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?