Saturday, June 5, 2010

Avatars of Desire

Many of the submissions for the Hack Gender project are essentially anonymous: they are attributed to handles, to screennames, to identities that have been constructed in LiveJournal or Twitter but that maintain a degree of separation from the writer's "real" identity. The ability to have a discussion behind these avatars is a phenomenon of online spaces, where identity can apparently be completely constructed in correspondence to but not in direct correlation with an individual body. As Tim Hardy posted in his thoughts on the project, "On the internet where 'nobody knows you're a dog', I find gender often takes a back seat and communication becomes a conversation first and foremost between individuals. In other words--online, we all pass."

In another piece for the Hack Gender project, Virtual Crossdressing, John Murray wrote about the creation of online spaces where the assumption of a gender role can be challenged and responded to by others: taking on an identity is not a static process, and other people within a virtual world can make judgments based on a virtual body in the same way that the physical world demands. 

The tone of the project would change if an image, a set of identifiers, a full name, had to accompany each submission. We take for granted the cultural signifiers of other people’s bodies. We judge a person’s heritage from what we see, whether those symbols are inherent, such as skin tone or eye color, or chosen, such as clothing and hair style. Yet each year we have further and unprecedented control over the body we present to the world: and in a virtual space, that control is complete. We might comfort ourselves with the thought that if we were, today, to be thrust knowingly into another body, it would not much change who we are. Yet every day another man or woman seeks another type of comfort in the arms of a plastic surgeon who offers transformations more minor in scale but with the promise of change for the better. We constantly clothe ourselves in different labels and trends and change everything from our nail color to the layering of our hair to better reflect, or create, our self. We may judge if someone is “like us” or other from the first glance. While we believe we clothe ourselves in the trappings of personal identity, those trappings are very much linked to a stronger cultural identity. Our body is the essence of our social connection. Without its distinguishing factors, we’d be hard pressed to find our community—even a child’s resemblance to her mother would disappear.

"Walking" into a virtual space, I don't *do* anything particularly remarkable. I am still sitting behind the same computer desk as always, ensconced comfortably in my apartment. No one else is around, and yet suddenly I am among many people--not friends, no, perhaps not even acquaintances, but people nonetheless. Most of them do not appear at first glance to be the type of people I would invite back to my apartment, as women dressed in Abercrombie & Fitch with augmented porn star bodies are rarely my guests here, but suddenly I don’t have much choice who I invite onto my desktop. People wander through the scene without paying me much attention; each of them intent on whatever task brings them to the virtual realm, whether it is for work or play. The world is so vast that it’s rare to encounter a large collective, but the groups that do gather have purposes as diverse as any mass in the so called real world.

There are even freedoms it takes time to recognize: a virtual body can be any color, any size, and any combination of gender identities [as the avatars come without sexual characteristics, only with a vague gender label, the possibilities are fairly endless]. The choice of these characteristics is heavily waited precisely because it is a choice: while one cannot pick his or her race at birth, in virtual space skin color is simply a digital paint job. Making the assumption that anyone who is white in the game is actually white anymore than it is safe to assume that a woman is actually a woman. We take all our biases and stereotypes with us to the virtual realm even though nothing in that realm is as it seems.

In the Matrix films the “residual self image” of Neo upon entering the Matrix knowingly for the first time projected the best in how he remembered himself: without the scars of his time as a battery, hair longer and styled, clothes impeccable. While I do not upload my own residual self image directly, I do possess it, and whether positive or negative it distorts my virtual self. The more recognizable and to some threatening form of deception in the digital self is the deception of others. Digital form allows us the possibility of becoming something that would have been previously impossible: we see ourselves as we wish to, and can project the gender identity that best represents us.

To look once again at Neo, we watch as a withered man emerges from tube with atrophied muscles and with the addition of a net connection becomes a bullet dodging kung fu master. He gives others the impression of the best he believes himself capable of. With the same application of data, Neo could transform himself to other forms in the manner of the Sentinels—to become the alluring woman in the red dress or a child seeking a companion or any number of creatures, as chosen by the shaper of data. Fantasies prior to the digital era were confined to the relatively impersonal realm of look don’t touch media—magazines, videos, and other such non-participatory media. Now such fantasies are easily in reach, even if such contact can only in the end be avatar to avatar. The contact is between user and machine, and between user and other users, geographically separate but within the instant touch of data streams. Such actions seem unreal, and thus without consequence—but in their anonymity, in the freedom they offer, can be realizations of desire.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Rethinking the Humanities Dissertation

(or, hacking the dissertation product)

A few days before I attended THATCamp for the first time, I defended my dissertation. Immediately after my defense, I was feeling pretty good about my incorporation of new media. I was in an interdisciplinary program that let me build my research around fan custodianship and production and the social communities that are trying to force redefinition of copyright law. I used Google Docs for drafts and got feedback through the virtual critique groups that the Internet has made possible. I immersed myself in reading the online social media of those communities, kept up with research through mostly digital sources, and even built my prezi for the defense. One early chapter is already out there in an online journal experimenting with open access publishing. As Tanya Roth has discussed, these processes are all part of the transformation of methodology that characterize graduate work in our changing digital environment--a way to "hack the dissertation process."

I thought I’d made the best use of technology I could have throughout my process. I might have even claimed that I’d hacked the dissertation. But now I'm pretty sure I had not even begun. My dissertation might have been created with attention to an increasingly social digital world, but the work itself was anti-social.

When I teach, I’m constantly asking my students to work in open and collaborative spaces. I prefer student work that face outward: wikis, twitter, blogs, game projects, etc. Like Mark Sample has blogged, I believe that the student essay is flawed—“a compressed outpouring of energy…that means nothing to no one.”

Can’t the same be said of my dissertation? To a large extent, that's even expected. The dissertation is the large work that stands as a bridge to future research. Writing it is more the process of induction: a launching point rather than an end product. It exists, it goes in front of a committee, and mostly it is of vast significance only to the person writing it.

There are several traditional venues for feedback during the dissertation-writing process: the most common is the conference presentation, a strictly-scheduled event in which a portion of the work that has presumably been tailored into a stand-alone paper. From there, draft exchanges are possible, and social media certainly has eased the exchange of these types of documents. This type of limited collaboration is a sidenote to the bulk of the writing process, which was recently satirized by PhD Comics as a trip down the rabbit hole that amounts to a personal struggle with one’s research.

That still hard-to-dismiss picture of the humanist surrounded by papers and not people and networks stands in contrast to online communities where peer feedback can enhance a lonely process. The desire to share progress is seen even in tongue-in-cheek experiments like Is My Thesis Hot or Not?, a site where only the thesis statement is in play and subject to user votes on the binary of “hot” or “not” with an open comment system that can be an outlet for snark, or, more rarely, helpful criticism.

This is one of the realities of putting work in open-access environments: it can be mocked and torn apart. More likely, it will be ignored completely. The most commonly used database for academic dissertations encourages work to be put into stasis: the ProQuest UMI Dissertation database now has an open-access model for digital publication, but the work once archived sits in PDF and cannot evolve dynamically.

There are already many projects that have experimented with open peer review and collaboration. Of those, the most successful tend to be launched by an already established academic, as with Lessig's collective revision of his work via wiki Code 2.0. Humanities dissertations have occasionally embraced dynamic digital forms: Vika Zafrin’s RolandHT was designed for the web and is conscious of that form in every aspect of the data and methodology. Zach Whalen’s The Videogame Text is a working example of the dissertation text brought into an interactive space, though the stated final goal remains a traditional book proposal.  

In these and other cases of experimental publishing, the exclusivity of the book is being overthrown. Many grad students I've spoken with are hesitant to place their work in open-access for fear of decreasing its value down the road: they dream--and, yes, I myself will admit to having daydreamed--of making the leap from dissertation to monograph. The reality of such leaps, of course, is that they demand transformation: take Noah Wardrip-Fruin's recent MIT Press release Expressive Processing and compare it to his earlier dissertation of the same name.

The traditional dissertation as product reflects the dominance of the book: it creates a monograph that sits in a database. The processes of the humanities are to some extent self-perpetuating: write essays as an undergraduate, conference papers as a graduate student, a dissertation as a doctoral student, and books and journal article as a professor. Making a work open-access doesn't give it an audience, just as engaging in a dynamic project and seeking community input doesn't make a work inherently valuable--but it does more seriously reflect the purposing of the dissertation as a launching point.

Perhaps as all these stages of academic production are "hacked" we'll see more dissertations embracing the models that are now experimental. I'd like to see a community form online that resembles the collaborative social networks I've made an object of study. For instance, a community like brings value to its many users not only by offering a place to share one's story but by offering a community of collaborators--other creators of content who are enthusiastic about sharing their own knowledge and opinions because they are engaged in the same processes for themselves. These types of communities go a step beyond the social networks we now have as graduate students (like Gradshare and the PhD Forums) and become spaces that encourage continual revision, collaboration and extension. Embracing these models might bring some of the same challenges we see in the classroom, like sorting out the different values of individual authorship and dealing with the ever-present risks of plagiarism, but the results might bring dissertation work that can move more easily to relevance in a larger discourse. A dissertation written (and blogged, and revised, and remixed) in networked space need not be condemned to stasis. 
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Hypermedia: Post Project Creativity Debrief

Orders from on high demanded that this week we take on whatever role we've managed to avoid up til now. For me, that was the role of coding. I can't speak for the others, but for me this is the position I'm least happy in: not so much because I don't enjoy code--I do, at times--but because I don't like being in a position without creative control. So this was for me a week to sit back, say nothing, and do my best to bring the others' vision to life in a working prototype. This is, of course, as natural to me as riding a bike, which is perhaps only a funny statement if you know me well enough to know I never learned how to do that either.

What I find really interesting about the results of this particular collaboration is how much it reveals of our individual styles. We assembled on our main page a sampling of our own individual projects along with profiles discussing our backgrounds and creative intentions. We also have a page with images from the previous collaborative projects and a discussion of each. Looking at the individual set next to the collaborative seems to reveal our roles and influences just as plainly as when we come out and say it. Of course, I might be biased, since I spent a couple of hours surrounded by those images getting the site together and coded.

I find this really interesting thanks to my minor obsession with the idea of creativity. I'm immersed in a creative writing workshop every week taken online through my other university and I constantly marvel at how we all--yes, myself included, or why would I take it at all--buy into the notion that creativity is something that can be workshopped. The only way I've ever found to feel like I'm a "creative person"--whatever that is--is to read so many things that I can at least be sure that whatever I'm spouting comes from digesting as many ideas as I could fit in my head. My mother occasionally said that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but they also didn't keep any apples in the house, only books, and I find that those go down much better on a daily basis than any fruit not blended into drink form.

So that takes me in a roundabout way back to my point: what is at the root of divergences in creativity? Why do some of us think in grids and others in colliding bubbles? For that matter, why do some of us see in grids and others in bubbles?

Thankfully for me, I have no qualms at all about not answering that question with anything but a list of the books I believe answer that question better than I ever could--without, of course, ever answering the question at all. First up, Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, which I revisited while thinking about the first group project. Queneau was on the frontier of stretching language to its limits when he was writing in 1940ish, and he somehow still seems to be on the frontier when I read it again today. How on earth is that possible? Maybe for the same reason most people don't read Finnegans Wake: it stretched the idea of what a novel could be so much that no one has really felt the need to venture out that way again. (My web domain, by the way, comes from a Wake quote: "Where flash becomes word and silents selfloud"--which offers another stretch on the way we think about language. Just don't mention that to the Joyce estate, they've gotten rather touchy these days.)

And one last book I open whenever I need a different way to think about a design, or a writing project, or a research question, or a writing desk for that matter--Alice in Wonderland. Oh yes, it's cliche, but such a glorious cliche! Perhaps we all need a trip down the rabbit's hole now and again.

So a question back at the metaverse, or up the rabbit hole, or through the void: choose your own metaphor. What do you read when you think on creating?

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Hello, Mary

The text for the (very, very) silly story, and evidence of what happens when I try to write a picture book text in a day:

Hello Mary!

Sarah stood in the bathroom. The light was off. The big mirror was in front of her. She could not even see her face in its shiny surface. She’d heard her brother talking. She’d heard him say how to call the ghost. The room was dark. She was ready.
“Hello Mary.” Sarah whispered. The mirror was dark.
“Hello Mary.” Sarah said again, and again. The mirror was empty.
“Hello Mary.” Sarah said again. Her brother had told her to say it thirteen times. Had he lied to her? She still saw nothing.
“Hello Mary!” She almost shouted the words the thirteenth time.
A face appeared in the mirror! A big black pointy hat sat over glowing eyes.
“Hello Sarah.”
Sarah shrieked. She knew who that was. A witch! Sarah ran out of the bathroom.
“Mommy, mommy, there’s a witch in the mirror!”
Mommy came running. “Don’t be scared, Sarah. Mirrors only show your reflection.”
“But I saw her!”
“You’ve been listening to your brother’s Halloween stories, haven’t you?” Mommy sighed. “There’s no witch in the mirror.”
Sarah’s big brother Bobby was right behind her Mommy. He laughed at her. “You saw Bloody Mary! She takes people’s faces from them. You’re going to wake up without a face!”
Sarah wanted to cry. “But I like my face!”
Mommy hugged Sarah. “Bobby, stop that!” Mommy opened the bathroom door and turned on the light. “See? There’s no one in the mirror but you and me.”
That night Sarah didn’t want to go to bed. There was a mirror above her dresser. “Can I sleep with you, Mommy?”
“Are you afraid the witch will get you?” Mommy smiled. “Don’t worry. I can stop her.” Mommy took a pillowcase and put it over the mirror. “See? Now no witches can come through the mirror.”
Mommy tucked Sarah in and turned out the light when she left. Sarah stayed awake. She could feel someone watching her. Finally, she had to know. She went and peeked under the pillowcase. “Go away, Bloody Mary!”
The girl in the mirror frowned. “I’m not Bloody Mary. I’m just Mary.”
Sarah sniffled. “So you aren’t going to take my face?”
Mary laughed. “I have my own face. Why would I want yours?”
Sarah nodded. That made sense. “Why are you in the mirror?”
“Why aren’t you in the mirror?” Mary asked back.
“Because I’m a girl, and girls don’t live in mirrors.” Sarah replied.
“Well I’m a girl, and I live in a mirror.” Mary said firmly
“What’s it like in a mirror?” Sarah wondered.
“Shiny. Everything sparkles here. But it’s boring.”
“Why?” Sarah asked. “It sounds pretty.”
“There’s no one to play with.”
Sarah frowned. She always had someone to play with. Mommy played with her, Daddy played with her, even Bobby played with her. She wouldn’t like to be all alone. “I’ll play with you.”
“Really?” Mary smiled.
The next day, Sarah and Mary played together. They played hide and go seek. Sarah searched through the house to find Mary in different mirrors. Once Mary hid in Sarah’s mother’s pocketbook mirror. Another time she was in Bobby’s bathroom mirror. Sarah and Mary played all day.
The next day was Halloween. When Sarah woke up, she went to her closet. What was she going to wear to school? Sarah wanted to have the best costume. Sarah searched and searched. Something was sitting on top of the dresser. Sarah went to look. It was Mary’s pointy hat! Sarah put it on. She knew what she would be for Halloween!
Sarah went downstairs in her new costume. Mommy was making breakfast.
Mommy exclaimed when she saw Sarah. “Sarah dear, where did you find that hat?”
“Mary gave it to me.”
“Is she one of your friends from school?”
“No, she’s the witch from the mirror!” Sarah explained.
Mommy smiled. “Oh, of course she is. Mary is a lovely name, and that is a lovely hat!”
Sarah beamed. This would be the best Halloween yet!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Hypermedia Production: A Children's Halloween Story

So, this week Jill, Jermaine and I decided to take on displaying a children's book in a single html page. The results are here:

Since I'm in an MFA program in Children's Literature at Hollins University when I'm not in the doctoral program here, I decided to spend the evening after class doing something I haven't done for any project yet this semester: writing content. I wrote a short Halloween story based upon the Bloody Mary legend where a girl misinterprets her brother's taunt to summon Bloody Mary by saying "Hell Mary" to a darkened mirror--she says "Hello, Mary," instead, and the story ensues. I passed the story on to Jill for illustration, and she came up with the simple styles for the two girls and the mother as the encounters continued. I later added my text on top of those images based upon her divisions for illustrative scenes, as the illustrator is usually in charge of that decision in the business of writing picture books. It was written to be read aloud by a parent, so some of the language is formative but mostly it is simple to understand. Jermaine took on the coding. The interface is very simple--navigational arrows--and takes its cue from other online picture books. The assumption is that a parent would probably be navigating the site and reading aloud, or perhaps encouraging their child to click on the next arrow to see what happens.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Cha cha chas and Expression: Hypermedia Production

I just got back from a ballroom dance lesson with the same coach I've been working with since I first decided to discover movement a couple of years ago now--around the same time I started graduate school and realized I'd need social contact in my life with non-graduate student to remember what the real world was like! (Ironically, my coach? In addition to being a former ten dance champion, host of nationals, etc--currently an English graduate student.)

Yes, stay with me a moment, there is a point.

My partner and I have a competition coming up in a couple of weeks, so this lesson was spent running routines for latin over and over--four times through the cha cha, four times through the samba, the jive, the rumba, you get the idea. Sometime in the middle of one of those repetitions, my coach got as close to exasperated as it's possible for him to get and said to me, "You're one of the most expressive people I know...*except* on the dance floor."

So that got me thinking about what it means to be expressive, and where it's being expressed. A lot of people, when they start to dance, make the mistake of obsessing over wardrobe and makeup and hair. But when you go to a social dance, you can spot the great dancers in jeans and a t-shirt. The self-expression isn't in all the frills, although those frills can accent a great idea--take a look at Lacey and Lance's tango on Dancing with the Stars last week and you'll see what I mean:

Those costumes, however fabulous, are like the graphics on the scrolling site I put together this week (here)...self-expression? Of course. The point of this week's exercise? Not really. They're the means I thought most fitting to express the conceptual idea of the UI, not the UI itself. That routine and their movements make it work. This week, I tried to express something (admittedly, a very tiny something) through code, not through surface.

For instance: I could have tied my appendchild event to a mouseover of an image, or to a clickable "look here to see more" element. Instead, I tied it to the completion of scrolling, that is, to the viewing of all the available content. Would this annoy someone else from a usability standpoint--knowing that the user has no control over what happens, and no reason to expect more content? Probably. But I would be more annoyed at having to go through some extra step to get to the rest of the flow.

Coding doesn't seem like something for self-expression to a newcomer. That's why stealing code is so tempting: if someone else already wrote it, why do you need to do anything differently? It's the same thing as stealing a dance routine: they put these steps together and they work, so why wouldn't you do the same thing? Newcomers at comps usually dance the same routines they've all learned in classes from whatever coach teaches their school, so you can see dozens of couples dancing near each other all going through the same steps at once: an alamana, a closed hip twist, fan position, all in sync like they learned it for formation teams.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Wocket in your Pocket?

Despite the initial covetous reaction that swelled up when I read the announcements, I came through Black Friday without purchasing a Kindle. I did, however, upgrade my old Nintendo Gameboy to the DS Lite [Zelda edition, of course, which is a fancy way of saying it's gold and pretty]. Within a few days of the purchase it's been fully incorporated into the swarm of electronic devices that are integrated to my life. I am only a bit embarrassed to confess that this assimilation includes a newfound addiction to this generation of Pokemon and the understanding that an extra few minutes waiting at the accupuncturist's office can be spent catching a Zubat.

There's nothing particularly useful about a device of this kind. The interface allows for the nifty use of the touchpad, which can be taken advantage of in ways like shaking trees to make apples fall in Animal Crossing or in using the battle management system of Pokemon. This is nothing on the scale of the revolution Nintendo created with their other interface design for this generation of console wars, namely, the motion responsive controller for the Wii. But it's still a fun toy, and it's worth losing some room in pockets or purses to displace the mediocre interface of the cell phone as a method for playing games in waiting rooms and the like.