Sunday, December 10, 2006

Particularity of the medium

One of Dewey's key concepts is the particularity of the artistic medium. For any kind of aesthetic production, the specific situation is interwoven with the specific medium. Aesthetics and ethics can't be understood apart from the very specific experience and situation. Artists work with, think in terms of, suffer through, slave over in terms of that medium. They have something they are trying to do or express, and the way they need to do that is in and through that medium, not through scattershot vocalizations or collections of different media. They force need and meaning through the funnel of their chosen medium, the resistance and obstacles it throws in their way, but also the unique potential and affordances it alone provides to them. They steep themselves in the nuances of the traditions of how that medium has been used before, and those filter into the unique constellation of the present situation and the state of the artist's current orientation to their subject, their environment, and the tool -- what they've tried to do and have done before, what they want to do now. All of this seems central to what I'm trying to go after with my research, and what happens for me when I work in the medium itself.

There is something I'm trying to get to and get at with Compendium and what surrounds it (e.g. publishing exports on the web, writing about it, etc). Each time I plunge myself into actually making something, shaping, planning, redoing, battling with why some aspect isn't working or isn't going the way I want it to -- each time, as Dewey says, is unique, and is only and uniquely done through the purpose and lens of Compendium as a medium. I could do some aspects of what I'm trying to do in other media, and also could (and sometimes do) make stuff within Compendium in a repetitive, non-original manner, but I don't want to. There are particularities and specifics of Compendium that are part and parcel of why I'd want to make the current object in the first place and how I want to go forward. I want to achieve or make or express the thing, but I want it to be achieved/made/expressed in Compendium. I want Compendium to rise to the occasion, to be the tool I need it to be, to become the tool I want it to become. There is an ongoing project, some long-term goal (what Wright & McCarthy would talk about as the future-orientation of the work) or purpose that I'm after, that keeps me returning to this medium to try again, to apply it to something else. The more I'm away from it I feel like I am not doing what only I can uniquely do, the more I work with it the more I want to do it. At the same time I tend to leave things unfinished or incomplete -- that's part of it, part of the nature of the medium I am obsessed with, is that it can always be queried, used in dialogue, extended, reshaped. Every object I've made has been done with that intent and in that spirit; not as a finished product or end in itself, though I always want them to serve the purpose that I intended during the making. But I also want them to be taken up as dialogic objects, used for further communication, with all the particularities and nuances of how that can work in Compendium (which I have been trying to get and extend and improve for the past 14 years).

As Dewey talks about, it is not external approval (though I do want that too) or measurement against some standard that motivates me and keeps me at this. There are potentially thousands of people who could make better Compendium artifacts that I can. I have seen spectacular things from Simon, Ale, Clara, Nick, and others. I am not trying to be better than them or even measure what I produce against theirs (though seeing beautiful work can inspire me, give me ideas, and it is always gratifying to me personally because I know those works would not have existed in that form without my contribution to getting the tools and methods where they are now over the years). It's more that there is a degree or kind of Compendium creation out there --- maddeningly elusive -- that pulls in all the things the medium is capable of. We will never be as good as what the potential is, it's a supermagnet in front of us, continually pulling away. There may well be some geniuses of the medium already working or lying in wait out there -- Compendium Shakespeares -- who could do something measuring up to this ultimate standard -- but even then they would never use it up. "OK now that this is done there's nothing left to do, except to imitate it". In that it is the same as any other artistic medium. Many (or most) people would now not even consider Compendium as a real or worthy medium, for whatever reason -- it's not enough of this, it's not seen enough as that -- but that is irrelevant to me. I would want to do this even if no one else did (though at the same time I passionately want more people to).

"Indifference to response of the immediate audience is a necessary trait of all artists that have something new to say. But they are animated by a deep conviction that since they can only say what they have to say, the trouble is not with their work but those who, having eyes, see not, and having ears, hear not. Communicability has nothing to do with popularity." (Art as Experience, p. 109)

Dewey really gets at the inseparable emotional (as well as intellectual) aspects of aesthetic production, the intensity with which someone caught up in the making and doing feels it, sees it, thinks about it, grapples with it. Almost anywhere I open up Art as Experience something leaps out at me as being exactly and poetically stated about the experience (which, as he also points out, is or can be common to both making and perceiving). Like the following:

"Sense qualities are the carrier of meanings, not as vehicles carrying goods but as a mother carries a baby when the baby is part of her own organism." (p. 122-3)

Why did he think to write this, and know to write it that way? The book is full of that stuff -- so direct, so lacking in gobbledygook. If all philosophers and theorists could write with that kind of clarity, maybe I would be able to read and understand a lot more of it.

Choices in creating maps from others' email

The main point of this blog is to talk about the idea of knowledge art from the perspective of actual practice, not to pontificate or make grand claims. Or at least, if I do pontificate, to have it emerge from and be grounded in instances of practice. This post is meant to be an example of what I should be doing most of the time.

A few minutes ago I constructed two maps in Compendium based on an ongoing discussion from the Compendium Institute yahoogroup. The discussion concerns options for a shared/collaborative of the software. The maps themselves are here. Some observations on the making of these maps follows.

Even making these, which were completely based on content that others (e.g. Ron Wheeler, Dick Karpinski, Jack Paulus) had created, and were just simple argument maps, involved making aesthetic and ethical decisions on the fly. Aesthetic, because I had to decide how much of which email entry to put in what kind of node, and how to link it to the others, among other choices; ethical, because I made decisions on how to represent the speech of other people, in ways which may or may not convey their intent, not to mention possibly influence how other people would see and understand their comments. Whether or not I (or any practitioner) am aware of these as ethical choices, whether or not I want to take on the responsibility that making representational choices is an ethical act, to me it remains that it unavoidably is one.

Except for Dick Karpinski's entry, which was (helpfully in this context) already laid out in a clear IBIS format, the others did not in all cases lend themselves to 1:1 rendering as questions, answers, pros and cons, easily and clearly linkable. This is almost always the case in real life, trying to map discussions as they occur (Jeff Conklin writes about this masterfully in his Dialog Mapping book). The mapper needs to make on-the-fly decisions about how to represent the conversation, trying to stay both faithful to the intent and meaning of the person who made the statement, and to the conceptual framework the mapper is trying to use to structure the conversation coherently and usefully (in this case, the framework was IBIS). For example, the original email had a number of clearly stated, distinct requirements, which could easily be mapped (though this itself was a choice I made, not given in the material) as Answers to an (implicit) Question node.

e.g. the original email had statements like:

"1. User can add and access files and documents
2. Works without installing software on client
3. Nodes and links have intuitive, easy-to-find tags one can link to
to arrive at that particular node or link via web"

I copied all this into the Detail of a Question node in Compendium, separated each numbered paragraph with an empty line, clicked the "Convert page text into nodes" button, which created separate Note nodes linked back to the Question. I changed the node types of all of them to Answer, tagged each with a "requirement" tag, then deleted the text from the Detail of the original Question and changed its label to "Basic requirements?". This was implicit and an interpretative choice on my part, since there was no such question in the original email (the way Ron had prefaced it was "This is the original list:"). I cleaned up the new requirements nodes some, making sure the labels were clear, but then had to figure out how to incorporate the comments/arguments in subsequent emails into this map.

Some of this was straightforward and did not require much representational decision-making on my part (e.g. Ron helpfully tied his argumentation back to the numbered requirements in his email, with statements like "7) Is a basic Compendium function. Vote +1"). Some was not so straightforward, such as portions of Jack's subsequent email ("I am comfortable with the compendium client and could see it working in that tool but we, as members of this list, are a self-selected sample that do not represent the average user, an average user that would benefit greatly from such a tool."). This was fairly clearly a comment on requirement #5 ("5. No software need be installed on the client machine."), but possibly also #2 ("2. Works without installing software on client"). I could have decided to combine #5 and #2 into one node, but that would have messed up the replying comments/arguments Ron had made, not to mention imposing my own interpretation on the original text. Also, since Ron had later commented on Jack's points, I needed to choose a way to represent that chain, which I did as a Con node pointing to the Pro node I had made from Jack's comment.

There were a ton of other such choices made in the less than 10 minutes it took me to construct the maps, make web and XML exports, put them up on the Compendium Institute website, and create an index page to point to the exports (all of which also comprised a number of choices). I wanted to do all this very quickly so that I would get back to the writing I have to do (the weekend is ebbing away rapidly), so I did not belabor the choices and spend a lot of time tweaking and perfecting. My hope is that someone else will take the XML and rework it in a better form -- in fact, that has been the hope I've had with almost all the Compendium work I've put up on the web in various places, though it has yet to happen -- rather than trying to perfect it on my own.

I could probably spend the rest of the day just describing what I did in this short exercise of creating the maps from emails, talking about the intended audience, the trajectory I see / hope that the maps will take, the subject matter itself, my own use of Compendium and the web in this one instance and how it ties to the other work I've done and foresee doing. But that would indeed take at least the rest of the day. As Dewey says, "A lifetime would be too short to reproduce in words a single emotion" (Art as Experience). I just wanted to get at least a little of this down quickly here. To me this -- trying to make such practitioner choices primary subject matter -- is ongoing work, a huge and endless subject, that my research is pointed towards, and that I hope to engage others in.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Sensemaking in the zeitgeist

This follows up on an earlier post that mentioned the conflict between principled vs intuitive approaches to design.

Much of my interest since the 1980s has been in the idea of sensemaking, what happens when individuals or groups in the course of their work hit something they don't understand or can't get past. Communication and other breakdowns often occur at such times, people don't know what to do or have conflicting or confused ideas as to the right actions to take. I think I'm pretty good at coming up with structures, tools, and interventions to help at those moments, whether that's UI design, user guides, presentations, training materials, facilitation, hypermedia discourse, etc.

This is in the face of, and often in opposition to, situations where everyone seems to know what needs to be done, how it needs to be done, what it means in the context, how things should be prioritized, often with much greater clarity, nuance, and in more dimensions than I do. I often feel not very intelligent about understanding the bulk of what is generally known, at least at first blush. If I throw myself into the situation, get immersed in the details and how they relate together (often in the context of having to create one of the interventions I spoke of above), then I can get some of that understanding. I'm pretty good at looking deeply at something, getting its nuances in pursuit of some specific end; but not very good at just generally picking up the zeitgeist, slipping unproblematically into the shared pool of knowledge that others seem to pick up just by being around.

I've seen this very clearly at my job (in a large systems development organization). Most everyone else seems to better understand the technical stuff -- servers, security processes, testing protocols, configuration management, etc., and also the subject matter of the applications we develop, especially how all the systems and processes relate to one another. Even in an area I'm ostensibly more expert in, user interfaces, many seem often to know more fluidly and quickly than me what needs to be in an application's UI, what the user experience should and shouldn't be. The kinds of interventions and comments I make often seem more superficial, "cosmetic", on the wrong or at least a not very important level (not as important as other levels and interventions that have to happen). Engineering, logistical, and operations considerations trump all else, and this is not to imply that this is wrong; these considerations are indeed often much more what matters, or at least what needs to minimally be done and done right for the application to get delivered on time and function in its environment at all. I feel that I ought to have more insight, due to my experience, level, skills, enlightened worldview, etc., but paradoxically I often seem to have less. Part of this is good, if humbling. I don't (or at least, constantly realize I shouldn't) inflate my own importance and wisdom. I listen more to the insights of others and recognize their skills and experience.

On the other hand, there are limits to what the zeitgeist, the common wisdom, the generally known, produce. From an IT application development point of view, this often comes out in the level of quality and usability that a particular system attains. The zeitgeist seems programmed to deliver functionality that can be attained by a certain date, within constraints, and that 'works' in the existing environment, but the rub lies in what it doesn't do, the things that don't add up, that are invisible or given less attention than they need, until the system hits the factory floor. There is usually not the time or resource to give these considerations their due in the system development lifecycle. When they come up, they present dilemmas and conundrums -- akin to the sensemaking moments I was talking about above. They require a different level of thought and intervention and the zeitgeist doesn't help much. The considerations are unique, not generic, and have deeply to do with the intricacies and subtleties of the relationships of the parts to the whole, especially as a user will encounter them. And they are usually not things that simply asking a user could have surfaced in advance -- they only come out when the new application exists, when it has tangible form that someone can interact with (though certainly, as user-centered design advocates would argue, sometimes the problems could have been avoided through upfront user research, low-fidelity prototypes. But only sometimes). It takes a ton of work to get to the point where you can even see the problems emerge. At that point, different skills are required. I'm happier and feel less stupid there. But those points are not the preponderance of what goes on.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Converting materials

Although you would not know it from the last few entries, the subject of this blog is not "things I do to avoid doing the writing I need to do." I have actually spent a fair amount of time writing in the past few days. However, I have spent a lot more time on a flood of email, Compendium work, web publishing, and general messing around on computers. I don't get to do this very often, usually only on vacations (the last time, really, was last Xmas break), and almost all of it was stuff I was happy to get done (long-term residents on my to-do list), though many hours were spent in things like searching through old XML files and .sql backups on 3 computers to find Compendium stuff I'd done a few years back (I did find most, but not all, of what I was looking for).

One of the things I got done was finding and rehabbing some of the fictional stories I'd done in Compendium in 2003, putting them up on the web, and creating some materials to surround them. The result is here.

It all does go together, though. The writing I'm doing -- going back through my notes on Dewey, Schön, Wright/McCarthy, and others and trying to write something coherent that relates the ideas to where I'm going with my PhD work -- is making me think hard about what I am really seeing and saying there. One problem I always have in doing such work is that nearly every line by the original authors seems so insightful and compelling (and so beyond what I could come up with) that I want to quote them all, and then my writing becomes just stringing together of what others have said. As Dewey puts it:
"The abiding struggle of art is thus to convert materials that are stammering or dumb in ordinary experience into eloquent media."
(Art as Experience)
In my case it's my own thoughts and ability to bring coherence that are stammering and dumb, but in the working over of all the stuff, the struggle to get it to make sense and mean something, they do, usually or at least often, get somewhere. And all this messing around in html, xml, Compendium, etc. that I've done over the last few days, will hopefully be at least a step on the path to making something eloquent. Not just, or only, procrastination.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Granular reuse

One of the core aspects of Compendium for me has always been the concept of granular reuse of knowledge elements, even back in QuestMap days. This means that you can make use of the same elements (nodes and links) in multiple contexts, even in completely different projects or databases. The work you did to create the elements in the first place can be leveraged many times for different purposes. It can happen on many different levels -- for example, just the text, or the way you have constructed a whole node with its images, tags, etc., or sets of nodes and links and maps together. I wrote about it in this 1998 paper.

Granular reuse is one of the things that makes Compendium different from other approaches, like concept mapping, because the work you do in one context can be so easily and multiply reused in another. The more familiar and fluid you are with the different techniques and concepts, the more you can make use of your knowledge elements over and over, getting new and different value each time.

I spent so much time over the last few days constructing my first portfolio map -- a View by Time. It wasn't the linking and arranging of the map itself, but rather the construction of the individual nodes -- finding good URLs of the items (in some cases they'd moved or dropped off the web at some point); getting the bibliographic info for the publication; messing around with the text; doing repeated copying of the HTML files to the KMi server, seeing something that needed fixing, changing it in Compendium and re-generating the exports, re-copying the files, etc. Last night, when dropping off after the usual Thanksgiving glut, I had the thought that although I liked how the View by Time had come out, I also wanted to see the portfolio in different ways, like grouped thematically. So this morning I sat down to construct that view (and yes also to continue procrastinating on the writing I need to do).

This time it was way quicker to create even though the view itself was kind of involved, because all I had to do was transclude the nodes from the View by Time into the new View by Type map. Most of the other work was done for me (by me) already, this was just making a new arrangement of the elements. What makes it 'granular reuse' is that, as with all transclusions, if I make changes to any of the individual nodes they will be made in both views (a kind of magic that I am always amazed by). And the some of the ancillary stuff I'd done in the first view, like the "Related Links" navigation (some which point to web pages and some which are views in the same Compendium project), were immediately reusable although I modified them for the new view. I also realized that the titling and background, which I had done for the first view in by laboriously arranging the titles and category headings in Powerpoint, saving them as a JPG then using that as my map background, could more easily be done with icon-less Compendium nodes and Scribble-layer drawings. So now both views are 100% Compendium constructions, and in the same database so I could easily make new views with some or all of the same elements.

When I was making the second view, it became a lot more apparent to me how I should be tagging the nodes. I used the categories that I'd shown as Questions in the View by Time (e.g. "co-authored papers", "Compendium experiments", etc.) as the seeds for the tags. As I started to tag the nodes I realized that I could do it better by having attributes separated out into different tags. For example, at first I had one tag for "co-authored papers" and another for "papers" (meaning I'd written those alone); I realized it would be better to have a tag for "co-authored" that could be applied to anything that I'd done with others, such as papers, book chapters, workshops, and so on. A more elegant structure, but more to the point of this post, it will allow me to do other reuse activities later, such as constructing a view that shows things I've worked on with other people. All I'll have to do is search for anything with "co-authored" as a tag, insert it into a new map, and go. Using the new Tags interface was a joy (thanks Simon and Michelle!).

I don't feel that I am getting across what I'd like to here, the power and fluidity of Compendium's granular reuse mechanisms, so I will probably have to revise this at some point when I'm better inspired. Now this is the last thing on my list of must-procrastinate-because-this-is-also-worth-doing items for today; heading to the writing table (arghh! just spent another 15 minutes cleaning up the Home Window of my Compendium PhD database, which was also on my list).

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Lost in tweakland

I spent far too much time yesterday and this morning on a self-assigned task to create a 'portfolio' map that links to various publications, maps, etc., kind of like my own mini-portal. Using Compendium for this was pretty satisfying. I did it in a portion of my phd database, so all the materials I put together in there can be reused in other contexts in that database.

Like a lot of people, I can get lost in tweak-land, whiling away hours making little fixes and improvements to something like that. It feels like I am doing something at least sort of useful, making the thing better, more communicative, more informative, more links, better icons, headings, and so forth. And, I was able to test out more of the Compendium 1.5.1 Mac beta, finding a bunch of little quirks and bugs, so I'm being useful there too (I still feel quite guilty that neither I nor anyone else did much testing for v 1.5, which now has almost 4000 downloads and has some problems, though also a ton of good functionality). And, as almost always when I spend a lot of time in Compendium really working on something, I came up with a bunch of new ideas for features that would help in creating artifacts like the portfolio map and its web exports. But -- what I SHOULD be doing is not any of those things. In my discretionary time I should be a) writing up my Dewey, Schon, Wright/McCarthy etc. notes, which I have worked on some this week, or more urgently b) writing the chapter for Ale's book. I have some more days off this week and weekend so I will -- I hope -- I trust -- work on both (a) and (b).

Amazingly there were some comments, from someone I don't know personally, on one of the previous posts. Nice to know someone out there has read some of this. One of the comments (from someone I do know personally) kind of questioned why someone would have a blog like this. I don't want to get into a self-reflexive debate (writing blogs on why to write blogs), but I guess it's a reasonable question. The main thing for me is to try to write about knowledge art in an everyday way, not only in an academic or theoretical way (as much as I am also doing that). I don't spend enough time doing this (or, as noted above, many of the other things I should be doing) to get as far with it as I'd like, but each little piece does help me be "real" about some aspect of what knowledge art means to me, and how the idea plays into some piece of my day-to-day life. I will spend some more tweak-time over the next couple of days writing a more clear entry on the phenomenon I was trying to get at in that post, about different kinds of knowledge and effectiveness at work.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Fixing the blog

Comments now work in this blog. I don't think they were working before. I also fixed the "bloghome" links that appear on each page so they actually go to the main page instead of nowhere, got the Title to appear on each page, "claimed" the blog on Technorati so that it might appear in search results, and fixed the "archive" link also (thanks to Marc Eisenstadt for his valuable suggestions). Probably I did not do some of this correctly, but (although it is mighty tempting as a procrastination technique) I don't really want to spend hours and days figuring out the intricacies of Blogger template construction. If someone would like to volunteer to tell me how to do it right, I'd be most receptive.

Lightweight PIM approaches

I looked at the Gyronix website this morning. It is an add-on tool to MindManager that is a lightweight, quick way of "queuing up" stuff that can be easily added to MM later, without dealing with the overhead of moving around in the MM maps and software itself.

I sort of use Word and (increasingly) Gmail for this myself w/r/t Compendium -- I can capture ideas quickly and with no overhead, put them somewhere easily retrievable, even (with Gmail especially) add metadata like tags etc., and then later, at some point, add them to a Compendium database (if/when I get around to it).

I am actually finding myself using Gmail as my de facto day-to-day PIM these days, more and more. I ask myself why? Some reasons are
  • it's always there, doesn't require starting some other software; low/nonexistent cognitive or operational overhead
  • tremendous ease of searching, retrieval, etc.
  • doesn't rule out anything else (like later incorporation into Compendium, documents, blogs (as I am in fact doing right at this moment), etc.)
  • ease of metadata (tagging, 'starring', saving as 'draft', etc.)
  • ease of incorporation with the most frequently used collaboration software of all (for me) -- email
  • I can just throw stuff in without worrying about how to shape it, fit it in to what is already there, but I know I can get at it very quickly, pick things up where I left off --i.e. it is lightweight

I don't say the above because I am advocating for using Gmail in this way, rather I am just wondering why it is that I am doing that more and more. For me personally, Compendium is becoming more an authoring tool I use to craft particular kinds of representations, interventions, and/or repositories (maybe it was always that for me); something about it doesn't quite work (for me) as a day-to-day PIM.

Against 'human-centered design'

Don Norman wrote a piece arguing against many user-centered design approaches, or at least how they are thought of/about. I just wrote five pages in my notebook prompted by this, on the somewhat related theme of how what I seem to be pretty good at -- seeing and coming up with ways to help people deal with 'breaches in the canonicity of life' (Bruner) -- seems often to be hardly of much value in the world I mostly work in, where knowledge of and a feel for how things actually work (the engineering and operations aspects) is the main value. In other words, living within the canonicity and knowing how it works -- neither of which I'm much or uniquely good at -- is needed and valued.

How is this related to Norman's piece? Well, to me it says that having a feel for what will work (as Jobs clearly does at Apple) is much more important and valuable than following principled approaches that are meant to discover or critique what's wrong or missing from the dominant worldview, such as 'human-centered design'. There is a debate about this that I've been following in the interaction design world (this thread from the IxDA list is an example, where many are railing against the academic/research preference for 'user-centered design' as an approach, saying that intelligent/creative designers following their own instincts for what will work is actually more effective than all the techniques that have been developed for 'understanding users', regardless of how much more enlightened the latter is supposed to be).

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Back to Ann Arbor

These maps are not in anywhere near their final form and only have a little of the planned content in place, but thought I'd post a link to them anyway. They take advantage of some of the new Compendium 1.5 features, and are kind of a prototype for something I'm thinking about in the training/workshop area. I think there is tremendous potential for Compendium as a documentary/autobiographical tool and this is a first groping example.

  • I took the photos after visiting Lisa and Aron in Ann Arbor in August. It was the first time I'd been back since their wedding in 1989. My main intent was to use the photos in just such a Compendium form, to capture and hopefully evoke the feelings (nostalgia? it was more than that) I had in seeing those places that I inhabited so intensely 24-28 years ago
  • there are three kinds of maps -- 'maps' (showing approximate locations in Ann Arbor), 'stories' (template-driven explorations of the meanings of particular places), and catalogs.
  • the photo collage on the home page was generated from Picasa. What a cool tool.

This morning sat down to work on Phd stuff, and some ideas started percolating, but more was kind of overwhelmed by all the threads that are worth picking up on, that are all worth doing, but that all will take a lot of work and time. Such as:
  • finishing up the Maarten analysis and doing the Nick analysis
  • copying all my Wright/Mccarthy, Dewey, and Schon notes into my Compendium phd database and doing a careful job of annotating and tagging them (also to test out more 1.5.1 features, especially the new Tags interface)
  • writing up the central themes from my readings of the above over the past 5 months: aspects of experience, approaches to the Phd practical work I next need to do, the nature of artistry/aesthetics, the centrality of the medium used, the nature of experential learning, the connection between an artistic effort and its context, and the interweaving of practice/service and art
  • writing the chapter for Ale/Simon's book
  • spending more time on stuff like the Back to Ann Arbor maps (simultaneously pulled to spend all my time with them, tweaking bits of it endlessly, but also staying away from what should be the real work of it -- populating it with stories and memories, expanding the content -- why don't I do that?
  • doing the readings and exercises in the OU Doing Postgraduate Research book
  • noodling around with email and web browsing (i.e. wasting time)
  • reading more papers/articles/books
  • putting together my talk and materials for Mark's class on Tuesday (which are mostly together, I just need to revisit and make sure everything, all the images, etc., are there on my laptop)
As frequently in my life, I'm excited and interested in all the above, but their very multiplicity keeps me from getting started on almost any of them (so the wasting time one usually wins). Procrastination, my lifelong nemesis. I have mostly kept it at bay for the past 30 years or so, at least compared to its usual vanquishing of me as a child/adolescent, but it still keeps me from doing all I could do.

When Simon was here a couple of weekends ago, and we were talking about some of my new ideas for where to go with the practical work, and he said I did need to connect it clearly and directly with the observational stuff I did in the first year. It occurred to me this morning that a main point of connection I could draw, which is also a tighter focus for even the observational work, is to look at the setback moments -- where the practitioner is faced with some sort of dilemma or obstacle and has to quickly make sense, improvise, and act out of the linear progression they were on up to that moment, but keeping the coherence, purpose, and service intact -- how to pull together, act, and recover. That is common to almost any episode of practice. It's the aesthetics and ethics of the actions at those moment -- what form does the work take, and how does it relate to the purpose and participants -- that can be a central focus.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Making things

We were driving home from dinner at Raju and Sangini's last night, and talking in the car about things we did as kids that were half-baked, projects we started into with all the confidence of kids that have no idea of what it actually takes to make something, then realize they can't really do what they wanted. Once in fourth grade or so, me and Robert Grundman designed an underground lair we were going to dig in the woods behind my house, with rooms and furniture and passageways, and actually started to dig it. After about three hours of sweaty, leaf- and dirt-filled labor, we had nothing but sore arms, a hole about four feet deep and were hitting rocks and roots and realized there was no way we were going to be able to do it.

Another time I went into our wood shop in the basement and started to make a new kind of musical instrument. I was probably about 12. My idea was a V-shaped intersection of two boards around a hinge, with strings made out of fishing line attached to nails on both boards, and when you brought the boards closer together or pulled them farther apart it would change the pitch of the strings. I actually made the thing, but of course bringing the boards closer together just made for slack strings, and there was only so far apart you could pull the two halves of the V so there was really no variation in pitch at all. I was sorely disappointed, I should've been able to just sail in and make the thing, instead of realizing I had no idea what I was doing.

This morning I had a dream where there was a radio talk show about Compendium, put on in a cafe in Philadelphia skyscraper by Chuck and Beth. It was the last day of the show -- low listenership -- and none of the content was actually about Compendium. They had run out of ideas for it. In the dream, I realized that Compendium was now "over." I had a sad feeling of loss, mourning that we had come to the end without ever quite fulfilling the promise. Someone in the dream (not Chuck or Beth) told me, though, that there would be something else, to begin again with something new. (There was a semi-sexual aspect to that last interchange, but describing that will not fit into the family nature of this blog).

Both of the above, the memories and the dream, said something to me about this journey I have been on for the last 14 years. On the one hand, unlike my musical instrument, Compendium is something that I was successfully able to make. It is not finished or perfected, but there is a solid core of practicality and usefulness there, as well as good implementation and a tool that not only does what we intended but that people are taking in new directions. Of course I did not make it all by myself, and knowing the many levels of deep collaboration and co-creativity that have gone into it with my good friends over the years is one of the great pleasures of my life. But it really was like the instrument in another way. I went into the "shop" with nothing more than a vague idea of what I wanted to produce. In the early years that was mostly my dining room table and conversations with Maarten in the car on our commutes to the office. There were a lot of nails crookedly pounded into scraps of wood. But ultimately the thing worked and still does.

On the other hand, there is still that unfinishedness, and despite all we are able to do with the tool now, I still have the feeling that this has been just the first attempt. It goes very far along the path but not, in some ways, far enough. There is something there that doesn't quite cohere, some aspect of the basic approach that ultimately doesn't hang together. I have actually had this feeling since at least 1999 and have tried to talk about it at times, like at our first Compendium gathering at NASA Ames. Like other things that I have written about here, I don't put this forward in our more public writings about Compendium; you have to be upbeat and positive there (why would someone take the trouble to install and learn software that ultimately doesn't fulfill its stated objective)? It is possible that the "next step" will not occur to me, and of course we are still playing out the many threads started and suggested by the work over the last decade.

Driving home from LaGuardia the other night, I heard an interview of Bill Frisell, the guitarist, on WFUV-FM. One thing he said that I loved was that as a musician you are never finished, there is always some level you want to get to that you are never quite at. For him to say that after all his achievements made me feel that what I tried to write about above is OK, that just because Compendium in its current form is not perfected doesn't mean that we, or I, have failed. Feeling like there is another level to reach might just be the nature of the beast.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Real-time movie making

Compendium as real-time movie making is an idea that has floated around for me since close to the very beginning, when I first started messing around with QuestMap following the revelatory demo and workshop from Jeff Conklin & co. at NYNEX S&T in 1992.

It's also one of many that I've kind of suppressed in our public writing/presentation about Compendium, since it is not newbie-friendly and might scare people off. But the purpose of this blog is to talk about more 'advanced' topics and what it's like to live in the practitioner world from my perspective. So it's as good a place as any to talk about this.

I studied film and video in college and some in grad school, and worked some in the field in the early 80s, and still think of myself, at least a little, as a filmmaker although I have really done nothing except take photos and family videos since then. However the collection of disciplines that make up filmmaking, and the multi-dimensional way I was trained to look at film, still feel to me at the core of how I approach much of my professional practice.

When you're making a film, whether on your own or with a whole cast and crew, you're constantly assimilating, synthesizing, calculating, and improvising across a whole range of technical and aesthetic considerations. Some of them you plan out in advance, some of them occur or must be faced in the moment. For example, you realize in the course of filming a scene, even one that you've planned and scripted out beforehand, that moving the camera a certain way, or including a few more inches of the set in a shot, will make a difference in how effective the scene is. And "effective" is an incredibly nuanced thing -- a scene can be effective in a thousand ways (and can lose its effectiveness in a thousand more).

This is equally true in pre- and post-production (e.g. sound design, editing, ...) as it is during the shooting itself. The more depth and breadth you have in the host of disciplines that make up filmmaking, the more you become aware of what can be done and what shouldn't be done, and the more the little ideas and possibilities occur to you in the process of making the film.

The little things all fit into the big thing you are trying to do -- the story you are trying to tell, the effect you are trying to create, the way you want to reach the audience or how you hope they will interact with the film, how good it is.

The same is true with the practice of building Compendium representations on the fly with groups. There are dozens of skills that make up the practice, at all sorts of levels of granularity, from micro-manipulations of nodes and links on a map during a meeting, to how you plan out what sort of templates, tags, and images you might use, to how you interact with participants during a session, and on and on. You are working on the representation, but it is in service of the 'story' of the particular engagement -- what you and the participants are trying to do, what constraints you're working within, what ideas and inspirations occur during the course of the making and doing.

Some of the similarities are overt -- in both filmmaking and Compendium practice you are trying to make a coherent narrative, you are marshalling a host of techniques in that service, you need to understand what can and can't be done with what cost and what effect. On another level, in both you are concerned with aesthetics, for example how the maps look, and flow, for example what kind of navigational structures, how you get from one place to another, how those 'feel'; or the various kinds of writing that must occur (text in labels and details, sometimes looks and feels like "scriptwriting"). Some are less direct -- the techniques themselves are largely different, using different media and tools.

Much more could be said about this. On my mental list of projects to do someday, I have often thought of constructing some sort of table that compares different sorts of filmic techniques to Compendium techniques.

Technology as Experience

Work has been very busy for the past few months, so although I see the 'blog' bookmark on my Safari toolbar whenever I get on the Mac, I haven't posted anything. On the Compendium front there has been a ton going on, though my involvement has been fairly limited. The best recent thing was teaming up with Simon to give an intro workshop to AETMIS, a government agency in Quebec. As always when we've done these, we see a lot of things in the training materials and the tool itself that need improvement, but it was also gratifying to see what looked like genuine interest and enthusiasm on the part of the attendees, who were mostly researchers for medical policy-making.

On the research front, Simon introduced me to two of his colleagues at CHI in Montreal, who have written the book Technology as Experience. Excerpts from a fan letter I wrote Peter and John follow. Highly relevant to the purpose of this haltingly published blog.

I feel like a kid who's won a ten minute shopping spree at a toy store -- there are so many things I want to throw in the cart that I don't know where to begin, and almost want to give up before starting because I know there is not enough time or space to grab everything that appeals. The book is helpful, validating, and stimulating on so many levels that I am almost sick. In a good way.

Not sure how many of your other readers have had to suppress the desire, in public places like the departure lounges where I turned many of your pages, to jump up, pump a fist in the air and yell "In your face, turn-to-practice theorists! Your lacunae have been revealed for all to see!" I remember when we collaborated with the Institute for Research on Learning in the mid-90s, who were doing studies of work in the phone company, and one of the anthropologists saying "We don't care about individuals." Well, I did, and do, and see no contradiction in also caring about the sociality of work. One entails the other, always has, always will, and you can't understand work or the workplace or technology without entering into both dimensions, especially the way they interpenetrate each other.

My own background is literary (I love what you write about Bakhtin's emphasis on the novel since I've spent much of my life reading literary novels) and aesthetic, and I came, partly, to technology through media studies, film/video production, music performance, and facilitative approaches like peer counseling, so trying to understand and write about technology from the perspective of emotion, dialogue, volition, aesthetics, rings a Big Ben of resonance for me. I have been trying to do that in my little world of looking at the particular phenomenon of collaborative hypermedia practice and practitioners, but have been missing some theoretical pieces that I believe your book will help me get much firmer hold of. And, I commit to reading Dewey and Bakhtin and Shusterman and some of the others before I am through.

Of course the book leaves me with a host of both new and chronically familiar unanswered questions. Like, how to apply some of this to my day job designing nuts-and-bolts b2b web applications? A more 'rationalist' environment could not be imagined. Or, how to turn, harness, focus, force the kinds of insights this approach (or set of approaches, really) can provide into an academic discourse (in CSCW and HCI) that seems so focused on outcomes, results, proof, etc. Since I came out of media studies and know also where that discourse can lead (maddening self-reflexivity, theoretical jungles, indecipherable critical-speak), and don't want to go back there, want to stay in the light of making and producing things and trying to communicate with other human beings that haven't read Derrida, I feel that there is not yet clarity at the end of the rainbow -- that at the other end of doing the kind of analysis that I was already trying to do and that your book will help me do better, I do not yet see an oasis of calm, insightful, applicable wisdom. I often fear that I will only create more complexity, not less. Addressing the 'unfinalizable' richness of individual experience is an unending effort -- there is no way to write a definitive, closed account of a Yeats poem or Bergman film, and the same is true of trying to capture and convey experience like that of a collaborative hypermedia practitioner working in heated moments with a group and tool and representation. How do you usefully bound and cap this? Is there a point at which you can go just far enough and not farther? There has to be or the effort is never finished, but every stopping point I pick feels like a violation of the ones I haven't reached yet.

The book is Technology as Experience, John McCarthy and Peter Wright, MIT Press 2004.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Making a Compendium FAQ in Compendium

I spent much of today constructing a FAQ for Compendium, in Compendium, then posting it as an HTML export. The contents were all taken from postings on the compendiuminstitute yahoogroup, which I edited a bit to fit into the format I was trying to follow. As usual, I didn't really plan it out in advance, more just winged it (wung it?) and created the categories, tags, visual layout etc. as I went along.

At the end I decided to put it up on the web (up til then I was just going to have it as an xml export for a small group of people to play with and give me input on how it should be), so that prompted creation of nicer containing maps and lists for the content. I also made a custom background using Snagit's editor then laboriously added it to each map. Then, when I went to upload all the HTML files to the kmi server, I realized that I didn't like having the long ugly URL that Compendium generates to mail out to people, and that if I wanted to avoid that I'd have to figure out how to do an HTML redirect, which I'd never done before. A quick Googling found examples of the code to use, which is very simple, and after a few trials-and-errors my shiny new site was in place.

I also recorded the whole process of making it using Camtasia. I did this for two reasons: first, for potential use in my own research. I could analyze what moves and thinking process were used in the creation of this particular artifact, which is different from most of the materials I've been analyzing, which are recordings of other practitioners doing work with groups in live settings. Second, I (or someone else) could pull snippets out to use in further training videos -- lots of different techniques and tricks illustrated in the course of making these.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Bridging worlds

Compendium has a deep pedigree on the IT side of the world. It was born in an information technology R&D lab and spent its early years doing projects with mostly an IT flavor, such as requirements analysis and process modeling. Moreover, from the start we thought about it in terms of how to be able to bring data in from other tools and databases, as well as how to send data out again, and also how to communicate between tools in real time.

But this has also been a conundrum from the beginning. The nature of Compendium is to bridge the worlds of facilitation/group process, artifact creation, methods and models, and computing -- how to make things that can help groups of people deal with complex situations, and how to do so in a way that makes it as easy as possible to fit that making in to pre-existing or desired IT/computing environments and tools. The principle is that these should not be separate, and should not have to be thought about separately. Part of the 'value now, value later' core principle is to be able to work facilitatively with data and to work with data facilitatively.

In other words, the world we live and work in already mixes and matches these seemingly separate domains -- most of us work in groups, anyone reading a blog or an email deals with all sorts of computing tools everyday, most of us make things that others are going to look at, work with, or use with software, etc.

The conundrum is that for many people we've come into contact with, these worlds are or may as well be separate. Particularly, many people that are comfortable with or interested in group process and facilitation tend not to be interested in computing per se, and vice versa ("technical" people tend not to be as facilitative / communicative). There are of course many exceptions, but this phenomenon is broad enough to have been troubling over the years.

For me there is no inherent separation, and Compendium is meant to help bridge these worlds -- to make it possible and easy to do facilitative things in a computing environment, to make meaningful representational artifacts that aren't necessarily separate from "data", and to be able to work with data and computing tools in a facilitative and expressive way. They should not have to be separate domains requiring separate specialists. Although there are many approaches, such as aesthetic computing, that talk about the aesthetics of using software as well as how to use software to make aesthetically rich artifacts, few seem to extend this to the facilitative realm. It has been difficult to tell this story in a way that's convincing to its ostensible audience -- people who work, or could work, in this bridging way.