The Tyranny of the Plot

We talked a few weeks ago about the tyranny of paper (Ted Nelson’s term), a concept that I have been thinking about ever since. The big question here is: how much are new technologies trapped by the format of old technologies?

Another kind of tyranny comes up in Brenda Laurel’s work: the tyranny of the plot. In her article on “Star Raiders,” she is interested in the way the producers and the users of the game collaborate to determine the plot. This seems to be a radical departure from traditional forms of media (the novel, let’s say), in which plots are fixed by the author. Readers can certainly interpret the plot in different ways, but in most traditional media there are certain plot elements (Professor Plum committed the dastardly deed, in the dining room, with a shoe lace and a half-eaten mango) that are pretty much set in stone.

You can therefore see video games, as Laurel suggests, as being emancipatory, allowing users to determine their own plot. The same could be said about many forms of new media. But is our emancipation from the tyranny of the plot ultimately delusional? Aren’t we still firmly confined to the grooves constructed by the games’ creators? Perhaps there are newer forms of new media that are more truly emancipatory. Perhaps the latest generation of video games (Second Life?) provide more complete freedom than Star Raiders. But I’m not convinced. And in any event, was there really such a thing as the tyranny of the plot to begin with?

New media and the changing role of the user

McLuhan quotes Joyce’s words “My consumers are they not my producers?” — a line that brought me right back to our discussion of the Dynabook vision from last week. Allowing users to produce rather than just consume has become a foundational principle of much of the technology we use today. I thought McLuhan’s comparison between the opportunities for production afforded by new media and the consumption-based model of the printing press was really interesting. Perhaps this is a way to understand the deep and lasting impact of the digital revolution. Just as we now talk about the Gutenberg revolution allowing unprecedented numbers to access knowledge, perhaps the core of our digital revolution is the way it allows so many more people to not just consume existing information but also to create new knowledge themselves. And not only new knowledge but new tools as well. As I suggested last week, I think the App store model embodies this phenomenon. Final thought: if producing is so important, does that mean consumption doesn’t matter anymore? Does it matter if no one reads this blog, so long as I write it?

I heart my computer

In the design of our future media and systems, we should not shrink from this emotional aspect as a legitimate part of our fantic (see p. 317) design.” (p.306)

The attention Nelson draws to our emotional connections with technology seems (like so much of what we are reading in this seminar) eerily prescient. It made me think of two ways that these connections affect our own world.

First, the importance of design as well as function in the devices we use. Recall the palpable glee we all felt that first day of class, when we were handed our Ipads. That was partly giddy expectation about how we would use the machine. But it was also (I think) a sense of wonder about the beauty of the object itself. We have Steve Jobs to thank for emphasizing the importance of design in our machines–some of the most entertaining scenes in Walter Isaacson’s biography of him feature Jobs terrorizing his underlings because they are interfering with his design vision, e.g. pointing out that it would be much easier to make ear-buds out of multiple pieces, like everyone else does, rather than crafting them in one unified piece.

Second, and even more worthy of discussion, is the possibility that we might feel the same kinds of emotions towards machine as we do towards other humans–and (get ready for it) that they might be able to reciprocate. I wish I had seen the movie “Her.” But even though I haven’t, I still want to talk about this intriguing story in which a man falls in love with his operating system. This raises all kinds of fascinating questions about the relationship between humans and computers, and ultimately the relationship between our bodies and our minds/emotions.

Want to take this a step further? Ask Siri what she thinks about “Her” — and see if you get the same responses as these folks in the New York Times.

Where is it going to end?

Like “boxout11,” I think most of us suffer from chronic information overload. Bush thought “the record” was already getting to be so big by 1945 that “we can hardly consult it.” Now we have even more information becoming ever more easily accessible. Fitting all the world’s knowledge into a moving van was the next big thing back then, but now we can pretty much carry it in the palm of our hand, maybe even in the frame of our spectacles. Where is it going to end?

The consequence is just as Bush realized: the means we use to access information becomes ever more crucial. As he suggests on page 44, smart indexing–associational indexing–is the key. And although his solution of “trails” didn’t do much for me, the way he states the problem of how to consult/index large bodies of information called to mind Google’s success in figuring out a whole new approach to indexing and prioritizing information.

The other theme in this article that struck me was the distinction between the kinds of thinking we can delegate to machines (“essentially repetitive thought,” as Bush calls it) and the kind of thinking only humans can do (“mature thought”). A question we might discuss is whether the nature of and the line between those two kinds of thinking has changed since 1945. Now we live in an age of algorithms, is the first kind of thinking expanding and the second contracting? Maybe not. Bush’s conception of logic/repetitive thought actually fits well with some of the algorithms that influence our lives so much today: Netflix telling us what we want to watch; the New York Times telling us which articles we want to read; credit card companies giving better deals to those who use their cards to purchase carbon monoxide alarms than to those who pay for tattoos (true story!).

This also reminds me (and I promise this will be the last thing) of the changing technology of doing research in historical newspapers. First we had newspapers. Then we had microfilm, which made newspaper archives easier to store and consult. Then we had OCR, which allowed us to digitize whole runs of newspapers into keyword searchable format. And now we have topic modelling, which allows us to let our computers loose on huge bodies of digitized text, and ask them to flag the repeated themes and categories that occur most often and that therefore seem significant. (For a good explanation, see The historian (“mature thought”) still has a role to play (I have to say that!), but it seems to be diminishing. Where is it going to end?