Nobody said it was easy (copperbadge) wrote,
Nobody said it was easy

I finally sat down with my notes from the conference and went through them today, because I wanted to be a little more coherent about everything than I could while I was actually in the conference. Ironically, I took longhand notes; I think I was about the only person doing it, but I've developed a very specific method of note-taking over the years and it requires not only unlined paper but the freedom to skip around and draw diagrams and columns if I need to.

Re-reading my notes and providing context turned out to take a really long time and a whole lot of words, so I'm kind of breaking it up a bit; I managed to get through Friday today, and I'll probably work on Saturday tomorrow. I did want to talk about some themes that leapt out at me, because while I can't be sure they were themes for the conference they did tend to stretch over the sessions I attended:

-- Print media versus online media. Print media is seen as much more legitimate, for a number of good and bad reasons; this isn't a conscious critical analysis people make, but a very deeply ingrained assumption they have. There's no anti-online-media sentiment to it, precisely, but simply the unconscious privileging of print over digital.

-- Digital structures influence behaviour. This gets a bit into territory where a lot of people roll their eyes, but I think it's legitimate. The wording and structure of websites and programs encourages certain kinds of behaviour, with both positive and negative results.

-- Single and multiple-author modes. There was a strong sentiment among the presenters that the concept of a Single "Solitary Genius" Author is on its way out. Authors who do work alone (for a given value of "alone" that includes research materials and the usual peer input) are seen as either being more accessible or having to be more accessible in order to continue to function in modern scholarship and publishing. Academia seems more interested in multiple-author works like Wikipedia and collaborative storytelling similar to what happens in online RPGs and MMORGs. There's a hint of "omg a meme!" to this as well, in the study of how viral media is spread through internet culture.

All of these things visibly impact the work that I'm doing. I do unconsciously place more value on print media, because I charge for it, whereas most of my digital texts are cheap or free, especially the early drafts. I've also talked a lot with people about how to recreate my process -- heavy reader participation and peer review -- which somewhat falls under the heading of digital structure, since the Livejournal format is one of the few where it could really work. And of course multiple-author modes are of interest to me because I don't create in a vacuum, I don't even pretend to; user input has been vital in making my work what it is, but dealing with that and uniting multiple users under a single guiding artistic voice is both complex and worthy of study. Intriguingly, the latter is something people have really neglected to talk about, perhaps because it's not very widely used -- places like Wikipedia have moderators and super-active users, but there is no single guiding hand for any given area, nothing to discern value in multiple threads and unite it into a coherent whole, which is kind of what I do with my work. You can argue all you like, but in the Samipedia, I decide who lives and dies what goes in the final cut.

The conference properly opened on Thursday with workshops and the Graduate Research Network, which I didn't attend; I knew I'd be getting in late on Wednesday night, so I didn't bother signing up. I did hang out with the GRN folks for a while at breakfast, because otherwise there was nowhere to sit -- meals were included with the conference, but breakfast was a kind of continental buffet affair, and they didn't really set up seating for it. I met some nice people, teachers mostly, and then when the GRN was starting I quietly left and went on walkabout for the day.

Friday morning, I was actually kind of surprised at the low turnout; a lot of people blew off the first event, a Town Hall meeting that did, admittedly, take place at eight in the morning. It was entitled "Seeking Tenure and Promotion in Virtual Worlds: Articulating the Contemporary Context of New Media Scholarship" and I've already posted a little bit about it. The upthrust was that it's difficult to assign value to a lot of New Media scholarship in terms of whether you can include it when applying for tenure as a professor. This is, admittedly, rather outside my purview.

Town Hall I
My original post about Town Hall I.

I mentioned some odd tweets I made that morning, and really I have to admit I only tweeted because the twitter feed for #cw2010 was on the big projection screen, and I am vain. :D

The film submission we watched was a point of debate: was it scholarship, art, or both? I thought it was pretty much neither, but I felt deeply in the minority and didn't really want to tweet about that for fear of stirring up shit.

Some of the discourse I found pretty self-indulgent. There is a debate to be had about where art and scholarship intersect, but I don't think it's a debate that should be held in praise of a specific art object, especially since I didn't agree that the video was all that artistic. I also felt that it was a significant sidetrack from the ostensible point of the Town Hall, which was to discuss digital media and tenure. Yes, as a piece of digital media the film we watched could affect whether its creator got tenure, but I wished we'd focused more on tenure criteria and how to adjust it for the incoming generation of New Media users.

First Panel
My original post about all of Friday's sessions I attended.

The first panel I attended was nearly empty, which was perhaps another symptom of being early in the conference and reasonably early in the morning. The presentations I saw were great -- I really wish they'd had more people, because I think it was one of the more valuable panels I went to.

One of the panelists had done a project with her students where they did a hardcopy paper literary magazine, an e-zine, and an independent student-by-student project, all over the course of the semester. She talked a lot about the "legitimacy" of print media and the commodification of it. Her students felt that the print magazine they did was more "real", and that they could have sold it for money; one of her students said "My boyfriend has a website, so there's nothing special about me being in an e-zine; but my boyfriend's probably never going to be in a book." The existence of words on paper automatically confers a legitimacy that an internet presence doesn't have. It's seen as more accessible, and more valuable because of the work that went into typesetting and design.

One important part that's less relevant to digital publishing is that the teacher was looking for ways to make students value their writing as something more than simply an assignment to be graded and then forgotten, and the book really did that -- kids gave copies to their parents and friends, and were really proud of being printed in a proper book (it was a spiral-bound 4x6 printed at the local copy centre).

Both panelists were teachers, and the second panelist focused less on writing and more on digital structures, which was a significant theme at many of the panels I attended. She was looking at a website her school used to interact with its students at her university, and how the modeling of it affected student behaviour. She also talked about modifying it to try and improve it, and how the students reacted to that.

Her major point of discussion was that the website forced students into two routes: passivity and compartmentalisation. Most of the language meant for the teaching side of the website was active verbs, for example, while the wording on the student end was much more passive. Also, the way the website worked tended to divide lessons up into units, rather than linking them all together as a whole. Her major problem was that when she restructured the website to create assignments as interrelated wholes, the students tended to ignore her structure and revert to an unalterable toolbar on the right, both through indoctrination from other classes and because they were already used to thinking of lesson plans as units. For me, it was the start of a real series of revelations about how internet infrastructure impacts how we behave, and can also be circumvented.

Second Panel: B6.1, Digital Archives and Unbooks

The second panel was shortened a little by the fact that only two of the three panelists were able to present; one of them I think must have got stuck at an airport somewhere.

James Purdy opened with a talk on "The Three Gifts of Digital Archives", which I know a lot of people thought would be about archival technique but which, intriguingly, was mroe about archival structure. His description reads This presentation will revisit Wells’ “three precious gifts” of archives to explore how they manifest themselves in digital archives and then advance three gifts of digital archives—integration, accessibility, and customization—to consider ways in which digital archives reflect and respond to possibilities for interaction and creation in virtual worlds.

He opened with a clip from Angels & Demons. I may have LOLed.

The clip did have significance for his presentation, though, in that it discussed the inherent privileging of hardcopy data in secure research archives (Tom Hanks, a scholar, was trying to get into the Vatican archives after having repeatedly been rejected for entry; this time he's allowed in because he needs to find information about a bomb). This is an interesting subject in itself, but I think he may have overcomplicated it a little. The structure of the talk was a comparison between the three "gifts" of hardcopy archives (Resistance, Freedom, and Possibility) and the "gifts" of digital archival (Integration, Accessibility, Customization). I kind of wish he'd just gone with the latter three, because while the former three are interesting they weren't necessarily relevant to the thrust of his talk.

Wells' concept of "Resistance" relates to the idea that information resists simplification, and the preservation of it keeps things complex and challenging. Digital archival retains this while increasing the speed and ability of the researcher. The task becomes, with a searchable digital archive, not "how do I find the information I want" but "Which portion of the information I've found is reliable and relevant?" As I said in an earlier post, the emphasis in teaching research methods has to shift from controlling where students go for information to teaching students how to determine what information is trustworthy.

This ties into the fact that archives of any kind tend to legitimize information: it is automatically assumed that anything stored in an archive is of inherent value and trustworthiness. Digital archives, because they have expanded to encompass so much, require more discernment. The Library of Congress has archived Twitter, but that doesn't mean any given tweet is of scholarly or cultural value. On the other hand, digital archives are more accessible both in terms of data storage and data retrieval, meaning that traditionally marginalised voices are both more likely to be archived and more likely to be accessed by researchers.

Integration, Purdy's first "gift" of digital archives, totally changes how research within an archive is treated, and thus how it impacts the work the researcher is doing.

Digital archives allow writing and research to happen together and to be seen as interrelated, which is much more difficult to do in a hardcopy archive, where generally researchers are not allowed to do more than take notes. Copy and paste makes quotation easy, and all of this compels conceptual integration -- all the information taken in at once allows for better synthesis of new ideas from a combination of old ones.

I have a note here that says Integration opposes the notion of a solitary creator, privileging alternative models of production, but frankly I don't recall how it does that and didn't write it down. We've been over this already and will revisit it later, though, the concept of the Single Author coming to the fore as an idea whose time is passing.

Accessibility, the second "gift", is reasonably obvious: despite the fact that many digital archives require a subscription, many are also free and all of them are accessible from anywhere. There is much less demand for credentials, allowing non-scholars access, and no need for travel, which opens this information to less financially able researchers.

Customisation, the third "gift", is something I'm not as familiar with, since it was only just starting to be integrated into the archives I used when I was still active in research and scholarship. Customisation allows for the personalisation of research spaces, which loops back into accessibility. Archives like Jstor allow you to build a "file" of research that you can return to, search through, and edit as appropriate. It empowers the researcher with control not just over the outcome of their research but with the path they take to get there, including aspects such as how you search (keyword, author, theme, journal) and how you access the results (html, PDF, etc).

It was a good talk, but as you can see there are some bits missing where I couldn't quite follow where Purdy was headed, which is a combination of issues that he's not entirely to blame for.

I do have to mention, there is some new thing, I'm not sure if it's a PowerPoint thing or a totally new program, that lets you make a "cloud" out of your slides and then zoom in and out on the cloud as needed. It's a really neat effect but it does tend to decentralise the slideshow a bit, and it doesn't really organise it in ways that help your audience follow along. It's gorgeous to look at, but I had some difficulty following presentations that used it.

Purdy was followed by Finn Brunton, who was presenting "Unbooks, Papernets, Extribuli, Versions: New Texts For Digital Discourses" and you can see why I would have been interested by this. Brunton's work is how I originally heard about the conference and, while I wasn't going just to see his presentation, it was a driving force behind my initial motivation to look into it.

Brunton's abstract reads "I will be presenting a family of new technologies and practices developing around the concept of the “unbook,” a permanently unfinished and mutating print-on-demand text, and the “papernet,” systems for moving between pages and screens, and the prospects and problems they raise for us as scholars and teachers." Additionally, a pretty comprehensive presentation can be found at his website, where you can download the slides and the audio from the talk.

Brunton opens with a definition of an unbook: "The principles of software development applied to the production of a book." This doesn't just mean books made for digital consumption, but the application of structure as well -- books with version numbers, for example, which imply that there is the option of further refinement and revision. A major point of Brunton's essay is the idea of books as revisible (which I totally wrote down as reversible by mistake, and looking at my notes made me go *eyebrow* till I checked Brunton's notes) exemplified by David Gray's "Marks And Meaning, Version Zero" which is mostly an assembly of notes and research that will eventually go into an actual coherent book.

He also touches here on collaborative books, which he likens to a "snapshot" of community activity. Wikipedia now prints books, did you guys know this? You can order a printed book of some of their articles. He showed us an example of the Wikipedia three-volume set about the European Union and, and this made me LOL, said "You can order it! And trip over it!"

He's careful to point out that the idea of revision isn't necessarily new, but the speed and ease with which revision can now happen is very new and worth studying. For this he turns to the concept of "Faster Is Different", giving a couple of examples of speed publishing -- 48 Hour Magazine (currently apparently being sued by the TV show) whose goal it was to assemble and publish a magazine in 48 hours, and Stranded Magazine, assembled entirely from the thoughts and emails and photos of people stranded in airports (predominantly, I believe, during the Ash Cloud debacle).

Brunton then presents four "models" for unbooks. He starts with what might be considered a "nonbook": Dubplates, recyclable cheap LP "proofs" that can be played about 50 times before they fall apart. But when you're experimenting with mixes and want to get your sound out there in the clubs fast, fifty plays is really all you need to get the ball rolling. The point of the dubplate concept is to demo something new and feed the reaction back into your creative process. Sound familiar? :)

Model #2 is exemplified by Dot Dot Dot, a magazine "whose content reflects its situation", one example of which is a photo on the front of the magazine of the supplies used to make the magazine. The process engaged with selecting the book's content is the engaged with the setting in which the book is being fabricated. This touches on something he said earlier in the talk, about "The book of the hallways". Everyone knows that at conventions and conferences, most of the real action is in the hallways -- I think about people talking over Lobbycon from Gallifrey this past year -- and how you could literally, by engaging people in these impromptu meetings, taking pictures, taking notes, and compiling it all digitally, produce the "Book of the Hallways" by the end of the conference.

While I'm not quite sure I fully grasp the significance of this yet, I know that I've actually been doing this for some time. In undergrad, when I worked as a PR photographer for our theatre, I would often assemble photos from rehearsal into a book that I gave to the cast and crew as an opening night gift. Usually the photos were set into some ridiculous story I made up, or to quotes taken down during rehearsal, but they presented a reasonably cohesive image of the rehearsal process for a given show. This is a bit narcissistic, but it helps me to see that my own philosophy of the Unbook has been building for a long time, and a lot of my own creative process has gone into it.

Model #3 is, I think, similar to the second model; it is "thinking in its raw form", exemplified by the Office of Modern Architecture, which often builds modular and interactive "half-done" models for its buildings, where things can be removed and reassembled. It seems to be about what I always call "getting into the base code" -- rummaging around in the essential structure of a creative piece and seeing how it can be altered on the fly. Unbook creation, again, ties heavily into this in that faster-is-different sense; it's not necessarily a new idea, but its an idea whose heyday has come.

The fourth model I think is potentially the most interesting and also the furthest "out there" -- a lot of what Brunton is dealing with is avant-garde stuff, the kind of experimental work that is probably, for every ten "fun" ideas, going to throw out one "useful" and long-lasting one. This model is based on the idea of Generator, a never-constructed building made entirely out of cubes that could be lifted by crane and rearranged to order, to suit whatever purpose to which the building was being put. The architect, Cedric Price, also suggested that each cube could be microchipped so that a computer could track inventory and location of each cube. Further, Price wanted the computer to be able to "get bored" -- to sense when the building was not being used in the most interesting and flexible way possible, and start rearranging the building on its own.

Brunton posits that you could create a book on a similar model, one that could grow and change and even add or rearrange content on its own if it was feeling underutilised. I think it's a fascinating idea, but as with so much in this new Print On Demand age, it requires a mastery not only of some form of writing -- technical, literary, scholarly -- but also of the programming languages necessary to set it up. Frankly I had trouble writing a Choose Your Own Adventure (they're more complicated than they look!) so I'm not sure a modular book is up my street from a creative point of view, though I certainly admire the idea.

The Q&A session after the talk really brought home to me just how inflexible people are on the analog-versus-digital concept of publishing. The most memorable question was a man asking "So, what if I download an older version of, say, a technical manual, and it's out of date?"

Well, dude, what if you buy an old version of a book at a second hand bookstore?

I came away from Brunton's talk feeling like I really learned something about where virtual publishing may be headed, but also feeling like virtual publishing itself isn't entirely sure. Brunton has assembled a ton of information and he's making headway on classification and application, but I think he's suffering from the same issues that I am: it's nearly impossible to figure out what to do with all this shit. People are doing interesting stuff, but as with so much of the internet, it's hard to designate what's going to catch on. As Brunton himself said (I'm paraphrasing, it's probably in the audio near the end), if you want to be king of unbooks, the position remains open.

Brunton also got in contact with me a few days after the conference; he'd found my original post about his talk and wanted to explain that there was a lot he ended up leaving out because of time constraints, which I totally understand.

After session B was lunch, which I believe I've talked about the incoherency of already. :D I want to reiterate that the speaker, Hugh Burns, seems like a really nice guy, a really smart guy, and someone who is a major mover and shaker behind the continuing success of Computers & Writing. I just think he gave a terrible talk.

Granted, talking during lunch is hard.

Third Panel: C6.1, Unabashedly Fannish


It was actually really great to see a panel pretty much entirely dedicated to fandom and how fandom functions, because fandom is an Early Adopter. We got online fast, we got online almost fully, and we are consistently (as with the porn industry, or so I'm told) at the bleeding edge of digital advancement.

I have a note in my book about Tristan Abbot's presentation, "Brecht and Hollywood Can Only Kind of, Sort of Be Married: Achieving the Alienation Effect in the Digital Age". As a theatre kid I was very interested in where he'd take that, but as an actual attendee what I wrote down was "I am barely following this."

Part of it is, as with Purdy, that he used this new "slidecloud" thing, but a majority of it was the incredibly dense scholarly language used. The description alone is difficult to parse: This presentation delineates the construction of what Lev Manovich calls the “reality effect” of old media in the new media age, stressing the illusory interactivity evoked through old media’s remediation of internet aesthetics.

Basically, his thesis boils down to the fact that we are often unconscious of who's controlling what we're experiencing -- we don't pay as much attention as we could to who chooses the newsfeeds we see or the music we listen to. Because the internet gives the illusion of being more user-controlled, it has more "real-seeming" interactivity, and thus old media like television news is adopting digital techniques (like pop up boxes and scrolling banners) in an attempt to make itself look more legitimate.

I think. Seriously, my notes are maybe half a page long, and he spent a really long time talking about some news show he watched while stoned out on painkillers after a car accident.

I think for pure clarity and performative technique, Tisha Turk's talk "Fan-Made Videos and New Media Literacies" was among the top presentations I saw. I was pretty excited to see this one not because I'm deeply into the vid fandom (I'm not) but I do like vids and I was interested to see scholarship being done about them. Turk's abstract alone is unique in offering an actual definition of its subject: Vidding, in which media fans edit footage from television shows or films in order to interpret, celebrate, or critique the original source, constitutes a distinctive form of new media composing and a valuable site for studying 21st century literacy acquisition.

Turk's area of study is not so much why fans do what they do, which has kind of been done a lot, but more focused on how they do it. She points out the interesting fact that while in traditional structures (such as MTV), a video exists to sell a song; with vidding, the song exists as structure to the video. I have a quote written down which is "A visual essay that stages an argument" but I have the name Francesca Coppa written right above it so I'm not sure if that's Turk's quote or Coppa's (Coppa is one of the biggest new scholars looking at fandom, or at least I've heard her name a lot recently). She also points out that vids are predominantly created and presented by women, and prior to the advent of digital film editing were often done by collectives, especially when VCRs were expensive commodities that you just didn't own two of.

Turk presents two separate deconstructions in her talk: the process of "reading" a vid, and the process of fabricating a vid. Reading a vid, when you think about it, is actually pretty complex. It involves processing multiple streams of information (something I've touched on in my writing about education) and an understanding of the interrelation between images and images, not to mention images and music/lyrics; you also have to have context for the original source, because there's often symbolism locked into that which a viewer without context wouldn't catch -- her example was the image of Buffy's swan-dive at the end of season five, which has a much deeper, darker poignancy for people who know what's going on. After all this, one still has to decide what the relationship of the vid is to the original source: celebrate, interpret, refocus, rewrite, or critique. (Refocus and rewrite I thought were the most interesting; refocus draws attention to something that is not normally center-stage in the show, and rewrite creates relationships or plots that don't exist on the show.) As an example of critique, she showed us Star Trek Dance Floor, which I'm linking again because it's still awesome.

The most interesting, to my mind, was the deconstruction of vids as composition: the process of their making. Turk identifies several steps to this:

Responding to the text
Planning the creation
Generating multiple drafts
Receiving feedback from peers and revising
Publishing (posting to youtube, comms, journals)
Reviewing and discussing post-publication

Then, and this I think is brilliant, Turk points out that this is the precise same format we use when we write. This is meaningful because vidding is something that even now is not easy to do, and yet is done for no other gain than pleasure (and perhaps some social currency within the community, but I think that's relatively negligible as a motivating factor). If educators can engage their students in the same way vidders are engaged, the quality of scholarship and its significance to the students themselves will be exponentially increased. To that end she studied what motivates vidders specifically to do what they do, and among other motivations mentioned the term "edge of ability" which I really like -- Edge Of Ability is the point at which a task is difficult enough to challenge an individual but not so difficult as to become frustrating. I love edge-of-ability work and I engage in it a lot; my favourite exam in undergrad was being given a ten-page play and two hours in which to build a set model for it, because it was almost impossible but not quite, and I was confident I could do it. So I appreciate not only having a term for it but knowing that it's a motivation for others, too.

Turk was specifically interested in raising questions about how vidding could be applied to education rather than answering them, which I think is wise, though I would have liked to hear more about her thoughts on the matter. Like Finn Brunton, she's at a point within her research where gathering and classifying information is more vital than new-information synthesis, and I'm pretty confident she'll get there. As with Brunton, she's easily accessible online at [personal profile] tishaturk. Like Brunton, Turk got in touch with me after seeing a post I made about the conference, and was equally positive and cheerful about the reception she received.

Tim Lockridge followed that presentation with "Shared Economies: Exploring an Enthusiast Frame for Writing Studies" where "enthusiast" was pretty openly coded to "fannish".

Sidenote: I've had some discussion of this in comments already, where some scholarly friends within fandom are exploring where conference scholarship and fannishness and objectivity all intersect. While it's true that academic fen tend to speak from a sort of falsely objective standpoint when talking about fandom, I think that's changing. There's been a sense in the past few years of a wink-nudge-nudge when talking about fandom: "Yes, I'm lecturing about Them, but if you're a Them you know I am too". A couple of presentations at this conference had presenters openly admitting things like "Yeah, I'm writing about World of Warcraft because I play it a lot and I wanted to justify the time I was spending on it." I find this perfectly acceptable; there's a difference between claiming a fandom or claiming fannishness and being unprofessionally fannish in a professional setting.

Anyway, I don't know if Lockridge is fannish or not, but he's clearly interested in fannish structures and what they imply about academic structures: This talk argues that the writing occurring in many online communities warrants a new critical vocabulary. Using the work of online fan communities as an example, I will argue for an “enthusiast-centered” understanding of electronic scholarship and pedagogy as a counterpoint to the privileged commercial/professional model.

Basically speaking: academia is commercial, and nobody wants to admit it.

Lockridge talked for a little while about how "textual economies" work, touching on the theme of digital structures again and the "frameworks that influence reality". He used an interesting term called a "Paywall", which is a barrier between a user and a resource which demands payment for access. I almost wish this had been paired up with Purdy's talk, because as much as I enjoyed Purdy's discussion of archives it is something he skimmed over a bit, the fact that a lot of scholarly resources demand money, and the terminology they sometimes use can be pretty influential ("members" and "non members" and "guests" all indicate a differing level of comfort and intimacy within online space). Jstor, ubiquitous, doesn't even allow individual memberships; you literally can't subscribe unless you are a group of some kind and willing to pay the quite hefty group subscription fee.

He's also worried, and I think rightfully so, that we don't actually know where the money goes when we pay for scholarly resources. Very few scholars are paid to be archived, after all. I think probably there are legitimate channels -- rights payments to journals, support of the servers where the information is archived and the individuals who maintain the documents -- but the fact that we don't know, and for the most part perhaps don't care, is cause for concern.

I know that fannishness tied into this, but my notes don't seem to reflect it. There was a slightly disjointed air to Lockridge's presentation, so it's possible I failed to catch hold of that.

I have to admit I was getting tired by the end of C session, and I ended up going home and skipping D session entirely. You can find my thoughts relating to the conference structure and "perfoming scholarship" I wrote that evening here.

So, to sum Friday up: Intense, informative, and occasionally difficult, but very satisfying. There was definitely some "settling in" for me on Friday -- relearning how to take concise notes, how to listen to scholarly work, and how to deal with both bad performances and self-absorbed audiences.
Tags: academia, extribulum
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