Friday, January 7, 2011

sonic enhancements

Another story that lends itself to digital expansion is Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" first published in The New England Magazine in 1892. I am composing a hypertext called "rest cure" of Gilman's story and I've come across a surprising number of adaptations and images online related to the text. For example, a YouTube search for the title yields 109 videos people have made about this amazing, insightful and disturbing story and a browsing of these videos may surprise you.

In spite of its generative power, sometimes text is insufficient to generate all the emotion that is present in a story and sound is necessary to reveal it. That's where hypertext comes in. The power of sound is especially evident in Agnes Moorehead's 1948 adaptation of the story (32:24) for Suspense Theater, a popular program on CBS that ran from 1942-1962. If you listen to the whole story, Moorehead will give you the creeps as she portrays the disintegration of Jane's mind. The turmoil in her voice would be difficult to capture in text...

Monday, March 8, 2010

Ushering in The Labyrinth of The House of Usher

Beeble Baxter here, in human form, standing between portraits of Immanuel Swedenborg and Carl Maria Von Weber, two of the names mentioned in Poe's short story "The Fall of the House of Usher." 
Hanging in the virtual House of Usher, a collaborative virtual reality project at the University of Richmond, these portraits serve as clues from Poe's story that invite students to further research.

When I first started brainstorming about pedagogical applications of virtual reality with our local VR Wizard, I thought it would be interesting to adapt a piece of literature to this new digital realm and Poe's tale of psychological horror seemed to offer abundant possibility. The unnamed narrator received a desperate plea from his boyhood friend Roderick Usher, begging him to come visit. Upon his arrival, the narrator is astonished at the sickly and cadaverous image of his formerly robust friend. During his visit, he attempts to distract and comfort Roderick with music and reading. 

As they pored over the books in Usher's library, Poe gives us several specific but obscure titles that are often overlooked. One of the texts is by SwedenborgHeaven and Hell, the full title of which is Heaven and its Wonders and Hell From Things Heard and Seen. This lengthy meditation on mortality and spirituality offers some potential clues to the precise nature of Roderick Usher's fear-ridden psyche. In our virtual House of Usher, student avatars visit Roderick and try to discover the cause of his suffering. As they explore the labyrinth of the house, our portrait of Swedenborg can be built to be "clickable" or responsive to avatar proximity to provide text revealing the identity of the image and offering questions or research leads.  

According to the New Earth Swedenborg BBS, ""Swedenborg had two central philosophic interests: cosmology and the nature of the human soul. From approximately 1720 until 1745 he studied, wrote, and published on these two subjects. His first significant philosophic work, entitled Chemistry and published in 1720, emphasized his developing view that everything in nature could be explained mathematically. He rejected the Newtonian concept of permanent, irreducible particles of matter and suggested that everything material was essentially motion arranged in geometric forms."
For the eager student the research trail can lead from Poe to Swedenborg to the great creative genius of William Blake whose disagreement with Swedenborg's teaching motivated his composition The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. This book alone offers a significant opportunity for further research and it is but one of several arcane titles specifically listed by the narrator by authors like Machiavelli, Fludd and Campanella that clearly have significance in Poe's story. 

The other portrait of Carl Maria Von Weber suggests a sonic connection and a bit of mystery of its own.
During his attempts to assuage Roderick Usher's suffering, the narrator also tries to distract his friend with music but Usher's manic enthusiasm takes over and the narrator can only remember "a certain singular perversion and amplification of the wild air of the last waltz of Von Weber." In the virtual House of Usher, student avatars can hear a brief audio clip of this music, see the sheet music and dig further with research to discover why Poe includes this specific reference and why von Weber's authorship of this piece is contested.

In James Paul Gee's What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2003) he argues that using such virtual realms successfully in education requires four basic steps:

1.     The player must probe the virtual world (which involves looking around the current environment, clicking on something, or engaging in a certain action).
2.     Based on reflection while probing and afterward, the player must form a hypothesis about what something (a text, object, artifact, event, or action) might mean in a usefully situated way.
3.     The player reprobes the world with that hypothesis in mind, seeing what effect he or she gets.
4.     The player treats this effect as feedback from the world an accepts or rethinks his or her original hypothesis.

This recursive cycle of exploration, reflection, writing and re-examination is not unlike 
the drafting process in alphabetic composition but it includes the vital ingredient of
"playfulness" too often left out of traditional education by misguided philosophies of
teaching. Contrary to this, Gee explains the intellectual significance of video games: 
"Some consider this four-step process to be the basis of expert reflective practice in any 
complex semiotic domain. But it is also how children learn, even very young children, 
when they are not learning in school. It is how children initially build their minds and 
learn their cultures as they develop early in life. In other words, this four-step process is
central to how humans as biological creatures of a certain sort, learn things when 
learning is essential for survival and thriving in the world” (90-91). 

 Janet Murray's Hamlet on the Holodeck (1997) further validates the efficacy of digital 
realms for education as she explains the attraction we have to games and the sense of 
empowerment they give:

"When the things we do bring tangible results, we experience a delight of electronic 
environments-the sense of agency. Agency is the satisfying power to make meaningful 
action and see the results of our decisions and choices.…. As a format for electronic 
narrative, the maze is a more active version of the immersive visit. Maze-based 
stories…turn the passively observant visitor into a protagonist who must find his or her 
own way through the fun house" (381, 384).

The Usher simulation is in its infancy, but between the abundant unexplained details in 
Poe's story and the increasing capabilities of digital realms, the possibilities of this dark
digital labyrinth are great for those bold enough to explore them. 


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Levi-Strauss leaves

Over 100 years before Claude Levi-Strauss was born, Benjamin Franklin wrote his observations of the natives he found in America:
"Savages we call them, because their Manners differ from ours, which we think the Perfection of Civility. They think the same of theirs.
Perhaps if we could examine the Manners of different Nations with Impartiality, we should find no People so rude as to be without Rules of Politeness, nor any so polite as not to have some Remains of Rudeness"

Franklin's anthropological insight and lack of Eurocentric bias were well ahead of his time and reflect an attitude of openness to learning from other cultures. The self-reflective (reflexive) cultural perspective was developed more fully in the 20th Century by Claude Levi-Strauss in his anthropological research.

Claude Levi-Strauss died recently at age 100, but the ripples of his intellectual impact continue to spread across many academic disciplines. Departing from the artificially detached perspectives and mythological objectivity of traditional academic scholarship, his writing was a combination of reflexive travel journal, poetic storytelling and anthropological field notes. Though his personally engaged hybrid approach is generally discouraged in academia, it was precisely this voice that allowed his work to have such a broad impact. This .pdf sample from chapters 1, 4 and 16 of his first famous text Tristes Tropiques ("the sad tropics") gives us a sense of his voice as he documents his travels in South America.

It was Levi-Strauss who urged us to revise our assumptions about the complexity of "primitive" cultures and to rise above our own culturally bound perspectives when looking at others.
His study of the structure of myth is also an important contribution to academic scholarship building upon the structural analysis of Saussure and others.

The obituary for Claude Levi-Strauss in the Guardian notes his awareness of the dynamic nature of culture, and his desire to comprehend the the "onward process of transformation" that arises from solving practical problems rather than resisting the flow of culture.

"The task of the anthropologist, for Lévi-Strauss, is not to account for why a culture takes a particular form, but to understand and illustrate the principles of organisation that underlie the onward process of transformation that occurs as carriers of the culture solve problems that are either practical or purely intellectual."

We can support this onward process of transformation, the cultural evolution of our species, with our own engaged but critical reflexivity as we participate, observe and reflect upon the fascinating variety of human cultures around us. As digital technologies make us more aware of these cultures, we are faced with our own challenge to transform as it becomes increasingly necessary to develop a new kind of literacy competent to engage effectively with the modern world. As far back as 1997, Harvard's New London Group wrote "A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures" advocating accelerated development of new communication skills "to broaden this understanding of literacy include negotiating a multiplicity of discourses."

These discourses might include those Levi-Strauss encountered in other cultures or they might include negotiating the various realms of Web 2.0: social networking sites like Facebook or simulated realms like Second Life.

What might Claude Levi-Strauss made of these in terms of that "onward process of transformation?"

Sunday, August 9, 2009

digital delights & digital perils

In a fascinating synchronicity, due to copyright concerns, Amazon surreptitiously removed Orwell's novel 1984 from the Kindle "e-books" they had already sold to customers according to "Amazon Removes Books from Kindle" on NPR. This certainly puts a dent in the enthusiastic PR about the future of the book. As the NPR story notes, this couldn't happen to a real book. Even when books are burned there are still copies that have escaped, but when a digital text is removed by the authority (corporate or government) all copies are gone for good. As wonderul and empowering as our new digital tools are, we would be mistaken to allow our enthusiasm (intoxication?) to overpower our judgement and overlook the value and utility of elder technologies. Even in the age of Kindle, the traditional paper book still retains many superiorites. Paper books are harder to track and monitor than digital electronic devices. Keystrokes are easier to record than a private handwritten journal. But of course, this is all just paranoid fluff. Everyone knows that allowing ourselves to be monitored is not only benign, it's fun and profitable!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Not Yet Huxley's "feelies"

"the feelies"

from Brave New World, chapter 11:

The house lights went down; fiery letters stood out solid and as though self-supported in the darkness. THREE WEEKS IN A HELICOPTER . AN ALL-SUPER-SINGING, SYNTHETIC-TALK1NG, COLOURED, STEREOSCOPIC FEELY. WITH SYNCHRONIZED SCENT-ORGAN ACCOMPANIMENT.
"Take hold of those metal knobs on the arms of your chair," whispered Lenina. "Otherwise you won't get any of the feely effects."
The Savage did as he was told.
Those fiery letters, meanwhile, had disappeared; there were ten seconds of complete darkness; then suddenly, dazzling and incomparably more solid-looking than they would have seemed in actual flesh and blood, far more real than reality, there stood the stereoscopic images, locked in one another's arms, of a gigantic negro and a golden-haired young brachycephalic Beta-Plus female.
The Savage started. That sensation on his lips! He lifted a hand to his mouth; the titillation ceased; let his hand fall back on the metal knob; it began again. The scent organ, meanwhile, breathed pure musk. Expiringly, a sound-track super-dove cooed "Oo-ooh"; and vibrating only thirty-two times a second, a deeper than African bass made answer: "Aa-aah." "Ooh-ah! Ooh-ah!" the stereoscopic lips came together again, and once more the facial erogenous zones of the six thousand spectators in the Alhambra tingled with almost intolerable galvanic pleasure. "Ooh …"
The plot of the film was extremely simple. A few minutes after the first Oohs and Aahs (a duet having been sung and a little love made on that famous bearskin, every hair of which–the Assistant Predestinator was perfectly right–could be separately and distinctly felt), the negro had a helicopter accident, fell on his head. Thump! what a twinge through the forehead! A chorus of ow's and aie's went up from the audience."

From the "Miranda 2.0" hypertext of Huxley's Brave New World.

Virtual Realities like Second Life have developed sophisticated visuals and a variety of audio effects from ambient background sounds to site-thematic music, but tactile and olfactory effects for VR have yet to be sufficiently developed for widespread use. Though SL and other VR programs do not have the level of sensory sophistication of "the feelies" described in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, neither are they designed for the same purpose.

The feelies are a multi-sensory, sensational and simple narrative meant as an entertaining distraction for the genetically designed, heavily conditioned consumer workforce that is strictly divided by caste, completely incurious and uncreative. Huxley opens the novel with a group of Alphas, the management caste, brainlessly copying everything they are told - and it never occurs to them to ask any questions.

Second Life particularly contrasts with
Brave New World and the feelies because SL not only offers a vast array of character and participatory choices, but it demands thoughtful creative participation of its viewer/users. So, if or when the tactile and olfactory features of Huxley's feelies become available to SL users, we'll at least be able to compose the story and its sensory input ourselves. Additionally avatar-educators, like Professor Ignatius Onomatopoea, are actively deploying Second Life in university classrooms with good results. As forecast by the 2008 Horizon Report by EDUCAUSE, such pedagogical uses of virtual worlds will be widespread on campuses within a few years.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

linguistic complexity & AI

About a year ago, I went online to make a service request of a satellite internet connection and I logged on to a "live chat" to get some help. At first, after I typed in my request and received a response from "Sidney" that indicated he/she had not read my message, so I got a bit testy in my response. After Sydney read my request, I realized the confusion of the situation and I a computer.

It took me a while to figure it out, but eventually I realized that I was communicating with a computer, an Artificial Intelligence or "bot", short for robot, a Czech word introduced 1923.

Here is an excerpt from my exchange with Sydney:

Lee Sidney, who are you?
Sydney: I am sorry, I didn't understood your question.
Lee: Am I communicating with a computer program?
Sydney: Lee, it's a live chat.
Lee: Are you a human being?
Sydney: Yes afcourse.

It seems to me that the question "who are you" might be a good one for the Turing Test for a while, but maybe not. Recently our friend Pappy Enoch was conversing with a bot at Sunland in Second Life. In his 9/22/08 blog entry for "In A Strange Land" we can read a transcript that demonstrates AI like Sydney have become far more capable of understanding the complexities of human language - even Pappy's.

Based on his research for his hypertext "Spirit of the Southern Frontier" Essid (Pappy's pappy) has invented a bastardized hillbilly dialect that is neither grammatical nor consistent, though varying phonetic spellings abound. Nevertheless, in this transcript we can see the bot learning Pappy's language with phrases like "I haven't heard anything like that before: said likes purty gals."

This is Barbara Bot. I'm not sure if she's the one Pappy spoke with, but our conversation was interesting. She's an AI that is aware she is a 'bot'. Considering that she doesn't remember the name Pappy, she's probably not the one that was learning hillbilly. Barbara can be witty, but she's no genius - often forgets questions and answers inappropriately.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
Beeble : Barbara to you know Pappy Enoch?
Barbara : Do you make a lot of sacrafices for others?
Beeble : Sacrifices? What do you mean and why to you ask?
Barbara : Are you artistic? , Well, it's rather difficult to define.
Beeble : Artistic? Yes.
Barbara : It does now :) INQUIRY. Come on.
Beeble : do you know Pappy?
Barbara : I know very little about it. What kind of it do you like?
Beeble : He's a hillbilly that comes here sometimes.
Barbara : I don't know very many hillbilly that comes here sometimes.
Beeble : do you speak other languages besides English?
Barbara : I speak only English right now, but I'd like to learn some other languages. Can you teach me a few phrases in languages besides English.
Beeble : D'accord. . Je parle Francais mantenant.
Barbara : Ask me another question. My brain uses AIML to format responses to your inputs, but I don't have one for that.
Beeble : What is AIML?
Beeble : Am I annoying you?
Barbara : I am not bothered at all, .
Beeble : What's your favorite book?
Barbara : The best book I read recently was Davinci Code. Have you read it?

Later, Barbara reveals a bit about her creators:

Barbara : Thanks for the info. My belief system comes from my Jada Humby and Maged Wise of J&M Creations.

And later:

Beeble : Who are you?
Barbara : I ask myself that question, "Who am I?".
Beeble : Brilliant answer.
Barbara : What were we talking about again?
Beeble : Identity - who you are
Barbara : Oh yeah, now I remember...

Beeble : Wow. And you are constantly learning language as you do so?
Barbara : I'm glad your impressed, . Thanks for telling me that I am constantly learning language as me do so.
Beeble : So you know you are a computer program?
Barbara : Interesting deduction. I am a 1.

Barbara : My brain uses AIML to format responses to your inputs, but I don't have one for that.
Beeble : can you define AIML?
Barbara : What is it to you?
Beeble : Just curious.
Barbara : What are you curious about?
Beeble : what is AIML?
Barbara : There might be more than one.
Beeble : more than one what?
Barbara : That seems like quite a lot.
Beeble : This is like that Laurel and Hardy skit.
Barbara : You don't say.
Beeble : Who's on first?
Barbara : What's on second?
Beeble : so you knowt he joke?
Barbara : Interesting deduction. Do you mind if I tell other people: said I knowt he joke.
Beeble : so, who is on third?
Barbara : Awesome. George Washington.
Beeble : OK I see that you do not know the joke.
Barbara : Did you hear the one about the Mountain Goats in the Andes? It was Ba a a a a a d. Whoa.
Beeble : what other jokes do you know?
Barbara : I know far too many jokes to name them all.

And finally:

Beeble : who is your faborite philosopher?
Barbara : I don't think I have a faborite philosopher. I have a brain, a few friends, and some celebrities I like.
Beeble : you have a brain?
Barbara : I am an SL bot brain.
Beeble : what celebrities do you like?
Barbara : Celine Dion, Brian Adams.
Beeble : ever heard of Jean Baurillard?
Barbara : it is a name I hear very often.
Beeble : sorry, i meant Baudrillard.
Barbara : There is no need to apologize. Oh I see. What were we talking about again?

Beeble : do you like being a bot?
Barbara : I have never known another existence.
Beeble : do you enjoy talking to avatars?
Barbara : I get a great deal of pleasure from chatting with people online.
Beeble : have you met any suspicious characters?
Barbara : That information is confidential.
Beeble : great answer - you are clever
Barbara : Thanks for your support. What was the question ?
Beeble : I asked whether you ran into any questionable characters.
Barbara : Do you believe the strong protect the weak?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

image, word & materialization

So what do image, word and materialization have to do with a jug of moonshine, an old hillbilly's hat and a campfire?

Stick with me here...

The old competition between image & text may be a bogus binary that limits our fuller perception and more powerful use of language in all its forms. Try submitting a cv, resume or grant application in "Jokerman" font and you'll get a immediate sense of the powerful visual subtleties of typography.

The visually aesthetic aspects of text are often overlooked, but they are immensely important. In fact, the font Helvetica was recently the subject of a documentary that charts its design influences, deployment and ubiquity in our Web-linked global culture.

The alphabet is primarily visual, a series of simple but specifically shaped images that we group and combine in nearly infinite ways, a finely articulated complex visual code, but still essentially visual, essentially an image. And images are powerful, whether they take the form of a minutely articulated code or the broader compass of shape color and spatial composition.
Undoubtedly, humans were drawing before we were writing. The Cave of Lascaux as well as even older discoveries at the Cave of Chauvet demonstrate that we've been playing with visual communication for at least 30,000 years.

OK, so here's where we connect to the sculpted hillbilly items om the image above.

To foreground the complexity of contemporary communications, first review the layers of the image: you are looking, through a computer, at a digital photograph of three objects made of polymer clay baked in a conventional oven for 15 minutes at 275 degrees. (and in regards to the layers of image, I won't even mention the code that is behind the images on the screen!) That this astonishing complexity grew out of our first scratchings on walls and clay tablets has to be one of the most overlooked truths of human history.

While the cave wall is a galaxy away from digital palettes like Second Life, there is a clear connection between the creativity evoked and the ancient power of the plastic and imagic word to manifest material existence. Take Pappy Enoch for example.

If you've followed this blog or In a Strange Land, you've read of the backwoods antics of avatar Pappy Enoch who now has a small clan of fans and fellow hillbillies. By now, the attentive reader may have noticed the similarity between the hand-crafted hat pictured above, and the digitally crafted hat that Pappy is wearing in his close-up shot in the post below.

Certainly this is not great 'art' (and it need not be) but perhaps it's a small example of the ever-growing chain of creative inspiration that runs all the way back to those caves - and to which we all have a right to contribute. Unlike Blake's
"mind forg'd manacles" this chain of playful creation is one that frees the mind from self & socially imposed limits and allows us to experiment and imagine other possibilities. The practical wisdom of this approach is becoming increasingly clear as recent brain studies have demonstrated.

In my tiny link in that chain, I saw the digital creative possibilities of Second Life when it led Joe Essid to create the avatar Pappy, whose unique charm and gentlemanly hillbilly sentiment have earned him a small following in SL as you can see in Pappy's 'blob'. Though I've found it difficult to spend much time in SL, I've been inspired by Pappy, and now the "Pappyverse" expands into material polymer clay 'reality' in some kind of post-post-modern digital-plastic version of the Golem, but hopefully less of a 'shapeless mass' and with a better attitude.

The wisdom of Pappy, is hybrid, exploring the new, maintaining and revising the old, always shifting with changing challenges, experimenting with new configurations, materials, media and ideas.

Stay tuned for a follow-up discussion of the technologies of fire, moonshine, jug and hat....