Monday, January 30, 2012

The Most Trivial of that which is Remembered and Recited

Okay--so one post wasn't enough for me this week.  There's just so much that I'm reading and thinking about this week that I wanted to get a bit more fleshed out.  I'm really only exploring a drop in the bucket in terms of what I'm reading and thinking about--but I'm trying to pick the most important 20% for now and really give myself space to think about that material.

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm quite interested in the rhetorical canons and have previously started examining the way in which memory is often thought to be a "forgotten" canon of rhetoric.  In Collin Gifford Brooke's Lingua Fracta, he addresses how memory is often treated as the "victim of technological change" wherein advances such as the invite of writing as well as information storage lead to a society wherein individual memory is diminished.  Brooke goes on to explain that "[i]t may be true that our contemporary powers of memory are individually weaker than our ancestors', but is is almost certainly the case that our collective memory is stronger by virtue of our ability to store information with the printed word, audio, and video recording, as as bits on our computers" (32).

I certainly agree with Brooke that these technologies increase our collective memory, but I am not sure if I am ready to concede that our individual memory is hopeless without these media either.  Perhaps it is because I am teaching Survey of Popular Culture this term, but I am struck by what has left our memories and what remains year after year.  While it is true that there are few high cultural artifacts that I have taken the liberty memorize for the purpose of recitation (the Preamble of the Constitution and the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales withstanding), I can recite a fair number of other complex texts.

Take for example "I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous" by Frank Turner

I took great pride and care to memorize every line of this song when it first came out.  It resonated with me instantly and that made it something I wanted to know and be able to cite.  However, I have take little time to memorize the lines of the T.S. Eliot poem to which the title refers.

I wonder sometimes whether our memory really has died or whether it has shifted.  Does new media allow us to prioritize how we use our memory.  I will admit that my memory is dedicated not to high cultural things.  I can quote the song above line for line.  I can recount whole segments of Dane Cook comedy routines to you.  I could likely preform the musical Rent as a one woman show...if, of course, my voice wasn't a terrible thing to hear.  I can say just about every line to Empire Records as it's delivered by the film.  Need to know about the plot of an episode of Seinfeld?  I've got that covered too.

I am not sure that I buy into Plato's theory that writing (or any other media) will "implant forgetfulness in [our] souls" (qtd in Brooke 31).  Instead, I think the democratization of information and the ability for our collective memory to hold those items we deem less important to us has freed us from having to be memory slaves to high culture.  In other words, we're free to spend our memory capacity upon issues of popular culture, rather than, as Matthew Arnold would say "the endeavour to know the best that can be known" (qtd in Stroey 18).


Brooke, Collin Gifford.  Lingua Fracta:  Toward a Rhetoric of New Media.  Cresskill:  Hampton Press, 2009.  Print.

Storey, John.  Cultural Theory and Popular Culture:  An Introduction.  5th ed.  Harlow:  Pearson, 2009.  Print.

The Rhetorical Canons as the Phoenix from the Writing Process's Ashes

This week I’m reading the opening chapters of Lingua Fracta by Collin Gifford Brooke as I continue my journey through Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. This week, however, I would like to focus my discussion for this blog post on Lingua Fracta almost exclusively, rather than balance it between the two texts. My choice for this approach comes from the fact that I have been greatly anticipating reading this book for some time now. It has been on my “to read” pile since Julia Romberger recommended it to me during the Fall of 2010.

I’m most interested, for the current moment in the chapter on Ecology. The author begins this chapter by immediately tapping into some ideas and concepts that I hold very dear to me: first the rhetorical canons and immediately after the trivium. In earlier entries on this blog I’ve spend time exploring other articles that discuss the rhetorical canons and our need to re-envision them in the 21st century (see my posts on Bolter, Prior et al, Porter and Reynolds in particular). Meanwhile, I have for some time attempted to come up with some pithy visual representation of the trivium to have tattooed upon my body, after I have λόγος tattooed on my wrist (which I will do once I either get up the guts or find a tattoo artist I trust, whichever comes first).

The first line from this selection that really captivates me is this:
“The canons have so completely diffused into our collective conceptions of rhetoric that they are almost beneath our notice, and yet most rhetoric and composition scholars would struggle to explain exactly what the cannons are” (29). 
 What a claim! I love this quote, however. I think it’s true that many people might be able to list the canons of rhetoric, but when pushed might struggle to describe exactly what each canon does, why it matters, or perhaps even more importantly: how to teach them. The ability to discuss the canons in this way becomes increasingly sticky when we consider it in light of how Brooke discusses the history of the treatment of the canons in the field. Brooke suggests that the story we tell ourselves about the canons of memory and delivery falling into obscurity in post-literate society is a false one.

Part of the fuel for this false narrative comes from the way in which we often tie the canons to the writing process.  Brooke explains that "the canons suffer the further indignity of being used as a model for a particularly artificial and linear version of the speaking/writing process, one that corresponds neither to ancient nor to contemporary production of discourse.  We do not speak of the recursive nature of the canons or of how the canons are unique to each individual speaker or writer." (30).

atomic bomb explosion with the words Blow up the Writing Process
Design my own; Image Source:  Interesting Atomic Bomb Facts
I root for Brooke as he moves through these lines.   Particularly as I have been attempting to evolve my first-year writing class into one that is more appropriately described as a first-year composition class because of its multimodal approach, I have found myself increasingly more uncomfortable with the notion of the writing process. In fact, I go so far as to start every class I teach with a discussion of the need to “blow up the writing process.” In fact, I always tell students that I want to make t-shirts with design pictured in the image on the left.  I’m uncomfortable with teaching the writing process or even “processes” although it’s a central objective on my course and an emphasis in the WPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition because of the characteristics that Brooke describes:  it is artificial and linear.  What is it about this notion of writing process or even processes that make me chafe so?

 I’m uncomfortable by the linear nature implied by the idea of process. While people argue that the writing process can be recursive, that idea doesn’t mesh with my general idea of what a process looks like. Other processes I know seem to demand linearity. As a simplistic example, let’s consider the process of making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You cannot skip ahead to the step of putting peanut butter on your knife if you haven’t first opened the jar. It just doesn’t work. Maybe I am taking the metaphor of process to far, but I just hate the notion the intellectual work of composing being described as a process…or even a journey. I like thinking of it as a dance or game, to borrow from Joseph Harris’ Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts wherein he says, in explaining his approach to his book, that he is
“trying to show how to do things with texts, to shift our talk about writing away from the fixed and static language of thesis and structure and toward a more dynamic vocabulary of action, gesture and response. You move in tandem with or in response to others, as part of a game or dance or performance or conversation” (4). 
 Since I learned what the rhetorical canons were (admittedly, in my master's program) I have been drawn to them as a framework for teaching, to borrow Brooke's phrasing that I very much like, "the production of discourse" (30).  I do not wish to see them as a lens of the writing process, as Brooke explains we often mistakenly do.  Instead--I want to blow up the writing process altogether and start fresh with the canons.

Brooke, Collin Gifford.  Lingua Fracta:  Toward a Rhetoric of New Media.  Cresskill:  Hampton Press, 2009.  Print.

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Del Rey, 1975. Print.

Harris, Joseph.  Rewriting:  How to Do Things with Texts. Logan, Utah State University Press, 2006.  Print.

By the way...

Earlier I was reading Clay Spinuzzi's review of Lingua Fracta on his blog a thought his opening comment was really interesting.  He writes:

"The first thing I noticed about this book when I pulled it off the shelf was that the cover claimed it was “Edited by Collin Gifford Brooke.” The second was that the subtitle on the cover said “Towards a Rhetoric of New Media,” while the title page reads “ Toward a Rhetoric of New Media.” When I contacted Collin about the first error, he told me that I must have gotten an early copy – later copies have been fixed. The subtitle issue is apparently still in the later copies."
The first thing I did having read this comment was check my book.  Indeed, my cover and title page are mismatched.  Are they matched on your copy of the text?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Slouching toward Doctorates...

This week I finished reading New Media: Key Concepts by Nicholas Gane and David Beer and continued along in my reading of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Phillip K. Dick. While the first half of New Media: Key Concepts focused upon network, information and interface, the last chapters tackle archive, interactivity, and simulation (followed by a concluding chapter tying it all together).

The idea of archival was of particular interest to me because of how drastically I’ve seen this concept evolve over my short life span. I was really struck by the opening quote of the chapter, which comes from Brouwer and Mulder:
“We do not live in a society that uses digital archives, we live in an information society that is a digital archive? (qtd in Gane and Beer 71).
What I love about this quote is how much it acknowledges that our reality is very much shaped by the way we use digital archives in our society. I even considered how much my own understanding of society through digital archives shaped my reading of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

What is of most interest to me about the idea of archival as it relates to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is the analog archival systems used by the police system within the world Phillip K. Dick has created. While Rick and his peers zoom around In hovercars, talk to each other using the vidphones, and are capable of creating false humans and animals, the police use *paper* of all things to give Rick and other bounty hunters assignments. There is little discussion of where these assignments come from or how their stored in any kind of official police database. As a result, the reader, and perhaps Rick as well, are left to really wonder who represents the “real” police when Rick has the “cops” called on him while he’s attempting to question a suspected android named Luta. This cop has no knowledge of him as a bounty hunter, or any recollection of his boss, because he operates outside Rick’s police department, in a parallel one that denies the existence of the one Rick devotes himself to.

Reading this text for the first time, I began to question who I should believe was “real” when Rick found himself in this situation. It occurred to me: how do we know that Rick’s orders really came from anyone in authority? There seems to be no way for Rick to verify his assignment with anyone in the agency beyond his boss because the assignment is simply a sheet of paper. The lack of dependence on some form of technology in this situation, honestly does create more tension in the plot for me.

Of course, while I would like to think that it’s the product of Phillip K. Dick’s design, I do think it’s more indicative of his time period. The fact remains that this text, as foreseeing as it may be, was written before 1970. The author had no way of knowing of the role digital devices might inhabit in our business practices today. I see the truth in this when I consider the vidphone, in particular. While I want to imagine a Skype like entity for the vidphone, the fact remains that these devices are described as having “receivers”—it seems one physically has to pick up the phone and talk into it, while looking on screen. The author didn’t anticipate our built-in speakers and microphones. I wonder—if the vidphone had been a hands free device with a built in mic and set of speakers, would Miss Luft and the office been about to hear Inspector Bryant when Rick called in desperation? I find it interesting to consider how technologies that have become our reality might have altered the reality Rick was left to exist within.

As another example: written today, Rick might have downloaded his assignment from some police resource using his Blackberry, his iPad, or at the very least Netbook. I wonder if reading that assignments came from these more authoritative sources would have altered my reading—or at least my suspicion that Rick was not who he thought he was.

Again, I find it really interesting how my understanding of reality through digital archives shapes this reading. I think we are becoming increasingly dependent on these archives to help us in storing memories, but also in creating them. Gane and Beer indicate the role of our archives in shaping our reality when they say:
“For today, user-generated archives of photographs, music, videos and texts are literally everywhere, and while taking up less physical space in our lives are at the same time structuring our personal memories and identities to an even greater extent” (82).
I think Facebook, particularly with its new timeline, is a great example of this structuring of our memories and identities. Individuals use this space of the social media not to record who they are, but to make arguments about their persona. They carefully collect pieces of information to record and ones to leave out based upon who they want to be perceived as, rather than the wholeness of their being.

In my own usage of Facebook, I’ve seen memories not stored, but falsified and created through the use of Facebook. I’ll be commenting on this fact at Computers and Writing this year, in a presentation called “Hey Peeps, Remember When . . .’ : Social Media and Shared Experiences for Geographically Scattered Cohorts.” Within the 2010 Cohort of ODU’s English PhD program, there’s quite a bit of activity on Facebook aimed at creating community despite the fact that our cohort is spread across the country. In our first year, while there are often events in Norfolk for the on-campus students, there were few occasions when we’re all able to join together for purpose of just enjoying one another’s company. It was hard to make memories together. Or was it? The lovely Megan Mize began uploading random images to Facebook and tagging her comrades in them with a caption that always began “Hey Peeps, remember when…” Soon, many of us joined in and continued to expand our memory book with additional false memories. For example, the students of Classical Rhetoric, were most recently seen lounging in Athens, as pictured above.

Silly right? Perhaps. However, these memories, despite their fictional nature are important to our cohort. They give us moments together that we need to build trust and collegiality with one another, which are so vital to our ability to provide support and encouragement as we plow through the reality that is doctoral work, which, let’s be honest doesn’t seem unlike the Mercer climb to the top of the hill. Maybe this should be our next memory image:
hikers climbing a mountain at sunset
Source:  Pebble's Blog
Gane, Nicholas and David Beer. New Media: The Key Concepts. Oxford: Berg, 2008. Print.
Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Del Rey, 1975. Print.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Crank up the Mood Organ

This week I have been starting upon two books for my New Media Theory and Practice class:  Phillip K.Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Nicohlas Gane and David Beer's New Media: The Key Concepts.

One of the most fascinating bits of new media present in the opening chapters of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep has been the mood organ. Using this tool, one is able to elect his or her mood at various times each day by setting a dial on his or her personal mood organ. Alternately, another person can set the organ on your behalf, as is demonstrated by the means in which a central figure, Rick, sets the mood organ for both himself and his wife in the opening chapter. He sets hers to "pleased acknowledgment of husband's superior wisdom in all matters" (my husband swears he wouldn't want such ability...) and his own to "creative and fresh attitude toward his job" (7).

Screenshot of the Sims game picturing a Sim House in the evening along with the mood level bar showing Hunger, Hygiene, Energy, Social, Comfort, Bladder, Fun and Room levels for a male Sim
Image source: GameFaqs
 The first image that came to my mind when I read about the mood organ was that of the mood meters on the video game The Sims. I spent a fair amount of time playing The Sims during my undergraduate experience, to the point where I sometimes referred to my own experiences in Sims terms. I would, for example, tell my husband (then boyfriend) that my comfort meter was down.
This way of characterizing my feelings made emotions seem mechanical, in a laughable way--as though all I had to do was switch the setting on my mood switchboard and all would be better. However, that mechanical interaction with emotion is reality for the characters of Phillip K. Dick's novel. Yet they use an organ, rather than a switchboard.

This characterization as an organ was of great interest to me. Organs can be defined in more than one way. On the one hand it's something natural and, obviously, organic. They are our kidneys and livers. However, organs are also musical devices. I toyed for some time with whether or not Phillip K. Dick wanted us to view the mood organ as organic or technical/musical.  More importantly, however, I was interested in whether it should be considered new media or not.

I began this post by casually calling this mechanical emotion controller a new media tool without justifying it. Now I'd like to unpack that choice. The term "new media," however, like all my favorite terms, is mushy. Thus, I would like to take a few minutes to puzzle over whether the mood organ is a new media tool by considering it through the lens of Gane and Beer's text, with emphasis on their introduction and the concepts presented in their first four chapters.

Gane and Beer open their text with an introduction that, like all good introductions, sets the stage for the text at large.  It addresses why it is organized around key concepts and provides an overview of those concepts, but also wrestles with the definition of new media.  The authors outline a set of features that might distinguish new media from other forms of media by pulling from Tony Feldman's Introduction to Digital Media.  They summarize his text by presenting a set of traits he connects to being characteristic of digital media.  These traits include the ability to make "information increasingly manipulable, networkable, dense, compressible and impartial" (7).  Given the chapters of the book that I have read and considered this week, I'm most interested in Feldman's first two traits at the moment:

  • "First, digital media make possible the manipulation of data to an unprecedented degree" (7).
  • "A second main feature of digital media is that, assuming a suitable protocol can be established, they can be interfaced with one another, and be connected through networks that span vast geographical spaces with relative ease" (7).

I'm hesitant to think of natural organs as new media, in and of themselves, but I do admit they interface and network with other entities within the body.  It still sits oddly with me. However, there are natural proprieties of the body that can be replaced or altered by mechanical versions of themselves or their parts (I'm looking at you, titanium knees and pacemakers).  Are these things new media?

During the fall semester, I had the pleasure of attending Tedx MidAtlantic 2011  and listening to Avi Rubin of John Hopkins speak about Computer Security.  Rubin's talk that day was captivating in part because it was terrifying.  He spoke to us about the simple was in which devices like pacemakers could be hacked using networking functionalities.  I've embedded the video below.  He speaks about medical devices in the first few minutes, but I really recommend the whole video.

Does the network-ablity of a medical device make it a new media tool?  Not only does this device has the ability to work within a network, this network allows for the manipulation of data.  Hackers can break into the medical device and alter information, such as patient names or treatment plans.  These properties fit with Feldman's traits of digital media.  However, I'd never considered medical devices in a new medial light until I considered Rubin's talk in connection with  Phillip K.Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Nicohlas Gane and David Beer's New Media: The Key Concepts.

Truth be told:  thinking of medical devices as new media creeps me out. I much prefer the idea that the mood organ is a musical tool. In this way, I like to think of it not as a switchboard as I referred to with the Sims mood levels before, but instead a mixing board (probably the result of having a musician as a father). This tool is certainly underneath the new media canopy.  One uses the device to manipulate information, the way in which sound is presented.  Through the cables from instruments, sound boards and other musical devices, a network is established.  The mixing board is the place where discrete instruments interface with one another.

It seems the introductory concepts of new media can be applied to the mood organ, regardless of whether we fancy it a medical or musical device.

Gane, Nicholas and David Beer. New Media: The Key Concepts. Oxford: Berg, 2008. Print.
Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Del Rey, 1975. Print.

Bonus Round: Mood Organ is also the name of a musician named Timm Mason's solo enterprise, that is described on his Myspace page as ambient and experimental.  It's not my style (I respect what he's doing but wouldn't elect to listen to in a non-performance setting), but it is interesting to consider in light of the technology he uses and the likely source of his project's name.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

On Why I'm Taking New Media Theory and Practice

One of the courses I’m taking this semester is English 866 at Old Dominion University.  This class is New Media Theory and Practice I.  I have been interested in taking this class for a few semesters now and am really happy I’m finally enrolled!  The scope of the course covers both new media scholarship as well as programming languages.

My primary interest in this class comes from its emphasis in programming languages.   I first took an interest in programming when I was an undergraduate at Virginia Tech.  I took a Medieval literature class that required a group website project.  My group, for reasons I believe I have blocked out, decided to build this website using…wait for it…Microsoft Word.  It was ugly; it was buggy; it was deeply flawed.  It drove me crazy that I couldn’t control the way the page resulted on the web as well as I could control it’s look in Word.  The next semester, I took another class with the same professor and, given the chance to make a website again, agreed to use Dreamweaver.  The lack of control still bothered me, so I resolved to teach myself to code.  By the time I completed my Master’s degree at Virginia Tech, I had taken four classes with that same professor.  In that last class, I created a website from scratch using HTML/CSS.  It was the first one to make me happy!

In short, I enjoy programming because it allows me to be in control of media with which I am working.  I prefer applications that allow me the most control, particularly of the visual display of materials.  Unfortunately, being out of school for a number of years and being in a teaching position where I’ve been teaching a 5/5 load of composition classes, I have found that my programming skills have been left behind as technology has rapidly advanced.  My CSS skills are rusty and my HMTL/XHTML use has been limited to what is necessary to make Blackboard heed my commands.   More importantly, however, HTML5 is now on the horizon and I want to be prepared to work with it and the flexibility for which it allows.  Perhaps more importantly, I’m terrified, yet intrigued by object-oriented programming languages.  I have yet to teach myself one of those.   

Therefore, during the space of this class, I want to take some time to explore these two languages in particular.  I want to be able to understand the expanded potential that HTML5 brings to the web and begin to explore the differences in it and the XHTML I am comfortable with currently.  Additionally, I am excited to begin exploring Ruby (not just because it’s my birthstone…) and beginning to consider what types of things I might be able to build that would be particularly suitable to that language. 

While I’m not sure which language I will devote my individual project time upon, my hope is that I can use that project as the foundation for my new media project for my Research Competency within the PhD program. 

In addition, I must say: my first love as an English major was Science Fiction, so it is with great joy that I’m embarking on this class journey with a Phillip K. Dick novel as a primary textbook. 

In connection with this first post, our class has been asked to play with the resource ZooBurst.  This was my first time playing with the pop-up book resource, but I found it fairly easy to learn quickly.  I’ve embedded my first Zooburst below.  It will come as no surprise to you that, while I thought the tool was interesting to play with, I was frustrated in creating my pop-up book because the options were so limited!  There are a number of things I wish it would allow you to do, but that it doesn’t!  For example—I’d love to add text, by itself, to the book itself.  However, only images can be added to the pages and text is regulated to the space at the bottom and the dialogue boxes that can be attached to each image added in the space.