If the audience isn’t happy, ain’t nobody happy

This is one of the first readings that feels very “current” in the sense of my daily work.  In the world of web development, the work of designing user interfaces (UI) has given way to a much better conversation about designing user experiences (UX).

To me, this is what Brenda Laurel was getting to with comparing our “new media” experiences with Aristotle’s Poetics and his rules of the theater:  how does the audience perceive the “organic whole?”  If the audience doesn’t leave happy with their experience of a work, your work is a failure.

So often, on the web or elsewhere, we throw technology at a problem — “look, it’s got bells and whistles!” — instead of considering how best, how simply, how elegantly to solve the problem.

How wonderful then, to look back to the concepts and structure of ancient media to inform our use of the new?


Bill Viola has come unstuck in time.

Admittedly, my mind leaps to Vonnegut often, no matter the subject, but Viola’s “Will There Be Condominiums in Data Space?” immediately brought to mind Slaughterhouse-Five and the Tralfamadorian understanding of time:

‘The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

‘When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “so it goes.”‘

Given his work with video as an artistic medium, it makes sense to see his realization that hours of unedited video are not interesting. It is the edits of the whole — albeit entirely arbitrary — that make that medium work. But how perceptive to see that shift from one “master” edit of a work to our “new media” world where everyone has a video editor in their pockets, and the re-mixing and re-purposing that is done with existing work constantly and by anyone.

I am dwelling on his examples of music and art in other cultures as examples of changing use and perception of digital media. We are creating so much content every day, but are we creating the whole image, or just pieces of the jigsaw puzzle? What do we make of our lives, our culture, out of all these digital documents?

Discussion ideas for Ted Nelson

For those who may read this before this afternoon’s seminar and want to think ahead and/or for reference during our discussion, here’s a few things that feel to me like good starting places:

No More Teachers’ Dirty Looks

This section of Dream Machines was, for me, the most thought-provoking — particularly given that our discussions have frequently touched on our children’s use of technology and that many of our group are teachers (if not directly involved in primary education).

Yesterday, I linked to a Wired article from 2013 about “new” teaching methods — and their successes — that sounded very familiar: leave the students alone with the material and let them flourish.

And as a parent, I’ve got two intelligent kids who both make great grades but have very different approaches and reactions to the delights of the American public school system. My daughter, in 6th grade, thrives on the structured subject-oriented approach, and naturally strives for approval and “the right way” to do things. My son, in 4th grade, despite his good grades, claims nothing but boredom in school. To me, his mind seems to work more like Nelson’s approach — I think, left to his own devices, my son would explore his areas of interest very deeply (or just play Pokémon all day).

To the teachers in our group, how does the way you teach–and the ways the university requires you to teach–in a higher-ed setting differ from your personal visions of pedagogy? Is TLOS having an impact for you? Those of you with children in primary school levels, how does Nelson’s vision for technology in education and student independence relate to your child’s experience?


Xanadu, Citizen Kane

In 1995, Wired (I came upon these articles asynchronously, I swear) published “The Curse of Xanadu,” (warning: long read, but interesting) about Nelson’s grand vision of Xanadu and the decades long failure to bring it to reality. See also, Nelson’s response to this “hatchet job.”

What I find interesting is his dismissal of the hypertext web as we know it because it wasn’t his perfect vision of “transclusion” and attribution. His ideas in Computer Lib/Dream Machines influenced so many, yet Nelson remained so fixated on his own Rosebud Xanadu, he struggled to see the iterative progress towards his goal.

“The Web is the minimal concession to hypertext that a sequence-and-hierarchy chauvinist could possibly make.” – Ted Nelson

As my good friend Voltaire wrote, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Also interesting in light of Engelbart’s insistence on iterative augmentation.

Given that Nelson named the project with a nod to Coleridge, and the immediate media-association of Citizen Kane, how apt, then, his disappointment when the chasms of reality break into our utopian pleasure-domes.

Odds and ends: Fantics / New Media / “Wired” in print / transforming copyright

  • Nelson’s term “Fantics,” bringing the idea of showmanship and presentation to all new media: our contemporary 24 hour news cycle, “video” as content over the written word/youtube “vlogs”, the responsive web across our many devices.
  • The irony of a print publication called “Wired” and the context of the word “wired” in an ever more wireless world. Where does print fit in “new” media — but yet think of what digital desktop publishing has done for print.
  • The transformation of copyright. It’s the idealist in me again, but I find Nelson’s insistence on attribution, rights-management, and payments for content as a required feature of Xanadu to be fascinating. Make the all the information of world immediately and freely available, but pay for it. As an artist, as someone who deals with copyright complaints received by the university, and as a dreamer, it seems to me that our egos and our desire to make money are in direct conflict with noble ideals of the information age “saving” humankind. (Does Picard have to pay a royalty each time he replicates a cup of Earl Grey?)
  • Is it okay to be forgotten? Moving from Coleridge’s Kubla Kahn to Shelly’s Ozymandias, I think there is a question of what (information) needs to/will be preserved. If the inanity of social media (Twitter, Faceook, our seminar blogs), has taught us anything, it is that not all data is information. Bush/Engelbart/Nelson’s vision(s) of everything at your fingertips grows exponentially more massive with each ULTRA-MEGA-SUPERbyte of daily data we create. What then can/should/will be forgotten? Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.
  • Ted Nelson’s collection of one-liners, but “Transcopyright 1999 Ted Nelson. Please quote on the Web only by using transquotation strings (TQstrings), which will soon be available for this page.”

An endless exponential augmentation

“The complexity and urgency of the problems faced by us earth-bound humans are increasing much faster than our aggregate capabilities for understanding and coping with them.”
– Douglas Engelbart

What I take away from reading Engelbart’s “Augmenting Human Intellect” is not just his forethought and foresight into the future of computing, but his drive to make the world a better place. He focused not just on what we could do with computers, but why we should do it in the first place: to augment human intellect.

His insistence on calling computers “artifacts” strikes me as insightful, too — it emphasizes the machine as a tool, a thing to be used for a purpose.

But maybe most striking is his conviction that devoted time should be spent continually augmenting our collective intellect: each advancement should create opportunities for more advancement, an endless exponential augmentation.

Reflecting on my own life, my job, my use of technology, I’m dwelling on how much of my time is spent doing and how little is spent on focused thinking of how and why I could do better. Continual self-improvement — and larger world communal-self imrpovement (augmentation!) — should be one of life’s biggest goals, even if I’m (we’re) not very good at it (yet).

We must value leisure.

I propose that unemployment is not a disease, but the natural, healthy functioning of an advanced technological society.

Robert Anton Wilson, the RICH Economy

This week’s readings were fascinating in contemplating what the past-futurist’s sense of what we technology could do and also what we should not do. Mankind’s relationship — and work — with technology has become very much the symbiosis imagined by Wiener and Licklider, but have we heeded the warnings that Wiener in particular offered?

Jurassic Park

Warning: naive utopian leftist political fantasies to follow.

The ideal purpose of technology shouldn’t be to make bigger and better bombs, or more money for the already wealthy. It should be to make life on this planet more enjoyable, more sustainable, more equitable, and less nasty, brutish, and short.

Bucky Fuller first imagined a world-wide connected power grid in the 1930s. It would bring cheap and robust electricity to the world, and encourage renewable energy sources — but Fuller’s very plausible idea has never left the realm and fantasy because of human politics and greed.

Given the technological advances of the last century, and the vast resources created by it, why should anyone on this planet go hungry, or lack shelter, or basic medical care? And, to come back to the quote at the top of the post, why do we still use the unemployment rate as a major metric by which we judge the health of an economy?

At the cocktail party of the future, people will still ask “what do you do?” But the answer won’t be “sit in a cubicle and wait for death.” What you do will actually be what you want to do to build a better and more satisfying life for yourself and your family, not what you are forced to do for food and shelter.

From Wiener’s essay:

We must make a great many changes in the way we live with other people. We must value leisure. We must turn the great leaders of business, of industry, of politics, into a state of mind in which they will consider the leisure of people as their business and not as something to be passed off as none of their business.

Stuck on the Jetsons

I spent the last few days at the very enjoyable EdUI conference in Richmond, focused on the work and tools of higher-ed “web” professionals, where the opening speaker was Matt Novack, author of the Paleo-Future blog.  Studying the history of visions of the future? Seems fitting to our seminar reading and discussions.

Specifically, he brought up the Jetsons and their enduring cultural influence.  There were only 24 original episodes of the Jetsons produced — one season- — and those first aired 50 years ago.

Novack’s point in bringing that up:

Although it was on the air for only one season, The Jetsons remains our most popular point of reference when discussing the future.

(For just one example: Apple CEO Tim Cook when describing the iPhone: “We’re living the Jetsons with this.)

And isn’t it time for a new and better vision of the future to take hold?

Now to finish my reading and response for this afternoon’s seminar…

We can enormously extend the record, yet we can hardly consult it.

Thoughts on Vannevar Bush’s essay, “As We May Think

“Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems.”

Bush saw the 20th century’s exponential explosion of information and the progress it could bring.  His mental model could only imagine a walnut-sized-camera strapped to a scientist’s head, and a desk-sized “memex” filled with microfilm, but he absolutely saw the implications of commoditizing the ability to create and publish data, and the need to be able to organize–not just access–all that data in new ways.

Just for attending this seminar, we were all handed a memex called an iPad, much smaller than a desk — and its camera is smaller than a walnut, too.  Most of us likely walked into the room with an even smaller smartphone memex in our pockets.

But what to do with all this information?

Author and guerrilla-ontologist Robert Anton Wilson posited the “Jumping Jesus Phenomenon”  of the rate of information doubling.  If the sum of human knowledge up to 1 AD is considered a unit of measure (“1 jesus”), then the time it took humanity to reach 2 jesus was much less — 1,500 years instead of 40,000 years.  Then the time it took to reach 4 jesus was even less, and so on to the point where information doubles every century, every decade, every year, every month, every day, ever hour, minute, second, nano second.  Wilson’s rough calculations said 2012 would be when information began doubling every nanosecond — and maybe he was right. A quick Google search yields a 2013 article claiming “a full 90 percent of all the data in the world has been generated over the last two years.”

To put it another way, the file size for the complete works of Shakespeare is about 5 megabytes — give or take the same size as the MP3 file of a 3-minute pop song.  Or a few seconds of HD video.  And “way back” in 2010,  just Twitter alone was generating 8 Terabytes of data daily.

Which leads, for me, to the larger point of Bush’s essay — and, I think, to the point of this seminar’s course material and the diversity of its participants  — how do we make use of all this information?  How do we synthesize meaningful discoveries across academic and professional disciplines?  How do libraries (and librarians!) evolve to be guides to meaningful content, now that meaningful content is not just in the stacks. Maybe it’s walnut-camera-quaint of me, but I don’t think internet search engines know how to be that guide, either.  But given that those search engines are most people’s primary librarians, how do we teach information literacy to students, to ourselves?

I very much liked Bush’s warning against the dangers of specialization: “specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.”   It is several sections later when he ties this thought to mathematicians, but I think it also applies to many people in this information age:

A mathematician is not a man who can readily manipulate figures; often he cannot. He is not even a man who can readily perform the transformations of equations by the use of calculus. He is primarily an individual who is skilled in the use of symbolic logic on a high plane, and especially he is a man of intuitive judgment in the choice of the manipulative processes he employs.

This explosion of information requires people with intuitive judgement to find meaningful connections in data.  This has long been a beauty of the arts, of finding insight into the human condition, but I’d like to hope it is a coming beauty of many parts of life in this information age.  There are entire careers and academic disciplines created in the wonders of the last 70 years since Bush wrote this essay.  Imagine what’s coming when we see past our own currently favored disciplines, favored tools, favored ways of thinking.  … “one asks where they will find objectives worthy of their best.”