Category Archives: New Media

Proof and Possibility: Tech, Media, and Imagination

Jesse Abbot continues his incredible speaking series with:

Speaker info:

F. Scott Scribner, PhD, is Associate Professor of Philosophy at The University of Hartford. He received his doctorate from SUNY-Binghamton and has studied extensively in Europe – in both France and Germany. He is a specialist in 19th and 20th Century European Philosophy and has published widely in this field. He is primarily concerned with marshaling the resources of 19th century German Idealism for thinking about the impact of media upon our lives. And although he is convinced that technology speeds far faster than our ability to think it, it doesn’t stop him from trying. His book, Matter’s Spirit: J.G. Fichte and Technological Imagination (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010) was published this past spring.

Doing Yet More Impossible Things in Inform 7

To create the illusion of doing more impossible things in Inform 7

The Lab is a room. The description is “The lab is cool. You sense the existence of an atom in the lab.”

The Atom is an open enterable scenery in the Lab.

An Electron is an open enterable scenery in the Atom. A dog is in the electron.

Instead of entering the Atom: say “You did the impossible and went inside the atom. Even so, you spy an electron.”

Instead of examining the electron, say “Maybe you could get inside that too.” instead.

Instead of entering the electron: say “Now you feel even smaller. But, hey, how did that dog get in here?”

After examining the dog:
now the player is in the Lab;
say “You remember the dog smiling at you and saying, ‘Dork.'”

On Doing the Impossible in Inform 7

In Inform 7, to create the illusion of doing the impossible, write:

The Lab is a room. The Atom is an open enterable scenery in the Lab. The Electron is a thing in the Atom. Instead of entering the Atom: say “You did the impossible.”

At the command line, write: enter Atom. Whallah!

New Media Website

So, our new media program website is up and running and we’re currently looking to enroll students. We’re also looking for input on the website and other features that might work. Of course, student showcases will go up as soon as relevant. Our first and current extended project is Apartment 9 (a text-based virtual work with graphic interface experiments), which will grow as a concept and is just getting started.

Tinderbox, Emberlight, Apartment 9: On Collaborative Linking and Learning

In this year’s first iteration of New Media Perspectives, we’ve started a long-term project called Apartment 9. The specific assignment for students can be found here.

For Apartment 9, students are provided proper names to grow inside the world using Tinderbox. The students also know the nouns of the other students in class so that they can call to each other with ideas from one side of the room to the other. “Does anyone have a parrot,” for example. As we’ve just started, these proper nouns are the first pieces of the puzzle. Students develop their places and characters, send me their files, and I add those individual maps to the master Apartment 9 document on my computer. Then, with the air of the screen and projector, we start interlinking the maps, reading sections of text, assessing the potential for links, and traversing the narrative to ascertain how the reader might react if, for example, in one space Slater the Dog is walking down the street and suddenly becomes Slater the Cat sleeping on a jazz club piano after the reader has clicked on a link.

In Apartment 9, bubble worlds, simultaneous choices, and competing figures of speech are permitted.

To lead up to the project, students read hypertexts, built a smart-phone simulation, engage new media concepts, embark on some system interpretation, and were provided some tutorial lessons on Tinderbox and Emberlight. We also introduce useful pattern concepts that help to concretize the often baffling relationship between making something and understanding it as a user. Making an essay for example without really worrying about pagination is very different from composing an essay with explicit visual and tactile references to its structure.

Since we’re dealing with maps and worlds, we developed some pattern principles such as color, size, and spatial proximity. In addition, the more distant a note from another “linked” note, the more spacetime is expanded, like a slow fade in film might convey a big time jump. We also work with container hierarchy, juxtaposition, explicit referencing, natural English work order, visual irony, and a variety of stacking methods. The big question at the moment is how to represent an initial state of a world that could grow for as long as we have CPU with which to calculate it.

We have yet to link in the Monday Wednesday NMP course, but the Tuesday/Thursday people are pretty much done. In moving through the collaborative linking process, which might move the reader from one student map to another student map, or from one voice to another voice, the significance of the Tinderbox/Emberlight relationship is becoming that much more powerful. For example, a student asked yesterday if they could link to an Emberlight note from Facebook. The answer is yes, as each note in Emberlight comes with its own URI. Thus, a student could link to some portion of the Facebook Graph and then provide the note URI in a update or Facebook Note, allowing re-admittance back into the note and to the structure of Apartment 9 as a whole, where every note is a place to begin in the world (at least ideally). This is incredibly powerful, as the web is held together by links and link APIs, and thinkers may want to consider these powerful tools for collaborative work of their own stamp. Conceptually and physically, Apartment 9 could be a container for Facebook and Google, depending how one traverses space to space.

Consider a poet who writes a poem on a weblog and links to a relevant note in Apartment 9 (or to a poem some other writer has placed in Apartment 9). The poem becomes, therefore, a part of that space, and the space becomes a part of the poem, extending the fiction ad augmenting the reality of it.

David P and Trent W visited class last night and watched the students work at connecting their ideas in Tinderbox and were quite taken by this activity, claiming that they wished they’d been able to do this and then watch it all go onto the web for further relationship building. Why? I’d suggest that the power comes from revision and additional ideas that grew as we sought linkage and remediated errors. New ideas came, new link ideas, and fresh eyes could see weaknesses better. They also saw, I think, the pedagogy: Apartment 9 feeds well into the next phase of the course where the floor plan has already been laid for work with Inform 7. We can build further dimensions of Apartment 9 (again it’s a world, a virtual world) in a whole separate vision for constructing digital objects and yet still link them all together with the aid of a web-based z-machine.

Future work with Apartment 9 opens up several learning possibilities, such as work with object-oriented concepts, linkages to other objects, such as eportfolios, Alice games, and a whole host of other potential digital creations, and when Emberlight ventures into the mobile world, things will get even more interesting. Of particular interest will be to fashion search, agent, and navigation principles around figures of speech massaged into prototypes, such that notes that contain elements such as flashback and plot turns take on the attributed of those assigned prototypes and thus can be pumped into sections of Apartment 9 for study and organization.

For example, we have a working prototype called recipes and an agent that finds them. Anytime, therefore, a student writes in a recipe, the note will appear in a separate Tinderbox/Emberlight container, turning Apartment 9 into a tool for cooks.

Interestingly, we have all the problems of world builders: how to organize, what to build, how to keep some semblance of quality, boundary definition, and system coherence. But what will it look like in 5 years?

More on Devices

Many semesters ago, even prior to the issues brought up in this post, I had one of my first encounters with the laptop and smart device as a tool for critical thinking and information literacy. In Composition II, we’d been talking in class about Connecticut’s brain drain subject and the thought occurred to me that we should be able to find relationships between levels of education in a population and measures of quality of life, such as median household income, the point being to show that if educated people left the state, quality of life would be affected negatively. Here’s the simple question: is there a relation between income and higher education? (It’s harder to measure whether higher education makes people nicer.) This issue is related to relatively new ecological inquiries into smart cities and future predictions about the role of cities in the United States. You can read more about this issue in this article by Richard Florida in The Atlantic.

In this discussion, I wanted to move away from guesswork and to an examination of statistics and I didn’t want to run to the teacher’s computer while the students sat passively waiting for my thinking to go somewhere. Rather, we put the laptops and the phones to work. Students set about looking for some method of examining the above question. After a few moments, a student found median household income at about 28K and reported percentages of higher degrees in Hartford, CT at about 12%, the source being the US Census. This was a good start but not enough to generate a solid hypothesis. The next question would require a search of other urban centers, such as Chicago and Boston, and then to examine those ratios. So the student set off seeking this information out. Several students suggested that, while the same measures showed higher returns than Hartford, these cities (and even towns surrounding Hartford) might not make for good comparison as Hartford is a fairly small urban environment and has a particular metro area. Question: to which cities, therefore, should we compare Hartford? The students set to work, even though this is a difficult question. More questions came: does the drift in population in an urban center tell us something about that area’s economic and cultural vibrancy? One way to search this is to examine whether over a hundred year period populations trends down or up? We went off on a search for this: guess what the answer points to?

The point of all this is that the students in the room, with their laptops and their phones, were seeking out the info, weighing the sources, and asking questions. I find this sort of wrestling with real problems a good method of generating engagement. It’s a routine now for me to ask students to have their devices ready and their laptops on, even if the occasional student decides that a game of this or that is better than the topic at hand. And if a student gets a call, they will quickly tell the thing to shut up.

It’s a good question: should information tools be incorporated into classroom discussion or should they be kept hidden? What are appropriate uses of communication tools, such as data-service phones and other hand-helds? One size doesn’t fit all contexts. But for me, devices have become an excellent addition to classroom learning ecologies.

Emberlight: A Review

At Tunxis Community College we’re always looking for ways to provide students opportunity for challenge. In a course titled New Media Perspectives, the introductory course in Tunxis’s New Media Communication program, we employ Tinderbox, software developed by Eastgate Systems. This powerful software provides students flexible methods of visually illustrating relationships, physically linking ideas, and developing system and game prototypes. However, our only method of sharing and submitting Tinderbox files was via local network dropbox.

Emberlight, a system developed by J. Nathan Matias and Frederick Cheung,
immediately solved our distribution and document sharing limitation. Emberlight is software that makes Tinderbox files available for reading and distribution on the internet. It took students little more than seconds to upload their Tinderbox files into Emberlight and make URLs available for readers and assessors. Students may now cut and paste URLs to their work for assessment, distribution in digital portfolios, and for analysis by their peers. In addition to this solution for distribution and sharing, Emberlight also provides for version control of Tinderbox files, making revising and redistribution a simple matter of re-upload into the online system.

Emberlight was highly responsive, open to development input, and understanding of the needs of faculty and students. They worked with us on software features critical to the teaching and learning process, and we had input into the development process every step of the way. Their understanding of assessment frameworks, semester work schedules, and student learning issues was insightful, creative, and refreshing. Emberlight will become a standard feature of our curriculum.

Spring New Media Perspectives and Other Thoughts on Teaching

It’s always interesting after a course has run to think back through and consider content, method, and production. New Media Perspectives has seen several versions and we’re really just hitting our stride in the course. We cover several issues:

1. An overview of new media principles and examples we think are generalized and reflect digital culture and history, such as the intrinsic dimensionality of digital objects (code, interface, culture)
2. An introduction to some basic observation, planning, and production techniques
3. Practice with a few tools that provide opportunity to work with media relationships, actions and events, abstraction, data manipulation and visualization
4. Survey of works and applications that reflect interdisciplinary ideas and states of the art

But the content, even though we don’t delve too deeply, is still difficult for students to keep up with. One observation we’ve (by we I mean me and John Timmons) been making is that students have difficulty using technology in a methodical fashion. They either want to leap to the good stuff or don’t pause long enough to think about even the most rudimentary “processes” as significant building blocks for complex analysis. (I’m teaching my self how to play guitar so I am very much sympathetic to this impulse). Another issue has to do with the relationship between concretion and abstraction. In a game, for example, students had difficulty understanding the nature of a walkthrough, even though they’ve probably encountered plenty of them. A walkthrough is, of course, a concrete and explicit representation of a physical but abstract system of rules and potential states of a system. Visualizing the walkthrough as a set of decisions for another player to follow was hard for most of our students to grasp.

Another example of abstraction has to do with spatial representation. Thinking about how an object can be constructed as “another kind of surface” is just plain difficult to do. A house for example can become an aggressive and strange monster if we’re asked to describe how we move through it in a descriptive essay when we don’t consciously think about how we move through that space, unless we’re lost, looking for the restroom, have just had our eyes poked out, or trying to find a location in Hartford. Coding that space in Inform is yet another challenge. “Mapping a space” in Tinderbox and Inform proved fairly difficult.

I don’t think any of this is new or controversial or even all that insightful, as many of my students in Composition courses really never leave with a strong sense of claim or thesis. I have some students who simply cannot understand, at least at this point in their careers, how to compose a coherent and purposeful paragraph and how to frame a position in the construct of an essay. An essay does have a structure but that structure can seem complicated to people who don’t really experience a lot of them or read many books or who who are not used to working with fundamental processes. It can get complicated. An essay, like a house, has a front door.

Another example of this “question of abstraction” is a particular work I received that used semi-colons incorrectly (but with gusto!) throughout the paper. The semi-colon would either tell me it wanted to be a comma, a colon, a dash, or some other punctuation mark meant to act as a strenuous signification of pause, signal into a quote, swift transition to a different argument or example, or perhaps even a mid-sentence paragraph shift. In the end, the semi-colon became like that strangely tall person you had in the third or fourth grade. The semi-colon is, indeed, not a difficult punctuation mark; it, for example, can be used thusly. They provide the opportunity to show clausal relationships between ideas, assuming one doesn’t enjoy the technique of coordination with words like “and.” They’re also quite unnecessary, and we can probably thank Ben Johnson for their occurrence in the language. We should probably get used to blaming him for everything language related.

A relationship exists between the purpose of punctuation in composition and color in mapping. I’ve been thinking a lot about the grammar of maps, thanks to Nathan Matias, who made me aware of this item.

A deeper problem is trying to understand how freshmen in college think Screen shot 2010-05-18 at 12.10.27 PM.pngabout punctuation and abstraction and why they think about such things as they do. If every room in a structure is painted the same color, it potentially performs the same purpose. This may or may not be true. Rooms, of course, have different attributes. The designed regions of Facebook screens are significant in considerations of spatial representation. The observer can make the code layer available to make inferences about those regions.

The student who misused the semi-colon is a valuable lesson, as is the student who forgot to use color to distinguish his map from his objects in Tinderbox. These students will help improve my approach in discussions about the logic of a variety of languages.

Godard, Bolaño, and Things in Between

The past few years have seen different themes. Last year we were talking and studying jazz music and its relationship to issues of performance, creativity, history, hypertext, and new media. This semester, we’ve picked up a new or more elaborate theme: film, new media, hypertext, and performance: we’ve gone from Roberto Bolaño through to Anthony Braxton, connecting items along the way. This has all in many ways played out in 100 Days 2009 and will continue in 100 Days 2010.

I remember John Timmons visiting and showing me work he’d completed on one of his recent film projects. His sense of screen space is sensual and evocative and much of his study (how he thinks about it by making films) of the camera reminds me of the way Bolaño dramatizes character, but it is recalls Godard’s existential vision of “cinema as life” and what this may mean in literary craft and music.

Carol Maso in The American Woman in the Chinese Hat plays will different methods of narrative, often inviting the metaphor of the camera into her work, as, I would argue, a counterpoint to the aesthetcs of conventional point of vew: how can Catherine “run away” from the eyes of the reader? And then there’s Coover’s A Night at the Movies, where the old cinema screen is perforated and comes alive. Much of the work we touched on Contemporary Fiction plays with visual apparatus. The image of projectionist is cast against the dying world of the theater become moving, mechanical photography, ad thus a part of sculptural memory. In Bolaño’s novel Distant Star, the vision of the historical study of the dim characters of political coup, which is a facet of the study of human memory, is problematic because of what we chose to turn into a fiction and that fiction’s epistemological context. I contend that Bolaño’s is a Borgesian method, a persistent act of examination of the images we think we know well, such as those images created by Garcia Marquez, those images that are so powerful they impinge on the real. The unnamed narrator of the novel does not imagine the death of the murderer/poet Carlos Wieder ,but he is free to dramatize the death of the Garmendia sisters, two acts of image making that frame the novel’s travel and the narrator’s becoming. In 2666, the critics’ subject is a random agent; his novels are the critics’s only anchor but they are a foam anchor in turbulent seas.

I’ve watched Godard’s film Vivre sa Vie to get a feel for Brody’s elaborate examination of the work. In the film, Nana makes a decision to pursue an acting career only to take up prostitution as a means (we assume) of making a living or as a means of pursuing curiosity, slowly moving from one to another complex choice. But Godard’s method is both intimate and objective (objective intimacy? Sure). In context, Godard makes it difficult to interpret Nana’s actions as why something happens is either unknown (not on screen but suggested perhaps through dialogue, text, or dance) or should perhaps be obvious; we don’t really know why Nana wants to be in films as this would suggest absolute or pure circumstance. The film doesn’t negate interpretation or meaning, however. Priests don’t swoop in and save the day. We know that much.

New Media is Hard

New Media is hard. New Media people (ideally) can express and understand ideas in symbolic language

$(‘a’).hover(function() {$this.append( . . . )}); and |a horn | a plug |

in a design framework, say a word processor, and interpret ideas in an expressive environment, say a billboard or a smart phone or a novel.

The three together are difficult to teach, to learn, and to master.