DNA Symposium, Self Reflection


I have a really bad habit of distilling ideas and points down into nuggets, kernels, that then I just think others can unpack. The slides I made for my lightning talk did this, and while crude (that was part of a deliberate aesthetic) I was proud of them not as illustrations, but as propositions. All good. The mistake I made was to not realise (since I am not, really, a story teller) that since these were propositions that the way to present this was to tell the story of these slides, of these nuggets, to unpack them. Instead, as I was working through what to say, I wrote out the story of each of these points, as a quick word sketch. I didn’t intend to present like that, they were more notes to myself letting me know why the slides were as they were, my story to myself. As I was doing this, and thinking about how to distil this down into five minutes, I had to this bright flash of intuition where I thought, “cool, I can turn my statements into aphoristic propositions too, and so my five minutes will be this sort of reflective, dense catalogue of propositions to engage with”. This is the same mistake my students make, and which I correct. Alas, so easy to see it in others… The net effect of this is to in fact double the density of the kernels, and so you end up with one layer of abstract propositions (the pictures) and then on top of that a second. One does not help unpack the other, it just complicates. This I think was a sadly missed opportunity. (That’s the self critique.)

Now, moving on more generally.

My background is out of media studies, cinema studies, and then via hypertext theory and practice (aka digital humanities) back into online interactive video. The things that I have inherited, no, that got me hooked on hypertext are two really important qualities. The first is the recognition that (to paraphrase Ted Nelson), that everything is deeply intertwingled. This is what Will Luers referred to in his presentation yesterday as “deep contingency”, that trying to decide ‘what the story is’ reduces all of this intertwingled beautiful complexity into, precisely, ‘the story’. As if there is one. An arc. Three acts. I revel in the way that things are interconnected, inter-related. the threads, thoughts, lines of flight, escape, retreat, that can be woven through ideas, things, the world. (Note, this is precisely NOT the loss of structure, it is just a different structure to the straight arrow of this-then-this-then-this. They are story trails, they express of themselves ideas.)

That’s the first thing. The second? That hypertext was small. It used small scale software, that you made good hypertext writing hypertextually – so that it was a practice as much as a form. And from this that it was, well, polite. It did not assume ownership of your screen, your time. And in the early days it thought like a novel. You could pick it up, read a bit, but it down, and come back to it. It rewarded your return (I’ve written about that elsewhere in the ‘hypertext reading’ section of this book chapter). This really matters. A novel does not take over your desk, or your time. I choose when to read, for how long, and when to come back (if I ever do). I decide. Hypertext recognises this too in relation to structure (it mentors, models, facilitates ways of finding and disclosing poetic structure, but you decide eventually), but also in relation to my time, my computer. It is my time. My computer.

So, last night over dinner I was mulling over a mediocre beer why it wasn’t feeling like this was my tribe (I came to Montreal thinking that this might be the academic community that I would grok with, and I was realising that it perhaps wasn’t). I am not a documentarist, though I make what I think of as non fiction works. I work often in video, but they are small, formal propositions that, well, are about making a proposition, they certainly don’t have anything to narrate. I make Korsakow films, though that’s more from the point of view of the qualities that I guess I’m describing here. No, what I realised is that so much of the work here is still, at the end of the day cinematic. It wants all of my attention. It needs all of my computer screen (probably most of the CPU too).

This then leads to all those questions about how do we keep people there? How long do they stay? Wrong questions, no matter what the answer is. It is the web. It is open. Stop thinking of your stuff as a gated community. We learnt long ago that sites that don’t like out, that try to keep people in, don’t work (just ask Rupert about what a great idea MySpace was, and for those that don’t know, MySpace when he bought it was closed, no RSS, no way to bring outside stuff in, and so on). People will give as much attention as they wish, and as they can. This really does matter. Twitter works because it is ambient, I can leave it running (as w have at the conference), it adds value, it has a small footprint (in bandwidth, screen, and attention), and it works precisely because of this – not in spite of this. I have seen, what, 20 major web non fiction projects in two days. If each wanted me to treat them like they intend, let’s say even as casually as a bit of TV (in terms of my attention) then that’s at least 20 x 30 minutes. 10 hours. I do not have 10 hours ready to hand for your work. I just don’t (and I’m paid to actually study your stuff). Who does? You cannot work in this environment if your starting question is that I need people to be here for an hour because, well, it really matters.

Now, this does not mean you can’t make something that is deep, rich, and has hours and hours of material. Because it will find an audience. This group over there will love that 5 minutes. This other group, that other bit. This emerges over time. But only if it can be found. This means bits need to be granular (accessible and addressable in and of themselves) but also that you need to think (this is only partly the case but will do for my deeply dogmatic rhetorical purposes) like a novelist. No, not a linear story. But that make things that people can return to, and that the work rewards me by letting me find more, understand more deeply, because I have returned. This is the lesson of blogging. We return, we find something more and it grows deeper. We learn about the life world of the author, their point of view, their ideas. Depth comes not from the first visit, but the returning visits. (This is also the case with all the original hypertext fictions, read them once they’re just, well, random, but read them two and three times, and then you start to get the patterns, structure, curves. And this is not about interpretation, it is about finding the form of the work only through visiting it again.) This happens in video blogging, where small and short form rules (and I don’t mean that rubbish on that reinvented global TV station YouTube).

It is my screen. Right now, and it’s only am on a Sunday morning, I have my blog editor open, mail, twitter, two web browsers a visualisation tool, Photoshop, and Omnifocus (sort of to do manager). I jump between my blog, the browser (I’m reading a live text feed of the current stage of the Tour of Italy, a bike race, as it unfolds), my email client and new tweets as they arrive. You want me to use your work, you need to fit my ecology. Or recognise that your domain is the installation, the museum, and the gallery.

Most of what I’ve seen are beautiful works, but they risk being monuments in an age where the sketch, the minor (in Deleuze’s sense) and the ephemeral are our contemporary forms.

One thought on “DNA Symposium, Self Reflection

  1. Karen Kocher

    I am the person with the project who talked about grammar for the interactive doc. In my lightning talk, I expressed the point about keeping the user engaged so they would see a lot of the content and get a sense of the overall narrative or themes. I never said that the viewer\user must see it all at once, instead we are purposely designing the project in a way that is modular. (Of course, in a selfish way, we would like that people would want to see everything, but I understand your comments.)

    As a result of reading what you said, I have been thinking of designing a feature (s) into the project whereby a person who wanted to come back would have a way of knowing, what they had viewed already. Perhaps this would be a bookmark of some type.

    I know if a comment, like yours, has me feeling defensive, it means that it has special resonance for me and be a chance to evolve as a practitioner. I thank you for your “wake-up” call.