Multimedia: October 2010 Archives

New Media Seminar Week 7: What Did I Learn This Week?

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We had an interesting week here in the Penn State New Media Seminar Week about our satisfaction with the program. My own personal take is that even though I have some questions about some aspects, the experience has had enough positives for it to be worthwhile.

This week's reading was Will There Be Condominums in Data Space? by video artist Bill Viola (whose material is on YouTube). As usual, it sparked a lot of interesting discussion, but the reading itself left me somewhat detached.

I'd love to summarize the reading itself, but I truly found it hard to follow. At some point he discusses the contrast between communicating with Japanese modern technology and communicating with the dead in an ancient Japanese ritual. Later he discusses memory space and time comparing Western realism (capture a moment exactly) vs Oriental (East Asian) art which captures an essence which remains eternal time. At some point "notation systems" entered the picture and then non-linear presentation.

Maybe the most interesting quote from Viola was

When I edited a tape with the computer, for the first time in my life I saw that my video piece had a "score", a pattern, a structure that could be written on paper.

As my colleague Dave Stong pointed out, this apparently "blew his mind." And I do understand Viola's point that technology's ability capture moments in time as they happen allows us to understand our actions better. When I look at my blog entries from several years ago, I do notice how some patterns have changed and others remained the same. Sometimes I revisit things that I have forgotten.

This is something that has been available to anyone able to record something at the moment (e.g. diarists, annual chronicles/survey), but this must have been new to Viola, and perhaps to many of us as well. This point alone is worth investigating.

So why am I so detached from this article and so many others? I'm sure it's mostly due to desire for a more analytic, scientific paper. It's been suggested that I should be more patient and give the paper more time and effort. Perhaps.

But a fascinating thing I noticed is that we all pulled different ideas from the paper based on our past experiences and perceptions. Some felt Viola was heading towards the type of interactivity found in video games, and others felt he was talking about perception of time. A few thought some of us were in outer space (and they had a point because I knew I was wildly extrapolating).

If this paper were "art", this would be a very good reaction. But should the the theory of New Media be "art" or should it be more like traditional science? What I mean is that in the sciences, there is a genuine attempt to build a common sense of understanding through a common methodologies. There are plenty of debates about both results and methodologies, but the results seem much more accessible to me.

But I don't think any of the readings I have completed have been that. Viola's paper seems to be a stream of consciousness with very academic terminology. Yes Viola touches on some interesting ideas, but his anecdotes seem very random and not systematically compared.

Yes the Japanese have rites to communicate with the dead, but so does our culture. Why assume otherwise? The answer is that people tend to have a blind spot for their own culture - which can be dangerous. And why bring it up? Is it to mention the contrast between cultures? Between communication media? OK, but what's the next step? If the issue is managing new tech, would it make sense to see what happened before and see how it was resolved?

I think that's where a lot of frustration is coming from with the readings, at least with me. There seems to be a lot of "vision", but almost a vision without a context. We can tell from the papers that they didn't always predict the future, but I think I knew that as well.

One challenge that has come up is to suggest what we would prefer. I expect not everyone will agree, but here is some of my list.

None of this means, I will be dropping out of the experience, but I will likely remain skeptical.

New Media Seminar Week 6: "The Medium is the Message"

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This semester I have been participating in a seminar on new media, and we did an overview of the meme "The medium is the message" originated by Marshall McLuhan. I should admit up front that I only had time to read the Wikipedia Cliff notes version, but it touches on issues that come up in linguistics and related subjects.

What is "Medium" and "Message"?

One issue is what is a "medium" for McLuhan and what is a "message"? Even those who read the article weren't too clear on it. Mark Federman from the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology argues that the general interpretation of a communication channel being more important than the message is not correct.

Instead, Federman argues that McLuhan meant the following:

Marshall McLuhan was concerned with the observation that we tend to focus on the obvious. In doing so, we largely miss the structural changes in our affairs that are introduced subtly, or over long periods of time. Whenever we create a new innovation - be it an invention or a new idea - many of its properties are fairly obvious to us. We generally know what it will nominally do, or at least what it is intended to do, and what it might replace. We often know what its advantages and disadvantages might be. But it is also often the case that, after a long period of time and experience with the new innovation, we look backward and realize that there were some effects of which we were entirely unaware at the outset. We sometimes call these effects "unintended consequences," although "unanticipated consequences" might be a more accurate description.

Many of the unanticipated consequences stem from the fact that there are conditions in our society and culture that we just don't take into consideration in our planning. These range from cultural or religious issues and historical precedents, through interplay with existing conditions, to the secondary or tertiary effects in a cascade of interactions. All of these dynamic processes that are entirely non-obvious comprise our ground or context. They all work silently to influence the way in which we interact with one another, and with our society at large. In a word (or four), ground comprises everything we don't notice.

I can't argue with that, but how "profound" is this? This is something almost any historian or anthropologist could tell you. McLuhan was admittedly writing in the mid 60s, but I suspect that "unanticipated consequences" was something already known in this historical field.

And what is a "message"? According to Federman (quoting McLuhan), a message is "the change of scale or pace or pattern" while a medium is any extension of ourselves. Federman indicates that this includes tools such as a hammer, a wheel and so forth as well as "language" (on a side note, many linguists would say that "language" is more like an expressive act singing and dancing rather than a "tool").

At this point, I am going to translate as follows:

McLuhan: "The medium is the message."

Pyatt: "A tool [medium] sets up an unconscious pattern of behavior [message]" and and thus "A new tool triggers a change, usually unanticipated" or even "Societies unconsciously adjust around the affordances of a tool."

FYI - affordance means the functions enabled by a tool.

Why this Statement?

<rant>

My question is this - Is McLuhan trying to deliberately trying confuse us?. My colleague Dave Stong was alluding to this in our discussion, and maybe he was on to something. The "message is the medium" statement is much more provocative than the one I made...and potentially more misunderstood.

Do you want to know where our discussion returned to many times? The impact of a communication channel (e.g. text, TV, radio...) on the content of what the person was trying to say. But apparently that may not be what McLuhan meant at all. This is, shall we say, disappointing.

/<rant>

OK - I really don't think McLuhan was trying to pull a fast one on us. First, I wonder if he was borrowing from semiotic theory where a major theme is how the composition of a "message" or "transmission" (art, text, TV show..) affects how it is interpreted by the receiver. This is something I have always found interesting, yet I have never been satisfied with that theory (see later discussion). I also wonder if he was "thinking aloud" somewhat for our benefit. I doubt he meant to be confusing, but he sure did an excellent job of it.

No matter what you may think of semiotics though, I think almost everyone would agree that many presentations carry both a conscious message as well as "subtext". For instance, designers of book covers and album covers will spend a LOT of time on font selection, text placement, art placement/selection and so forth in order to "stand out" as well as appeal to a particular demographic. Again I am not sure how profound this revelation is. I am much more interested in the mechanics of this.

Ultimate Dissatisfaction

I think my ultimate dissatisfaction with McLuhan and others is that they are saying something basic in a very confusing way. Hasn't everyone heard of a case of an unintended consequence of a new invention? I know the impact of the cotton gin on accelerating slavery in the South. I doubt that was Eli Whitney's intention. Similarly, does any designer not know that changing the presentation affect how the message is perceived? I am not sure that McLuhan is adding to this (actually R.K. Logan argues that this concept was new to communication studies, which makes me feel that we need to emphasize a broad liberal education.)

What I would like is a more systematic investigation of how these "messages" and "media" interact (both McLuhan's kind and the conventional kind). We all speak of metaphors of music carrying meaning, but how does it differ from language really? And how do you know which font to use. I'm sure our designer friends could tell us intuitively, but it's nice to supplement with usability studies (even if you want to dispute some findings).

I know I am speaking somewhat as a science geek here, but I do wonder when we will get past the obvious statements dressed in ambiguously defined language.

I genuinely think these are interesting topics to explore.

Post Script: Alternate "Message"?

Still thinking about "The medium is the message", is McLuhan's actual meaning (i.e. message) that we need to pay attention to the medium (as in "The economy is the message...dummy" to paraphrase James Carville.) I like this interpretation since it makes McLuhan's thesis much more comprehensible. But I could still be off base.

Post Script 2:

In an ironic example of how medium affects the message - I started watching some video archival footage of Marshal McLuhan (per Brian Young's suggestion) from various TV shows. It's a lot less technical and a lot more accessible. There's even a record of him analyzing the Nixon vs Kennedy debates where Nixon won on the radio, and Kennedy on TV. I will agree that this concept was very revolutionary at the time. Another good example was his discussion of how most political debates are rigged to be boring.

What I still find interesting about the seminar is none of us yesterday realized that McLuhan discussed presidential debates or even invented the term "global village"? Why? What's the communication gap? If we had known, I think we would have had a very different reaction to the reading.

New Media Seminar Week 5: Behold the Personal Computer

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The good news is that I finally made it to a New Media discussion in ETS. This week's discussion focused on the paper Personal Dynamic Media, a paper by Alan Kay and Adele Goldbergdating to the 1970s. This is a paper which documents a mid-1970s project on children's computing. At this point we see a personal computer with a mouse, monitor and keyboard and "Smalltalk" programs built for drawing, musical play and text editing (with font changes).

Where we were

This all seems very standard now, but I wouldn't see a mouse or change a font until 1986 on the Mac. Believe me, it was hot stuff when I was a college freshman. Personal (stand alone) computers did arrive by the 80s, but they were limited to green screen or black and white text monitors (with a third "amber" option coming in the late 80s). You could do some graphics, but it helped to know a programming language and inserting a Spanish ñ required entering a numeric control code (fixed on the Mac).

Before that though, computers were connected to main frames, and possibly operated via punch cards. You needed specialized training to run these beasts and a high tolerance for memorizing obscure command sequences.

In this paper though, Kay and Goldberg were trying to demonstrate that computers could move beyond executing calculations to a tool where digital data could be manipulated in a wide set of applications. In fact, the data didn't have to be presented as numbers - it could be presented as an audio signal or a set of pixels. And this is what we love about computers. Some of us still are manipulating numbers but many of us are manipulating text, images, and video. We may even be manipulating maps, bibliographies or knit designs. And we use computers to talk to each other, which not even Kay and Goldberg realized would happen. It's an amazingly wide range of functions for a machine that processes ones and zeros.

How Much "Programming"?

A lot of use computer applications, but relatively few of us really contemplate the calculations behind the scenes. Again, this is not what computer engineers had in mind, but what are the implications?

Intuitively, we all realize that being able to hand build a computer is NOT a prerequiste for sending e-mail or checking in on Facebook. And yet, a lot of us in ETS are better able to maximize our technology experience BECAUSE we understand some underlying aspect of the technology. It's definitely the case that knowing "code" gives you more ability to manipulate your data. On the other hand, code requires you to understand the obscure commands computer civilians detested.

This paradox is important to instructional designers because our customers (faculty and students) want more power over their digital environment, usually in the form of a tool that does "something" that isn't available now. But sometimes getting that function requires specialized knowledge to deliver. That's why programmer and other technology specialists are still in business.

In an ideal world, everyone would have the ability to create the tools they need...but we aren't there yet and may well never be. The computer has given us a lot of opportunities we never had before, but there are still more opportunities for those who know code. It could be a good skill to know, kind of like math, public speaking or understanding the Constitution.

And that paradox has also led to a dilemma for me as an instructional designer. One school of thought asks us to focus more on pedagogy and project management and less on the "guts" of technology. It does seem impossible that we could ever keep in touch with all the new developments.

Yet, I have always been afraid of moving too far away from the technology. I don't think I could ever know everything, but do I want to understand the backbone of where we're going? Absolutely, because how could manage a technology you don't understand? It leads to some of the flaky decisions that low level techies would never make.

Why these readings?

A comment I've seen in other blogs about this course is what the "point" of the articles are. Sometimes they're so archaic, they seem laughable (this article assumes that a 72dpi monitor is "high resolution" like newsprint).

But I confess that I don't think the articles aren't all that enlightening by themselves. I'm getting a lot more out of them by discussing different issues with the reading group. We have the techonology, but we are still evolving our culture around them in ways we haven't predicted. Sometimes it's nice to go back to where it all began.

Periodic Table Design: The Good, the Bad and the Pretty?

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One of the most unique reference tools people will use is the periodic table of chemical elements. This is a tool where not only each block in the table has information (about each element), but the layout also has a meaning. It's no wonder the periodic table has become so iconic. It's even branched out into visualization methods, typefaces and other non-chemistry uses.

The Good

And....the periodic table is something that cries "hypertext". Don't you want to click each cell and find out more? Well I would. Especially if I had homework due the next day. And there are some great online periodic tables out there. A pretty good basic hyperlinked table is the Wikipedia periodic table which links to articles on each element. Another basic hyperlink table is at Chemical Elements.com (note light advertisements).

If you just need a PDF printout with everything verified, you can use one provided by NIST. NIST also has an online periodic table, but it's detailed, you probably need a degree in chemistry first.

The "Pretty"

And then there are some creative periodic tables, but nothing quite as creative as this art based Flash periodic table from the Royal Society of Chemistry. Creative, yet very, very perplexing.

First, I will say that the art is gorgeous, but what do the symbols mean and wheres the labels? For instance, if I want to find a measurement for the element mercury, I would have to remember where it is specifically (vs. a vague general location) then click on that symbol (which in this case is an old alchemy symbol). Huh? There is a more standard HTML chart form, but I'm still having problems understanding all the images.

I'm thinking this is meant to be more of an "explore the periodic table" rather than a pure reference tool, but is it serving its purpose? When I showed it to a group a people, we became so fixated on the mysterious images that we asked questions like "Why is there a chicken on the periodic table (Ga/gallium)?" rather than the more interesting question of "What does gallium do?" (apparently it helps make the blue in Blue-Ray).

I do think that periodic table can be exploratory. It's become the basis of the pop science book The Elements by Theodore Gray which is now an iPad application. It too has gorgeous pictures, but also the symbol and periodic table info on the same place.

Another one in a similar vein (which even has YouTube and Wikipedia mashups) is http://www.chemicool.com/, including an experiment where you can melt gallium in your hand.

Art vs. Design

I guess the RSC Flash periodic table gets to the issue of art vs. design and what the goals are. The interesting thing about art is that it can succeed without being functional, whereas I think needs to be functional in order to succeed.

For instance, I've always loved the Color Wheel Watch which has colored filters which rotate and cause color changes throughout the day...but I've never gotten one. It's beautiful, but I am not sure how quickly I could use it to tell time - for me it would be kinesthetic art. The same is true for this this algebra watch.

Am I being picky? Maybe. We could all use some kinesthetic art from time to time. But sometimes, I need a tool to quickly tell time or look up the atomic weight of an element, and to me the standard periodic table is a beautiful way to do that. The irony is that the art of the RSC table has interfered with the design instead of enhancing it.