar interest. And in part to help me tease out if there are any research projects that should accompany this interest. And, then, if it comes up again in any other conversations, I have a place to point to and the beginning of a discussion in place.

The Grad School Interest

My particular lens on this interest has shifted, but to make sense of it, I’m going to start that the beginning: the interest that was the driving force through grad school. And that is a bit muddy as it stood.

A large part of my interest in graduate school was centered around how the role of people in the discover, creation, and organization changed what it’s possible for the researcher to know. I was actually interested in this in college, and talked with a few professors about what type of PhD would allow exploration of this idea, but everyone said it was too hard to pin down a subject like this (now I realize they might have meant too interdisciplinary).

So, in library school, I took the library school angle. I looked at how the structure we impose on knowledge (Library of Congress, in most academic libraries for example) create the false impression that there is one true way to look at things.

The case study I explored most closely was how feminist science is often shelved with works related to women’s studies, which is no where near the science books in LC classification. Therefore, a science researcher browsing the shelves won’t serendipitously happen upon a feminist critique, and the feminists won’t necessarily see the science books that might include a discussion of feminist approaches amongst others.

Now, obviously, we needed a linear, hierarchical system when we only had paper books and linear shelves to place them on. The catalog changed that a bit, allowing books to be linked by subject headings rather than call number alone, so that it was possible to come across book in other sections that still discussed a topic enough to warrant a subject heading, so that was an improvement. And online catalogs made it still easier to find books formally classified in another section that were still pertinent to one’s primary interest.

Today’s catalogs often search more metadata, sometimes pulling in information from other systems. Amazon and Google Books allow you to search the full text of a book. Summon and Google Scholar allow the full text of books as well as articles to be searched. The problem today is not missing relevant information due to the limitations of searching, but rather the overwhelming amount of information you’ll have to filter through to find the most relevant information for your interest.

Over time I let this interest wane, in part because the writing is on the wall that we’ll have better and better search mechanisms in the online world that will make these former limitations seem as quaint as horse drawn carriages seem today.

Perhaps the more interesting thing to look at today is how one deals with the information they find. Once I realized I could access articles electronically, I went through a phase where I’d spend a lot of time finding and downloading articles, then I’d print a huge number of them. Today I don’t print them, and I only download them after I’ve read through the abstract, etc, but my organization is not what I want it to be. And I haven’t figured out the best way to incorporate them into my research process (often reverting back to printing once I get down to work).

Because once you’ve found the information and have it in your office, home, or on your computer, then the question is how do you find it again? What limitations are part of each of our own systems that make it easier or harder to find just what we need?

I’m going to roughly categorize this line of thinking into two phases (this is part one) and in this phase, there will be three sections (this is section one). Part one section two up next!

Computational Thinking: W.T.F.?


In my presentation, “Computational Thinking: What are the Fundamentals?” I give my definition of Computational Thinking and review very limited prior work (this is but one talk in a semester-long seminar about CT, in which we review much more of the literature):

I then problematize some approaches to CT, and lend my support to another.

Download my presentation here: Computational Thinking: what are the Fundamentals?


Relevant to one of our previous classes:

The Importance of a Research Agenda

I’ve been having conversations lately about the importance of a research agenda.

To me, it seems very closely to the discussion of goals that pops up from time to time. Some of my professional friends swear by goals, others swear by taking opportunities as they arise. (My answer, in that debate, is much less about a specific goal and more about choosing activities and opportunities that mesh with my mission.)

Similarly: do you have a single, clear focus for your research projects, or do you take opportunities as they arise? So far, in my professional life, I’ve had a broad topic that I’d classify as my “research agenda” but I also publish on the things I’m doing in my work to help share the ideas that have worked in my experience. I also take opportunities that arise, as well, often writing or preparing talks based on a request someone has made (which is often rooted in either my research agenda or the work that I’m doing).

That means my publishing and presenting is all over the map. I have dealt with instruction, design, and technology most often, because I try to build in a chance to write or speak into any new project I take on and a lot of my work has been in those two realms. I also have written about epistemological connections to library issues, which is closer to my research interest. I have been asked to write on issues related to feminist theory and information ethics, probably due to my academic background in those areas and how I wrote on related topics throughout library school. There doesn’t appear to be a focus in my work but that’s largely because “work” is too broad of a bucket. Some professional involvement is about (essentially) reporting, some is about my research agenda, and some is basically responding to an information need that I’ve been requested to fill.

I’m not sure I’d want it to be more focused than that. I like framing the work this way. It does make me think that perhaps some kind of indicator on a CV could help committees understand more of what they are looking at and the research and professional areas of interest of a given individual.

What do you think? If you’re in libraries: does your research agenda match your job? How much do you feel the pull to stick to your specific research agenda?

It’s a Whole ‘nother Medium

This week’s reading in the New Media Faculty Seminar: Awakening the Digital Imagination, is from Bob Viola’s “Will There Be Condominiums in Data Space.”

I found the excerpt a bit challenging to comprehend as a whole, but I did pull out several points of interest and intersections with my current classes, work, or interests.

This work from 1995 already recognized what is only recently getting much attention on the fronts of “information overload” and forgetablity. “… the ability to forget has become a prized skill” articles enlightening some critics of temporally-limited message/media sharing tools (e.g. Snapchat) point out that far more than enabling “sexting” Snapchat gives users the right to be forgotten.

Viola suggests that,

“[o]ur cultural concept of education and knowledge is based upon the idea of building something up from aground, from zero, and starting piece by piece to put things together, to construct edifices. It is additive. If we approach this process form the other direction, considering it to be backwards, or subtractive, all sorts of things start to happen.”

I am not sure that I agree with him, that we treat education as if we’re starting from nothing. Much of positivist-dominated science holds in its very epistemological foundation and methodologies that there exists some truth and we have to discover it, chisel away at the rock that hides that inner grain of truth.

Later Viola marvels at novel interactions with and usages of video. This made me think of several things that I’ll list here:

Condominums in Data Space and Relationships Flourishing in the Margins

This week’s reading was Bill Viola’s Will there be condominiums in data space? As with each week’s reading, I was struck by how much Viola got right: the continual recording of information, the information overload that comes with saving everything rather than preselecting what to save, the discussion of the whole vs. the sum of its parts. It was another idea-rich piece that I suspect will continue to resonate with the readings we’ll do throughout the rest of the semester.

I’m particularly excited about this week’s session. We’re covering the Viola section, but juxtapositioning it with the new book S, created by JJ Abrams and written by Doug Dorst:

I could not be more excited about this book (as those who I’m friends with on Facebook undoubtedly know). There’s a huge amount online about this ambitious project, from a nice overview of the project in the NY Times, a collection of photos, to an appropriately geeky review in Wired. Already, websites are popping up to augment the book as well as to help people decode it.

I wasn’t exactly sure, when I brought the book to seminar last week, that this was really appropriate to “new media.” There’s no computer to it (except for the online content that enhances the experience). The ebook is decidedly less of an experience–in most ways but one. The iBooks store has a version in which you can turn on and off the marginalia, which fundamentally changes the experience of reading the book. And maybe that technology enhanced experience is enough to classify the book as a new media project.

However, and this is perhaps a professional liability, I can’t help but see the codex as a type of technology unto itself–just one we’re all very familiar with. And when I look at it that way, this is a story that couldn’t be told using any other technology. The technology, itself, enabled the story that it tells. And that seems pretty new media to me.

And as Amy points out, there’s some interesting overlap between Viola’s discussion of video and what Abrams has done with this text. I look forward to the seminar, and the opportunity to watch this TED talk again:

Why not blog about it?

“Life without editing, it seems, is just not that interesting” – Bill Viola

For many weeks now I have been contemplating the challenge (sometimes desire, sometimes expectation) to blog and my very ambivalent feelings about it. I cannot easily overcome nearly 40 years of training, first imposed by my parents then embraced as a value I wish to uphold, of trying not to speak when I don’t have anything to say. I have heard, read and considered many opinions about blogging, including those of my boss, some trusted friends, colleagues, fellow explorers of the digital imagination, and Andrew Sullivan in the The Atlantic. I have greatly enjoyed reading some blogs by people I know as well as blogs of strangers on all sorts of topics, but I’ve also been annoyed by what I perceive as clutter if not trash that I often have to cut through to get to the good stuff.

I fought for weeks with the excerpts we read from Marshall McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media, at times wanting to write a scathing blog about it, at other times feeling like I’ve already wasted too much time on it and should just cut my losses, and occasionally feeling an odd sense of guilt of a student who failed to complete a homework assignment. But I won’t blog about McLuhan, who did not seem to think of me as a possible audience for his writing, because it would only increase clutter, if not trash .

Instead I will point to Bill Viola, who considered the recording of everything “one of the early curses of video art.” I’m thinking now that limitless blogging, tweeting and other forms of recording every passing thought, whether worthy or not, is an early curse of digital (social) media. That said, I also understand that establishing worthiness may only be possible during or after recording, and distillation of thought and ideas can take place as part of a public recording process.


As we continue to do our dance with technology, some of us more willingly than others, the importance of turning back towards ourselves, the prime mover of this technology, grows greater than the importance of any LSI circuit. […] Today, development of self must precede development of the technology or we will go nowhere […]” – I would struggle to add, but I don’t even have to look for words of my own because Bill Viola already said it in 1982.

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 […]

McLuhan, the Medium, the Containers, and Libraries

Before diving in, a bit on where I’m coming from: One of my majors was Communication, and McLuhan was a major topic in several of my classes. Though I don’t find his writing as readable as some others, his ideas resonate with me. A personal area of interest for me is the field of Science, Technology, and Society, which studies how social, political, and cultural values affect scientific and technology innovation and are affected by it. Finally, I became a librarian for a number of reasons, one of which was an activist mindset of preserving this type of cultural institution. Okay, with that squared away:

I, like Claire, often find myself in the position of saying something to the effect of technology is value neutral, it’s how you use it that matters, so I questioned my “True North” described above when I was reminded that’s not a particularly McLuhanist approach to technology. Upon reflection, though, I think I have mostly used that phrase to open the door to conversations about how the technology might be useful in order to backtrack to how to ensure good general practice (in teaching, in productivity, in research, etc) with or without the technology in question. I plan to reflect more on after our seminar this evening.

This reading came at a particularly good point in time for me. Earlier this week I attended Tony’s session on giving effective powerpoint presentations. It was a fun session, as I really like making slide decks and learning tricks and tips to do it even more effectively. In that session we briefly touched on McLuhan, and Tony pointed out that PowerPoint, itself, encourages you to behave in a certain way.
As does an iPhone, access to a tablet computer, a laptop, an offline desktop. And knowledge that your screen at the office is huge compared to the phone sized one in your pocket.

I, of course, think of this in the context of libraries shifting. (And oh, the library readers of this blog know the many ways that the field is shifting and changing, but for the VT Seminar crowd, I could go on for days.) I am excited by that work, and the redefining, and the challenge of not just ensuring libraries remain relevant but are critical to the success of the enterprise. But I digress…

One of those shifts is the move from a focus on container (i.e. The Book) to the content (i.e. The Information). But I have long thought, perhaps due to my other major in Philosophy–which is particularly paper bound, that the container does change how one thinks about and uses the information. That we as a field should think about what that means and be very intentional about our work. And you see evidence of that in most academic libraries. Largely, when books are moved off site and online collections are purchased to replace them, that (in the most general view) is generally focused on STEM fields, leaving humanities and some social sciences with much of their physical collections in the building. I suspect the container at that point changes the work to some degree for STEM research, but perhaps in a more positive direction. In those, the more flexible online, hyperlinked, fast container might be more useful.

In parallel, I think a lot about how new forms of scholarship like those enabled by big data or digital humanities practices might change what can be known. How they in fact change the questions that can be asked.

All of which is very exciting to me. The biggest worry, from my perspective, is what happens if this overshadows the types of questions that could be asked previously, or does it imply a value hierarchy that isn’t necessarily intentional.

Looking forward to this afternoon’s seminar….

The good, the bad, and the perplexing

First, a couple of notes from our discussion last week on customize-ability in devices:

  1. Motorola is working on producing a modular phone with parts that users can swap out/upgrade themselves depending on what they want from a phone ( Bigger camera because you like taking pictures? Doable! Yourself! More speed? Sure!
  2. The free software movement that is trying to develop a truly free version of Android ( that you can use as is  or completely customize yourself, including their free software app store, where all apps can be modified and improved by their users, as can the code for the store itself.
  3. If the two could be combined – a modular phone with completely accessible, non-proprietary, user-manipulable code…is that the dynabook? Or close to it?

Second, on McLuhan.

I was particularly struck by his assertion that the common stance that media themselves are neither good nor bad, but depend upon how they are used  “is the numb stance of the technological idiot”. I know I myself am guilty of this charge, I’ve said it in debates about certain technologies. I think, and perhaps this is the cognitive dissonance speaking, that McLuhan’s real beef was with unthinking acceptance of media, brushed away with platitudes. McLuhan powerfully asserts that “we become what we behold…subliminal and docile acceptance of media impact has made them prisons without walls for their human users”. Fair enough, and I think there’s an alarming level of truth in that–it’s a common lament that you can’t go out to a restaurant without seeing entire families sitting at the table, entranced by their smartphones, with nary a whisper of conversation to be heard. McLuhan observes that “new technology possesses the power to hypnotize because it isolates the senses”, and I find this compelling.

However, the thing I can’t quite reconcile is that idea that any prevarication is proof positive of unassuming acceptance. So, for example, we discussed MMORPGs like World of Warcraft a couple of weeks ago, or our dependence on our cell phones and laptops. Games have merit…sometimes, and laptops and cell phones have made our lives much easier…except when they don’t. Is this the numb stance, or is it a pragmatic acknowledgement that almost all tools have the potential for misuse? I suppose McLuhan would assert that obscures the larger and more important point, that we’re asleep at the wheel and simply adapting ourselves to these new media without awareness and critical engagement, or true understanding of how the media are transforming us, but…and perhaps this is because of McLuhan’s work, I’m not sure that’s entirely true. I’m interested to hear what others thought later today.