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.