New Media Seminar

This page is devoted to a seminar held in the Spring of 2012 focusing on the role of new media in education.  I am meeting with a group at Whitman College but concurrent seminars are occurring at other institutions, all organized by Gardner Campbell at Virginia Tech. These reflections are based on readings from the New Media Reader from MIT Press.

Sherry Turkle: Video games and computer holding power

posted Apr 9, 2012, 11:22 PM by Nick Bader

I really like this article.  "Computer holding power" refers to the hold computers have on us.  This goes back to our early discussions, and a favorite topic of mine: are we blessed with new access to amazing new resources, or are we compelled to interact with our devices even when it is counterproductive?  (Probably both.)  This article is from the mid-eighties but the issues are the same.  The surly teenager playing Asteroids in the cafe has a modern analog: the part human, part smartphone hybrid.

One fascinating thread in this piece is about video games as an orderly corner of your disorderly existence.  Jarish the 12 year old, upon completing a game, must "...walk out of the arcade and it's a different world.  Nothing that you can control."  Jarish has put his finger on exactly what I like about video games.  While real life is ambiguous, in some video games it is possible to play them "exactly right."  The more hectic and confusing my real life is, the more I want to play a game.

Turkle dispels early on that the addiction is mindless.  She compared Pac-Man and chess, which is absurd on the face of it, but at the same time I buy it.  The question isn't really about mindlessness, it is about control of your mind.  For the example of Marty, who replaced a practice of transcendental meditation with playing Asteroids, I have this to say:
1. Really??
2. I recommend the Civilization series.  (I had Civ II as a graduate student and eventually was forced to delete it for fear of it taking over my life.)

Bill Viola: Will there be condominiums in data space?

posted Mar 26, 2012, 9:01 PM by Nick Bader

This is a fun article full of interesting observations.  My favorite part is the introduction, in which Viola makes interesting observations about perception and memory.  The point of the article, however, comes later.

To Viola, it is in part up to video artists to ensure that the use of the data space is wirthwhile (without condos!)  Interestingly, much of Viola's article makes me think of computer games, suggesting either that we have our work cut out for us, or alternatively that I am not very imaginative.

Parts of Viola's description of the future of data space ("total spatial storage" demonstrated by the Aspen project, and recalling the Holodeck from Star Trek) brings theater to mind, like the immersive work of Punchdrunk.  Or am I just coming back to computer games?  Perhaps that condominium has already been built.

McLuhan: The galaxy reconfigured, The medium is the message

posted Mar 24, 2012, 9:48 PM by Nick Bader   [ updated Mar 26, 2012, 9:02 PM ]

This will be short; I will just say straight out that I do not like McLuhan's writing style.  McLuhan values cleverness above clarity, which is appealing to some, but as someone who edits student scientific research papers, clarity and logical coherence are cardinal virtues for me.  McLuhan juxtaposes surprising claims with literary excerpts that do not (to me) logically support the claims.  Whenever McLuhan defines a concept, the concept somehow seems even broader and more abstract than it did before.  For example, McLuhan's definition of "medium" is: any extension of ourselves (from "The medium is the message").  This generalization increases the likelihood of the fallacy of equivocation.

There are certainly good things about these pieces.  McLuhan is clearly a writer who is very much at home in literature and has studied it for a long time.  In my mind, McLuhan is drifting about in a personal universe of literary connections, following stream-of-consciousness associations as he bounces metaphorically from one great writer to the next.  Once I stopped expecting him to make any sense or defend his claims, I was able to relax and enjoy the varied passages and interesting ideas.  Indeed, I paused to look up more words and concepts online while reading McLuhan than I did for all the previous readings.

Personal Dynamic Media

posted Mar 5, 2012, 10:16 PM by Nick Bader

Kay and Goldberg's 1977 publication reads so much like a description of what we do (in 2012) that it seems routine to read it.  I suppose I should comment on Kay and Goldberg's prescience, but frankly, everyone we have read has been prescient so I don't need to harp on that.

I am interested in something else about the article - what is the next step for the "Dynabook"?  You can go through the article imagining the laptop computer as the 2012 incarnation of the Dynabook, but you can equally well imagine the iPad or one of its cousins.  This is interesting because the strong streak of "do-it-yourself" attitude I see in this article is not currently possible on the iOS platform.

A case in point is Kay's (and Goldberg's) programming language Smalltalk.  Kay and Goldberg repeatedly credit innovations built by people using Smalltalk, including the 12-year old girl who designed a painting program using the language (!).  But no programming language, Smalltalk or otherwise, can work on the iOS platform as it is currently structured.  Will devices like the iPad be forever relegated to the role of content consumers, but never sophisticated content creators like "regular" computers?  Or is this a temporary state of affairs while we re-assess the meaning of "regular"?

I think I should call up Kay and Goldberg to find out.

Computer Lib/Dream Machines

posted Feb 27, 2012, 10:15 PM by Nick Bader

Wow, this is quite a trip through a nest of side-trips.  Presumably Nelson is embracing non-linearity as a demonstration of branching media.  

The discussion of branching media most strongly makes me think of two current instances of media: Wikipedia and the new textbooks on iPad's iBooks 2.  I will be interested to see if the iBooks can capture some of the natural, undesigned elements that help to make Wikipedia so useful.  (Surely Britannica is not consulted as much as Wikipedia).  I think we will need to discuss a new version of Smith's invisible hand that explains non-profit enterprises like Wikipedia in the computer realm.

I think Nelson is a genius with intuitive interfaces.  The undo function drawn as an hourglass and the editing icons in the Xanadu system, for instance.
I also love the controls on the Sony TC-50 cassette deck, as Nelson fondly remembered.  There are exceptions: Jot reminds me of the editor vi, for instance.  Vi is designed to be quick to use, but is famously unintuitive.  However, Nelson's Xanadu environment seems to joyfully renounce Jot in favor of the ability to graphically rearrange text.

This reading is full of ideas, some of which are surprising and wonky.  Throttling "stretchtext" to see more, for example.  Whoa.  Probably better implemented by the very hyperlinks he describes, but interesting idea.

Augmenting Human Intellect

posted Feb 20, 2012, 10:26 PM by Nick Bader

As usual, I got totally derailed by a casual statement near the beginning of the piece.  Engelbart starts with an assumption: the complexity of humankind's problems grows exponentially, and we must take measures to get our comprehension to catch up.  But does the complexity of humankind's problems really grow with time?  I can't decide.  Maybe it does, but maybe it doesn't.  I wasn't around in the fourteenth century, but it seems that humanity as a whole sure had a lot of complex problems confronting it back then.

Humanity has always had problems.  Furthermore, they have always been too complex to solve - otherwise, we would know how to solve them and they would cease to be problems.  Humans seem perfectly able to live normal lives despite our many complex unsolved problems.

On the other hand, if we restrict our attention to the subset of problems that are just a little bit too complex to solve, and therefore that we have some hope of solving, then this subset must get more complex with time, because as our comprehension improves we solve simpler problems and add more complex problems to our subset.  Furthermore, our dawning awareness of problems that we already had must also increase as a function of improved comprehension and global communication.

The implication for me is this: while the subset of problems that we are aware of does indeed become more complex with time as Engelbart says, this increase in complexity is at least partly a function of our ability to solve problems.  This changes Engelbart's gloomy warning (a runaway train of increasing problem complexity) into a hopeful prediction: humankind is able to solve ever-more complex problems with time.  Perhaps some currently intractable problems will someday be crossed off of our list, especially if we adopt Engelbart's concerted effort to increrase our comprehension systematically.

Moving from a self-experiment with note cards to a "science fiction story" (which turns out to be just like the previous section but written in second person with quotes around the paragraphs), Engelbart works through a new way to work on problems.  The system is fascinating in that we all use it already, and perhaps to a greater technological degree than Engelbart describes.  We all use hypertext links, word processors where cut and paste is simple, queries to return information from databases, etc.  Engelbart's future architect uses technology that can today be accomplished with free software (Google Sketchup).  A few of the more difficult calculations are routine in ArcGIS (plus some others which would have been useful to the architect, like viewshed analysis and cut-and-fill calculations).

So it is fascinating to see that even today I have exactly the same problem.  Engelbart writes that "...a good deal of empirical research would be needed to develop a methodology that would capitalize upon the artifact process capabilities."  We have Engelbart's methodology, but the capabilities of our technology have expanded too.  Now we need a new methodology to bring the full power of our new technological organization systems to bear on a problem.  I wonder if we will ever have a consistent methodology for working on problems?

Man-Computer Symbiosis

posted Feb 13, 2012, 11:08 PM by Nick Bader   [ updated Feb 13, 2012, 11:08 PM ]

The fundamental vision of Licklider's Man-Computer Symbiosis is of humans and computers complementing one another's weaknesses, forming a whole greater than the sum of its parts.  Licklider focuses on technical hurdles that must be overcome in order to usher in this new era.  I am surprised to note, as I look over this list of hurdles, that we have had remarkably variable progress in dealing with these issues since 1960.  To wit:

Proposed: A machine should be able to deal with incomplete specifications of a problem.
Status: Computers must still be told exactly what to do.  Programmers must still spell out their instructions in unambiguous code.  But maybe this is unfair: perhaps we need to look for improvements at a higher level of organization, like the Bayesian learning algorithms that can be trained to sort your junk mail.

Proposed: Clever tricks must be employed to overcome the inevitable and eternal limitations of computer memory.  (Here Licklider is is contrast to Vannevar Bush's As We May Think, where the limitless storage seemed inevitable, albeit on microfilm.)
Status: Advantage Bush.  Memory is cheap.  Today my colleague handed me a capacious memory stick barely large enough for its own USB jack.

My favorite theme in Man-Computer Symbiosis is the need to find a common ground for communication with machines.  Here we still find a tremendous gulf between human and computer languages.  The computer language Python, lauded for its readable code, is to a first approximation very similar to the Fortran code described in this article.  Human languages are still evolutionary and illogical.  In our last meeting I mentioned a constructed human language (Lojban) designed to be logically unambiguous, but it remains a small project.  Progress in communication with our computers may be the most significant impediment to the symbiosis Licklider envisions.

As We May Think

posted Feb 6, 2012, 4:53 PM by Nick Bader

I love this essay.  In fact, this essay is why I joined the seminar: David's invitation email had a train of links leading to a copy of this article, and before I knew it I was knee-deep in this article.

It is also nice to know that the mysterious eye-doctor-looking fellow on the cover of the New Media Reader is in fact a scientist of the future.

To me, the most obvious arresting characteristic of this article is the juxtaposition of two things: (1) Bush's insightful, perhaps prophetic, predictions about the manner and degree to which our lives would become enmeshed in technology, and (2) the almost universally inaccurate predictions about the means by which this technology would be implemented.  The fact that this essay has lost none of its value since 1945 reminds me that it is the goals of technology that are important, even if we get bogged down in the "how."

I am wary of cases where a technical advancement can be a solution without a problem.  Technology has a cost (including a learning curve) and a benefit.  Where the benefit is poorly understood, the books may not balance in favor of the new advance.  Sometimes we adopt it anyway, and let the benefits catch up later.  Bush reminds me that there should be a clear goal to all of our murky technological half-steps: at the end, we should be human, only better.

I am not sure how my time as a child playing Space Invaders meets this criterion.

Janet Murray's introduction "Inventing the Medium"

posted Jan 29, 2012, 9:20 PM by Nick Bader

First, to my NMS co-conspirators: I intend to not read anyone else's posts before commenting.  This will allow me actually write something, blissfully ignorant that other posts are much more erudite and insightful than my own.  However, this also means that I may inadvertently repeat the observations of others.

Second, I am enjoying learning new things already.  Things from this article that I had never heard of and had to look up: "CAVE" and the word "pullulating" (which appears at least three times).

"Inventing the Medium" sets up a conflict between two ways of seeing the new media: the "humanist" viewpoint (represented by Jorge Luis Borges) and the "engineer" viewpoint (represented by Vannevar Bush).  I first became aware of the gulf between these viewpoints when I was a graduate student in the interdisciplinary Department of Environmental Studies at the University of California Santa Cruz.  I recall the faculty arguing about what the purview of the department should be.  A faculty member suggested what seemed then (and still seems) an eminently sensible answer: that our common thread was a search for solutions to current environmental problems.  I was startled to look around the room and see agreement from the natural scientists, but dissatisfaction on the faces of the social scientists.  Similarly, as I read Inventing the Medium, I nodded sagely at the "engineer" parts and furrowed my brow in confusion at the "humanist" parts.

I am strongly drawn to the engineer's problem-and-solution model for two reasons.  First, the search for solutions assumes that there ARE solutions, so it is inherently optimistic.  Second, its application is broader than we sometimes imagine.  To answer Murray's criticism that certain important things are left "outside the domain of the problem" for the engineer: could we not view this and other criticisms as problems demanding a solution?

Finally, an observation: this is commentary about commentary about commentary.  When the separate institutional blogs are combined, we will be adding another layer of meta-commentary...

I look forward to an interesting seminar with all of you!

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