Category Archives: Friends

Teaching alternatives ways of searching

I was reading a draft of a paper for Bernard about democritizing web searches.  I won’t go into the details of the paper–it’s not published yet.  But, I do want to mention two search tools that I had never heard about before reading this paper, and I’ll give some short quotes from Bernhard on those:

  • Clusty — a search engine that divides results into thematic clusters that users can use to navigate up to 500 results at a time. The cluster list provides a first overview over the search subject and by showing aspects that users were not aware of direct them in new directions.
  • TermCloud Search — a search interface designed to map a topic rather than provide the shortest way between a query and a document. Using the simple tagcloud principle – keywords are shown in different sizes according to relevancy – the goal is to make the user aware of the concepts surrounding her query and to encourage exploration rather than quick answers.

Both of these could be really useful in teaching students about searching because they offer an alternative to Google’s approach of trying to give users the most relevant (meaning most popular) results first.  I think these could alleviate the concern many teachers and librarians have about students who just google everything rather than going into the library and browsing shelves–that they don’t make the same connections or experience the serendipity that can arise from looking around rather than right at the result you want.

Also While in SF….

I got to hang out with people I know mainly through the Twitterverse, which was really great.  When I was there last October for Arse Elektronika (an entry I have yet to post, come to think of it) I had the pleasure of not only meeting some of the people from Monochrom, (who are Austrian) but also some people who are part of the arts/culture/tech scene in SF, including Richard Kadrey and Aaron Muszalski, better known to many as sfslim. This time when I went back, I was lucky enough to meet up with Aaron again at the LaughingSquid Unholiday Party II. This was a great party. Good music, cool space, ample, good, food and drinks.  Best of all, good conversation.

I talked for quite awhile with Jonathan Foote, Neil Girling, and Abie Hadjitarkhani and it was breath of fresh air to speak with people to whom I didn’t have to justify and interest in tech, media, culture, whatever.  Also, all dripping smarts and talent (look at their sites if you don’t believe me).  I was listening to a livestream of Howard Rheingold speaking this morning and one point he made about social media is that it allows not just like-minded people to connect–there are obvious pros and cons to that.  But, it allows people who like to create and share and cooperate to connect, which immediately gives all of them more leverage to do whatever it is they want to do.  This was really clear to me at the party.  From what I could tell, many people there had met online or stayed connected and coordinated online, most of them were “makers” and having connected, many work together on all kinds of projects.  I’m not sure how far that extends into their professional lives, but certainly all kinds of fun activities are organized with help from these applications.

So anyway, eventually I finally actually started talking to Aaron and that was one of the best conversations I’ve had in ages–lasted from probably midnight or so till around 4am.  With all of these people, I think everything that does not fit into 140 character tweets just overflowed.  In fact being able to talk in this extended focused way felt like a luxury, even decadent.  I think this is an upside of the fragmented and distracted nature of communication on the network.

Aaron and I ended up hanging out a bit more the next evening; Chris brought the grrrls in to see the new Academy of Sciences and then we had dinner with friends from gradschool that were in for MLA–again peopel I almost only get to talk with online now–and then Aaron met up with us toward the end.  He had really wanted to meet the grrrls; unfortunately by then they were really tired and clingy (both are just a bit over 5) so it wasn’t the best time for them.  Then I saw them all off and talked to Aaron some more.  Of course with some people you just feel like the conversation could go on forever, but Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other applications like that encourage this feeling, maybe because you get the moment by moment flow and it’s easy to pick up some little crumb that becomes another possible conversational trail to follow.

I think conversational threads are going to be a big thing soon–just came across Tweetree which shows threaded conversations on Twitter; it’s interesting, but would be better if it really looked like a tree.  Now I’m thinking about personal archives, in part because I’m trying to get an abstract together, and in part because so many people, especial technophiles, are accumulating them online.  Not just those they create, but those created through Google searches, on technorati, on, etc.  So there it is.  Now I have to finish cleaning the house for a party.

Bastard Culture!

My good friend, Mirko Tobias Schäfer is defending his dissertation today. In fact, by the time many of you read this, he may already be finished and recognized as Dr. Schäfer. 🙂

It has been my pleasure for the last 15 months or so to read Mirko’s manuscript, Bastard Culture! User participation and the extension of cultural industries, and I am pleased to report that he has posted a pdf online. –Particularly since I need to cite his work in some of mine, and have been waiting on this! It’s a solid piece of scholarship. Briefly, it

steps beyond the usual framework and analyzes user participation in the context of accompanying popular and scholarly discourse, as well as the material aspects of design, and their relation to the practices of design and appropriation…

The availability of computers and Internet expand the traditional culture industry into the domain of users, who actively participate in cultural production, either by appropriating products from the commercial domain or by creating their owns. But while user activities constitute a significant loss of control for certain sectors of traditional media industries, especially in the area of distribution, the larger culture industry benefits from user driven innovation through the appropriation of corporate design.

Go and download it immediately.

So congratulations, Mirko. I’m proud of all your hard work and perseverance.

News From Comparative Media Studies at MIT

I never thought I’d see it, but Henry Jenkins is leaving Comparative Media Studies at MIT and moving to the Annenberg School at USC. The full story (or as full as will ever be made public, I’d guess) is on Henry’s blog.

I express surprise, but in another way I’m not surprised at all. The whole time I was teaching in Course 21 at MIT I observed how little the Institute as a whole seems to value Humanities and Social Sciences. I had thought though that they might care more about supporting CMS because they have such a strong international reputation and really enrich the academic programs, the campus community, and the school’s image. But in the early 2000s I saw how much time Henry had to spend on fund-raising, and how in spite of the MA program’s growth and the creation of the BA, that no new faculty positions were created. So really maybe the surprise is that Henry waited this long.

I would hate to see that program disappear; all the things they do are so valuable in general, and I personally gained a lot from some of the programs they were running when I was there. But I wonder what it will take for MIT to stop treating the humanities as not even second rate? I know many people want to work there; they have a good reputation, good students, good location, etc.. But in fact this is at least the third member of the humanities faculty I know who has chosen to leave in the last four years, and likely there have been others. Maybe this will be a wake-up call at last, but I doubt it.

Florian’s moment of revelation

Florian at Ars Electronica 2007.

Note, visit Ars Electronica 2007 for more info. about Florian winning the Prix Ars prize for theory.

I was still a student in 1995, in Comparative Literature, and there was a conference in Berlin. It wasn’t really a conference so much as a public culture event, and it was called Soft-Moderna –soft modernism and basically it was organized by people from the American Studies program from the John F. Kennedy Institute in Berlin, and it imported the whole Brown University Hyperfiction discourse. So it was about literature and the internet and computing, but heavily based in the whole hypertext-hyperfiction paradigm. And bringing together Robert Coover for example and some German people who were doing early experiments in that field. And you could see the whole helplessness of people there, and they also operated in the new media paradigm so they asked a couple of media journalists and media studies people to be on this panel and discuss this whole thing. And you could see this complete helplessness. And I was just this young student and I just stood up and asked critical questions. I didn’t talk so long, maybe two minutes or so, but I was really critical of what they had said. And then basically the organizer of the conference said well, you seem to know more about that stuff than the people we had on the panel, so do you want to be in the next conference? So that was actually my first public lecture and I was on a panel with Friedrich Kittler (!) and Andy Müller-Maguhn the spokesperson from the chaos computer club. And from there I got writing commissions and I gut sucked into this whole field.

This is a short one, but next time I’ll be covering what Florian likes about the field, his concerns about the art being produced, and his own role.

I’m interested though to learn how closely connected new media and hyperfiction were early on and how hyperfiction/text was really one of the basic paradigms because today in the US, hyperfiction seems like a narrow genre that a few people are really getting into, like Nick Montfort, but at least on the conference circuit it seems to have lost it’s place as being so basic, being something everyone knew about and discussed.

Florian Cramer on the problem of new media paradigms

We moved on to discuss “new media” as a discipline and I mentioned how both Sher Doruff and Renee Turner had said one thing that attracted them (among other characteristics) was the lack of constraints on the field, because no body knew what was possible or not, and no one expected or required that any particular methodology be used. I’m afraid I also indulged in a mini-rant about how often I’ve seen presentations that were basically just descriptions of the speakers encounter with some situation involving new media, and just stopped at that–no analysis, no theory, no further data… Ahem. Anyway, Florian (as usual) had a far more thoughtful take on this issue.

I go even deeper than that and say that there is a lot in the so-called new media field, especially in the more alternative, or activist, or off-mainstream field, a kind of naive continuity of cybernetics. What do I mean by that? Well cybernetics in the 1950s and the 1960s was basically the idea that we operate with a notion of system-feedback-control and that these are descriptors that we could commonly apply to both artificial and natural systems. So that means we can analyze a society in terms of feedback, control or whatever. We can describe human organisms, we can describe politics, but we can also describe a machine.

And here I noted we had arrived right at Katherine Hayles! Florian agreed and continued.

Then what I see in the so-called new media field is that it was from the same paradigm except that it doesn’t work with this classical behaviorist model which is really about almost totalitarian control fantasies, but their model is something like the rhizome. But the rhizome is just another cybernetic model and it is based on the same idea of using that structure in order to compare the internet to human society, etc etc etc. And that is something I find very questionable and I also want to do more critical writing on. And I think there is little reflection and little awareness of the continuity of these cybernetic paradigms. And nobody questions for example the notion of “system.” System is a highly speculative construct. I mean you say we are systems, society is a system, the human body is a system, and a computer is a system. But I think this kind of rhetoric obscures and clouds more than it actually helps to analyze things and I think we have to go beyond that. For me, really critical media studies would be to question both notions.

But I see when I say this that I’m really making myself enemies. And even with people with whom I wouldn’t have thought it. Well I thought they also come from a really critical camp. But it’s really astonishing to see how deeply these paradigms are really embedded into the whole field.

So now, after these two entries, we are about 17 minutes into the interview, and I already feel like I’ve swallowed a rich media text! In the next entry we finally get to the actually reasons Florian got into this work.

The secret origins of Florian Cramer

Ok, there aren’t really any secrets but I haven’t seen any really biographical interviews with Florian anywhere else, so maybe it will be some kind of revelation. 🙂 I’ve known Florian for a long time now, about 15 years, but when working on my projects in the Netherlands, I realized we had never talked very explicitly about his own history with technology, art, culture, etc. –For reasons that will become clear, I am not using the term New Media.

In fact my first question was how Florian got involved with new media to begin with, and this led immediately to a a lengthy and detailed explanation of the problems with the term from a historical perspective. I will try to encapsulate it:

  • First, new media means something totally different in the US than in Europe. Here it means digital or computer media, ala Lev Manovich, but in Europe TV and radio are often included in that, in fact, from a historical perspective, all media is new at some point.
  • Second, the terms medium and media are being used incorrectly throughout the field. For example, if we speak of radio, one of the earliest technologies to be discussed as a medium, then technically the medium, the carrier of radio waves, is air. This was then extended metonymically to include the waves themselves, then further expanded to include the devices themselves, the senders, and even the receivers (that is the people sending and receiving). So that the term now encompasses so much, it’s not even very useful.

I explained that while I agreed with this critique, I’ve been using the term as the most broadly understood as covering the territory I mean to explore, but I am coming to believe that it’s really time to dispense with it altogether. At any rate, I reiterated my question, how did he get started?

According to Florian he started by programing his own computers when he was 13, and in fact might be considered to have been doing the same stuff for 25 years: he used computers to generate random poetry which he published in his own punk fanzine. 🙂 The most fascinating thing for him then was the random generator, though of course now that he’s “older and wiser” he knows that the randomness of a computer is not true randomness; it’s “pre-determined chance.” This shaped his interest; the kind of meta reality, textuality, emergence of code, and also the connection to society and all the arts.

But back to the timeline; I asked how at this starting point at 13, in 1982 how he even had a computer. Through friends he started using them, especially an older friend who used computers to trigger the light show for his music–all of this was programmed in Basic.

But his interest in computers went up and down; in the very early 90s he was on the internet but found it really boring; it was all controlled by system administrators and not much was going on. Now he reads papers by his students that glorify the old days, he says “oh but you couldn’t do much then; you couldn’t use your own server or install your own software; you could only dial up the university mainframe.”

I contrasted this to Sher Doruff’s experience that people felt even a sense of wonder at being able to connect at all. But of course she is older than Florian or I and so had a different set of expectations about what might be possible. Further, and I think this is a crucial factor affecting people’s attitudes toward computers and “new media,” Florian has always been quite skeptical about the technology itself and the promise it might hold. (A skepticism I share.) As he puts it:

They’re not the perfect machines and they’re not the dream machines, and this is what also cripples the whole new media field. Basically there have been all these kinds of utopian expectations. The first machine I had was incredibly primitive; it had 1 kb of memory. But today’s machines cannot really do more. And the structure of programming is not at all different, it’s just more comfortable. The machines have become faster but they haven’t become smarter. And what also surpised me, when I came to the Netherlands, is that even more than in other parts of the world, is the expectation that somehow computers will become smarter or less deterministic. And you can name those expectations with certain names such as artificial intelligence –where computers are not just stupid sytactic machines, but become semantic machines that have a true understanding. Or artificial life; that you have something like emergence , or whatever, out of computers. And the third one I think is new media. The whole idea, especially in the 1990s with the whole virtual reality nonsense, is that somehow through multi-media interfaces, the machine wouldn’t be this whole command-line deterministic thing, but would become more intuitive, less deterministic…. but if you’re a smart computer user you know that a mouse click is the same as typing a command. The logic remains the same.

So that is Florian’s take on new media as such, and a tiny bit about how he himself got involved. But in the next part we talked much more about the actual conditions of the field (however one names it) and about his own history, from being a graduate student in comparative literature to his current role as Director of the Media Design MA course at the Piet Zwart Institute.


A quick note to thank Ritchie Pettauer (whom I met through Facebook!) for asking to publish my Facebook paper on his blog, datadirt. As he describes it:

the main focus is (pro)blogging, WordPress and online marketing with the occassional media theory twist. I also like to blog about music and funny stuff on the net – yup, it’s a wild mixture of highly personalized preferences; but hey, that’s why it’s called a blog and not a magazine.

I’ve been following it for a little while via Twitter and there always seems to be something fun and interesting posted over there. –A much cooler blog than this one! 😉

And Ritchie has reformatted my paper in a really easy way to navigate–I’ll have to steal it someday. 😉 Last, upon reading I see that in spite of my efforts, typos are plentiful in that text, and I want to make clear they are mine, not Ritchie’s.

Brenno de Winter

B. de Winter
Originally uploaded by cuuixsilver

I should also note that Brenno is starting to establish quite a journalistic reputation when it comes to reporting on IT and issues of privacy, freedom on information, and related matters. For example, he has relentlessly pursued the privacy problems with the OV Chipkaart. You can see the most recent article at WebWereld–all in Dutch though.

An interesting thing about Brenno’s work is how he manages the rhetorical frame around these issues in order to be more persuasive. Rather than using the usual hacker image and discourse which is scary and paranoid, all about protecting individual’s privacy, instead he talks about protecting data in more business-like terms which are far more appealing to government and business types, but in the end lead to the same desired results. An interesting example of someone co-opting corporate language and discourse in the inverse of the way corporations often try to co-opt user discourse.