Waves of Misjudged Wonder

Interestingly, in hypertext theory (and what I am noting here has been reprised also in theoretical writing on interactive cinema and more recently interactive documentary) there is little research that investigates how to write hypertextually. It is common for writing and making to be pushed to manuals, how-tos or collaborations with hopefully sympathetic developers and interaction designers.

Historically this is simple to understand for many of those writing about forms of new media come from theoretical histories that pay little to no attention to the materiality of making, or media, in any but rudimentary ways. This scholarship adopts (largely unknowingly to the extent that it is unnoticed, and where raised regularly dismissed as of minor or no concern) a Cartesian separation between material thing and idea where what is studied and theorised about is valorised and hypostatised into thought and argument but the materiality of page, paper, and type are regarded as secondary, a material supernumerary to what matters.

This is one of the divisions and differences that marks the historical divide in new media studies between theory inflected from post structural literary traditions versus those from cinema studies. Cinema, as an explicitly industrial and technical practice, where the machinery simply cannot be avoided (apart from all the equipment and technical staff used to make a film the influence of craft unions has also ensured that every film that is watched lists the roles and names of everyone who has contributed, in any way, to its realisation) has always cared about its material substrates. Arguments about lighting technologies, developments in film processing, the way film responds to colour temperature, and then more recently intense debate about the ‘loss’ of the aura of film in itself (grain, exposure contrast, and noise) that accompanied the move toward digital recording technologies, all attest to the very near presence of materiality in cinema. That this seems to have been expressed largely as a fetish (in the same way that writers fetishise the form of the book as a serially ordered thing on paper between hardback covers) though might be one way to recognise that cinema studies has actually paid little real attention to materiality as we are trying to understand it here.

When we turn to new media studies, in spite of the theoretical heritages employed, the materiality that cinema studies has at least fetishised appears diminished. New media studies then seems closer to literary theory in this diminution (though some of the anxieties about ebooks do cross into a trite discussion about the book as material thing) of materiality as it has, certainly to begin with, emphasised the way in which the digital erases distinctions between media types (text, sound, image and video all appearing as the same to the computer) and so begins from the premise that materiality no longer really matters in a world of computers and new media. Even recent work reflects in areas that are ‘discovering’ the digital (for example interactive documentary) you can witness a critically naive wonder at how plastic and malleable everything becomes digitally, with this malleability then easily sliding into a reading of the digital as a friction free virtuality where anything becomes possible. This view has been recycled historically, as each area comes to digital and new media in turn (it is evident in the excited rhetoric that accompanied early hypertext theory, the same terms where reprised by different scholars in the first wave of multimedia, then interactive cinema, and more recently interactive documentary), and seems to be sustained by the humanities scholarly community’s significant ignorance and misunderstanding of what is involved to make anything in digital media.

The exception to this generalisation is where the most interesting contemporary work is being undertaken, for instance in the areas of software studies, platform studies, media archeology, and some corners of the broader digital humanities. This is work being undertaken by Bogost, Montfort, Parikka, Chun, and Kirschenbaum, for example, and what is striking about all of this work is how important their material experience of making digital media has been. Whether this experience is a reasonable competency in writing code, having an understanding of assembly languages, or even playing with electronics, each of these writers are deep digital makers, and so are well aware of the deep material resistances of digital media.

Recent work in interactive documentary appears to repeat the simple distinctions of earlier first wave hypertext, multimedia, and interactive cinema theory. Similarly much of the scholarly work focusses on what things mean, with little understanding of what they actually do.

As I Think About Writing

I enjoy reading academic work that is complex and sophisticated in its thinking. This doesn’t have to mean difficult to read in the sense of an opaque and obstinate writing, but that there is an élan to the thinking that has its own particular call and demand of the self. This is quite different to some writing (that in my experience appears as a speciality of some schools of North American academia) that, while plain speaking, is also thoroughly pedestrian in both what it has to say, and how it goes about saying it. This writing, which I suppose has a sort of old school pedagogical pragmatism to it as it feels obliged to explain everything, in detail, several times over, is long winded and mistakes its detail for perspicuity. It is old school because this writing needs to tell us what it means, to erase misreading (wilful, accidental, serendipitous, or stochastic) and all forms of possible ambiguity, which of course constructs its reader as a moderately empty vessel to be filled. Me? I like writing that invites me to think with it, to speculate, not writing that instructs but writing that provokes.

Which is a not very sensible way for me to say that I have a tendency to over explain, yet to also distill this into opaque, dense, kernels.

Changes Afoot to Korsakow

Korsakow, still open source, formally more or less free, is now USD50 (details on the Korsakow site). This is a good move to hopefully allow more robust development of what remains the best application for authoring generative, thick, multilinear video works for non-programmers (the other options available create link hierarchies, not poetic clouds).

I expect some will be disappointed or upset at the introduction of a cost. However, it is still open source, and in its time as open source developers have not, as far as I know, come on board to contribute. This is the case for the vast majority of open source projects, so if free labour won’t come to your project then to continue development, you need to find a way to bring money to it to then fund that necessary labour.

(And keep in mind that even highly successful open source projects such as WordPress have major commercial ‘arms’ (see automattic), as well as a service economy of commercial plugins, templates, hosting, and installations to make them viable. Similarly many successful open source projects, while receiving donated labour, often manage this via de facto or explicit institutional support. For example Korsakow has undergone major development courtesy of public Canadian research funding, while many others seem to rely on labour by academics who have the good fortune to be employed in positions that allow this sort of flexibility in how they apply their labour. This is merely a form of indirect public funding, which is great, but it is not ‘free’ in the way that much commentary about free software and open source defines free.)

So, at USD50 a licence it will now run under Yosemite. Hopefully on the roadmap is a makeover of the UI and, I’d hope, HTML5 export in some manner that would allow for K films to operate on iOS tablets by dropping the Flash runtime engine. What is slated is the removal of in application transcoding of video, which is a big plus as encoding outside means you know what your video will look like. It also removes what is often the cause of the most problems with novices as all variety of odd video formats, or weirdly compressed video, has been imported into projects only to have Korsakow fall over when a work is transcoded as FFMPEG bumps up against some unexpected data rate, codec, and so on.

The risk, and it is a legitimate one, is that if the UI stays as is people will misread this the wrong way to think the program is not worth the USD50. It is, but these days with the OS X app store it has to look and behave as a cocoa app.

Softvideo: A Mereological Memoir

I’m trying to write a book. My working title is Softvideo: A Mereological Memoir. So far I seem to have spent a lot of words writing vaguely about methodology, and asides that mix anecdote, personal history and a muddled showing off. I’m not really sure what I’m trying to say, and at the moment rather than resolve this it seems I am busy performing reflexive pyrotechnics as a way to hide the vacuousness.

I haven’t written a book before. I have written a 25,000 word Master’s thesis (on Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest) and a 20,000 word wandering exegetical sort of thing that accompanied my PhD by Publication. But not a book. I am intimidated by its scale. I know how to get enough words, I already have 25,000 of them, but a lot them really are rubbish. Some of them are just irrelevant, and I still feel like I’m casting around for what it is about.

I realise that must seem arse about. I don’t actually know, but I imagine most people know what their books are about, and how, before they begin writing. Well, more or less. However, one of the things I’ve always sought in my academic writing (which is one of the things that originally drew me so powerfully to hypertext theory and practice in the 1990s) is to write in a way that recognises that as a humanities theorist writing is my laboratory. Writing is not the device I use to report on my findings from an experimental practice that I undertake elsewhere, in other media (whether that be the lab or field work of the scientist or the project based artefacts of the creative arts researcher), but is my lab, field work, and my project based artefact. So I want to write, and write in a way, that lets some of the frisson and élan of thought be present, there so that the process and practice of thinking is there in its material messy clamouring sometimes confusion.

This might make for a book that will never find a publisher, because it could well be just too, well, I think bastard child is the term that fits best. Not quite theory, neither essay nor memoir. There are lots of ways to dress up such writing theoretically, and many models that inspire this, stretching from the late Barthes, through Wark’s books from A Hacker Manifesto, Shields’ Reality Hunger, Romb’s recent efforts, Mark Amerika’s riffs and even the pragmatic yet incisive informality of Bogost’s pamphlet like Alien Phenomenology. Though a list like that makes me worry that I’m finding an excuse for me to write indulgently, and without the theoretical depth and alacrity that that list contains.