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.