Monday, March 1, 2010

Media Night

I was originally going to post this in a series of Facebook statuses, but since I haven't done a post here in a while, I thought it might make an interesting experiment in live-blogging. (Yes, I know that's not what live-blogging means. And yes, I know that I said I wouldn't blog about comp stuff. Look, it was either this or a post on the Aero Chunky bar, okay? And I've got to save something for sweeps week.)
Person of Consequence welcomes everyone to another round of "I'm finishing this book before I go to bed, dammit." This evening's challenger is "The New Media Reader," by editors Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort.
7:43 pm. Currently, I'm on page 635 of 800, with an essay by Bill Nichols. It seems like he's trying to update Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." And by "seems," I mean, "that's explicitly what he says he's doing," and the title is also a fair give-away: "The Work of Culture in the Age of Cybernetic Systems." Benjamin essentially said that artwork was originally imbued with an aura of authenticity, but that aura vanishes in the age of mechanical reproduction, especially with technology like the cinema and the camera. Nichols is expanding this idea to the computer, with an emphasis on Baudrillard's concept of simulation and psychoanalytic ideas like the masculine gaze and object fetishization.

8:13 Half an hour, and I've finished the essay and made it 8 pages. This bodes poorly.
Nichols actually covers a lot of the ground that, a few years later, Hayles will be covering in "How We Became Posthuman." They both place emphasis on the cyborg, on abstract/material, on blurring computer and life. Hayles gives a less homogeneous, more sustained view of cybernetics, though. Next: supper, (banana red pepper mushroom pizza) then Lynn Hershman's "The Fantasy Beyond Control."

8:41. Tasty, but slight. (The essay, not the food.) Hershman, a digital instillation artist briefly describes some of her works and what she wants to do next. Basically, she uses interactive systems to require the viewer to make choices that reveal his or her engagement with media. p 649, reached. Next up: Pelle Ehn and Morten Kyng on "Cardboard Computers."

9:18. Ehn and Kyng consider the use of the mock-up, and what happens when you make the transition from a cardboard mock-up to a computer model. Coming at it from entirely practical considerations, they reach a conclusion similar to Nichols: the computer blurs the line between model (or mock-up, or simulation) and actual product. The application of Wittgenstein language games seems to work well in this context, and there's a nice "unifying power of computers" sort of rhetoric. I like the idea of the mock-up: it's basically a physical, material object whose only resemblance to the abstract product may be the way we choose to perceive it.
Next: A trip to the other side of Star Wars' past with "The Lesson of Lucasfilm's Habitat" by Chip Morningstar and F. Randall Farmer. p 663, and counting.

10:06. Where the hell did that 45 minutes go??? Okay: Habitat. It's essentially an early example of a MMOG, played with all the computational power a Commodore 64 can offer. Which is basically equivalent to your average modern microwave. Two of the designers here comment on their experiences with it, and how they were constantly surprised by what the users came up with. This is the first essay in the book that really moves from the one user, one computer model to the more modern conception of cyberspace. And what's really interesting is that the designers explicitly say that for cyberspace games, the implementation platform is unimportant. Of course, they have an economic reason for stating that; they really want to convince people that cyberspace can be reached on Commodore 64s rather than virtual reality goggles or something. But still, it's the sort of declaration that makes a McLuhanite howl in fury. As things become more abstract (ie., the move from the personal computer in front of you into cyberspace), I think it becomes easier and more convenient to forget the technology involved. And that's page 679. Next up, an excerpt from Jay Bolter's "Writing Space."

10:38. Ok, that's better time. Bolter basically follows the same pattern here that he did in his book with Grusin, "Remediation": he states his theory, then demonstrates it through a series of mediating (pun intended examples). In this case, the theory is that "our writing space has been a hybrid of verbal and pictorial elements" since at least the ancient Greeks, and he goes on to prove it. He starts with the basic element, letters, then moves on to consider the basic form of the electronic page; pictures in text from the illuminated medieval manuscript to the computer form; diagrammatic space, that is, a codified, labeled picture; and the closely related numbering space. It's a book I'm clearly going to have to read for my larger dissertation. And that's page 691. Next up, Stuart Moulthrop, and "You Say You Want a Revolution?". I like that the editors parse the title for the headings: "You Want a Revolution." Yeah, that means the same thing.

11:24 pm. No... how did? Gah. Another 45 minute interval. Okay, quickly: Moulthrop's big question is what a digital revolution would mean, and if we're capable of it. He considers the revolutionary ability of hypertext under the McLuhan Laws of Media: What does it enhance, what does it render obsolete, what does it retrieve that was obsolete, and what does it produce or become when taken to its limits? Hypertext, he declares, renders TV obsolete. Well, in terms of the Internet it certainly does; I watch nearly all my shows online these days, and my TV is a conduit for my Xbox. And, more controversially, hypertext performs a recursion on literacy, which means it brings it back, but different. That's a description that gives him a suspicious amount of wiggling room. And I think he gets a little caught up in his revolution; though a little more skeptical than some of his predecessors, it basically falls into the other direction: if it's not utopia, it's dystopia. Anyway, p 705. Next up: Robert Coover's "The End of Books." No recursion, then?

11:53 pm. That was quick. Probably because it was four pages long. Coover presents glowing praise of hypertext as the next great medium, and stomps on the corpse of books for a bit. I think this text is most useful as an artifact; it was, as the editors put it, one of the mainstream declarations of the power of hypertext (originally appearing in printed form in The New York Times Book Review). And in terms of Bolter and Grusin's remediation, it would be interesting to study how Coover attempts to remediate the book in favor of hypertext. I guess I can buy the idea that the book is, very slowly, going to go extinct (though probably not in my lifetime); linear storytelling, on the other hand, isn't going anywhere until people stop living linear lives. And that's p 711. Next up, Scott McCloud's "Time Frames." Comic books. Real fun!

12:16. That was fun. And probably the quickest I'll make it through 20 some pages all night. Even the editors here admit that McCloud's techniques for comics don't extend perfectly into new media; maybe they just liked it because it's a cool text--that's my reason. (Okay, and that the juxtaposition of image and text for narrative purpose is relevant to larger issues.) Anyway, this is chapter four of Understanding Comics, which means it's about how time is conveyed in comics, through spacing, motion lines, words, etc. He also looks at how timelessness is conveyed, and how motion is apparent. About the only thing he doesn't cover is nonmotion, AKA stillness. The only reason that popped into my head is that I'm in this comic book reading group, and last time around, one of the members asked how we could tell that the characters in one of the book were photo-based. Well, I answered, because they're clearly posing. But how do we know that? asked the other guy. And I didn't know. And don't know. So: stillness. Mystery for another day. For now: p. 740. Philip E. Agre's "Surveillance and Capture." Longest essay left in the book. But first, a break to watch tonight's Big Bang Theory. What? It's called priorities.

1:26. ...And we're back. Agre's big idea is that we need to replace the surveillance metaphor of Big Brother and Foucaldian panopticons with the capture model, which collects only specific information about people. That is, surveillance is visual, surreptitious, invasive, centralized and state-oriented; capture model applies linguistic metaphors to human behaviors and emphasizes de-centralization. I'm not sure I buy Agre's notion of capture, as it's a little too cozy with computer science artificial intelligence study and computerized notions of information, but Agre is right in pointing out that we need to be aware of how accepting the surveillance model colors our worldview. Onto p. 763. Espen J. Aarseth's "Nonlinearity and Literary Theory." I hope he's going to talk about Dark Castle again.

2:19 am. If you want to dig through my archives, you can probably find my original review of Aarseth's "Cybertext." (It's too late at night for hyperlinks.) All of that basically still stands, and this essay is essentially an abridged version of the terminology he sets up there (which, frankly, makes it a little more readable). As the editors point out, he extends the discussion to more than just hypertext or computer-based texts; he wants to form a terminology for all sorts of nonlinear texts, from a Choose Your Own Adventure to the I Ching. After multiple readings, though, I still don't know the difference between scriptons and textons, except that they're derived from exactly the part of linguistics that gave me conniptions in Andersen's "A Theory of Computer Semiotics." So if anyone could inform me of said difference, I'd be grateful. Moving on: p 783. "Nomadic Power and Cultural Resistance" by the Critical Art Ensemble.

2:53 am. Idea: in the global village, those in power have become nomads, either roaming the world and taking what they want, or retreating to electronic bunkers. In such a world, traditional forms of protest are no longer valid, so the protests must go online. "By whatever means electronic authority is disturbed, the key is to totally disrupt command and control." "A small but coordinated group of hackers could introduce electronic viruses. worms, and bombs into the data banks, programs, and networks of authority, possibly bringing the destructive forces of inertia into the nomadic realm." It only sounds mildly less "Anarchist Cookbook" in context. p 792. "The World-Wide Web" by Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Cailliau, Ari Luotonen, Henrik Frystyk Nielsen, and Arthur Secret. Call me a pessimist, but five writers bodes poorly for an engaging article. Too many cooks, etc. 8 pages left...

3:09 am. Essentially, the essay is an introduction to the web, aimed at an audience of reasonably adept computer users. It's very much an early document, explaining the difference between the web and its competitors, like gopher. I suppose it was included because the editors wanted to end with a sense of history--rather than the sense of immediate, brand new existence often associated with New Media, they deliberately closed with a work that would invoke a sense of the past and history. It's a bold choice. I would have ended with something, you know, interesting, but the ending's the important part.

This was useful. I'll do it again the next time I decide to cram an 800 page anthology into my brain.

More coming later. NO! NO MORE LATER! DONE! DONE!

Later Days.


Ms. D said...

I wish I had read this last night while I was cramming _Settlers of the Marsh_.

Want to write my theory comp for me?

Person of Consequence said...

Sure! Want to write a multimedia comp for me?

In all seriousness though, it was a really useful exercise. It really prompted me to keep going, and now I've got a barebones record of what was important in those texts--which, frankly, for a list full of 500+ paged anthology texts, is all you have time to record for a comp anyway.