Mapping the Human Element

Stamen Design’s Photo-Sharing Explosions Flowers are similar to the data visualizations We Feel Fine and The Whale Hunt: a harmonious balance of content, form, and humanity.  In other words, the original data has not been altered extensively into an entirely new form, such as in Black and White by Mark Napier, a “non-visualization” of the 0’s and 1’s in programming code.  Nor has it exclusively been collected and simply rearranged (in its original form) to make an assessment, such as Making Visible the Invisible by George Legrady et al., a numerical map of titles checked out at a public library. It finds a “happy medium” of both methodologies while simultaneously connecting it to the human element.

Specifically, We Feel Fine connects to the emotions in words written throughout the internet; The Whale Hunt connects to the emotions of experience from the photographs of a trip; however, the Photo-Sharing Explosion Flowers take a broader leap: they project the act of sharing—a fundamental human expression of love—from 3 posts on George Takei’s wall on Facebook.  Moreover, the form Stamen Design’s group chooses to display this buried element of humanity further highlights this connection: a growing flower.  Thus, it reveals the interconnectivity not only between humans but between all forms of life.

(It also makes me question: Since Facebook asked Stamen to create this for the new site Facebook stories, was their purpose to reveal the human element in Facebook?  Was Facebook’s purpose a PR ploy?  If the answer is “yes,” does this take away the authenticity and therefore “humanness” of the project because a “machine” or corporation asked Stamen to do it?)

It is also important to note that these three re-imagined databases could not project a certain aspect of humanity without starting from that element.  Napier and Legrady start with “cold, hard numbers” and end there.

Why is it now personal?

It’s personal; but it’s not business—according to Douglas Wilson and Miguel Sicart’s take on abusive game design.  Then what is its “personal purpose”?  Like a broken record, they repeatedly state that abusive game design forces a dialogue between the player and the designer—but they neglect to move on to “why?”  In their reasoning, the functionality of conventional, conservative game design makes the product entirely player-centric—as the designer must be “an advocate for the player” and “…must be egoless” (both qtd. in Sec. 2).  However, when game theory abuses this standard, the product becomes designer-centric, thus promoting a dialogue between the player and the designer.  They reason that the game, in this case, “is not about mastering the system, but about knowing the designer” (Sec. 5.1).

Perhaps Wilson and Sicart’s intent is to simply define and describe; yet even if this is the case, it must still contain reasoning or purpose.  All methodology does.  Or is the methodology only to go against the current gaming methodology?  Furthermore, how is abusive game design situated within the methodologies of new media?

First, could abusive game design turn a profit as subgenre of gaming?  In “Countergaming” Alexander Galloway discusses how the mod Counter-Strike of the successful game Half-Life became so popular in itself that the company who designed the original licensed the modified code and sold it commercially (113).  If an abusive game design follows Wilson and Sicart’s evaluation of success (described in Section 6), is it not possible that it too could become a consumer product?

Second, is abusive game design a type of tactical media that challenges the status quo and initiates a counter dialogue?  Fat Man Down—which is dialogue-based—certainly crosses over into this category as it meant to reveal society’s negative discourse toward obese people (Ostergaard).  However, only the “socially abusive” or politically-based games—such as September 12th or PhoneStory that have a real-world application can raise these questions.  All other abusively-designed games keep the dialogue between the designer and the player.

Lastly, could abusive game design be a form of artistic expression, a way to push the creative boundaries in this form?  Wilson and Sicart allude to this when they state: “abusive game design is not a functional approach to design, but an aesthetic one…” (Sec. 5.1).  (Emphasis mine.)  In Kaizo Mario the enemies and obstacles are creatively placed in each level to provide the ultimate challenge for the player, which yields creative strategies from the hands of the player.

The Blurring of Big Data

Manovich states that there is a specific definition for “big data” in the computer industry that is different from the designation uses in his article “Trending: The Promises and Challenges of Big Social Data,” illustrating that there are separate disciplines that perceive and use data in different ways.  However, I would argue that the scholarly fields of study that rely on data for their research is actually increasing so that eventually there may be crossover between these two definitions of “big data.”  I deduce this from his focus of the later definition in which he discusses the fields in the humanities that use social data to study human behavior, such as Sociology student, Nathan Eagle, who collected data from 100 MIT student phones for 9 months (4).

He excitedly mentions the new possibilities that “big data” brings; however, he discusses their limitations, such how much a “lay person” can analyze and manipulate data that is now readily available to the public (versus a person trained in technology that can better manipulate data) (10-11).  Thus, while the access to big data is enabling the “non-technical” fields of study to utilize technological methods of interpretation (within limits) it is blurring the separation between science and the humanities.

Technology experts, economists, and Manovich agree that we are now part of the “industrial revolution of data” (as qtd 1).  Therefore, the infiltration of “big data” into the lives of the individual, and the industries (e.g. retail, travel, hotels, education, manufacturing, etc.) is bound to have cross-over. Technology itself enables more efficient communication and connection between people and groups; therefore it follows that this melding of society would also penetrate to distinct methodologies as it becomes a “way of life” and grants us new ways of accomplishing things.

Curiosity Killed the Cat

I was intrigued by the concept of Alternate Reality Games and simultaneously bewildered.  As I understood it, the ARG designer leads the blind participant through intersections of the physical and digital worlds.  The unspoken agreement between the two is trust: the participant has faith that the journey will be safe and the end-goal will be rewarding, while the designer believes in the faith of the participant to lead him there.  Although claims to not be an ARG, it explicitly pleads for faith between the designer and participant and motivates with incentive:

“We need your trust.  We need your belief.  We will reward you in time.”

However, ARG designer is not physically present in this interaction, but is a spectator and observer of his creation: a system of fixed processes and interactions.  He has set the controls and variables and destination of this singular path and therefore is all-pervading in its direction.  He is the deity of this world and a spirit in its shadows.

This relationship between the creator and the follower is the fragile core of the ARG experience.  In addition to trust, it requires willingness on the behalf of the participant.  So how can an indirect, constant force maintain this relationship?  Through the power of intrigue and challenge.  (After all, not to sound trite but: satisfaction did bring the cat back!)’s perimeters are strikingly similar—expect that its hybridization of the virtual and material is almost exclusively the latter.  The foot it sets in reality is a mere reflection: words and ideas that represent historic actuality.  The postcard advertisement / announcement illustrates this foundation in pictures: a photograph of the trading room of Wall Street, circa the 1980s overlaid by a figure 8 decorated by screenshots of the “passcode frames.”  One opening of the 8 encapsulates a group of people and the other the computers on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange—which additionally highlights the relationship between follower and creator; person and the computer; organic and the mechanic; physical and digital; realistic and fanciful.  Furthermore, the number 8 represents perpetuity (or the symbol of infinity when portrayed horizontally); and therefore suggesting a chain of virtual and actual events interconnected within this relationship which cannot be broken—if the participant desires satisfaction!

Getting Lost in Interactive Fiction

I read Nick Montfort’s history; I read the instructions; I played both The Dreamhold and The Warbler’s Nest.  Flashback to my Grandfather’s computer: MS DOS commands and floppy disks.  I’ve played interactive fiction before.  Of course, I didn’t know its name; it was just another digital game among Wheel of Fortune, Monopoly, Golf.  I didn’t like it then; and I didn’t like it now.

I started with an open mind: when I got stuck, I made a map; I read the directions again; I tried unusual commands; I asked the game for hints.  I still could not find my way through Dreamhold’s halls or the second egg in The Warbler.  I got frustrated.  I walked in mental and virtual circles.  Too many choices and nothing visual or physical I could hold on to.  Then I recalled that I had felt blind and lost before.  So I quit.

According to Montfort, Interactive Fiction evolved to incorporate graphics and some even became adaptations of popular novels (3).  This sounded like a promising upgrade; after all, who doesn’t like a book with illustrations or a movie adaptation of a book?  “Hard core” literature critics or book fans may argue that looking at pictures or watching a film “dumbs down” the content and “spoon feeds” information to a participant–as it foists the artist’s and director’s interpretation of the work into our minds and leaves little room for personal interpretation.  However, these add-ins and adaptations can also enhance the reading experience for the veteran and scaffold it for the novice.

Thus, I decided to take IF for one last spin.  I found a version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy IF Game that supposedly had graphics.  This certainly would made things easier–or so I thought.  The interface was more appealing: constructed like a hand-held game console, I felt more at home clicking the cardinal direction-buttons to give travel commands and typing into a single bar instead of a large empty screen.  Only 15 moves later, I was still wandering in the virtual dark and could not find my way out of the first room.

I can appreciate IF’s simplicity and its art in the digital genre; however, my brain cannot “get into” this type of game.  I can easily become spiritually lost into a physical book of just words–where my mind decides what to see and can pick up on the subtle hints the author scatters among the leaves.  However, everything is there in plain, physical sight and the story is decided.  I don’t have to do any work; I just have to accept what’s there.  I take comfort in this constancy.  The awareness of my physical and mental presence dissolves as I simply take in the words on the page like breath–instead of the constant mindfulness and thinking I engage in solving the mysteries of Interactive Fiction.  This uncertainty and unknown makes me feel physically lost in a digital realm.

A New Wonderland

I only wish I had Inanimate Alice when I taught remedial reading in a public high school just a few years ago.  I can imagine my students—a wide mix of cultures, races, social statuses, and reading abilities—shouting at the scenes displayed on the Promethean Board: “Click where that hand appeared!” “What do those boxes on the right do?”  “Check out her pad first!”  “Move the mouse somewhere else!”  “Play the game; play the game!”—to move the story along.

On their website the creators, Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph, state that the purpose of the “transmedia project” was originally for entertainment; however, the site clearly markets to educators with a section called “Teach with Alice” and descriptions such as “A reading-from-the-screen experience for the ‘always on’ generation.”  They also throw this piece into the fire of the literature-in-the-curriculum debate by asserting “new media demands new literacies.”  Thus, I suspect that teachers saw the learning-potential in Inanimate Alice because of its transcendence across nationalities and media types and used it in their classrooms before it was promoted as such.  It is probable that once Inanimate Alice found its niche in the world, the creators took that idea and simply showed people.

Digging deeper down the rabbit hole, I can hear teachers making their case that “Inanimate Alice is the future of literature”—for the title itself conjures a character from an old, canonical text, Alice in Wonderland.  Both Alices are the about the same age, are inquisitive and imaginative; yet, the modern Alice is older (and ages throughout the series); travels to actual versus seemingly imaginary places; and tries to interpret/engage in her world using a digital device instead of a book.  Therefore, it represents the shift in way childhood is perceived and lived.

Something Strange I Can’t Put My Finger On…

Digitalization has elevated the physical into the world of the spiritual.  First, the tangible becomes intangible, and the concrete becomes abstract.  For instance, this document exists in digital form within a type of word processing software; but because we can only see it—and it exists in no other form—can we exclusively rely on that single sense to experience it?  In this aspect, it has become one-dimensional and therefore a certain “leap of faith” is needed to believe in its actuality.  This is the conundrum Craig Mod faced as the creator of the Flipboard app for iPhone.  He had no proof of his creative process because it was completely digitized—and it left him dissatisfied: “Despite knowing we had been on a long journey, it didn’t feel like that journey was manifest anywhere.”  He knew he could see the digital representations of his work, the commits, the comps, the sketches, the grids, the photographs; but he could not fully feel or accept their presence until he made it a physical entity: a book.  This made the experience more believable because it was now experienced using the additional sense of touch/feeling.

Teachers are taught that the more senses that are engaged in the process of learning, the more likely that information will be retained.  This pedagogy implies that human cognition is multi-faced.  Similarly, religious organization supports their spiritual beliefs in a multitude of physical manifestations: testimonies, music, and chanting (hearing); incense (smelling); statues and symbols (seeing); communion and feasts (tasting); and worship rituals (touching).

Second, there are those that deem this the Golden Age of Technology with its unprecedented power and capability.  Because of its abstract qualities, its characteristics are now parallel to that of the spiritual realm; and thus, people practice forms of devotion to technology.  That is not to say that people worship their computers, tablets, smart phones, etc.  It simply means that the way people treat technology is similar to way they would treat a god: it is a seemingly omniscient medium that is integrated into every facet of our lives.  We use it for constant communication; rely on it for information and integration; are accustomed to its constancy and consistency; and thus are dependent upon its role in our lives.  Simultaneously it has simplified and expanded human abilities—which has changed human relationships (between one another) and processes (between us and the systems of the society)—such as the publishing process which Mod describes in another article.  It is interesting to explore the new possibilities it creates in shaping human lives; however, it should not be the only vehicle in which we experience the world.  The digitized, spiritual, abstract, and intangible must be supplemented with our physical senses; or else how can we make sense of it all?

Creative Response #1

According to the Electronic Literature Collection’s description of Robert Kendall’s kinetic poem “Faith”: “While the word ‘faith’ resists the word ‘logic’ at the beginning of Kendall’s poem, Faith has its own textual logic by which it progresses, words and letters rearranging to lead on to the next state.  This short multimedia piece mingles textual animation and sound effects such that a structure of words sounds as it forms or collapses.”  To add to this: Kendall seems to be using a sequential form to his poem to demonstrate the structure or progression of participating in the act of faith.  Thus, faith—which is supposes to reject reason and form—demonstrates a type of logic and configuration of its own.
Specifically, the author describes (presumably) his journey of faith through five movements in action: first he avoids logic entirely as the words fall from the sky and collide with the word “faith.”  This causes “logic” to vanish—almost entirely—from the screen.  Second, he acknowledges this avoidance of “logic” but tries to justify the need to do so: “Can’t the mind press around the bend to consummate this vision of the deep ‘or’?”  The words next to the forward button reveal doubt: “Maybe,” he answers himself.  “But…”  The next movement demonstrates the questioning of logic through the playful movement of the words: “winking neon” blinks; “theory” spins; and “button” sinks and rises; while in the fourth movement, he tests the use of logic only to conclude that his actions are not logical: “I step to the idea edge elegantly and oh so ultimately…upon the logic lip…I just can’t make the usual sense anymore…”  Lastly, the fifth movement displays an acceptance of faith: All the words of reason which demonstrated this progression of understanding crumble to the bottom of the page.  The word “faith” which stood solidly, fixed at the top now drifts down to crush the fallen ideas below.  The movement of these words represent the lofty, untouchable “faith” that has outstood all other things, is now an accessible idea—as it has dropped to the level of understanding or reason.