Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Maybe It's the Google

I've been away from the blog for a few weeks: first vacation since the twins were born, relatives visiting from the UK, too much rain.  Or, I could jump on the bandwagon and wonder, along with this Atlantic Monthly article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"  It is of course too easy to blame google, or anything else isolated, for the massive shift in the way we interact with information in the digital age, and it is much too easy to say it is a shift to "stupidity."  As my provost pointed out in an e-mail exchange about the article, innovations always change the ways we think and create.  

But what I like about the Atlantic article is the way it connects reading to thinking, and with the HAL reference, wraps them in our growing realization that we humans are not adapting technology to our needs, but that we humans are adapting to technology.  That process of becoming ever more machine-like in our cognitive styles may only be countered by deep thinking, contemplation, poetry, abstraction, and listening to the long forms, not only the loops.  

On the other hand, as my provost also pointed out, there is something to be said for the new pace, for speed, and our students have far less qualms about it than we do.  The resources at our fingertips with google do not make us stupid, and do not provide only shallow information.  Indeed, the NY Times article on reading, which referred to the Atlantic piece, explored the question of information literacy, appropriately separating it from and linking it to traditional reading skills.   For thinking about speed, there is no one better than Paul Virilio, and here is a short and swift piece from CTheory 1995 that shows how fast some things change.

The big question is how to foster a critical awareness of technology, whether it be staggeringly useful google or the compelling yet frustrating Second Life.  How do we hold onto the best of the old--the deep reading, the contemplation--and wrap our eager fingers around the wii of the new--quick, current, reflex, move on to the next youtube phenomenon because the last one wasn't worth thinking about for too long, anyway?  I think that becoming aware of the idea of cognitive style, of how the different technologies, software, and hardware we use shape the questions we ask, the processes on which we embark, and the solutions and creative work we produce, is at least a place to start. 

People always say "technology is neutral," but it isn't.  Perhaps the smartest quotation I've read about technology's influence is by Donald Norman, in a book whose title holds out hope against the Atlantic's google-phobia: 

Technology is not neutral.  Technology has properties--affordances--that make it easier to do some activities, harder to do others: The easier ones get done, the harder ones neglected.  Each has its constraints, preconditions, and side effects that impose requirements and changes on the things with which it interacts, be they other technology, people, or human society at large.  Finalyy, each technology poses a mind-set, a way of thinking about it and the activities to which it is relevant, a mind-set that soon pervades those touched by it, often unwittingly, often unwillingly.  The more successful and widespread the technology, the greater its impact upon all of society.  Technology is not neutral, it dominates.

Donald A. Norman.  Things that Make Us Smart.  Perseus Books, 1993, p. 243.

As we become aware of the non-neutrality, and that is what was truly shocking about HAL, then we can begin to understand and interact with technology in an enlightened way.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Whispers, Soundscapes, and Being Sound

Whispers help avatars navigate space in SL; they appear as suggestions in the Local Chat, not heard at all, but written and read.  The whispers were the main thing I noticed in response to one of the questions Nettrice asked us tonight on our two field trips to art installations that we explored as possible models for our class final project. What about real whispers, talking, and other aspects of sound in SL, though? I found myself (or L1Aura found herself) musing on sound, especially in the first installation we visited, by DynaFleur, which had a tube that you could travel with cool sound in and around it.  
The tube experience came soon after someone at Berklee had asked me if he could be only sound in SL, no visual presence, only a sound when he moved (the answer is sort of yes, an avatar could be a very small object and sound could be scripted), so I was already thinking of movement and sound, being and sound.  
This led me to consider: What kinds of relationships are there between sounds, images, movements, and experiences in SL?  There are sound effects, of course, and the ambient sounds of birds and the wind (most of which I find annoying and that take me out of my suspension of disbelief, especially in the more natural landscapes).  There are soundtracks of music that are what I would call diegetic: the music and sound that comes from the world, like in the SL Beatles museum.  There are non-diegetic soundtracks or soundscapes, much like an underscore of a film.  And then there are some contrapuntal,  dissonant, or jarring relationships between the physical environment and the sound, such as the lovely Victorian house with weird rock playing in it.  I have been in many Victorian houses with all kinds of weird music playing, and even live in one now that emits some pretty strange sounds on any given day, but perhaps a deliberately constructed landscape and soundscape begs for a thought-out relationship between the two.  What is the purpose of the clash?  Would it be good to have a dialectical relationship between sound and image, like the one theorized by the Soviet filmmakers moving from silent cinema into sound in the late 1920s?  Is that a 'sound' relationship between the aural, the visual, and the virtually-kinetic?   What is the purpose of the music in that Victorian house: to support the experience of being in the environment/installation, or is the music the point and the space is where the avatar hangs out while the person listens?   What would it mean for it to be both, equally?
If there were audible whispers instead of written ones, to return to my initial idea in this post, being in SL would be even more like a dream than it already is, maybe too much like a [whispers] almost already lost dream.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Third Life, Media Life

Last night, at the same time as my class met in Second Life, my family was featured on a local TV show, Chronicle. The show was about twins and multiples and they spent about four hours shooting us, so I figured that would add up to about a minute of air time, especially after the producer told me that the following day she was shooting a mother with TWO sets of twins, which surely makes better television than my one set. Anyway, I e-mailed my teacher that I would be late, figuring I would watch with everyone and then catch up. I saw that we would be taking a field trip to a scripting tutorial sim and spent some time in it ahead of time.

But as airtime approached, it suddenly (and belatedly) occurred to me that maybe the kids shouldn't watch the show live. What if there were inappropriate content? So we waited 12 minutes into the half hour to give ourselves some room and then started watching on the DVR in chase play mode, and so I teleported to class, a little late, but just as Nettrice typed, "Lori was on tv." I responded, "I might be on right now," and that's when it hit me: how many lives was I leading right then? First life/real life, already split by being at home and also online; "second life" of L1Aura Loire, present in "body" at Boga Island, although mostly distracted; and then a third existence, on tv, a persona and image as yet unrevealed to me, yet already broadcast.

Nettrice sent the class off on the field trip exercise and must have had a tivo of her own, because she typed that she had seen me on tv. A very interesting confluence of presence and absence, simultaneity and sequence: my attention shifted abruptly from my computer screen back to our television screen and we watched, rewound, watched ourselves again (slightly more than 1 minute, but I still have some time coming to get to my allotted 15 minutes of fame). Certainly television watching is different when you know you are recording it, when you know it is not just a fleeting moment of something live, that it leaves a trace, that what it means for a medium to be time-based is different.

What does it mean to my three year-old twins to be on television? They are used to seeing video of themselves on the computer in a way that I certainly was not growing up. It is a shift not unlike the first generation to have photographs of themselves when previously there were only paintings and drawings, except those first daguerrotypes were purposeful and time-consuming, and today's digital images are ubiquitous and instantaneous. It makes me think of the short story "Snow" by John Crowley, in which there is a device called a wasp that can record thousands of hours of audio and video of a person's life to be seen by their loved one's after they die, but the "memories" are not archived in a way that can be accessed deliberately, only randomly, and it seems that the moments that play for the narrator are increasingly ones of snow. One photograph can prompt a memory, sometimes becomes the memory, replacing it, rewriting it with the image at its center, but what about a dozen, hundreds, thousands? Video? My twins' three years are pretty well-documented, and they love to see themselves. How does that effect their sense of self, literally, their self images? And as avatars become one of the ways we see ourselves represented visually, how will they contribute to our changing sense of self?