Trending at the Speed of Capital

So 2006!

I’m not the most technologically adept person on the planet, but I do okay. I’ve been incorporating different media and production exercises into my teaching for the past ten years or so, when it suits the content and purpose of the class. For the past few years, though, the rise of social and mobile media seems to have manufactured an oppressive obligation to technologize the classroom. The technology exists, the kids are using it, it’s rewired their brains, and we need to use it, too, or risk losing them…and becoming irrelevant ourselves. Or so the thinking goes.

My issues with Digital Pedagogy are similar to my gripe (that seems far too harsh a term — maybe “befuddlement”?) with the Digital Humanities. Why do we always need to specify the “digital”? Why not just aim for good pedagogy, or solid, relevant, innovative work in the humanities — and maybe we’ll find that the digital technologies in our toolkits best serve our purposes. If not, we shouldn’t feel compelled to manufacture a need for something high-tech in order to prove our currency.

A lot of conferences and conversations I’ve participated in over the past several years have made me wonder not only about this compulsive technologization — but also why we let commercial tech development determine how we teach. Why do perfectly effective teaching and learning techniques suddenly become outmoded when Apple decides to release a new product? Why should Google’s affairs determine what I do in my classroom? [Within hours of Google Plus’s arrival, my RSS reader was filled with posts about “how G+ can revolutionize your fall classes!]
Why should I feel compelled to keep up with development that’s driven by profit — by a value system that’s for the most part separate from the values that drive my work as a teacher?

Why are we trending at the speed of capital? Capital doesn’t dictate what happens in my classroom; in fact, I intentionally create a space where, every now and then, we can see what it feels like to live in a world where money and gadgets don’t get to decide what’s worth thinking and doing.

I want a classroom that can function as a space of exception — a place where people appreciate that there are value systems, epistemologies, ways of being other than the ones that rule the offices where they work and the streets outside. Maybe sitting around a table and talking about a book — without simultaneously updating your FB profile — bears no relevance to the way we spend our time anymore in real life. I say that’s exactly why we should do it. Maybe having to concentrate on the occasional lecture, or having to read a whole book (egad!) for homework, is uncomfortable or annoying. Good. Learning doesn’t always feel good — and it shouldn’t. Maybe it’s a pain to have to attend class when you could just watch the video; or to have to go to the library to pick up a book rather than skim snippets on Google. Boo hoo. “Convenience” isn’t the ultimate aim of education. Inconvenience can be amazingly productive.

I’ll use these technological tools if my students and I find them useful. But I also want us to maintain the freedom not to use them when we feel like it — even if only to imagine a world without compulsive tweets; a world in which some technology isn’t telling us “what we should be doing next.” Perhaps the most “relevant” thing we can do as teachers is remind students that you are not your gadgets — at least not all the time — and the habits of mind and ideologies they embody do not define your existence.


NYPL Apps & Games: Making “Extraordinary Futures”?

[There was a bug somewhere in here, so I had to delete and repost.]

Saturday’s New York Times included an article by Joshua Brustein on the New York Public Library’s recent tech developments — specifically, its new Biblion “boundless library” (a reader/media viewer app that’s received mixed reviews, but which I’m still eager to play around with); its partnership with Bibliocommons to create a more interactive online catalogue; and its “Find the Future: The Game,” created by Jane McGonigal and partners for the centennial celebrations. Brustein isn’t crazy about Biblion, but he’s keen on the game:

I had more fun with the library’s other new app, a smartphone scavenger hunt called Find the Future. The game accompanies an exhibition by the same name that runs through December at the library’s headquarters, on Fifth Avenue.

The game requires players to seek out various objects or books in the library, and awards points when you snap a photograph of the accompanying Quick Response code, readable by phone cameras. The app takes several moments to process these points, trying to get users to spend some time with the objects rather than running wildly through the building.

It worked for me. I lost an hour snapping photographs of things like Charles Dickens’s cat-claw letter opener and a draft of the Declaration of Independence, and still made it only about halfway through the first of the game’s nine chapters.

Whether or not “it worked” depends on what you regard as the game’s goal. Is it enough to convince (onsite or online) visitors to “spend some time” with the objects and snap some photos? McGonical seems to have set her sights much higher. I wrote about this back during the centennial weekend, on May 22. I’m all for the NYPL — and all libraries — getting involved in tech and software development in an attempt to attract new users, highlight underused collections, help users access and use their collections in new ways, etc. I say this because I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon when I admit that I have serious doubts that the game did, or can, live up to the promises McGonigal made for it. Don’t get me wrong: I think gaming is a great way to get people interested and involved in libraries — but I think we have to be realistic about what such projects can accomplish. I would’ve much rather heard the library’s take on the game’s function than McGonigal’s overblown rhetoric.

Here’s what I wrote last month, with some minor edits:

*     *     *     *     *


Find the Future: The Game, meanwhile, encourages decontextualization of a different sort. This game, commissioned for the centennial and created by Jane McGonigal, Natron Baxter and Playmatics, “brings visitors to the Library together with players around the world to tap into the creative power of the Library’s collections” (via the game’s “About” page, since deleted(?); also available here). The game began on May 20, when 500 gamers (aged 18 and up) were invited to an all-night “lock-in” during which they “explore[d] the building’s 70 miles of stacks, and, using laptops and smartphones, follow[ed] clues to such treasures as the Library’s copy of the Declaration of Independence in Thomas Jefferson’s hand” (via NYPL). Upon finding each object, players were prompted to write an “artifact story,” a “short-personal essay inspired by their quest.” These essays were then gathered into a book — “a collection of 100 ways to make history and change the future” — that will be added to the library’s collection.

[Added June 26, 2011]

The next day, the game was opened up to the rest of the world. Anyone could access Find the Future: The Game online to pursue their own “quests” for library artifacts, write their own narratives, and collect “artifact powers.”

If only real-world research were this exciting! If only one could “find the wisdom to teach and inspire others — and the perspective to understand the world around you” by simply clicking a link!

I tried it myself. My first “artifact” choice was “Writing on the Wall,” a John Milton quotation inscribed above the doorway to the Rose Reading Room: “A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.” Through an automatically advancing slideshow, I learned that Milton “made history by turning the fall of man into an epic poem,” that he is “one of the great poets of the English language,” that he is most famous for writing (while blind) “Paradise Lost,” and that the quotation is drawn from Areopagitica, which Milton write in 1644, “opposing censorship.” Armed with this insight, I’m then prompted to write my own artifact story:

The quote above the entrance to the Rose Reading Room has inspired many generations of visitors with words that are impossible to forget once you’ve read them. These people went on to become famous inventors, artists and leaders who changed the world. What would you say to inspire the next hundred years’ visitors? Imagine The NYPL has asked YOU to update this quote. They will put YOUR new saying over the entrance for the next 100 years. Write your own quote that you want to plant in the minds of millions of people.

That’s it? Armed with a few superficial facts about Milton I’m now prepared to inspire “the next hundred years’ visitors”? Do I really have enough context to be charged with such a tremendous responsibility?

My choice of inscription: “Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards” – Huxley

The game, McGonigal says, is “designed to empower players to find inspiration for their own extraordinary futures by bringing them face-to-face with the writings and personal objects of people who made an extraordinary difference in the past.” What does it mean to come “face-to-face” with these artifacts? The lucky 500 who played on-site on May 20 were able to encounter the original artifacts (although I imagine some were more busy snapping QR codes than inspecting the artifacts they marked) — but are those brief, superficial encounters sufficient to convey the “extraordinary difference[s]” these people made in the past? Is it enough for me to know that the Gutenberg Bible was the first book to be printed on a movable type printing press; that “its publication in 1455 is considered by many to be the single most important innovation of the last millennium” (why?); that before the press, books were copied by hand or by using woodcut letters; that Gutenberg devised a system using metal letters that could be quickly rearranged and printed using specially-mixed inks; that there are fewer than 50 known copies of the Gutenberg Bible in existence, and that the NYPL has two of them? Do these facts then qualify me to write something that “everyone on Earth” can read?

The Gutenberg Bible marked the start of the printing revolution, in which messages could be spread to millions worldwide through the mass production of printed books. Now modern technology allows us to message thousands of people instantaneously. New advances could bring even more widespread communication. If you could write something that everyone on the planet could read, what would it be? Write a message that could be read by everyone on Earth.

The game shifts abruptly from an historical to a contemporary context, without explaining how to responsibly make that temporal transition. It shifts equally abruptly from a focus on the artifact to an egocentric focus. “How would you like to shape the future?” The prompts for these “artifact stories” barely reference the artifacts’ historical context. They barely address the social responsibilities inherent in, or methods required for, making such consequential decisions. [Added June 26:] This is particularly problematic because the game — this one and others that will inevitably be developed in emulation — have the potential to appeal to audiences far outside the pilot test’s 18+ gamer demographic. How, for instance, will school-aged children deal with these important epistemological, methodological, and ethical issues — or how will they know that such issues exist if no one poses the difficult questions to them?

“Like every game I make,” McGonigal says,” Find the Future: The Game” has one goal: to turn players into superempowered, hopeful individuals with real skills and ideas to help them change the world.” I can see how this game cultivates hope and empowerment: it’s fun, you win points, you acquire super-human cognitive powers and affective capacities by simply clicking on links, your opinion is sought on matters of grave importance, etc. But in what context is this play taking place? What skills are being developed? What ideas, aside from cursory factual information (how can you claim that the Gutenberg Bible is the “single most important innovation of the last millennium” without explaining why?!), are being circulated here?

If gaming is the future of education, as many have claimed, I still need to be convinced that gaming provides sufficient “context” for all those skills and ideas it’s purporting to cultivate. I’m still not sure that gaming is the appropriate model for “help[ing] people change the world” — when so much world-changing work isn’t fun, doesn’t win you any points or super-powers, and carries responsibilities that a game simply can’t simulate. I’m not doubting gaming’s potential; I just think we have to be realistic about when it’s an appropriate tool and what it can accomplish.


Kinetic (Social) Sculpture

I can think of few better ways to celebrate a (nearly) completed project than an afternoon in the galleries. Today’s was a quick trip; there were only two shows on my list: Jean-Pierre Gauthier at Jack Schainman and Jason Polan at Nicholas Robinson.

First, Gauthier:

Jean-Pierre Gauthier, Stressato, Jack Shainman Gallery, NY, NY from shannon mattern on Vimeo.

Stressato is a responsive system — or, as the gallery’s website puts it: “When the viewer gets too close, the serpents become even more violently agitated, moving on a silicone-coated table with the agility and speed of samurai.”

Here, Thorax:

Thorax, a moving sound installation, creates modulations using air. Tubular metallic structures are mounted on the walls, while audio controls sit within the curves of their arabesques and spirals. Electronic circuits, electrical networks and pneumatic tubes are organically integrated with the cylindrical structures. Like a thorax or rib cage, the structures protect these vital elements, holding them in place.” The soundtrack — resembling wind and rain and waves — was fitting for a rainy day near the river.

I was drawn to Polan’s show because I liked his drawings, but it wasn’t until I walked through the doors and got my bearings that I realized that this show, too, was kinetic. As Polan charmingly describes it:

I will be in the space working for the first month of the exhibition. I will go home to sleep, but will try to spend the entire time the gallery is open in the space. I will have a desk I will work from as well as a tabletop copy machine to make works and new small editions of books as the show progresses. I will have the materials around me that I like to make work with. I will make drawings, paintings, sculptures, books, and more while I am in the space. I will talk to visitors (if they would like to) and their presence will affect the exhibition in different ways.

“Relational aesthetics, if you want to call it that,” wrote Roberta Smith, “has rarely seemed more charming, direct and user friendly.” It’s true. Never before have I been warmly greeted — by the artist and the guy-behind-the-desk (although in this case both were sitting on the steps) — upon entering a gallery. Nor have I been thanked for visiting on my way out. I wish I hadn’t been so thrown by the uncharacteristically welcoming atmosphere; I wish I had just sat down on the steps and talked for a while — but I was too stuck in the typical gallery behavioral codes.

The Color I See When I Close My Eyes: Black Crayon

My next trips — soon, I hope! — will be to Cory Arcangel @ the Whitney (curated by my colleague Christiane Paul), Ryan Trecartin @ PS1, and the “Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art” show at the Morgan Library (I invited Liza Kirwin, the show’s Smithsonian curator, to submit a piece to the “Notes, Lists & Everyday Inscriptions” issue of The New Everyday I edited last summer).


This Is Your Life! Or, The Hardest 12 Pages I’ve Ever Written

via The Bird Machine
via The Bird Machine

Holy Mary, Mother of God. After five full days’ work (and fewer than 20 hours’ sleep between them), I’ve finally finished a complete draft of my tenure dossier. Last month I read Peter Seldin and J. Elizabeth Miller’s The Academic Portfolio to psych myself up for the task. I’d created a dossier in 2008, for my fourth-year review — but this was a whole other (or whole nother, as some people like to say) kind of serious. “Up our out“; that’s how it goes in academe.

Seldin and Miller write: “Professors who prepare an annual review” — which I do — “will probably already have a good deal of the material on hand” — which, again, I do. Anyone who knows me knows I’m an obsessive organizer. “[T]hey probably have a a list of their teaching responsibilities, copies of syllabi, student rating data, samples of books and publications, letters regarding grant proposals, conference proceedings” — of course I do! — “and letters appointing them to committees” (what? people actually do this?!) “When they have that information on hand, preparation of the portfolio will probably take between fifteen and twenty hours.” (30)

Pshaw. Try 60.


Information Isn’t Free


Yesterday afternoon Nicholas Jackson posted a piece on the New York Post’s “egregious” paywall on The Atlantic’s Technology Channel. The post struck a chord, since it was just the night before that my husband and I saw Page One: Inside the New York Times, a new documentary, at the likewise new Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in the beautifully renovated Lincoln Center. It’s not a flawless documentary, but it’s certainly not anywhere near as bad as Michael Kinsley’s review (in The Times) would lead you to believe. Kinsley, a “senior editorial advisor for Bloomberg View, points out that in this “mess” of a documentary, the “real star of the show” isn’t any of the reporters or the Times itself, but Renzo Piano’s Times headquarters on 8th Avenue. Kinsley might just be bitter that he has to work across town in STUDIOS Architecture’s Bloomberg headquarters, which has no street-front presence, and which, some of my students have noted (I’ve taken a few classes there on field trips), feels like Willy Wonka on Wall Street. Even though it’s not actually on Wall Street.

via Geoff Livingston on Flickr:

I was surprised to discover that, at several moments during the film, I felt bursts of emotion and conviction: I believe in this institution, dammit. It’s not perfect, but when you take into consideration the scope of its operations and the pressures it’s operating under, I’d say it’s doing a commendable job.

I believe in the institution of journalism — and a lot of what we’re proposing these days as its successors simply don’t measure up. The mixing of categories — the conflation of journalism and “media,” or journalism and aggregation; the proposition that blogging or Tweeting is the new journalism (Twitter is a tool, not a “craft” or an institution), or that there’s such a thing as a citizen “journalist” (they’re typically citizen “content providers”) — is a little frightening to me. Vice magazine‘s video series, which is addressed in the documentary, isn’t journalism. Wikileaks, also addressed at length in the film, isn’t journalism. It’s content provision. And Gawker — with the “Big Board,” listing top-ranked stories in real-time, looming over all in its workroom — simply isn’t in the same business as the Times.

via Laughing Squid:

Gawker’s Nick Denton claimed, with characteristic hubris, that The Times simply doesn’t get this new landscape and is destined to crash and burn (or something to that effect); the implication was, obviously, that Gawker’s a model to aspire to. What doesn’t the Times get? How to “churn out quality content”? How to incentivize “journalists” to aim for top spot on the Big Board? We need publications that represent resistance to such popularity-, and profit-driven approaches to agenda setting.

I’ve been a paying seven-day-a-week subscriber to the Times for 14 years, and to the Wall Street Journal for six. I read both papers every morning as a means of orienting myself — as a way to get outside my own head and learn about not only those things that I’m inclined to care about, but those that other smart people, whose judgment I trust, think I should know about (as corny as it sounds, I think this is what’s required of me as a democratic citizen). I realize that the people who provide this service have valuable skills and areas of expertise, and they deserve fair compensation for what they do. Those reporters in the foreign bureaus, the people running the presses and driving the delivery trucks, the web developers and designers creating the Times‘ fantastic interactive features, etc. — they all need to get paid. If we believe in the institutions that employ them, we need to make sure they remain economically viable.

Journalism isn’t free. Advertising isn’t footing the bill anymore, so we need to find ways to pay for our news or risk losing the vitally important public services these institutions offer.

[Update: Coincidentally, L. Gordon Crovitz addresses these issues — in particular, the consequences of the demise of local journalism, and the fact that government funding isn’t the answer — in today’s WSJ.]


Speculative Whatnots and Whatchamacalits

Manzak: Speculative design for remote controlled audio-visual entertainments robot, Warren Chalk + Ron Herron:

Everybody’s “speculating” nowadays. Although we couldn’t help but learn a lesson or two from the fallout of overzealous financial speculation, speculative practice seems to be chugging along in other fields and spreading to new ones. Speculative design has quite a history. Just what “speculative” means, though, depends on the context: in some cases, it refers to design performed without a contract or payment — whipping up a few proposals for a client before he or she decides what, if anything, is worth compensating. In other contexts the term “speculation” has been tied to “design fictions,” which, according to Bruce Sterling, can range from “postulated objects or services” to “elaborate hoaxes,” and often draw inspiration from sci-fi and productively play with temporality, pulling from the past and projecting into the future. Since it began in the mid-2000s, BLDG BLOG has been a site of “urban speculation,” and now at UIC there’s a Department of Urban Speculation that claims a tripartite commitment to “unsolicited experimentation,” “rigorous investigation,” and “integrated proposals.” I have to wonder what methodologies — what “rigorous” investigatory practices and experimentation techniques — and epistemologies are implied by all this speculation.

There’s also a “speculative materialist” contingent of philosophers who promote object-oriented ontology — although some dismiss the movement as the imaginings of a bunch of “para-academic” bloggers (The Public School, by the way, is currently running a “para-academic” course that addresses, among its many intriguing topics, “speculative medievalisms” and “gnostic vertigo.” Of course Lovecraft is in there.). There’s even speculative biology, which dreams up pseudo-fictional evolutionary paths. What if humans could cross-breed with scorpions? Ew. I don’t want to think about that.

And recently I’ve spoken with quite a few colleagues who are taking up “speculative” research projects; either they’re examining speculative practices, or they’re engaging in speculative practice themselves. But what does that mean?

I say we need a genealogy of “speculative” practice in the academy and the professions. The OED says the term is derived from the Latin speculāt-, participial stem of speculārī — to spy out, watch, examine, observe, etc. I’m not sure how much, or what kind of, “examining” or “observing” is going on some of this work — some of which seems like a lot of “dude, wouldn’t it be cool if…!” conjecture, or ego-driven trademarking of new flavors of object-oriented ontology (thus exemplifying just how hard it is to remove the human ego from the center of even supposedly object-centered models).

But of course the term “speculative” has taken on other meanings: in the mid-19th century, “speculation” came to mean “to talk (a matter) over conjecturally”; and in the early 20th century, “to invest in an enterprise which involves considerable risk.” These two denotations seem to me more consistent with some of this contemporary practice — a practice based on conjecture, and investment with perhaps little consideration of potential risk (which makes sense, since some of this stuff is obviously ‘just for fun’) or willingness to take on significant risk.

What does it mean to incorporate such work into design and research? And why should we be “speculating” so feverishly now, when other forms of “speculation” have recently burned us so badly?