McCloud made me think about how we can take a closer look at the new media platforms that we have. In the same way that he digs into the mechanics of comics and deepens their meaning, we can do the same with new media. When the Library of Congress started archiving Twitter there were comments about the uselessness of it, but when you look closely at Twitter and start poking around, looking for trends, all kinds of interesting things can emerge.

Another example is what Dr Nelson has done with her Soviet history class. Instead of just having the students blog, they have to blog and interact with their classmates’ blogs. With the added layer of examining their peers, and being examined by their peers, the quality of the student work has increased dramatically.

I think the trick is to keep digging and keep iterating with these platforms. The more we iterate the deeper we’ll be able to get and the more engaging we’ll be able to make content. Another trick (I think) is to switch our minds from the old formats the web is emulating. Get rid of the cassette tape icon for voicemail, lose the floppy disk for save, etc. Files? Folders? Why? Why should the web emulate these forms?

The connection with the Berners-Lee et al. paper that I saw was simply that the web affords us the power to explore ways of expressing information that weren’t possible before. McCloud gave a TED talk a few years ago that shows how comics can take advantage of the web which I highly recommend:




I loved this reading. It was one of those readings that made me realize that there was a lot of thought about things that I take for granted long before I was born. In particular, I enjoyed the way in which they envisioned future people using the Dynabook, as described on pg 394. It is like the Platonic ideal of a mechanized, or digitized, helper in every way, it has the ability to be all things to all people. And in a way, they were right about that. We’re all familiar with the phrase “there’s an app for that,” and annoying as that is, it is mostly true, there is an app for that these days.

And in the conclusion to the paper, this point is really driven home for me. They ask:

“What would happen in a world in which everyone had a Dynabook?”

Well, since I live in a world in which pretty much everyone has something akin to Dynabook, let me see how right they were about proposed uses.

  • Architect scenario – Yes
  • Doctor scenario – Yes
  • Music composition – Yes
  • Learning music – Yes
  • Running a home, budgets, lists etc – Yes
  • Business scenario – Yes
  • Math education – Probably
  • Laboratory education – Probably
  • Prose/poetry production – Yes

Just wonderful, love the optimism surrounding this paper.

The short discussion on pg 395 about ebooks also intrigues me. They say:

“It need not be treated as a simulated paper book since this is a new medium with new properties.”

While this is a statement I’d agree with, I don’t know how to look beyond simply simulating paper books, as we do now. Yes, they do mention the idea of using ebooks as a way to go through “choose your own adventure” books easier, but that is a low-level use. The fact that people have been thinking about how books can be translated to a digital format for such a long time without producing results better than adding features like full text searching makes me think that it will take a long long time for us to create another truly universal format like books in the digital realm.

This discussion also makes me think of John Warnock’s paper The Camelot Project. In the paper, Warnock pretty much lays out what we think of as PDF today. He covers many interesting thoughts in the paper, but the one that resonates the most with me is how enthusiastic he was about the possibility of full text searching. While the thought of full text searching is old-hat today, it was pure sci-fi fantasy in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s. I highly recommend checking the paper out.



Favorite line of the paper:

“If the ‘medium is the message,’ then the message of low-bandwidth timesharing is ‘blah.'”

I ran across this amazing essay by Asimov today, which I think I can tie into the new media seminar, we’ll see. It is something he wrote on creativity in the 1950s and is filled with wonderful take-aways, aka nuggets.

Isaac Asimov Mulls “How Do People Get New Ideas?”

Nugget #1

“Obviously, then, what is needed is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected.”

This made me think of something that we talk about often that came up in the first session. At the time the question posed was “What is the difference between machine thought and creative thought?” As we discussed, machine thinking has the ability to assemble vast amounts of knowledge, categorize it, organize it, analyze it (to a certain extent), etc. Then what is creative thinking? For me, creative thinking is summed up by this nugget, it is the ability to connect two things that would not typically have been connected. This is what Bush wanted the Memex to help us do, this is what Nelson wants Xanadu to do, but could it even be done by machine? And then, if a machine could, would there be a need for humans?

“My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it.”

Yes, a machine can process far more things for far longer than we can, but can a machine make the same connections as us?


Nugget #2

“The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing. For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display.”

This is the most accurate statement about ideation I have ever heard. I have never worked on a project where the first idea was the one. Often the end result looks nothing like the initial idea. I wonder how much iteration Nelson went through with his various ideas. I get the sense that since he was more of an idea guy that he didn’t like to consider further iterations of his grand idea that may alter it.


Nugget #3

“Probably more inhibiting than anything else is a feeling of responsibility. The great ideas of the ages have come from people who weren’t paid to have great ideas, but were paid to be teachers or patent clerks or petty officials, or were not paid at all. The great ideas came as side issues.

To feel guilty because one has not earned one’s salary because one has not had a great idea is the surest way, it seems to me, of making it certain that no great idea will come in the next time either.”

In my case, I think that my sense of responsibility to my job stifles creativity, which is a bummer. But that is why I enjoy participating in things like the new media seminar, or the ICAT community playdates, which I highly recommend. They are spaces (physical and in time) where I feel comfortable letting my mind wander and weave through all of the ideas flying around me. They give me a recess from my regular duties and allow me to make the sky the limit, instead of the standard pile of restrictions that come along with projects.

Last week when we were discussing the merits of ebooks vs real books and how ebooks will never be able to replace real ones I had an idea. I agree that ebooks will never be like real books, but I can imagine a future where tablet technology is at the point where flipping a page on a ebook reader will be just as responsive as flipping a real page and the reader will have access to the book’s metadata so that it can adjust its weight to mimic that of the real version of the same book. I doubt this would have popped up had I been sitting at my desk going over details on a project timeline. P.s. (Trademark), patent pending, all rights reserved on this idea :p

Anyway, I highly recommend checking out the essay in full, it is well worth your time.

After reading Men, Machines, and the World About I had a strange sense of pining. After sitting on that feeling for a few days I think that I’ve identified it as a pining for the world in which complete technology immersion is just a possibility, not a reality. A line of Wiener’s that struck me towards the end of the paper on pg 71 really drove home this feeling:

“There is a very real danger in this country in bowing down before the brass calf, the idol, which is the gadget.”

In 1954 in was a danger, now it is a reality. Even though I kind of dislike the level of technology that is in my life right now, there is no way that I could function very well without it. The things that I view as essential are: internet access which affords me communications methods, touch screens which afford what I feel is a more natural way to interact with computers, and simply the computer itself.

In an attempt to distance myself from technology a bit I started wearing a watch. My reasoning was that if I wear a watch then I will look to it for the time instead of looking to my phone. When I look to my phone for the time I invariably check my calendar, see if I have any new emails (on each of my many accounts), go ahead and look at facebook (since I went to the trouble to unlock my phone), check twitter, and by then I may think to check my email again, just in case etc, etc. And so, I’m wearing a watch now and actively attempting to leave my phone n my office, or my bag, so that I am less tempted to check it.

What this all seems to boil down to (for me) is time management and avoiding social media.

I saw an article recently by Clay Shirkey that fits into this conversation. In it, he defends his decision to ban technology use from the classes he teaches, unless the technology is required for the current task. There were two parts about the article that really struck me. The first is this passage:

“Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the elephant and the rider is useful here. In Haidt’s telling, the mind is like an elephant (the emotions) with a rider (the intellect) on top. The rider can see and plan ahead, but the elephant is far more powerful. Sometimes the rider and the elephant work together (the ideal in classroom settings), but if they conflict, the elephant usually wins.”

This was my first exposure to this metaphor but I love it. I can picture my lumbering emotions dragging me along to social media updates, email refreshes (because there is a possibility of something new) and who knows what else while my poor little intellect is just hanging on, trying to direct the elephant back onto the path of a more pressing matter, like planning for an upcoming project, or doing a weekly blog post.

The other passage that stuck with me was the following, from a paper titled “Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers“:

“We found that participants who multitasked on a laptop during a lecture scored lower on a test compared to those who did not multitask, and participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not. The results demonstrate that multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students and can be detrimental to comprehension of lecture content.”

While the paper focused on a classroom setting, I often observe this in pretty much any other setting where there is a human and a piece of technology involved. Meetings especially, lunches, just running into someone on the street, etc.

Don’t get me wrong, I love technology, I just think that now that we have opened this Pandora’s box that we now need to try and figure out how to best work with it. As Wiener said in his closing statement, “we cannot talk the machine back into the bottle.” And so, we have to figure out the best way to work with it. Sometimes that means avoiding it by wearing a watch, sometimes that means using tools/methods that limit our access to it, but I think that the only real way to work best with technology is be mindful in technological design as it matures. We need to take into account that while yes, we can embed facebook notifications into everything from our phones to our smart refrigerators to our smart cars, but should we?

My hope is that by being mindful about technology design we can design things that are not a detriment to ourselves, such as the laptops in the classroom above, but are instead tools that we can use to improve our quality of life. A lot of this will hinge on corporate desires, profit margins, and other things that don’t take human well-being into account, but like to have faith that one day we’ll get there.

Final, somewhat disconnected thought that this reading made me think of that I’m not able to tie-in right now: Technology gives people tunnel vision.