Thursday, March 31, 2011

Presentation: William Gibson + New Media

The Presentation will be followed in the future by The Paper then by a few diplomas. This presentation is placed between the research and paper writing phase.

Slide 1: Title Slide


1. Introduce myself (Nobody I didn't know showed up so I didn't need to).

2. My project deals with William Gibson and New Media. That is William Gibson, that is a famous 2005 map of the internet.

Slide 2: William Gibson Introduction


Out of the entire U of I English department, I was only able to find a single prof who has read Gibson, the brilliant Jodie, so I must do an introduction to Gibson. (Unfortunately, the only person to write a critical book about Gibson, Lance Olsen, used to teach at Idaho but was too busy to help me out. But this is better because I know my William Gibson and she knows her New Media.)

Bio: Born 1948. Father died while in elementary school, mother when he was eighteen. At thirteen he got a hold of his first Beat anthology and fell in love with Burroughs. He then draft dodged (sort of) to Canada - not necessarily because he hated Vietnam, but because he liked the whole free love thing Hippie women were into and war didn't fit into his goals in life, which were to try every drug out there. He moved to Toronto, then Vancouver, where he still lives today.

"Father/Noir Prophet" of Cyberpunk: After getting a Master's in Hard SF as Fascist Literature, he attended a few SF conventions and didn't like anything, so he wrote what he wanted. In Autumn of 1982 he read "Burning Chrome" to a group of four authors in an obscure backroom at an ignored panel during a SF convention in Denver, Colorado. This was a seminal moment in Cyberpunk - not the beginning, but when its trajectory became irreversible. Neuromancer, a book written on a typewriter, came out two years later and introduced many more people to Cyberpunk, then won the Hugo. It opened with the line, "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." (The picture is the Brazilian cover)

Penchant for Backseat Prophecy: Since 1984 he has become famous. From predicting the rise of reality television, describing what became the conceptual frameworks for virtual environments, and creating/defining the symbolic and iconographic representation of the information age, Gibson's words and works continues to heavily influence the people who are in the trenches of computer science. (The picture is from the bio/interview/prophecy/influence documentary No Maps for these Territories)

Slide 3: Bigend Trilogy


Project Focus: My project focuses not on those early works of the 1980s and '90s, but on his most recent three novels: Pattern Recognition from 2003, Spook Country from 2007, and September 2010's Zero History. These three have seen his most success - in terms of the NYT Bestsellers List and book sales - and are his first works to be couched in contemporary times. He calls them "speculative fiction of the very recent past". Essentially he views today as illegible enough to be treated as the future. That's another presentation though.

New Media Content: The recurring character, for whom the trilogy is named, Hubertus Hendrik Bigend, runs a Marketing company, Blue Ant, which perpetually operates by searching for the next edge and flinging themselves over it as quickly and profitably as possible and studying others around them. This allows an intelligent discussion about New Media and Marketing to guide the books themselves. Pattern Recognition deals with Digital Distribution, Viral Advertising (One-to-Many Communication), Forums (Many-to-Many Communication), Insecurity of the Web, and clearly shows him getting his toes wet in today. Spook Country discusses Repurposing iPods, DIY culture, High-Tech Pranking, Locative Art, and a Wired Magazine Clone. Zero History talks about Surveillance Camera Subversion, Private Twitter (One-to-One Communication), Order Flows, Cell Phone Technology, and Dark Nets/Deep Web (Few-to-Few Communication).

New Media Approach: I'll come back to these in a second (In Slide 9), but I want to mention them real quick. He supports three Online Catalogs of References, and he says two things about New Media that interest me for the purposes of this project: A month before the iPhone ubiquitously hit user's hands he said, "Everything has already migrated halfway to hyperlink" (5/31/2007); and "When I wrote Neuromancer [almost 25 years ago] cyberspace was there, and we were here. In 2007, what we no longer bother to call cyberspace is here, and those increasingly rare moments of nonconnectivity are there. And that's the difference. There's no scarlet-tinged dawn on which we rise and look out the window and go, 'Oh my God, it's all cyberspace now.'" ("Through the Looking Glass" The Washington Post, 2007)

Due to the sheer size of this project though, I believe I will have to largely limit myself to Zero History.

(The picture is the cover to the UK edition of Zero History placed over an approximation of Yves Klien Blue. I'm not explaining it, but reading Zero History will for you)

Slide 4: Question Slide


Question: So my question is a Relational Research Question: In today's mix of history, literature, new media, and old media, where is William Gibson? He talks about it a lot, he made his name off of it in the eighties, but where is he today? He is not doing the typical New Media trick of hypertext novels and digital obscurity, but how is he engaging with New Media?

Why Question?: Asking this question does three things for me:
1. Allows me to study New Media Theory, which I didn't get in the courses I took. "Gibson is in New Media and where is that?"
2. I'm a future author about to go out into the wide world. By studying a current author that I respect and how they do what they do, I hope to gain some point of comparison for my practices. "Where is he at within New Media?"
3. But, it also adds Gibson into the critical discussion. "Where has he gone?" He is a large reason why we interface with technology the way we do today. He is a large reason why we think the way we do about New Media today. Yet, as the most famous New Media theorist outside of the world of New Media Theory and Marshall McLuhan, he is not discussed. I want to discuss him.

There are four main research components to answering this:
1. The History of Reading
2. The History of Writing
3. The History of Cyberpunk
4. New Media & Remediation

Slide 5: History of Reading


Personal vs. Social: Today reading is a personal thing and readings are public. It used to be that all reading was a public thing – reading privately was punishable by death for many years in Europe. However, the pendulum has swung and we are coming from a time where many do not read aloud to one where more people are exposed to reading out loud. (The picture is from Flickr somewhere but I can't remember where. Sorry owner!)

Slide 6: History of Writing


Memory Storage: "All writing is information storage," claims Albertine Gaur in his book, A History of Writing. But it is information storage with a point: to communicate that information as effectively as possible (See this earlier post). Memory and knowledge are stored outside the body in writing. Memory is then accessible to anyone with the time, skill, and means. It is, unfortunately, not perfect, but it is passable. (The picture is a compilation of Alphabet Truck Part 1 and Alphabet Truck Part 2 from fantastic French photographer Eric Tabuchi)

Slide 7: Cyberpunk


What is Cyberpunk?: Basically, Cyberpunk is full of street-smart, bad-ass anti-heroes, post-human half-cyborgs, globally controlling conspiratorial corporations, fantastic technology duct taped to trash, while techno-babble, world-building ideas, and dense metaphors define the writing style. (The picture is from the Epic Comics aborted adaptation of Neuromancer from 1989. The words explain Cyberpunk and the image seems familiar today but was revolutionary then: the Matrix and Cyberspace were invented.)

One of the first published definitions: "For [cyberpunk writers], the techniques of classical 'hard SF' – extrapolation and technological literacy – are not just literary tools, but an aid to daily life. They are a means of understanding, and highly valued." - Bruce Sterling, 1986, Preface to Mirrorshades (xi)

A recent definition: "Briefly, we believe that the signature obsessions of cyberpunk are: Presenting a global perspective of the future; engaging with developments in infotech and biotech, especially those invasive technologies that will transform the human body and psyche; striking a gleefully subversive attitude that challenges traditional values and received wisdom; and cultivating a crammed prose style that takes an often playful stance toward traditional science fiction tropes." - James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel, 2007, "Hacking Cyberpunk", Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology (ix)

Slide 8: New Media + Remediation


What is New Media?:
New Media always deals with cultural artifacts and the way we interface with them: access, change, experience, transmit, et cetera. I am going to share two of Lev Manovich's attempts to define it. In The Language of New Media he defines five principles of New Media:
1. Numerical Representation: Cultural artifacts can be described mathematically and manipulated algorithmically.
2. Modularity: Fractal structure of New Media cultural artifacts – in the same way that pixels are assembled but retain their individual structure.
3. Automation: Interfacing with cultural artifacts requires less human intentionality.
4. Variability: Cultural artifacts have potentially infinite versions. Architect and Theorist Markos Novak says it is replacing constants with variables.
5. Cultural Transcoding: This is the interesting one. Though artifacts may still be recognizable as cultural artifacts, they now follow the established conventions of the computer's organization of data.

In The New Media Reader Manovich defines it again using eight characterizations - five technological and three idea-based. He also says that more than these are possible.

Technologies:
1. New Media vs. Cyberculture: New Media deals with cultural artifacts, not social phenomena - it is not concerned with mere networking.
2. New Media as Computer Technology used as a Distribution Platform: New Media requires digital distribution, not merely digital creation. A book is created digitally, but distributed physically, thus it is not New Media. Unless it is an E-Book. (He notes that this requires redefinition every few years. It seems to me that the iPhone screwed this definition all up.)
3. New Media as Digital Data Controlled by Software: All cultural artifacts that rely on digital representation and delivery share five common qualities: the five principles above.
4. This is the interesting one: New Media artifacts are a mix between software conventions and existing cultural conventions. Cultural conventions change to better fit the model of new media, of software. Old and New Media define how we, as humans, represent, access, and manipulate data. If all writing is data storage, as Albertine Gaur claims, then New Media changes our very relationship to writing itself. As a writer, this is important.
5. There is a new media stage to every new medium - an aesthetic reference to the technology itself (like DV film-makers whose movies are exactly 80 minutes, or Frank Gehry's CATIA or Design Project based buildings, or Hypertext authors).

Ideas:
6. Faster Execution of Manual Algorithms: New Media is both a speeding up of pre-existing techniques, and a cybernetics controller – allowing real-time networking and control over extra-bodily experiences.
7. New Media is Metamedia: Communication tactics of the 1920's avant garde movement are simply re-encoded and re-prioritized, but also take pre-made representations of reality as their material (rather than seeing reality itself). He claims it is a postmodern sense to rework rather than create.
8. Connections between Post-WWII Art and Computing: Artists and Computer Engineers often tried the same things with their different tools. Manfred Mohr and Sol LeWitt, for instance.

The third interesting thing he talks about is the Database Logic/Narrative Logic relationship Jodie discussed last week. As a refresher, New Media has these two logics being composited together:
1. Database Logic: arrays, records, lists. Process & packet, sorting & matching, function & variable, computer language & data structure. Nothing is more important than anything else.
2. Narrative Logic: story & plot, composition & point of view, mimesis & catharsis, comedy & tragedy. Everything else is cut out so the important story is not distracted.

Remediation:
Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin take the three interesting things Manovich talks about and labels them Remediation. They then spend a book discussing it. To quote: "Both new and old media are invoking the twin logics of immediacy and hypermediacy in their efforts to remake themselves and each other. [...] Immediacy depends on hypermediacy [and vise-versa]." (5)

Immediacy: Everything is live, fast, and risky. Accuracy is praised.

Hypermediacy: Even newscasts are trying to capture the look and feel of webpages with screens within screens, elaborate backgrounds, tickers of information, et cetera. Diversity is praised.

In essence, New Media presents itself as refashioned and improved Old Media continually refashioning and improving current media. Nothing is in a vacuum.

Slide 9: I Love This Picture


Architecture: In Art and Architecture, the medium and the message consciously influence each other. If you design a building with straight rulers, you're going to get a lot of straight walls. If you design a building with curved rulers, you're going to get a lot of curved walls. This isn't necessarily true, but you would be artistically constipated to do it otherwise. Different tools have different uses. In literature, we are seeing the formative moves towards this relationship between the medium and the message. (Marshall McLuhan needs a crown and a cape)

"Everything has already migrated halfway to hyperlink." (5/31/2007): Gibson's writing has changed as he realizes that he needs only explain why an item is important to the story - not necessarily what an item is, its history, its appearance. All of the who, what, when, where, why, and how may be unnecessary. Let me explain. I too first thought that this sounded like a cheap, lazy, writer excuse. Writing has always been dependent upon context for meaning: the reader must have the specific skills and access needed to read that language, they must read appropriately to be taken seriously, the writer must adhere to some extent to proper spelling or grammar, and no piece of writing was ever created in a vacuum. Essentially, Gibson is writing to the reader plus Google, realizing that the reader's cultural knowledge is able to expand as deep as it needs to be immediately if he makes the reader sufficiently curious. For instance, a discussion about carburetors on various motorcycles is interesting to the story in that Fiona's do not work intermittently - and that's all the reader gets aside from obscure half-references to various bikes with presumably better carbs (Zero History 185). These specifics are lost to a non-motorcyclist, and were even lost to me, as a motorcyclist, except with Google. In a sense, he is writing a print-book as if it was a hypertext-work. The massive, Google accessible knowledge base that every reader has access to allows the writer to focus more on the story. This is Gibson beginning to allow database logic to supplement and sharpen narrative logic. (See, it ain't lazy, just smart in the "Why didn't I think of that?" vein)

Online Catalogs of References: Googling various specifics from the books may put you at one of the three online magazine sites (PR Otaku, Previous Node Magazine , and Current Node Magazine) that catalog, collate, and compile data about the references in the books. PR Otaku slowly built over a couple of years after Pattern Recognition was published. But Gibson sent one of the contributors an advanced reading copy for Spook Country and by the time the book came out, the references were already online. This takes a narrative and turns it into a database. But it also seems to be re-socializing reading and creating a sort of armchair critical discussion (According to author John Sutherland).

In Closing: Gibson wrote a future that was so seductive and cool that computer scientists adopted it as a model. Today we are within his future to some extent. But he is still ignored by New Media theorists. In my initial studies, it seems as if using Gibson as a lens through which to look at New Media is appropriate and informative. I hope I have convinced you of the same. If I haven't yet, let me know why, please. I'll share my paper once it is done.

Thank you for reading! (The above picture is from this Instructable. First thing I do this summer is make myself some Concrete Light Bulbs. I am going to try making a form too. That sounds fun.)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

"All Writing Is Information Storage"

The above quote by Albertine Gaur is the first line in his book A History of Writing. His premise is that writing approximates the original, human information storage - memory. I would like to expand that premise a bit to and point out that it also approximates speech and is therefore a communicative art as well.

Memory + Speech
Memory is only accessible to the owner, to the person who experienced it initially and remembers it. To share that with somebody who was not present at the impetus experience, a person must communicate. Communication through speech only gives a rough overview of the memory. How many times have friends told you a funny story and it wasn't funny? Even the reason for remembering is lost in the translation in that case. But even more basically, passing a memory to another means passing a memory to someone who doesn't have that memory, or the mindset, outlook, experiences, or intellect of the original. Speech loses a lot of the power of that memory.

Memory + Writing
Memory can be stored outside the body through writing. In writing it down though, the author is attempting to communicate to the page that memory through words. The author runs into the same problems that the speaker does above. The fullness, the context, the detail is lost and what gets communicated constitutes a new memory because it is so different that the original. However, through writing it down, the author gives up ownership of the memory to the device used to store the writing. Thereafter a reader may engage that written memory at the reader's own pace.

Compare
So in my mind, writing engages the same process speech does, but does it twice. Writing is not merely an approximation of memory, but also of communication - of making that memory useful. Where the speaker fills in details with inflection, hand gestures, and timing, the reader can travel at their own pace, can pause and do research or think about it, can take the time to form an imaginary mental picture. Writing and speech are both between memories, but writing itself constitutes a doubling which makes it its own memory, allows it to communicate years after the original experience had person have passed.