Sunday, September 09, 2007

Research goals

For me, Compendium is not about authoring stand-alone documents as fixed, unchanging artifacts (though it can certainly be used that way), but rather about creating and managing malleable, queryable collections of symbols, images, texts, and relationships.

This type of artifact is sometimes called a "living document," but that still sounds too static and unitary to characterize what a Compendium database can be. Certainly living, but more than a single document. Rather, a collection, a trove, or -- as we originally meant by calling it "Compendium" -- a compendium, a compilation of what's important to a group of people engaged in some sort of ongoing effort.

These collections live in media -- specifically hypermedia, with all of the communicative and technical connections that the term implies. So Compendium as a tool and approach is about creating and managing hypermedia compendia, keeping them coherent, accessible, expressive, and useful.

My research focuses on the practices involved in creating these living media artifacts, especially in the case of doing so in real time, with groups of people. What is brought to bear at moments when people are trying to shape a Compendium artifact and keep it clear, effective, data-rich and meaning-rich, subject to later manipulation, or any of the other imperatives that can guide the artifact's construction, given the context?

These feel to me like critical skills that we are just beginning to recognize and see the importance of. I'd like for my research to accelerate that movement by finding ways to talk about what goes on at such moments, to help give language to and tools for understanding, communicating about, and improving the practices. It's foundational work in that sense, because there is little* in the research and practical literature, so far, that directly addresses the skills involved in constructing living hypermedia on the fly with groups of people.

My own research roots are in the humanities, film, and communication studies rather than in computer science, argumentation, group facilitation, or the other usual hypermedia suspects. I've always been interested in the shaping of expressive artifacts like films or novels, and in the interactions of audiences with the works. Particularly I became interested with what thinking directly about the audience meant for the ethical and aesthetic aspects of filmmaking, especially when a film was meant to serve some sort of social purpose (e.g. Latin American emancipatory filmmaking of the 1970s, or documentaries meant to raise consciousness and spur action on some issue).

When Compendium gelled in the early 1990s (first as a facilitative modeling approach building on top of QuestMap and IBIS, and later as a set of dedicated software tools and methods), these concerns were highlighted for me in the interaction of "audience" (the participants in some effort using Compendium) and "practitioner" (the person with their hands on the mouse and keyboard helping to shape maps on the fly, in meetings).

Although the situation is in some ways very different than for films or novels, in other ways the same sorts of aesthetic and ethical considerations can be found. There are contextual factors and constraints that guide what can and should be done, there are a particular set of people involved with their own personal interests and communicative interactions, there is a tool that is used to create the representations and expressions, there is the evolving representation (the maps) itself, there is the discussion that happens between participants, whether directly concerned with the maps, partially, or not at all, and there are the choices and moves that the practitioner(s) (the ones directly concerned with the shaping of the maps) make as they try to keep the maps coherent and expressive as well as to respond to what is going on in the session (among the people involved) around them.

It's those choices and moves that my current research is focusing on. I've been analyzing video recordings of Compendium sessions, looking at practitioner moves in the context of what they and their participants are trying to do, particularly focusing on moves made within the Compendium maps themselves and what they mean. In future entries I'll write more specifically about what I'm seeing in this analysis and what it might mean for Compendium specifically, and "knowledge art" practice more generally.

* There is plenty of literature in related fields that is extremely helpful, some of which I cover in my lit review, but very little that talks directly about participatory hypermedia practices. The work of Jeff Conklin, Simon Buckingham Shum, and others close to Compendium's evolution, are exceptions.


MXS said...

I have many times heard you talk about the similarities between film-making and a Compendium practitioner. I am interested in reading more about these similarities. I see a clear difference in film-making and the creation of a Compendium map (e.g. a film is not a live interaction with the audience, while the creation of a Compendium map, part of meeting, is), and I wonder how you see the similarities.

1) There are many people involved in making a film. Which part of a film production is, in your opinion, similar to a Compendium practitioner? Is it the director, the screenplay writer, the actor?

2) If there are similarities in film-making and creating a Compendium map, then what are they? Can you discribe these similarities? Are they important? Are there also the same kind of similarities between a painter or a scuplture and a Compendium map creator?

3) Is there any theory in film-making that you use in your research about Compendium practitioners? If so, what theory, and how are you validating that the theory holds?

I guess my comment is meant to push you in making the connection between film-making and Compendium clearer.

Doei ... MXS

Richard said...

Q: What good is Compendium?
- A: Captures multiple viewpoints.
- A: Explores any topic to any depth.
- A: Open ended throughout its content.
- A: Shared display of growing map expands short term memory of group.

Q: What other methods address the same issues?
- A: Nominal group process.
- - Pro: Well known.
- - Pro: Easy to practice.
- - Con: Less organized.

Q: Where can Compendium help?
- A: Anywhere that people try to reason together.
- A: In any improvement community.
- A: Building shared understanding.

Q: How could Compendium be improved?

Q: What extensions to Compendium make sense now?
- A: Add wikiness.
- A: Simplify user interface.
- A: Incorporate tutorial.
- A: Add social networking features.

Q: How should one get started using Compendium?

Al said...

To reply to MXS's excellent question, I will address more fully in a future post. But at a high level, the main reasons I talk about film in relation to Compendium are

a) it is another expressive medium that I am deeply familiar with

b) like Compendium it relies on a complex set of technologies to use with expertise

c) it has to do with creating a visual representation, that can have a great deal of complexity and nuance

d) like all expressive media, what you can do with it, how you do it, and how these activities respond to the 'audience' (whether that is some future audience in a theater or classroom in the case of a film, or people right there in the room with you in the case of a real-time Compendium session), depend greatly on what Dewey calls the 'particularity of the medium', which I have touched on here.

As I hope is clear, my point is not so much that there's a special relationship between filmmaking and Compendium practice, but rather that there a many parallels, as there also are with other sorts of expressive media practices. But one can certainly draw specific parallels that would provide answers to the questions you raise.

Thanks for the questions -- I'll respond more fully later on.