Saturday, December 29, 2007

Interactive Multimedia Events (Wilson 1993)

Some of the key ideas in Stephen Wilson's 1993 article as they relate to the themes covered in this blog:

- engagement in live interactive computer events can't be taken for granted. The technology and new methods alone don't guarantee engaging, quality experiences

- creating successful interactive multimedia events requires the creator/practititioner to deal with challenges in "time design", coordination of the different media types and layers (for example, text, images, verbal interaction), and the kinds and styles of choice-making that participants can make

- getting past the initial excitement and rush of using a new media form, where novelty and flash seem to create the value in and of themselves, requires persistence. There is almost invariably disappointment when the novelty wears off and the promised utopia doesn't come as automatically as it first appeared:
Those currently developing interactive multimedia and those thinking of entering the field need to carefully assess the current hyperbole surrounding it. On the other side of the excitement and high expectations could easily be disappointment and premature abandonment of culturally important lines of inquiry.

Much of the work with Compendium over the years has, in some ways, been a revitalization of the initial excitement over "design rationale" and argumentation-based hypertext in the early 1990s. As we've written about here and elsewhere, when it appeared that constructing issue maps required work out of the ordinary set of skills, the research community mostly dropped it.

I haven't found any further writing by Wilson in this area but I'm hoping to find more.

See further notes on the article here.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Stephen Wilson's links to "Intersections of Art, Technology, Science & Culture"

A truly amazing, encyclopedic set of links to artworks influenced by (and integrated with) developments in science and technology.

I came across this after reading Wilson's 1993 article on The Aesthetics and Practice of Designing Interactive Computer Events. It contains many ideas of high relevance to my research, which I'll summarize in another post.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Tangled Up in Blue

Driving back from dropping my daughter off at her bakery job, grey rainy morning with mist rising off the melting snow, Tangled Up in Blue in the CD player. She's been listening to that album lately, along with Kind of Blue and Frank Morgan. Inspiring that a 16-year-old would come to this music on her own.

There's something perfect about Dylan's recording of that song, and many of the others on Blood on the Tracks. What struck me was the imperfections, especially his guitar and harmonica playing. Somehow they make the whole thing work, the feeling of authenticity, of some kind of true story being told. The voice is what comes through, from the instruments as much as the singing.

Perfection achieved through imperfection, that seems key. In the software world, there is often a presumption of perfection and seamlessness (though they never really are), as if it could be engineered into permanence. There are always implicit and explicit claims that there are no kinks, the solution is complete, just needs to be procured and all the advantage will be realized. To talk as if human effort, skill, artistry are necessary is to diminish, even tarnish the value that ought to lie inherent in the software itself. But things are never permanent and perfection is something only rarely grasped, and often takes great struggle to realize. I think of how Welles never made a film coming anywhere near Citizen Kane again, and it was almost destroyed before anyone saw it (and lay nearly hidden for more than ten years after its first release). Or how Dylan saw Blood as a product of pain and didn't understand how others could enjoy it (according to this article).

Nothing new about this as it relates to films or music, but I am still sure that the same things apply to software, even when they are used in situations ostensibly far removed from emotion and drama. The human element and the struggle to make something meaningful, with all its imperfections, obtains whenever we work together to create something. It's not escapable.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Citizen Kane

I just watched this again for the first time in a decade or so. I've probably seen it between 20 and 30 times since my time as a film major in college nearly 30 years ago. I had to write several papers on it in various classes. The one that always sticks out for me was about the sound techniques in the scene where 'Boss Jim Geddes' has just confronted Kane in Susan's apartment in front of Emily. Kane refuses to drop out of the election in the face of Geddes' extortion, and Geddes leaves shaking his head at Kane's foolishness while Kane thunders "I'm Charles Foster Kane" from the top of the stairs. That paper (10 pages or so) is still in a chest in the attic somewhere.

Even after so many viewings, that film still sends chills up my spine with the depth and breadth of its genius. Every square inch of the film, every technique used, is shaped with such expertise and expressiveness -- mastery. He was only 24, and was new to filmmaking.

That depth and saturation of technique, artistry, expression, is what I want to see with knowledge art as well. The medium is capable of it, it just needs the genius to emerge. Could be happening now, somewhere.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Engagement and usefulness

Further reflections on the Ames videos... looking at them from a research viewpoint, what is the value and contribution of this research? One thing that keeps occuring to me is that practitioner skill in and of itself is not the goal, it's creating engagement and usefulness for the effort. What is the point of using a tool like Compendium (or any other tool) when you're working with a group of people, trying to make the time you are spending together (the session) valuable. What constitutes value is situationally specific, of course (i.e. there isn't just one kind of value).

From an ideal point of view, Compendium sessions would be deeply and energetically engaging, the representation as much of a focal point as the participants' interactions with each other, the two interweaving with each other.

In some of the sessions, things the practitioners (the mappers and facilitators) do move the session in the direction of representational engagement and usefulness, in others they either don't do those things or do other things that in some way prevent or sap engagement and usefulness.

Characterizing the spectrum of those things and those ways feels like it could be a contribution.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

When it doesn't go well

Making and shaping in a medium that you love, does not always go well. Sometimes it's a slog, or painful, or frustrating, or just doesn't seem to add up. You can see this with many kinds of making that involve some form of artistry, because these inherently involve some kind of vision (a desired outcome, level of perfection, or set of qualities to be brought about); a degree of sensitivity to nuance that can easily lead to oversensitivity; often a reliance and/or dependence on other people, whose vision, sensibilities, or capabilities may not align with yours; and sometimes a feeling that the whole enterprise is misguided, pointless, or futile.

While the above is widely acknowledged in what we conventionally think of as the arts (writing, painting, etc.), it is not usually applied in the software world, where there is often an underlying tone of necessary triumphalism (i.e., using this software/approach will bring about success almost by virtue of just using it). But it is just as true with software-based media as with any other.

In music, whether playing with a group or by oneself, there are so many levels where things can run off the rails. So many expectations, hopes, degrees of exertion, stylistic and expressive nuances, that it sometimes feels astounding that any convergence can happen at all. Choice of material (song/style/treatment) can seem too forced, "commercial", "arty", "folky", "emo"; the other musicians (or oneself) can feel too limited in skill, too loud or soft, too arrhythmic, too fast or slow. Someone can solo too long, hogging the spotlight, or conversely hold back too much. Why are they being like that? or conversely why aren't they being like that? Why can't I play that chord without damping the D string? Why am I never able to play that turnaround? Maybe I'm finally fluid enough in this style (after 15 years of practice) on the instrument, but I still can't sing. He plays too much on the high-hat when we need to feel his foot on the kick drum. This is supposed to be funk! She just does not get the groove for this song and never has....

And then there are other times when it all comes together, when the flailing and imperfections fall away, when you move, singly or collectively, in a kind of perfection and beauty and surge of joy, that shimmers and pulses and swings. Sometimes it is just a few moments, but they stand for the whole, and the aftereffects can last for years.

I remember a single night in college, playing bluegrass with three other guys in someone's frat room. The whole session had been pretty good, full of energy and fun, but a couple of minutes into playing Positively Fourth Street, everything seemed to kick up to another level. Every string of the two guitars, banjo, and fiddle vibrated together in some sort of earthly perfection. We had played privately and publicly for a few weeks before that without ever reaching that level, things had sometimes been enjoyable but never transcendent (and, with that particular group, they never would again). Even now, 26 years later, I can still feel the resonance of that night. It keeps me going, along with a few other peak musical moments, through the mundane and sloggy times.

I started thinking about this while analyzing one of the Ames sessions, where the group discussion veers into abstractions and there is no engagement with the map. The facilitators made some halting attempts to create some engagement but were not able to intervene effectively in the flood of discourse to get any group focus on the map (which was the one instruction for the sessions, that they had to involve engaging the group in making some kind of change to the map). It reminded me of many sessions that I facilitated back in the 1990s, especially for our immediate executive management, where the participants were so involved in their (partially productive, partially dysfunctional) mode of conversation that I could never get them to focus on the map, let alone engage with using it to help themselves get to a higher level of coherence and mutual understanding. These sessions felt crappy, and I did not come out of them feeling like this medium and this approach had tremendous potential. At those times it seemed more like a labor-intensive overlay onto a culture and process that was not amenable to intervention, at least from me.

Thankfully there were many other times where the opposite was the case, where we were able to help groups get to a level of shared they had never had before, as well as to produce models and analyses with a rapidity and effectiveness that no other approach could reach. Those were the transcendent times, and they kept me going through the non-triumphal sessions.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Essential attributes

Those closest to Compendium have been in a cycle for the last 14 years of tool making, tool using, and studying tool using. This has led to a set of what for me are the essential attributes of knowledge art tool and practices:

- mixing of formal and informal, structured and unstructured, analytical and expressive

- ability to ask a question of anything (dialogue always an option)

- multiple perspectives, multiple representations, layers of meaning

- same idea in many contexts, ability to see and use the different relationships of any idea to others in different contexts

- ability to feed into, and be fed from, other tools and media, especially computational / database tools

- infinite expandability

- rapid, responsive malleability of the representation (direct manipulation, not just a generated graphical view)

- ability to get to any level of the underlying data, not just the surface pictures and text

- ability to publish the data in many forms (including as web pages)

So far, Compendium is the fullest realization of these attributes. But it is somewhat of a first step. As the supporting technologies continue to evolve, and as we get a clearer idea of how they should work through continued practice, I'm positive new tools will emerge. Anyone out there working on one?

(Notice I don't include asynchronous, groupware access as an essential attribute. It may be essential for marketability (never, at least so far, our strong suit), but I'm still not convinced it is essential, especially when there are so many other well-established ways of doing that. I still think that hooking Compendium to one of those ways (e.g. wiki) would be a fine approach. It's possible this makes me misguided, a dinosaur, or a minority of one.)

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Questions about shaping

More on this idea of shaping as the focus, as discussed here. I'm starting to think about the following as the analytical questions I will ask of each of the recorded sessions:

- What shaping is intended?
- What shaping is occurring?
- Who is doing it, for what reasons?
- If the intended shaping runs off the rails, why does that occur?
- What contributions to shaping occur?
- How are decisions about shaping being made?
- What kinds of decisions are they?
- Who is making them, on what basis?
- How are they taken up into the representation itself (if they are)?
- Which are ignored or dropped? Why?
- What blocks an intended shaping?
- How are the blocks resolved, avoided, etc.?
- How was the ability to shape the representation preserved or recovered?

So not so much looking for sensemaking instances (though it's great if they happen), but rather "shaping instances": when decisions were made about how to shape the maps, and why they were made that way.