Listing entries tagged with text
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interface culture 04.21.2008, 10:43 AM
Omnisio, a new Y Combinator startup, lets people grab clips from the Web and mash them up. Users can integrate video with slide presentations, and enable time-sensitive commenting in little popup bubbles layered on the video.
MediaCommons was founded partly to find a way of conducting media studies discussions at a pace more congruent with changes in the media landscape. It's tempting to see this as part of that same narrative: crowdsourcing media commentary for the ADHD generation. For me, though, it evokes a question that Kate Pullinger raised during the research Chris and I conducted for the Arts Council. Namely: are we seeing an ineluctable decline of text on the Web? Are writers becoming multi-skilled media assemblers, masher-uppers, creators of Slideshares and videocasts and the rest? And if so, is this a bad thing?
I've been re-reading In The Beginning Was The Command Line, a 1999 meditation by Neal Stephenson on the paradigm shift from command line to GUI interactions in computer use. In a discussion on Disneyland, he draws a parallel between 'Disneyfication' and the shift from command line to GUI paradigm, and thence to an entire approach to culture:
Why are we rejecting explicit word-based interfaces, and embracing graphical or sensorial ones--a trend that accounts for the success of both Microsoft and Disney?
Part of it is simply that the world is very complicated now--much more complicated than the hunter-gatherer world that our brains evolved to cope with--and we simply can't handle all of the details. We have to delegate. We have no choice but to trust some nameless artist at Disney or programmer at Apple or Microsoft to make a few choices for us, close off some options, and give us a conveniently packaged executive summary.
But more importantly, it comes out of the fact that, during this century, intellectualism failed, and everyone knows it. In places like Russia and Germany, the common people agreed to loosen their grip on traditional folkways, mores, and religion, and let the intellectuals run with the ball, and they screwed everything up and turned the century into an abbatoir. Those wordy intellectuals used to be merely tedious; now they seem kind of dangerous as well.
We Americans are the only ones who didn't get creamed at some point during all of this. We are free and prosperous because we have inherited political and values systems fabricated by a particular set of eighteenth-century intellectuals who happened to get it right. But we have lost touch with those intellectuals, and with anything like intellectualism, even to the point of not reading books any more, though we are literate. We seem much more comfortable with propagating those values to future generations nonverbally, through a process of being steeped in media.
So this culture, steeped in media, emerges from intellectualism and arrives somewhere quite different. Stephenson goes on to discus the extent to which word processing programs complicate the assumed immutability of the written word, whether through system crashes, changing formats or other technical problems:
The ink stains the paper, the chisel cuts the stone, the stylus marks the clay, and something has irrevocably happened (my brother-in-law is a theologian who reads 3250-year-old cuneiform tablets--he can recognize the handwriting of particular scribes, and identify them by name). But word-processing software--particularly the sort that employs special, complex file formats--has the eldritch power to unwrite things. A small change in file formats, or a few twiddled bits, and months' or years' literary output can cease to exist.
For Stephenson, a skilled programmer as well as a writer, the solution is to dive into FLOSS tools, to become adept enough at the source code to escape reliance on GUIs. But what about those who do not? This is the deep anxiety that underpins the Flash-is-evil debate that pops up now and again in discussions of YouTube: when you can't 'View Source' any more, how are you supposed to learn? Mashup applications like Microsoft's Popfly give me the same nervous feeling of wielding tools that I don't - and will never - understand.
And it's central to the question confronting us, as the Web shifts steadily away from simple markup and largely textual interactions, toward multifaceted mashups and visual media that relegate the written word to a medium layered over the top - almost an afterthought. Stephenson is ambivalent about the pros and cons of 'interface culture': "perhaps the goal of all this is to make us feckless so we won't nuke each other", he says, but ten years on, deep in the War on Terror, it's clear that hypermediation hasn't erased the need for bombs so much as added webcams to their explosive noses so we can cheer along. And despite my own streak of techno-meritocracy ('if they've voted it to the top then dammit, it's the best') I have to admit to wincing at the idea that intellectualism is so thoroughly a thing of the past.
This was meant to be a short post about how exciting it was to be able to blend video with commentary, and how promising this was for new kinds of literacy. But then I watched this anthology of Steve Ballmer videos, currently one of the most popular on the Omnisio site, and (once I stopped laughing) started thinking about the commentary over the top. What it's for (mostly heckling), what it achieves, and how it relates to - say - the kind of skill that can produce an essay on the cultural ramifications of computer software paradigms. And it's turned into a speculation about whether, as a writer, I'm on the verge of becoming obsolete, or at least in need of serious retraining. I don't want this to lapse into the well-worn trope that conflates literacy with moral and civic value - but I'm unnerved by the notion of a fully post-literate world, and by the Flash applications and APIs that inhabit it.
he do the police in different voices 02.23.2008, 7:08 PM
In a sense, Graham Rawle's novel Woman's World, just out in the United States from Counterpoint, is made for the internet. It's the sort of thing that you expect to see on Digg or Reddit: artist spends several years cutting up old women's magazines and laboriously constructs a 400-page novel out of the collaged shards of text. If the internet loves anything, it's novelty, and Rawle's work is certainly that. Every spread of the book is beautiful – here's one chosen at random:
I show one spread, though I could as easily have shown 200 others. Rawle's work is supremely visual, and invites the reader to appreciate in that way. In a sense, it puts off serious readings: it's constructed from women's magazines of the 1950s and 60s, which society accords little value to: magazines are ephemeral, fashion magazines inherently so. But such readings, inevitable as they may be, are unjust to Rawle's book, which deserves to be read as a novel. While emphatically a work of print, the way Rawle uses text can shed light on the way we use text online.
What goes on in Woman's World? Rawle's raw materials suggest his subject matter: it's a novel about clothes, specifically women's clothes. It's not a stretch to imagine that his working method suggested his plot: Rawle, a mail artist, uses women's words to construct a book; his male protagonist garbs himself in women's clothes. Clothes become language: Rawle stitches words and phrases together to make something new. (A parallel might be drawn to Georges Perec's use of constraint in La Disparition/A Void, a work of art not because it does away with the letter e – that had been done before – but because Perec's technique informs his narrative; the informed reader sees the novel's themes of disappearance and loss as Perec's method of indirectly writing about the disappearance of his parents in the Holocaust.)
It's worth paying close attention to how the creator works. Rawle generally cuts on the phrase level, going down to the word level. Occasionally a suffix is added (-s, -ed). It's only once in a great while that he edits inside the word. On p. 307 (below left), the eye is drawn to word "realising", where the American spelling "realizing" has been changed to the British "realising" by pasting an s over a z. (From the spelling, Rawle seems to be mining British magazines, another reason for this word to stand out.) It's hard not to take this as a sign pointing to to another narrative about transvestites where things end badly, Honoré de Balzac's "Sarrasine", a short story best known to English readers from its appearance as an appendix in Roland Barthes's book-length reading of it, S/Z. In that book, Barthes dissected "Sarrasine" into 561 narrative units he called "lexias" in which he discovered five different codes underlying and structuring the text. Balzac's story appears twice in S/Z: once interpolated with Barthes's notations over 220 pages, and again in an appendix to the book, interpolated by the numerals numbering the lexias Barthes found in the story. Displayed on the page like this – an example is below right – "Sarrasine" feels like Frankenstein's monster, constructed from numbered parts of language; a great-uncle, perhaps, of Rawle's text. There's at least a faint family resemblance:
Just as Barthes finds structures by which to decipher what the reader experiences in "Sarrasine", there can be found structures to decipher what the reader experiences when reading Woman's World. At one level, there is the story - a sequence of words that could be put into a .TXT file and be exactly the same. At another level, there's the presentation. This is something that's hard to precisely pin down, but it's best explained by pointing out the difference between reading a plain text version of Rawle's story and the collaged version of the same. Try looking at Rawle's p. 307 and my neutral typesetting of it (click on each for a better view):
Something is lost in my translation, though most don't have the vocabulary to describe what that is. (Tom Phillips, no stranger to this sort of thing, gives the book a close reading in his Guardian review that suggests that such a thing is possible with a background in graphic design.) But try to read these two versions of the same page aloud and note the difference: the first full sentence in Rawle's version has a front-loaded stress ("HE looked at her") that isn't apparent from the words alone. The same sentence feels choppy because it's cut into individual words at first; it seems to speed up when it gets to "and just then found," a whole phrase. An eye more attuned to the nuances of type is bound to notice more of these connotations; and certainly this seems conscious on Rawle's part.
On a third level, there's the apparent history of Rawle's bits of text: its referentiality. Every letter of Rawle's text clearly comes from somewhere else; sometimes he takes as many as several sentences. The original context isn't always clear, though it can quite often be guessed. (Extended excerpts aren't always needed to do this: sometimes a single decorative letter is enough to suggest that it originally served as an ad.) Rawle's language is explicitly secondhand. In a sense, though, it's no more secondhand than any other language. We use words and phrases because others have used those words and phrases before us (or, more pretentiously, we hope that others will use ours) and those words and phrases suggest our previous conversations, reading, and cultural contexts. Language carries its history with it.
(Perhaps I didn't need to go to Barthes to point this out: one remembers the best moment in The Devil Wears Prada is a scene in which Meryl Streep, playing Anna Wintour, upbraids the movie's idiotic anti-hero Anne Hathaway, for declaring that fashion is meaningless and that her constant demands are similarly petty and meaningless. Streep responds fluently in the language of fashion, spinning off a history of color, texture, and cut, proceeding from designer to designer, through connotations and denotations, until she reaches the nameless maker of Hathaway's rather non-descript blue cardigan, which carries a world of associations even if worn by the unaware.)
Language is a complicated thing that we tend to take for granted. Looking at Rawle's novel suggests how loaded simple text can be. It's worth considering how comparatively limited reading on the Internet seems to be. Consider this text: I'm writing it in black 14 point Avenir Roman, though when it appears on the blog, my best guess is that you'll see it in 13 point Verdana in a dark gray. That could be, of course, entirely wrong: the browser environment (and RSS readers) give viewers a great deal of freedom in defining how their text looks. But that's a small point in comparison with the third code I find in Rawle, the referentiality of his pieces of text. For all the interlarding of scans in this post, it appears to be a seamless whole – you, the reader, have no reason for not thinking that I didn't start at the first sentence and write furiously until I came to the last sentence, and I would be more than happy not to disabuse you of the notion. Had this piece been written as a Wikipedia article, you might have some notion of how this was created, though it's still very difficult to visualize exactly where a Wikipedia article comes from: while the prose of a typical Wikipedia article is lumpy, it has nowhere near the eloquent texture of Rawle's pages.
Could an electronic Woman's World be made? Another parallel could be drawn, to Ted Nelson's idea of transclusion, the concept of keeping quoted texts connected to their original sources. Transclusion was an early hypertext hope, though results so far have been generally disappointing; it's not quite so easy as cutting and pasting, though Nelson's appealingly low-tech diagrams might suggest this. There's a way to go yet.
shifting forms of graffiti 08.18.2006, 7:27 AM
A few weekends ago, I was returning into Manhattan from upstate New York. Coming down the FRD along the East River, we past Keith Haring's "Crack is Wack" mural on 128th and 2nd. I remember the first time I saw it in the 80s on a family day trip into the city. The work is strikes me as quite extraordinary, even 20 years after its creation in 1986. By that time, Haring was established in the art world, having already shown at the Venice Biennale and the Whitney Biennial and had solo shows at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery and the Leo Castelli Gallery. Even though Haring was part of that contemporary/ high brow art world, he still maintained a connection to his roots of skirting the lines between public street art and illegal graffiti. "Crack is Wack" mixed of graffiti street culture, political and social messages, and high art. Although, the mural was quickly placed under the protection and jurisdiction of the City Department of Parks.
Haring took cues from graffiti, among other sources of influence, and created his own style and form. Revisiting "Crack is Wack" got me thinking about graffiti and how it has evolved of the past few decades. The funny thing about living in New York is that, after a while, you start seeing through the visual chaos of our surroundings. When you take a moment to stop and look, it is amazing what you can actually see. The things that you walk by everyday, especially stand out.
Graffiti, which had faded into the background visual noise of New York, was back on my radar screen. It was, of course, everywhere, but it had also changed since I really paid attention to it. Ben posted about a show on graffiti at the Brooklyn Museum, and that was just one aspect of how graffiti has expanded beyond the traditional notions of the form. At the institute, we spend a lot of time thinking about the evolution of media, and it seems that graffiti is no different.
On a side street near Little Italy, there used to be an advertisement for the Sony PSP done by the graffiti artists Tat's Cru. Now, the brick space has a place holder of an advertisement for these graffiti artists for hire. An interesting comment was left by a rival tagger, saying "sell out." And then someone else left their tag over the unsolicited commentary. I love the on-going asynchronous dialogue occurring on this brick wall of this corner deli. It is not surprising that others would be upset at Tat's Cru getting paid by advertisers for marketing. The website shows a piece that they did for BP. Working for the oil industry certainly will raise doubts to the authenticity and street credibility by purists of the form.
Perhaps, the work of the Tats Cru has not branched off to the new genre of graffiti but circled back to another form. Take this painted billboard for the debut solo record by Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke. The billboard appeared in Williamsburg in the weeks leading up to its release. Within moments, my initial thought that it was some hard core fan's ode to British rock was replaced with the realization that this was paid for by a record label.
Referencing graffiti in advertising is nothing new. Turning actual graffiti into the advertising was the obvious next step. If graffiti is paid for and created for marketing purposes, at what point does it stop being graffiti? Has it turned into something else? Is it just a style of art using spray paint to create forms referencing hip-hop?
Sometime after seeing Haring work, I passed this stoop a few blocks north of Chinatown. There was another similar work by the same artist I saw in the Lower East Side, however, I couldn't find it again.
But the work kept on reappearing. And then, I noticed another one a few blocks from the institute's office in Brooklyn. I probably walked past it hundreds of times before stopping to notice it. You can see where someone tried to tear it off, because in fact, the figures are not drawn on the wall, but on paper. The image is then transferred to the wall. Is this cheating? Suddenly, form and material are being challenged.
I did stumble upon Ping Magazine, when a friend sent me another article from the site. I finally learned that these pieces were created by an artist who goes by Swoon. She gave an interview for the New York Times, and describes herself as street artist, but considers her work graffiti. More importantly, she does not talk about the legal nature or the materiality of her work, but focuses on its location in public spaces and its direction interaction with people.
Keith Haring ended up being a great starting point, because of his work is a hybrid many forms and influences, including graffiti but also things beyond it. His mural reminded me that graffiti has embodied a range of politics, material and cultures for decades. Forms of expression emerge, branch off and circle back. Subsequent generations focus on different areas, be it monetary or expressive. Today, art and advertising are often re-appropriations of each other, as forms blend into one another. Empty spaces are filled with media by both artists and advertisers. The arts organization the Wooster Collective shows how broadly the concept of street art can extended. Trying to restrict these forms to bounded definitions is marginally useful, and often futile.
In this investigation, I was surprised at what I found, and amused at how often I circled back to the question of what is graffiti? The question or process of re-seeing something itself is not that surprising, particularly in the context of our work at the institute. Although, we focus more time on textual media, many of the questions remain the same. As we witness the evolving forms of text and the book, we can learn from other forms that turn into something slightly familiar but also remarkably new.
learning to read 04.20.2006, 8:00 AM
Somebody interviewed Bob for a documentary a few months ago. I don't remember who this was, because I was in the other room busy with something else, but I was half-listening to what was being discussed: how the book is changing, what precisely the Institute does, in short, what we discuss from day to day on this blog. One statement captured my ear: Bob offhandedly declared that "we don't really know how to read Wikipedia yet". I made a note of it at the time; since then I've been periodically pulling his statement out at idle moments and rolling it over and over in my mind like a pebble in my pocket, trying to decide exactly what it could mean.
There's something appealing to me about the flatness of the statement: "We don't really know how to read Wikipedia yet." It's obvious but revelatory: the reason that we find the Wikipedia frustrating is that we need to learn how to read it. (By we I mean the reading public as a whole. Perhaps you have; judging from the arguments that fly back and forth, it would seem that the majority of us haven't.) The problem is, of course, that so few people actually bother to state this sort of thing directly and then to unpack the repercussions of it.
What's there to learn in reading the Wikipedia? Let's start with a sample sentence from the entry on Marcel Proust:
In addition to the grief that attended his mother's death, Proust's life changed due to a very large inheritance (in today's terms, a principal of about $6 million, with a monthly income of about $15,000).
Criticizing the Wikipedia for being poorly written is like shooting fish in a barrel, but bear with my lack of sportsmanship for a second. Imagine that you found the above sentence in a printed reference work. A printed reference book that seems to be written in the voice of a sixth grade student deeply interested in matters financial might worry you. It would worry me. It's worried many critics of the Wikipedia, who point out that this clearly isn't the sort of manicured prose we're used to reading in books and magazines.
But this prose is also conceptually different. A Wikipedia article is not constructed in the same way that a magazine article is written. Nor is the content of a Wikipedia article at one particular instant in time - content that has probably been different, and might certainly change - analogous to the content of a print magazine article, which is always, from the moment of printing, exactly the same. If we are to keep using the Wikipedia, we'll have to get used to the solecisms endemic there; we'll also need to readjust they way we give credence to media. (Right now I'm going to tiptoe around the issue of text and authority, which is of course an enormous can of worms that I'd prefer not to open right now.) But there's a reason that the above quotation shouldn't be that worrying: it's entirely possible, and increasingly probable as time goes on, that when you click the link above, you won't be able to find the sentence I quoted.
This faith in the long run isn't an easy thing, however. When we read Wikipedia we tend to apply to it the standards of judgment that we would apply to a book or magazine, and it often fails by these standards, as might be expected. When we're judging Wikipedia this way, we presuppose that we know what it is formally: that it's the same sort of thing as the texts we know. This seems arrogant: why should we assume that we already know how to read something that clearly behaves differently from the text we're used to? We shouldn't, though we do: it's a human response to compare something new to something we already know, but often when we do this, we miss major formal differences.
This isn't the best way to read something new. It's akin to the "horseless carriage" analogy that Ben's used: when you think of a car as a carriage without a horse, you miss whatever it is that makes a car special. But there's a problem with that metaphor, in that it carries with it ideas of displacement. Evolution is often perceived as being transformative: one thing turns into, and is then replaced by, another, as the horse was replaced by the car for purposes of transportation. But it's usually more of a splitting: there's a new species as well as the old species from which it sprung. The old species may go extinct, or it may not. To finish that example: we still have horses.
Figuratively, what's happened with the Wikipedia is that a new species of text has arisen and we're still wondering why it won't eat the apples we're proffering it. The Wikipedia hasn't replaced print encyclopedias; in all probability, the two will coexist for a while. But I don't think we yet know how to read Wikipedia. We judge it by what we're used to, and everyone loses. Were you to judge a car by a horse's attributes, you wouldn't expect to have an oil crisis in a century.
Perhaps a useful way to think about this: a few paragraphs of Proust, found on a trip through In Search of Lost Time with Bob's statement bouncing around my head. The Guermantes Way, the third part of the book, feels like the longest: much of this volume is about failing to recognize how things really are. Proust's hapless narrator alternately recognizes his own mistakes of judgment and makes new ones for six hundred pages, with occasional flashes of insight, like this reflection:
. . . . There was a time when people recognized things easily when they were depicted by Fromentin and failed to recognize them at all when they were painted by Renoir.
Today people of taste tell us that Renoir is a great eighteenth-century painter. But when they say this they forget Time, and that it took a great deal of time, even in the middle of the nineteenth century, for Renoir to be hailed as a great artist. To gain this sort of recognition, an original painter or an original writer follows the path of the occultist. His painting or his prose acts upon us like a course of treatment that is not always agreeable. When it is over, the practitioner says to us, "Now look." And at this point the world (which was not created once and for all, but as often as an original artist is born) appears utterly different from the one we knew, but perfectly clear. Women pass in the street, different from those we used to see, because they are Renoirs, the same Renoirs we once refused to see as women. The carriages are also Renoirs, and the water, and the sky: we want to go for a walk in a forest like the one that, when we first saw it, was anything but a forest – more like a tapestry, for instance, with innumerable shades of color but lacking precisely the colors appropriate to forests. Such is the new and perishable universe that has just been created. It will last until the next geological catastrophe unleashed by a new painter or writer with an original view of the world.
(The Guermantes Way, pp.323–325, trans. Mark Treharne.) There's an obvious comparison to be made here, which I won't belabor. Wikipedia isn't Renoir, and its entry for poor Eugène Fromentin, whose paintings are probably better left forgotten, is cribbed from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica. But like the gallery-goers who needed to learn to look at Renoir, we need to learn to read Wikipedia, to read it as a new form that certainly inherits some traits from what we're used to reading, but one that differs in fundamental ways. That's a process that's going to take time.
itp winter 2005 show 12.21.2005, 11:48 AM
New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program recently had its Winter 2005 show. As always, the show was packed with numerous projects and visitors. Some of the work touched upon ideas we think about at the institute.
A few projects explored new ways to mediate New York. Leif Mangelsen and Jung Oh, in Time Scanned, created static panoramic images by stitching together slivers of digital video to document New York over time and space. Moving beyond the traditional guide book and map, the augmented reality project, DataCity looked at how we navigate New York. In this case, Shagun Singh, Jon Kirchherr and Saranont Limpananont proposed to layer contextual information on an interactive display system to enhance the experience of traveling through the city.
Saiyanthan Sriskandarajah created, The Wasteland, a digital representation of T.S. Eliot's poem. Each letter is encoded into a binary format and then printed with a large format printer. The end result is an abstracted digital representation of a literary work.
Joshua Knowles, Adam Asarnow, Charles Pratt, and Rocio Barcia created Itp.licio.us which was a new twist to the facebook, and explored folksonomy, privacy, and social networks by asking fellow first year students to tag each other. The successful end result (students received an average of 29.4 tags) also addressed issues of internet mediated social interaction and making public the personal information of what classmates think of others.
Although, the twice a year itp shows can be a bit of an overwhelming experience, they offer a glimpse (albeit scaled down) of emerging applications of technology which are often just around the corner for mainstream use.