Daily Archives: October 15, 2009

Week 3 thoughts

This is a test post of what happened during the last week from my LifeStream. Only it started out really ridiculously long. Well I guess it relates nicely back to Jen and Sian’s Lifestream conversation but my original thought – to faff around with these postings and cluster them into themes and see if what I think I thought about this week was actually what I did – just seemed so time consuming as to at least duplicate the effort of doing all the things that contributed to the lifestream so, with a nod to Baudrillard, I will not simulate the week but will instead pick off the highlights. This seems apt since one of the articles I was most intrigued to find was:

twitter (feed #2) #ededc thinking transliteracies here: multitaskers aren’t good multitaskers apparently: http://bit.ly/14KHbW [suchprettyeyes]

As I tweeted this idea of multitasking taking away from any one task seemed to fit interestingly with this week’s readings on transliteracies (Thomas (3)). I consider myself quite a multitasker and certainly have many things open as I work and at home on the computer – often sound, web, email, twitter, etc. all going in parallel. I think it feeds into the way I react to the world – I hear about things in my Twitter stream, I get alerts about emails and filter whether or not to read them based on those alerts, I use podcasts to find out about news, new technology, science, and other more random topics and I feel that all those things help me form a day to day view of the world. I find new different forms of information inspires me to make unexpected connections, find new things to look at and think about, I think it sort of keeps me hungry for new information. But I can see some familiar issues regarding concentrating and completing long term tasks. Although I think I manage that sufficiently and, thankfully, have a job where keeping on top of new ideas is a core issue. All the same my own experience and some of the “muddled brain” issues highlighted in the Wired article hint at the impact that the speed of absorption of technology into day to day life means for changing ways of working and interacting. Indeed – since I am actually posting this a little late in Week 4 – one of the themes of this block seems to be how to manage the immense flow of information which brings me to another highlight from my digital week.

Something that I attended early this year surprised me more than it should have: Twestival was billed as a fund raising event to “Meet. Tweet. Give.” but seemed, when attending in person to be more “Tweet. Flirt. Not be Geek.” as many of those in attendance seemed to be attempting to reenforce their up to date knowledge of Tech in a self-consciously ungeeky ways (e.g. Kiss 2009).  Although a further “Twestival Local” has taken place this autumn what seems to have been triggered by the February event is an onslaught of networking and meetup events around tech, social media, and other digital cultural activities. This was already going on in the US in the TED lectures but these too only seemed to have kicked off in the UK this year (under the TEDx banner).  This reminds me of activities back in the late 90’s around the start up scene where meet ups of new internet companies and companies and funders were common. The difference is that these meet ups blend start ups with members of bigger organisations, public sector and more general public and the focus is on using the real world to solidify existing networks or help build new connections that will be followed up online.  The reason I mention these is that this week I’ve been sent a raft of events and registered for a few so they are are all over my lifestream:

delicious (feed #3)

New ways of working and thinking augmented by digital administration and sharing…

delicious (feed #3)

Really interesting presentation: its not about skills in a modern web context, its about culture…

twitter (feed #2)
I’m attending Inspirational Women in Computing — http://hoppers.eventbrite.com/?ref=estw [suchprettyeyes]

I think the major appeal of these real world networking events is to shift some of that digital networking into a more conventional social sorting space. As soon as you meet someone you have already “met” online, or

“crossing the flesh horizon”

as one person I met at a Girl Geek Dinner in September told me her friend (creepily) puts it, is strange as you are suddenly able to look at that person and speak and establish things you just don’t automatically find out online:

  • Oh you smoke?!
  • You don’t drink alcohol?
  • You drink like a fish!
  • You have 3 children?
  • You’re a driver? Hmm… I had you down as a bus taker…
  • You’re married?
  • You’re NOT gay?
  • HOW tall are you?!
  • Hmm, I didn’t expect you to be missing a leg…
  • Wow! You’re not nearly as poe-faced as you seemed online!
  • You have the best taste in shoes!
  • You knit your own evening wear?
  • Now that is not the accent I was expecting…

We are a very visual social species and sometimes that can make or break what has been a good or fruitful online relationship. In most cases the people I know online turn out to be remarkably similar in real life but I recently met a course colleague from another MSc module and he was a good foot taller than I expected. I met him a few weeks after meeting a friend’s new partner who was a good foot shorter than I expected. People online are always formed from our own layers of baggage, hopes, interests etc. and that can be really difficult to match up with reality if you know a person before you physically meet them. I think the in-person networking sessions really speak to the idea that it is nice to see someone in person but the internet is massively capable at letting you continue to form that relationship, share contact details, perhaps work together thereafter and I have certainly made some useful contacts through a brief meet and then an extended online getting to know you period that makes us feel like old friends or close colleagues when we next meet. This seems an interesting step along from where networking events were just a decade ago. You would meet in person and follow up in person or on the phone since email just wasn’t as engaging as the more visual and embedded social networks now are.

This brings me to the other major theme of my week which I’ll reference with one of many posts from my lifestream:

delicious (feed #3)

A useful cheat sheet of helpful Google Wave tips and tricks.

Something that I found rather weird about the texts for Week 3 and 4 is their presentation style. Despite all discussing new formats for communication all of the papers are presented in traditional textual form rather than using image, video, or simply screen-friendly HTML formatting. But then I also got access to Google Wave this week and that has been a really challenging wake up call about my own digital literacy and comfort levels. It’s a game changer I think but since it replaces wikis, social networks and email in one peculiar space (and since hardly anyone I know is on it yet) it’s hard to work out if that is a terrific or alarming prospect yet. All I do know at this stage is that it is genuinely hard to learn a fully different way to communicate from scratch when you are so very used to the existant formats. That’s a lesson for me as to date everyone online has felt fairly cosy and Wave, though understandable enough, is radical enough to throw me. Anyway here is what it looks like (sorta):

wave

And I have certainly spent much of my week trying to evaluate how useful it might be for me, my colleagues, and my friends. Interestingly the sparsity of invites means that it is acting as a strong networking tool so far since people who might not otherwise wish to be a close contact are keen to try out a bit of Waving and so we are mutually adding each other and Waving away… We are thus privileged by the limited access and benefiting from that privilege which is interesting for the inclusion/exclusion issues around Digital Cultures.

Wave may have had all the media coverage but there was one other Google product that I spent a significant part of this week looking at – Google SideWiki. This is very similar to the services already run by Diigo, Glue and other cross-site commenting and bookmarking systems but because of the power of the Google brand and the way in which SideWiki has been implemented it has been causing a major stir in web design communities as it, effectively, add feedback to your website whether you want it or not and whether you intend to notice and collect what is said or not.

The SideWiki is implemented through a browser plugin (which also adds Google Chrome-like functionality to new tabs) and allows you to open a sidebar on any site and add your comments about that site. It is a strange tool because of this. On the one hand it helpfully gathers comments in a publicly accessible predictable location but, on the other hand, it removes another element of control from the web designer and relies on the user applying a new sort of transliteracy to interpreting what they may or may not see in that SideWiki and their knowledge of who provides that element and who updates it. It is a significantly challenging development as many websites pride themselves on hierarchical and/or well user tested designs and this new facility may undermine or confuse that.

Skype Tutorial

The other major event of this week was the Skype Tutorial on the readings which I found really useful and beneficial as it was our first real-time course meet up and it really helped me feel grounded again. Working with blogs is brilliant – especially as I can share my work with colleagues and friends if I wish – but it does mean there is an immense amount of information flowing and, as much as I would like to read everyone’s blog postings every day there is simply not the time making my own experience of the course relatively individual. Having a collective moment to chat about the readings and about the course in general was thus very reassuring. In terms of the readings I found myself scribbling a lot in the margins this week and that’s the final chunk of what I want to talk about here…

Week 3 & 4 Readings

Reading wise this has been by far the most interesting week for me. My first enthusiasm at school was, years before science and computing, art and so I am always intrigued to engage with the visual and ideas of what  more visual communication means to different people (see my Week 4 blog posting for my excitement at our visual artifacts!) so much of what was examined really struck a chord or, conversely, annoyed me in some really fruitful ways!

Carpenter (1) really appealled with, and I paraphrase here, his personal endorsement that you should write what you know about and his view that electronic texts can be significantly engaging and encourage reflective practice very much because of their format. For me much of what Carpenter raised for me gelled with Baudrillard’s comments on simulations as I thought about how scholarly electronic items work at present. The dominant form of readings for many classes – on and offline – now are from electronic journals and electronic prints but these are often not only formatted and presented like their print counterparts but are often, also, an exact scan or simulation of the print artifact. Though there is recognition that the electronic form is essential to distribution this seems to overlook the possibility of properly digitally native texts that can be accessed from multiple points, that can be experienced in more visual ways, that can include, say, a link to the entire full length media that an author is talking about, say, or a link to the museum or library at which a key text was accessed etc. Ben Goldacre, talking about his Bad Science blog at a recent Social Media Convention, talked about the strength of the online being that one not only cited but linked to sources – you can always track back an assertion to it’s original roots. He was stating this in the context of the fact that many science journalists do not link to their source because they often work from press releases but I think his key idea of citation has broader application. There is huge effort required in literature searches and following up references and, whilst I see some of this exercise as useful to understanding the scholarly process (Carpenter’s “gain membership” idea), I also think much of this can be wasteful since it requires unnecessary duplication given that a digital text has so much barely explored potential. I like Carpenter’s idea of using existant skills as a catalyst for scholarly literacies but I also left the article feeling that texts should be able to adapt to be digital rather than just being re-mediated as a simulation of their traditional format.

As something of a side note I also questioned Carpenter’s implication that many academics basically don’t “do” pop culture since my experience is that many academics across even the most traditional disciplines will happily appear in the media to produce a soundbite and increasingly this is not about appearing in a highly intellectual educational programme but predicting or comment on technology, historical happenings etc. on very popularist media. In the US there is significant pay attached to such work but I do not think this is the most major motivator in the UK. Though most academic careers are still measured through published research I think it is increasingly true that attracting students (and their fees) plays a role and having identifiable accessible academics assists in this making it increasingly fruitful for individual scholars to build a personal brand across the media.

Kress was an interesting read for me. My first point of conflict came with Kress’ insistence that visuality is somehow new and revolutionary as a way to understand the world. For those of us with sight the world is 100% visual at all times. Reading and understanding literature – and all of the conventions and structures Kress describes – is an inherently visual process (there are different structures to recorded/interpreted versions of texts) but, more importantly, the very definition of consciousness, of function, of aliveness is the process of seeing the world. The distinction between waking life and the unrealities of dream are defined by whether our eyes are opened or closed. Science Fiction and melodramatic films have always used the gradual nervous opening or slow feverish closing of eyes as metaphors for life. To suggest that bringing images into academia so that:

The semiotic changes are vast enough to warrant the term “revolution”, of two kinds; of the modes of representation on the one hand, from the centrality of writing to the increasing significance of image; and of the media of dissemination on the other, from the centrality of the medium of the book to the medium of the screen.

Kress 2004 (page 6)

Seems to me to fundamentally overlook the impact that walking around the world, experiencing light, landscape, art, and the visual qualities of the written word (an element always crucial in academic work of historic texts where marginalia, images, page composition, layout, hand-worked printing processes etc. all contribute to the understanding of the text itself). It is disingenuous to assume we neutrally regard all presentation elements of text until the visual mediums of the computer or television screen emerge since we have long codified, formatted and had a visual connection with text above and beyond the formalities that Kress characterizes the written text to possess. If such things were not important then the conventional choices of fonts, the branding of whole families of scholarly journals, the images or lack of images of authors, etc. would have no value whereas each contributes to the authenticity of a scholarly text. Even if it appeared to obey all conventions of notation, textual format etc. I think an academic would no more be seen with a lengthy article published in Comic Sans than they would be seen with a Ladybird Guide.

There is also a disciplinary issue here as well. Academic writing in certain disciplines does not contain vast numbers of visual elements but my own first degree in science involved learning about ideas that had been illustrated almost from the outset from ancient Roman and Arabic mathematics – requiring diagrams to adequately express the relationships of angles, line, and equation – to engineering concepts sketched out many hundreds of years ago in rich scale diagrams. The idea that these concepts could be contained in text comes fairly late in the history of science communication and is never really a success. Science journals today are often significantly more rich online than in print but both will share key visual elements – photographs, diagrams, complex equations that it would be fruitless to turn into long worded paragraphs. Some online journals even include 3 dimensional explorable molecular models, links from tables of results to full immense data sets. Writing is not the key academic language here, writing merely allows a method to add an interpretation to the core matter of data, method and examination of a given hypothesis, molecule or phenomenon. The language of scientific academic writing also challenges Kress’ comment that:

The still existing common sense is that meaning in language is clear and reliable by contrast, with image for instance, which, in that same commonsense, is not solid or clear.

Kress 2004 (page 8)

I would add that the study of art and art history both rely heavily on the reproducibility, one way or another, of images. To the artist the study of images is a primary language. To an art historian the text may be of primary concern but it is meaningless without the knowledge – and usually reproduction within the text – of key images, in much the same way as Kress’ example book is lent meaningful structure and navigation by chapter headings, page numbers etc.

It was not that I disagreed entirely with Kress but I found his view to be somewhat blinkered by his own disciplinary expectations and was disappointed in his own visual literacy when he compared a print prospectus with the online equivalent. Kress suggests that the latter is a more visual medium but he does this by asserting that the website emphasizes information over knowledge – something I would assert is true of both prospectuses since conveying key factual elements of an institution is a primary purpose – and by saying that the website is “profoundly different” to the book form despite being quite clearly heavily influenced by the former. Different entry points is a valid key difference between text and web page although Kress has just pointed to the value of indexes and convention in books and this points to the fact that both formats actually provide alternative entry points and, in great likelihood looking at the headings, the web page has been designed and formatted to be consumed in a specific way and even presents a structured order of pages which likely mirrors the flow of the original print version. Thus I dispute the idea that “The order of this page and of the whole site is open” not least as this would require me to know that all pages on the site are linked to all other pages, that the text does not run in any sort of order from section to section and that the web designer did not have a particular navigation path in mind at the point of design.

In comparing the book and website Kress also indicates that “Image dominates the organization of the “page”.” but he does not look at the fact that the image here is NOT part of navigation – it is not used as an icon or alternative to the text but as an illustration (something long used in printed texts) – and Kress does not reflect on the impact of the fact that the images shown are generic and/or stock shots so are not particularly visually expressive. The main image on the screen capture included in this article shows a girl reading a book in green space. This does transmit some messages subliminal to the core text: this university has a pleasant green area and open feeling; we have and welcome female students; we value a sense of individuality and personal study; we are a traditional university in our expectations of the shape of study. Many other universities will include a specific building as context, computers in the shot, a multi-ethnic and/or mixed age and/or mixed ability group of students in an image. Few will select an unstaged image indicating that the crucial function is desired illustration not a sense of truthful representation (if such a thing is possible (Rose (4))) or an abstract sense of visual navigation or dialogue.

Overall Kress (2) left me with more questions than answers I think. He seemed, to me, to rank the dominance of the visual above the crucial issue and impact of media convergence and that feels like a crucial issue for me as I navigate the digital world – formats collide and converge all the time. Kress’ comments about the order of access did also made me reflect on what narrative or interpretive impact my choice to, generally, read all of a given week’s readings in the order they are listed might have. In modern music ownership/listening patterns it is a cliche to talk about not listening to linear albums anymore in favour of shuffle and my own experience is that order can change understanding. A jarring strange piece of electronica feels significantly more disruptive if it follows a soft pop ballad or a piece of classical music rather than another discordant track for instance. So what impact does my reading in prescribed order have upon my understanding of the texts? Something about Kress left me feeling I should muddle up my print outs (for I must admit to printing in order to read the readings each week) and see what impact that had on me!

Thomas (3) was, for me, the most exciting reading of the week since it directly attacked the idea of converged media and how one processes and becomes literate in many forms and conventions when they all combine and affect each other. Thomas points, early on, to the issue of trust in new spaces and this is something of major interest to me at the moment as my work in social media raises all sorts of questions around what you can and should trust and what impact ostensibly valuable collections of user generated content – often ephemeral, without checking or metadata – can have in an academic context more used to authoritative trusted data sources. Thomas also points to the growth of social recommendation and this fits well with a suggestion I recently encountered that social media turns our media culture into something that begins to resemble the oral traditions of old – this has opportunities and threats associated but is certainly an interesting idea to explore and, through the prism of Bernard Stiegler view that “human individuation and technology have always had a transductive relationship” (as described in Thomas (3)), makes some sense of the comparative popularity and social acceptance of social media versus the more niche appeal of “web 1.0″.

Thomas also quotes Socrates:

[writing is an aid] not to memory, but to reminiscence

Which appeals to me as it suggests that storytelling, expression, sharing are all inherently creative and interpretive practices. As Thomas moves on to talk about multiple modes of expression are/may be combined I think this is a useful idea to have in mind. To understand something is not to have it fully described (necessarily) but instead to have some sensation that connects you to what is being expressed. Those working with dementia patients often used discussion and memories to provoke thought and well-being but key to this is often the use of scent to evoke a sense of time and place. Music is widely used in films to add a sense of tension, context, mood to a story. We are used to the world being touchable, tastable, smellable and so our experiences can and should be more than just text and illustration. Indeed as I was reading over this weeks texts I heard a piece on Radio 4 about Nick Caves latest work – a book only being provided as an audio book with a soundtrack so that listeners can experience more than just the words but also the cadence of his voice and the music of his collaborator. It is intended as storytelling but as rich multimodal experience.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of Thomas was the included shot of Alan Halsey’s The Problem of Script. Whilst I admire the attempt to combine multiple scripts and images the resultant image is extremely complex, discordant and inaccessible. I think this is as it should be for the point Halsey wishes to make but it is nonetheless a strange object to encounter and interpret.

Overall I found Thomas energising as discussion of living in transliteral spaces really seemed to reflect my own experience of the world – where I may use phone, computer and television simultaniously, where I might work across multiple online tools set up in multiple conventions and formats, every day – and chimed with my own sense that there is something magical, creative and yet somehow not quite ready in my ability to do this usefully. This ties back ultimately to my first comment today about the problems of multitasking I suppose. But it also calls on some of the unpredictability of the way an individual experiences a digital space – as part of a greater real world transliterate experience (e.g. the Al Gore image in Thomas) – and what that means for designing for that space. I have head an academic working for Google explain how the company’s research team go and visit test subjects in their home to see how their transliterate spaces affect what they do on the site which is perhaps evidence enough that it can be costly but valuable to see how digital behaviours exist as part of complex wider interactions of media and context.

References

  1. Carpenter, R (2009) Boundary negotiations: electronic environments as interface. Computers and Composition. 26, 138-148.
  2. Kress, G (2005) Gains and losses: new forms of texts, knowledge and learning. Computers and Composition. 22(1), 5-22.
  3. Thomas, S et al (2007) Transliteracy: crossing divides. First Monday. 12(12). [web site]
  4. Rose, Gillian (2007) Researching visual materials: towards a critical visual methodology, chapter 1 of Visual methodologies: an introduction to the interpretation of visual materials. London: Sage. pp.1-27.
  5. Julier, G (2006) From visual culture to design culture, Design issues, 22 (1), 64-76.
  6. Spalter, A M and van Dam, A (2008) Digital visual literacy, Theory into practice, 47, 93-101.
  7. Merchant, G (2007) Mind the gap(s): discourses and discontinuity in digital literacies, E-learning, 4 (3), 241-255.