Wonderful Things

testtaker_main.jpgMonday night I went to the ITP’s end-of-semester show. A friend of mine is in the program and I went to check out the scene. ITP, the Interactive Telecommunications Program, is part of the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. ITP has been around since ’79, and lies somewhere concetually between the MIT Media Lab and Mary Flanagan. When I visited the MIT Media Lab this summer I began to understand how it was really operating as a pooled R & D lab for corporate interests (with plenty of military funding). I got the vibe that ITP is coming from a different place with different priorities, but I don’t really know the full back story.

Here are some of the highlights of the many many projects I saw the other night:

Emerging themes continue to suggest that we are indeed embarking on a era that can be described as “The End of Forgetting“, and that epistemology itself is transforming beneath our feet. That is, the way we know what we know, the kinds of things that we know, and our relationship to knowledge is being transformed by shifts in memory, computational possibilities, simulation, and visualization. Going to a show like this really reinforces these bold predictions.

Personal Media

A recent visit to the new 5th avenue Apple store made me realize that the war for the living room console is effectivlely moot. For years manufacturers have been vying to create the hybrid computer/tv, destined for the position formely occupied by the VCR.

What I realized was that this compititiion is a bit like the telcom companies fighting over landlines, while everyone else went out and got themselves a cell phone. Portable media players, combined with docking stations mean that I can have my music, movies, games, pictures, etc on my person, at all times. Inconvinient to carry your xbox, ps3, or mac mini in your car, to your office, or to your friends house.

It’s all too easy to forget to factor in Moore and his law.

soft metamedia?

April 7th I heard Lev Manovich talk at Pratt. I am a big fan of Manovich’s written work, and the Language of New Media was instrumental in my analysis of tagging.

Friday night Manovich showed us ideas in progress, and bravely admitted that they were not completely formed. He talked about describing the evolution of media in evolutionary terms. As in, the next logical progression after getting all our media digitized (i.e., simulating physical processes w/in the digital environment) is the breeding and hybridization of the media. He is claiming that some of what we are now seeing in ‘moving graphics’ or ‘design cinema’ is actually a new form of media, distinct from what came before it. And he is interested in identifying the trunks and branches of this media evolution.

Plaid Itsu was a film he used as an example of a completely new form. Whereas multimedia was the assembly of multiple forms of media adjacent to each other, metamedia is the combination of these forms into a new unified whole. He pointed out the live action photography, combined with traditional design aesthetics, combined with graphics, etc etc. Not sure I bought it, but it was an interesting assertion.

The best question from the audience alluded to a longstanding disconnect between media and communication theorists. Manovich is looking exclusively at the end product of the media being created, and not examining the cultural and social conditions that lead to its creation. There may be mileage from this rarefied approach, as some patterns are discernible, but it does seem to be lacking the depth to explain the creative dynamics and underlying motivations.

After the talk, I began to this relate his line of reasoning to Arthur Young’s theory of process:

The Theory of Evolutionary Process as a Unifying Paradigm
Theory of Process Poster (too bad this isn’t really visible online)

Which I first became exposed to through the work of the Meru Foundation:
letter matrix

It seems to me that the evolutionary forces that Manovich is documenting conform to the trans-disciplinary evolutionary process that Young articulated. For what its worth, the hybridization of media that Manovich claims we failed to predict, was foretold back in this book on the MIT Media Lab, published in 1988.

New York’s Darker History

This weekend I attended the masterfully produced Slavery in New York exhibit at the New York Historical Society. The exhibit was deeply moving, and vividly and viscerally captured a portrait of African American history I was not fully aware of previously. I left the exhibit with a new understanding of how the 400 year long institution of slavery was a tragedy fully on par with the Nazi Holacaust.

I will save a discussion of the show’s content for another time, but for now I want to focus on the amazing use of educational technology woven throughout the exhibit. From start to finish, the show effectively incorporated video, interactive kiosks, and innovative displays which pushed the boundaries of some of the best work I have seen in this field.

The use of screens is a topic that is on my mind from my studies of Lev Manovich this semester, and this exhibit incorporated many cutting edge treatments of the screen.

To start with, at the beginning of the exhibit, the visitor is confronted with video commentary of the reactions of past visitors, and at the end of the exhibit a self-service video booth allowed visitors to record their own commentary. I have never seen a self-service video booth like this incorporated into an museum exhibition, and it was very powerful and impressive.

Beyond that, their ability to transport the visitor to the reality of the past was greatly enhanced by their translation of historical abstractions to modern day interfaces. In particular, I am thinking of the classified ads advertising slaves for sale and offering rewards for runaways, the presentation of the slave ship logs, and most strikingly, the presentation of the slave economy in a bloomberg-style terminal. The cold economics of slavery were driven home by the scrolling marquee listing the numbers of Negros arriving on incoming ships, and the fluctuating going rates of various skills.

The incorporation of video throughout the exhibit, from overhearing the conversation of slaves gathered around a well (in a brilliant interface), to the dialogue between the portraits of ornately framed talking heads, to the interactive choose-your-own-adventure kiosks was incredibly well done, and offered accessibility and deep learning even to the fragmented attentions of the postmodern era.

I highly recommend visiting this exhibition, as the web site barely begins to do it justice.

Serenity Lost

Nothing like a little pulp sci-fi to resonate with a class on emerging tech. I saw Serenity tonight (skip this post until you have seen it, unless you aren’t planning to at all) and was amused at how a central plot line revolved around some information that has been covered up by the authorities, and the struggle to disseminate that message.

The simplicity of a single message whose content can change the world, and a single distribution channel from which to broadcast it from is amusing, but poignant. I mean, if you could broadcast one message to the world, what would it be? Are these folksonomies helping in filtering and distributing this information, or are we just ending up on our same disconnected islands of information we started from.

I am thinking of the disjoint sets of books that liberals and conservatives read, but there must be many other examples – perhaps the entire blogosphere falls into this category. One thing I have realized as I begin to rely more and more on my rss client, is that once I am lost inside of it, if you aren’t syndicating a feed, you don’t exist.

I am quite aware that a full-blown information war is currently underway. The existence (and adoption) of Flickr allow me laugh at the Bush administrations attempts to prevent the publication of Katrina’s casualties, but how did this story get swallowed up?

If bittorrent didn’t exist (or was outlawed) and we could not reclaim the “lost” bandwidth of individual broadband subscribers, large file transfers and exchanges would probably have to be mediated through centralized bandwidth providers like akamai or cisco. But this is not quite as simple as centralized vs. decentralized publishing models, since that is only half the equation. The information retrieval needs to happen on the other end, or else you’re screaming into an abyss.

I was once lucky enough to find myself in a conversation with the author of citeulike. I casually inquired as to whether he was planning on releasing the engine which powers his site under an open license. He replied that he would, but that it would be a bad idea. citeulike is supposed to be a service, not a product. Its value is actually diluted the more there are that are running. Part of flickr or delicious’ power are in their popularity. They are much more effective the more users they have, leaving us once again in a paradoxical quandary, where we need a decentralized, centralized service.

Too many flickrs, and they are all rendered weaker, and too few, and we are back in a situation where our information is in danger of being homogenized, controlled, and filtered.

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