Copyright and Live Music in Seattle

I went to a fantastic concert this weekend, and there were some interesting intellectual property issues at play during the show.

  • The bad: the way event staff were pulling people out of the audience for taking pictures and video on their phones.
  • The ugly: the way Soundgarden closed their set with anti-veteran rhetoric.
  • The good: the entire set by Nine Inch Nails, including especially the lighting design and the final three songs before the encore.

Lauralea and I had great seats to see Soundgarden open for Nine Inch Nails. Soundgarden did their usual loose, loud, distorted thing, and it was good, especially when they did their standards: “Outshined” was exceptional. The new material wasn’t impressive, but it wasn’t awful, except when Chris Cornell closed the set with a specifically anti-soldier and anti-veteran rant that gave no sense he had any idea what service members and veterans do. I have no problem with people indicting the various pros and cons of military organizations and military policy as dictated by the brass and the military’s civilian leadership (including the Defense Authorization Acts passed by overwhelming majorities from both parties in the House and Senate that have resulted in widespread concern about the police now being able to purchase military hardware; a concern I share). I do have a problem with Cornell setting up the song “Beyond the Wheel” with incoherent anti-military rambling and uninformed received opinion.

The intellectual property stuff: there were event staff looking for people with their phone cameras up, and apparently if one took too much footage, one was forcibly hauled out of the audience by large men. It seemed to me as if the decision point had to do with the proportionality aspect of copyright law’s fair use doctrine, so I thought I was fairly safe snapping a few discreet stills rather than filming long stretches of the show, but it was a weird feeling of double surveillance: one girl gave the peace sign to the stage while at the same time trying to hold her phone up high and take video of the bouncers who were dragging her out.

There was an interesting moment when a NIN crew sound-check guy with neck-hanging official credentials came around with his iPad doing localized equalizer checks and the event staff clearly didn’t know what to do with him. (The NIN sound was fantastic.) I wonder whether Washington State’s SLAPP law might apply to folks who might use their phone cameras as an exercise of free speech at such events, and also whether prosecutions for EULA violations in relation to public speech might violate SLAPP laws. I’d be curious to hear what others might think.

(Click pictures to embiggen in a new window.)

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Chris Cornell passionately waves a microphone stand around.

In a curious twist, at one point, Cornell took a break between songs to exclaim to the audience, “Hey, I just saw [superstar Major League Baseball pitcher] Randy Johnson in the front row taking a picture of us playing! That’s awesome! Randy, this one’s for you.” I forget which song it was — I register most of Cornell’s lyrics as dorky, though I do like that California/Minnesota couplet — maybe one of the new ones; “Live to Rise” or “Been Away Too Long”? That was the other thing: with Soundgarden’s distortion and bad PA, neither Lauralea nor I could make out any of the words unless we knew them.

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The band comes out with house lights up.

There’s the cranky stuff out of the way: done with the bad and the ugly. On to the good. NIN opened their set with Lauralea’s new favorite, “Copy of A,” and went through two hours of a great, tightly-rehearsed wide-ranging mix from all their albums. “Copy of A” started with Trent Reznor alone on a bare white stage with a sequencer and the house lights up, and the band members entering the stage one by one, and then moving into “Terrible Lie” and “Came Back Haunted” as the house lights went down and the spotlights came up. As the show progressed, the lighting design grew in bombast and elaborateness, with a final total of seven ten-foot-tall pixelated LED screens moving around in sync with the band in addition to moving and computer-synced strobes, LEDs, and spots from the sides and rear and front.

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Shadow show.

I like “Hurt” OK, which was the encore, but it’s not one of my favorites. The band came out before the encore and noted that Saturday night was the final date of their tour and they would be going on hiatus for a while, and then launched into the fantastic final three songs: explosive, searing renditions of “Wish,” “Bite the Hand That Feeds,” and “Head Like a Hole.” I listened to “Wish” again after the show, and thought the background industrial noise-bursts that Reznor later made a trademark were maybe the first time mainstream audiences had heard the type of stuff Einstürzende Neubauten and Skinny Puppy had been doing for at least five years before.

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Light show.

All in all, I still think Chris Cornell is kind of dumb, the intellectual property stuff was interesting to watch, Trent Reznor is amazing, and it was a great night.

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Well, no: actually, THIS is a light show.

Why the Sparklepony Matters

There’s been a dust-up around my professional conference, CCCC (the Conference on College Composition and Communication, or informally, 4Cs or Cs), and the conference game that Wendi Sierra and others designed to help graduate students new to the discipline network and professionalize. The comments section at the Chronicle of Higher Education story that reported on the game is, as one would expect from most online comments sections, dismaying: defenders of the game are making smart, articulate, and carefully considered arguments, and there are also a lot of trolls and idiots, to include Florida State University English Department graduate student and teaching assistant Adam Weinstein, who wrote a nasty little piece for Gawker based only upon secondhand information from the Chronicle article and his perusal of Google to find Chris Kluwe’s book (which he dismisses in a phrase that makes it quite clear he has no idea what Kluwe is doing in the book) and his (yes, seriously) use of urbandictionary.com.

Here’s the deal. The “sparklepony,” as an evolving concept, came out of Collin Brooke’s conference presentation in 2010, wherein Collin referenced the World of Warcraft Celestial Steed, a new in-game decorative mount/vehicle that players could purchase for $25. The Celestial Steed was quickly ycleped the “sparklepony” by the in-game community (Weinstein: you’ve got your etymology wrong, and need to work on taking your grad student research skills beyond Google) and Collin mentioned the appellation in his presentation, observing that this was an instance (I paraphrase from my own memory here, and apologize to Collin if I get him wrong) of an online luxury good: a way that WoW players could purchase items of value that stood only as class markers. The name and concept of the “sparklepony” was quickly and enthusiastically taken up by the conference Twitter backchannel, especially by scholars who shared Brooke’s interest in the intersections of technology and writing instruction, and who extended that interest into ludology or game studies, including—especially—Jill Morris. Jill made a number of physical-object “sparkleponies,” decorated with glitter and googly eyes and feathers. Those material instances of in-game digital objects became physical objects of value: scholars interested in the blur between digital and material worlds, including myself, coveted them. As such, they became the prize for the C’s the Day game.

That circumstance perhaps makes it clear that graduate students like Adam Weinstein need to be rather more careful in “journalism” (Gawker LOL) that attacks an entire field and scholars (established and emerging) in that field. Collin Brooke’s work demonstrated how immaterial and digitally reproducible objects became tokens of value in World of Warcraft, and suggested implications for how those immaterial objects (like writing) took on diverse forms of value, and how that valuation might have consequences for rhetorical practice. The ways Jill Morris remediated those digital objects into material objects, with diverse material forms of value, extended Brooke’s insights in important ways. Wendi Sierra’s incorporation of the Sparklepony as a token of material value into a systematic social form of professionalization for newcomers to an academic discipline illustrates in crucial ways how what Hardt and Negri have termed the “immaterial labor” [sic] associated with the information economy has important material consequences for composition scholarship—and therefore for composition pedagogy, and also more broadly for entry into the academic discipline.

In other words, this game has important professional and economic consequences, not just for graduate students, not just for professors, but for undergraduate students as well. Value aggregates, and as recent conferences have demonstrated, value aggregates in complex ways, especially when that ostensible boundary between F2F and online blurs—as it has in the case of the C’s the Day game. The Sparklepony, as object remediated from for-pay online game into online slang and from there into academic discourse and from there into practice of academic professionalization, is amazing: I love it in the same way I love the frozen time-golem of the train at the end of China Miéville’s Iron Council. The Sparklepony, for some, is a reminder of faculty obligations to help professionalize graduate students, and also a reminder of the ways that digital work intersects with the embodied materiality of F2F work—and the embodied materiality of F2F play.

Seeking Feedback on an Algorithmic Poem

I’m working on a presentation and would welcome some help. I wrote a poem, and am well aware that it’s a bad poem in any number of ways. I’m OK with that.

Here’s the help I would like: please look for a single line that interests you. It can be a line that’s terrible, a line that you like, a line that does something you find engaging or stupid or funny or terrible or exciting in whatever way.

Find all the stanzas in which that line occurs. In comments, enumerate the stanzas in which the line occurs. (For example: I, II, IV.)

Don’t tell me what the line is: I’ll actually tell you what the line is in response to your comment. (Yes, in this way, I’m asking you to help me perform an online parlor trick, with a poem.)

I’ll tell you more about this once I figure out if it works, but here’s the short version: poems can be computers. Help me out? Poem follows.

Continue reading

The Forensic Imagination and the Commodification of Process

In his discussion of William Gibson’s Agrippa, Kirschenbaum notes that “while the title _Agrippa’s_ immediate referent is to a brand of photograph albums, it also hearkens back to Renaissance mage Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim” (230), and while the reference is appropriate, it apparently overlooks what I believe is a much more relevant reference: Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and his son Agrippa Postumus, so named because he was born after the death of his father. Agrippa the senior was elaborately memorialized by Augustus, while Agrippa Postumus was executed following the death of Augustus, and his step-father Tiberius became emperor. These figures seem much more closely connected to the subjects of Gibson’s ephemeral poem in their representation of father-and-son relationships and in their relation to memorialization.

But perhaps such contestation is part of the point Kirschenbaum makes: a reading is always only ever a reading, informed as much by the reader’s material and social and historical contexts that she brings to the reading as by the forensically unique allographic textual artifact itself. On page 185, Kirschenbaum uses a screenshot of multiple windows running different electronic versions of Michael Joyce’s _Afternoon_ to demonstrate how digital texts are not purely virtual, and so shows us what revision means, in its re-use, re-reading, and re-attending to a text from a position located within and conscious of a particular material context. Revision is always situated in a kairotic moment. In Kirschenbaum’s words, “formal materiality. . . serves to fetishize via the computational distance (or torque, or simply effort) necessary to. . . access certain objects in certain ways. In my own case, the first time I successfully opened a first edition of _Afternoon_, I was exquisitely self-conscious of something very much like bibliophilia, precisely because I had to couple the file itself with the right Macintosh operating system and the right version of Storyspace, thereby imposing a formal regimen on the binary object that was _Afternoon_, which then led it to execute, consume system resources, and ultimately present itself for my inspection and manipulation. This kind of access and recovery will, I suspect, ultimately prove more enduring th[a]n a collector or connoisseur’s sensibility, which seeks to acquire and possess” (186). If formal materiality is effort or work, Kirschenbaum’s example also demonstrates that it can be pleasure, as well. It’s both the process and the kairotic/phenomenological moment of the experience of a text that remediates it and reforms/performs/deforms it within a specific material context, to and from which there are specific material and textual inputs and outputs that negotiate between different levels of textual, social, and technological systems. In other words, the process Kirschenbaum describes is economic: value and labor are circulating, and in texts just as in computers, “[v]ersioning. . . exposes the cumulative labor that attends a piece of software” (202). The process is an instance and an example of the economic aggregation problem, by which we cannot measure all the inputs and outputs of any economic activity.

This is what happens, then, “whenever process collapses into product” (Kirschenbaum 253): the forensic imagination takes the meaning of a text as its material form and that form then takes on secondary meaning and value in its aestheticization and commodification. Such a move is also performed by the corpus of composition pedagogy (in its theorized condition) does.

Rhetorics of Debt

Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2011.

Anthropologist David Graeber points out Aristotle’s use of the term symbolon to argue that “coins are merely social conventions” (298), and observes that symbolon originally meant “tally” and often referred to “an object broken in half to mark a contract or agreement” (298). Think of the heart-half necklaces young couples wear today that serve as reminders of their relationship: from Graeber, we understand that those were instances of what Aristotle was talking about. So coins literally symbolized social relationships between people, even as today they have become (according to Marx and his successors) the ways to abstract those social relationships, to wrench those relationships from their interpersonal contexts. Graeber then extends his analysis to set up a parallel with language, which exists as an interpersonal communicative link but is also arbitrary: the word has as little intrinsic meaning as the half-heart necklace—it is an arbitrary set of sounds—and only carries meaning in its social context. It is at once deeply particular and remarkably abstract. Words, like money, are “arbitrary tokens of agreement” (Graeber 299) that spring up among individuals. Consider Graeber’s observation in a Burkean context: Burke’s Grammar breaks down the terms by which we engage one another, whereas his Rhetoric examines the systems of persuasion by which we allow ourselves to identify with one another. Graeber’s remarkable book offers an extensive historical grammar of debt and money as instantiations and abstractions of social bonds and relationships. How, then, might I work towards a historical and technological rhetoric of debt and money as instantiations and abstractions of social bonds and relationships?

#edcmooc Misgivings and Thanksgivings

I share some of the concerns Steve Krause and Alex Reid have expressed about the five-week E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC offered by the University of Edinburgh in which more that 41,000 people are participating. Alex notes the reductive ways in which the introductory readings are framed, pointing out that the engagement with “Prensky’s digital immigrants and digital natives” terminology “is an unproductive and even damaging perspective” but observing that “as with the utopian/dystopian discourse, perhaps the concept is to move people away from these positions.” I’m with him there, and I’ll add that this is a strategy many of us have used in our own teaching: to begin from a perhaps obvious and engaging perspective and then to gradually complicate matters. I’m not sure I agree with his complaint about the content of the readings, though, particularly in his assertion that “[w]hile technologies do not determine culture, they clearly participate in shaping the world (both naturally and culturally if you wish to make those problematic distinctions)”: well, depending on what positions you’re coming from, as the readings (even in their very basic and introductory nature) suggest, that’s a position that’s open to debate. I would argue the same about his statement that “[w]e could say that technologies are market-driven, but we wouldn’t want to mistakenly believe that the market overdetermines technology. As if the market were some uniform entity. As if the market were not capable of error.” The market had nothing to do with the Internet: that was all government and university-driven. Ditto for the space program. I’m not disagreeing with Alex for the sake of disagreeing, but simply to say that disagreements about positions offered by readings in the course are different from disagreements about how the course is conducted, and I suspect that the course leadership might have some idea about the types of engagement they were trying to promote and the range of positions they were offering for examination.

And that’s why I find myself liking the generous-but-skeptical way I see Steve Krause thinking about the course leadership’s methods when he observes that “Knox et al seem to be attempting an alternative to the ‘drill and grill’ approach, though it remains to be seen if they’ll be successful.  40,000 people have signed up for this MOOC, and I have to wonder if many/most of them will understand the dispersed learning experience. And I have to wonder if this dispersed kind of learning is ultimately scalable.” This experiential mode is a good thing, I think, and I’m curious to see how my fellow participants find their own ways through the material. With 41,000 participants, there’s way more activity and interaction than I could ever take in, but I’m starting to get a handle on which threads I might check in on — journalism has long demonstrated, and web discussion fora have long confirmed, that the ability to write a kicky and informative headline and lede can sometimes give you an idea about the quality of the discourse within.

More importantly, though, and what ought to make folks like Cheryl Ball rejoice, is the way the course leadership have designed and characterized the final peer-evaluated project that determines one’s performance in the course: as they put it, in a language and conceptual approach likely familiar (and that’s not a bad thing) to many of us in computers and writing,

Text is the dominant mode of expressing academic knowledge, but digital environments are multimodal by nature – they contain a mixture of text, images, sound, hyperlinks and so on. To express ourselves well on the web, we need to be able to communicate in ways that are “born digital” — that work with, not against, the possibilities of the medium. This can be challenging when what we want to communicate is complex, especially for those who are used to more traditional forms of academic writing. Nevertheless, there are fantastic possibilities in digital environments for rethinking what it means to make an academic argument, to express understanding of complex concepts, and to interpret and evaluate digital work.

That open-ended and multi-modal approach to a final project has a lot of people in the course nervous, but also makes me really excited: there’s finally starting to be some big, widespread recognition of and engagement with (and even validation of?) the affordances of new media composing. Even if 90% of MOOC participants drop out, that’s still 3100 new media compositions to be excited about. Anybody looking for a possible Kairos Topoi submission? I’d love to see a big-data approach to assessing that corpus of new media compositions. Talk to me.

The Bridle and the MOOC

I’m enrolled in in the “E-Learning and Digital Cultures” MOOC (#edcmooc) that the University of Edinburgh is offering through Coursera, and it’s offering an interesting bit of synchronicity with some of the other things I’m working on, including taking part in a reading group with five graduate students as we work our way through Marx’s Capital volume 1, and teaching the spring-semester iteration of a 300-level WSU course (DTC356) called “Electronic Research and the Rhetoric of Information.” As you might imagine, reader, there’s a bit of overlap, and some curiously shifting perspectives.

In the reading group, we just finished the notorious Chapter 3, the chapter on money, and the dialectical back-and-forth got a bit head-spining. It’s the first chapter where Marx mentions accumulation, and the impulse toward accumulation, but it’s also an amazing analysis of how capitalism when it works perfectly inevitably tends toward crisis because of the way it works perfectly. The chapter takes Marx’s foundational work with the commodity (and its instantiation of frozen socially necessary abstract labor: in other words, the first way we see labor undertaking its transformation into capital) as its starting point and then investigates the curious and contradictory ways that money functions, winding its analysis toward the function of paper money and credit as a human-created technology. Marx notes that there are some items that possess value (in that they are frozen labor) and a price, and that there are other items that possess no value in his technical sense of the term (because no labor went into them: his examples are honor and conscience) but that do possess a price. I’ll leave my quibbles with that second half of the definition for later — I believe that social constructs like honor and conscience themselves require labor to produce even if we are seldom conscious of that labor — because the important thing to note is that there are some things that have prices but that do not have values. I would extend this to say that there are some things that have prices but that have negative values: for example, the collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and credit default swaps (CDSs) that were intentionally crafted to be so mathematically complex as to be beyond understanding and so to be able to hide the so-called “toxic” mortgage loans that were incorporated into them, with that complexity allowing bankers to sell them to investors while those bankers simultaneously bet against those instruments as investments, and thereby profited from the collapse of the product that they had sold knowing that they had designed them to fail. Those CDOs and CDSs are human-designed technologies of capitalism, and they carry prices as mechanisms for the redistribution of wealth (from sucker investors to savvy bankers, apparently), but I’m still wondering whether or not they fulfill Marx’s definition of a commodity as carrying the value of the abstract social labor that went into their production.

Here’s an analogue for that question: given enough computational and analytical power — or, in other words, given enough human labor translated into the digital capital of financial systems analytic software via lines of code written and accounting formulae written and aggregated study and expertise all operating on machines designed by teams of engineers and experts who relied on previous insights and innovations going back even prior to the invention of the transistor — could the ways that CDOs and CDSs contributed to the Crash of 2008 have been anticipated or prevented? Did CDOs and CDSs as technologies of capitalism determine that such a Crash *must* have happened at some point? In the DTC356 course I’m teaching, we’re reading about Claude Shannon as an information theorist who believed the necessary step to decode information was to discard meaning: we don’t care about meaning, Shannon argued. We care about the signal, about the code. Focus enough on the code and discard the context and one can decode any information. In this sense, I suspect Shannon was largely a technological instrumentalist of the sort produced by the first half of the 20th century, particularly if we understand “technology” to exist as a field that includes “tools, instruments, machines, organizations, media, methods, techniques, and systems” (“Reification”). Technological instrumentalists believe technologies to be use-neutral and subject only to human intention, even as their invention seems to demand their use, even as they seem to exist as autonomous entities divorced from us, apart from society, simply things laying to hand to be used.

To my mind, though, what Marx helps to show is the ways in which human social arrangements give rise to systems that blinker us in specific ways, that point us toward certain ways of being and certain technologies, so that in a capitalist system CDOs and CDSs make perfect sense even as they precipitate crises that demolish enormous amounts of actually-existing value (as instances of frozen human labor). I don’t (or won’t) identify as a technological determinist (although I tend much more easily toward an overdetermined technological determinism than toward a technological instrumentalism), but when I look at the intersection of social, political, and economic habits and practices with technologies like computers, cell phones, CDOs, and CDSs, I can’t help but think of the end of the classic Raymond Carver story “The Bridle” and its attitude about technologies like the bridle: Marge looks at the bridle — that instance of frozen labor, that commodity, that technology — after all that has gone on in the story, and thinks, “If you had to wear this thing between your teeth, I guess you’d catch on in a hurry. When you felt it pull, you’d know it was time. You’d know you were going somewhere.” That circumstance at the end of the story, though, seems to me to point to the same circumstance that finally happened, however inexorably, in 2008: the overdetermined combination of heterogeneously massed human intent and reified technologies that some understood better than others produced a perfect crisis. We socially design our own technological affordances, and often, as with the bridle, we elect to wear those affordances.

Maximally Multimodal

This semester I’m excited to be teaching a 300-level elective cross-listed in the English and Digital Technology and Culture majors as “Electronic Research and the Rhetoric of Information.” I’m thrilled to be teaching the material, and it’s let me do some cool stuff in the classroom that I haven’t done before. We’ve been reading some selections from James Gleick and elsewhere about Claude Shannon and information theory (which fit together in interesting and provocative ways with Lessig’s thoughts in Free Culture on piracy on the one hand and with Michael Joyce’s hypertexts and Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Library of Babel” on the other), and grappling with Shannon’s idea that information and meaning are separable — which led me to put together a lesson plan that (1) used some technologies in the classroom that I’d never taught with before and (2) was fairly highly multimodal in its incorporation of graphics, sound, and interactivity.

I started by posing a question, telling students: I’ve got two songs in mind. One is an old song by a band that I grew up listening to and liked a lot, and brings back memories of hanging out in my friend’s attic room. The other is a newer song with a nice beat that’s at once quirky and catchy — maybe an information theorist would argue that those terms imply each other. Which song is better? (Yes, I acknowledged it was a rhetorical question, meant to highlight the subject of the day’s work.)

I then showed the two songs again, in graphical form

spectrogram 1

spectogram 2

and asked: Which one is better? Can you tell how they might be different? Do these images carry more or less meaning than my descriptions? Would I be illegally pirating music by sharing the spectograms of their waveforms at sufficiently high resolution? What would the RIAA say?

That got some discussion going. The next step was to play the songs: I had both an iPhone and an iPad with me, one for playback and one for listening with Soundhound, a song-recognition app similar to Shazam, which functions in the way outlined by Claude Shannon: by measuring patterns (moments of peak frequency and amplitude) against an axis of time or frequency and then compared to a hash table linked to a sufficiently large database. The props worked, of course, identifying the songs in a few seconds each. (YouTube videos are linked from the above images: yes, I got to play “Gangnam Syle” as a part of a lesson.)

In addition to those two songs — which have meanings, obviously, beyond their meaning to me or beyond their waveforms — I then pulled out a ringer: Girl Talk’s “Oh No,” which Soundhound could only identify as either Black Sabbath or Ludacris. The point I was trying to demonstrate from Shannon was concerning the profound difference between information and meaning, and some songs (or texts, broadly construed) have more meaning than others, which can interfere with analyzing them as information. I also made the point that by such a definition, when one is doing the “electronic research” to which the course title refers, one is not looking for meaning, because one cannot a priori do so: instead, we look for information, which we convert into meaning.

That was as good a job as I’ve done this semester of stirring the pot and provoking discussion, and it turned into a really good, energizing lesson. Now to figure out how to do more stuff like that.

Courseblogging Machine and Meaning

After a summer of upheaval, I’m starting to get settled into the new gig. I’m excited about both courses I’m teaching, and I’m keeping a courseblog with my students for one of them, an undergraduate elective (DTC 356) titled “Electronic Research and the Rhetoric of Information.” It’s interesting: I get to look again at material and concepts I’ve become pretty familiar with in the past 10 years or so, stuff I have some ostensible expertise on and that I’ve been thinking about for a while and that I know other scholars in the field have considerable familiarity with, and yet this is the first chance I’ve had to teach a course like this — and so my courseblogging feels like a weird mix of old material, new insights, and responses to re-framings I hadn’t considered before. That’s a good thing, and I’ll post now (and continue to cross-post) some of my entries for the course, as a way to continue getting settled into the routine of the new gig. Plus I’ve got about eight billion thoughts about the big thing I’m working on that I want to share, and there are only tiny corners of it here, but that’s OK: there’s time.

So in thinking about recent applications of the Labor Theory of Value to the so-called information economy, one of the questions I posed to the students in DTC 356 was: how much of a role does effort play in how we interact with digital technologies? (Cross-posting begins here; longtime followers of this blog will notice the change in intended audience in relative degrees of explicitness.) In one DTC356 blog post, a student wrote,

When I think of a world without the social media and technology we have now, I imagine a world that was connected in only a few ways instead of a million ways (twitter, facebook, blogging, etc.) to communicate with each other. Could you imagine having to listen intently to clicks or beats? Technology would not have ever advanced as far as it has today if it weren’t for these signals, tones, and phrases that began centuries ago.

The point about “having to listen intently” is important, because of the ways digital technologies seem to make communicating information so easy. Brown and Duguid talk about “the conduit metaphor” and how “[b]asic ideas of sending and receiving make digitization, for example, seem easy. You distill the information out of book or articles and leave the paper residue behind” (184). The problem is, though, that there are other important aspects of the act of communication that we often ignore: as Brown and Duguid go on to point out, “[i]t’s not pure information alone, but the way the information was produced that supports interpretation” (185). This is what Lessig is getting at in his discussions of the borrowings of Steamboat Bill, Jr. and doujinshi, and what we were getting at in our discussion of cover songs and Girl Talk: so much of information is context. You don’t fully appreciate a cover version of a song unless you’ve heard the original (think about the 33,000+ covers of Gershwin’s “Summertime”), and part of the reason that Disney movies resonate so much (as Lessig suggests) is that they’re built on stories that our culture knows really, really well; stories that resonate with us. (Why so many Batman and Spider-Man movies, right?) So there’s this ideal that we have of some sort of pure, easily transmitted information — just a few 1s and 0s to decode, and if you know about logarithms and exponents, you can derive meanings from tables of numbers that others might not be able to see — but that ideal isn’t actually the way things work.

Information transmission isn’t, in fact, efficient. That’s the point of the story about talking drums (“allocate extra bits for disambiguation and error correction” [Gleick 25]) and the story about Clytemnestra receiving word of the fall of Troy 400 miles away in Mycenae: “To transmit this one bit required immense planning, labor, watchfulness, and firewood” (Gleick 16-17). Transmitting information is expensive, in terms of labor and in terms of capital — and in an information economy, context is kind of like capital. (Actually, in terms of the factors of production described by the old political economists like Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Karl Marx, context is probably more similar to land than to capital.) One student asks, “Could you imagine having to listen intently to clicks or beats?” and of course that’s what we all do, all the time.

That’s also what computers do with 1s and 0s (true and false, high and low, fire or no fire). Computers use logic gates with transistors designed to let current through in certain ways and control other transistors, so that combinations of transistors with combinations of current going on or off through them according to how they’re designed to work in conjunction with each other — to signal AND, OR, or NOT, as well as more complex combinations like NAND, NOR, XOR, and XNOR — build up, store, and manipulate more complex numbers out of simple 1s and 0s. And because information-as-capital builds upon itself, computers have been able to get increasingly complex while their prices have dropped. Context builds on itself, and technology is a part of context. As Lessig points out, there was once a “distinction that the law no longer takes care to draw — the distinction between republishing someone’s work on the one hand and building upon or transforming that work on the other. . . Before the technologies of the Internet, . . . [t]he technologies of publishing were expensive; that meant the vast majority of publishing was commercial. Commercial entities could bear the burden of the law. . . It was just one more expense of doing business” (19). Now, though, because our technological context has become increasingly complex and avaiable to all, we’re all increasinly bearing that “burden of the law” and having to figure out how to revise our own social, legal, and political contexts to account for that increased complexity. Doing so requires not only attention to the alphabet and syntax and orthography and grammar of these 1s and 0s but also to the rhetoric: in moving from the high and low tones of the drums and the morse code of the battleship’s signal lamp to the mashup video of “Oh No” (if there had been a clip of Michelle Obama dancing to “Teach me how to Dougie” in that video, would it have been in the public domain?), we need to think about a rhetoric of remix wherein inventio is the current and the initiating spark, dispositio is the linking of gate to gate, elocutio is the purposing of the gates themselves whether NAND or NOR, memoria is the storage of what those gates arrange to produce, and pronuntatio is the moment of its transmission: the interface between machine and meaning.

What Is Digital Rhetoric? Part 3

I’ve been talking about what rhetoric means to me and about what digital rhetoric means to me. The subtext those posts has concerned the material effects of language use, with certain instances of language use itself very loosely defined as digital rhetoric. That too-loose definition begs the obvious question: if language use itself is digital rhetoric, then what’s the difference between rhetoric and digital rhetoric? In the introduction to My Mother Was a Computer, N. Katherine Hayles characterizes “materiality” as “an emergent property created through dynamic interactions between physical characteristics and human intention” which therefore “marks a junction between physical reality and human intention” (3). That’s the distinction between our analog material lifeworld and our contingent immaterial persuasion-world I’ve been trying to draw. But rhetoric, aside from its distinctions and confusions with truth and coercion, can be analog as well as digital, embodied and experienced as well as symbolically and discontinuously represented. In fact, Hayles describes a perhaps reductive “binary opposition between embodiment and information” (3) that she’s grappled with in the past, and that’s the line I’m perhaps reductively following her in trying to draw. Digital rhetoric, in the useful ways that Richard Lanham points out — even as I disagree with him about the quantification of attention — abstracts. It calls our attention to the differences between the ways that, as Lanham points out, we look at things versus when we look through things.

Looking through the artifice of any text in order to become absorbed in the content or substance with which it concerns itself — in other words, being captivated or engrossed or carried away by how much a movie or book draws us into its world — is analog attentional experience. It’s a form of felt sense. We can’t untangle the emotions and thoughts and ideas from the experience. But as soon as we start splitting hairs, asking question, looking at how such books or movies or arguments are constructed, we’re using language and symbols to set up categories and sort things so we can subdivide and anatomize them into their individual bits and bytes and taggable sortable atomies of meaning. We’re abstracting away from embodiment and into information.

In 1987, I was a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University. My mother was a librarian. Years earlier, in primary school, she’d brought me home Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books from the library, and I’d been fascinated and engrossed by how I could make choices in a book that would change the outcome — and of course, as soon as the novelty wore off and I ran into an unhappy ending, I started reverse-engineering the books, looking to the back of the book to see which choices led where. Cheating. Looking at rather than through.

My favorite moment in Gide is from The Immoralist, when the narrator Michel says, “Nothing can be told of happiness save what leads up to it and what follows it. And now I have told you everything that led up to it.” He’s yanking us out of the story, saying, “Watch what happens next: this is where it all changes,” while at the same time plunging us right back into it.

On a trip to San Francisco, my mother and father visited with a family friend who let me play some version (I don’t recall well enough, except for the “get Lamp” and “maze of twisty little passages” bits) of Adventure on his computer. Then my family bought our first computer, an Atari 800, and I found Infocom text-adventure games like Suspended. They were absorptive in the sense that Charles Bernstein draws our attention to, through rather than at, until I stumbled across the bits of syntax that would throw the engine and then found out about the verbosity commands, and played with those for a bit. Fast-forward to 1987 again, and somebody in the yearbook office let me borrow the 3.25″ floppy with a sticker on it that said afternoon: a story. I slot it in, it ka-chunks like those old floppies did in those old Mac Pluses, and the title screen comes up with its reference to “a long the riverrun” and I knew that was something about Joyce. And then it says, “I try to recall winter,” and continues evocatively to the end of the first screen, which asks: “Do you want to hear about it?”

Of course I want to hear about it. I’m hooked, immediately. I’m absorbed. Looking through to the emotional experience of Peter and his son, of fractal trees, octopi, poetry, the skated surfaces of ice. And yet as soon as I click a term, or click yes, I’m thrown out again, looking at rather than through, asking myself — in that dorm room 25 years ago — what am I doing here? What comes next? Is this a game or a story or something else entirely? And most importantly: how does this new thing work?

I was hooked on the experience and on the analysis at once. I emailed Michael Joyce a couple times. He was gracious, encouraging, generous. I emailed Mark Bernstein at Eastgate Systems, who was publishing hypertext and also gracious and encouraging and generous, all these years ago, not really knowing what I was doing but knowing that I was paying attention to how to read at and through and that there was some sort of important distinction between the two, even if I couldn’t put it into words or express it adequately. The at of afternoon wasn’t explicitly concerned with truth, I know, but it was showing me how it did something new via the through, and that was true. The structure of afternoon in the way it called attention to itself — the through — was the opposite of coercive except in the way that it forced you to make choices and thereby abstract yourself from the analog embodied experience of literary reading unconcerned with truth except as represented in the at of the text.

My mother was a librarian who tried to bring me all the books she thought might add to or broaden my experience. There is my experience, before and after her death. The digital concerns itself with making use of the gaps in our analog experience.