More on Ted Nelson

Callum with some good observations about Nelson, though I hope as we will find out soon the idea that search engines have realised what hypertext is will be seen to be fairly wide of the mark. Amy has some good musings too, and finds print literacy easier. yes, that’s one of the subject’s points, we’re actually up to our necks in print literacy yet think we’re all digital natives because we know our way round Facebook and mum doesn’t.

Right now the most important people in the world are the coders, they are the renaissance geniuses of this time, for example they gave us WordPress, a free complex thing that lets non coders play, write, share, design online. And they decided to give it to us because they could, and thought they should.

Thought Experiments aka Provocative Questions

  • If stories were written on rolodexes what would they be? What is a beginning and an ending, then?
  • If stories were written on walls, in the round, what would they be? What is a beginning and an ending then?
  • If pages dissolved as you read them, so you couldn’t go back, what would they become?
  • Why don’t stories have choruses, like songs?
  • Why does music (and dance, and sport, and poetry) allow literal repetition, but writing not?
  • stories have description, argumentation, narration, and exposition. Well perhaps not argumentation. Only one of these progresses the action, so could you have a story that was only description? or only exposition? (we have songs, poems and so on that do this…)
  • if this is not a story, does that matter (what is wrong with making films that are descriptions, or expositions?, where does the bias for story come from? Why?
  • is story the great coloniser of us? (We are its vehciles, not the other way round?)

A Take Away Idea

Let’s introduce the concept of the ‘take away idea’. Each of the readings, even where they seem to cover a lot of ideas, theories, arguments, and so on, are written around a basic idea, concept, or problem (that is three ways of describing the same sort of thing). They are writing directly to something that the author feels the need to think about and think through.

(Think of the readings not as explanations of something, but as people using writing to think about an idea. This is a much more productive way of approaching essays and chapters and other material than thinking their role as writing is to explain something to, or for, you. Their role, in the first instance, is to let the author think out something. Approach them in the same way, and they become invitations to think along with them, rather than road maps detailing what is already known.)

So, the ‘take away idea’. Each of the readings can be thought to revolve around and respond to some kernel that matters. The take away idea is, to begin with, not you figuring out what this might be (but by all means go for it), but is your take away idea. What is the one key thing that matters to you from what you read, or hear? Why?

Must Read

This excellent blog post is about advertising, design, and young creatives. Everything it says could and does apply to TV, radio, print, and our own university. If you want a snapshot of what your future career looks and feels like, and what you need to know and do to not be only the service company that films the clip once everyone else has decided what it is going to look and feel like, then read this. If you have questions, ask, in the blog, your blog, the unsymposium, classes. My favourite line, btw:

It’s amazing that so many agencies get away with saying they’re innovative but have nothing to show. Oh so you love being innovative so much that you never create anything internally? You’re creativity stops at client work does it? Do us a favour, stop the bullshit.

And as a teacher, my take away is that if you’re not at uni to be tested and extended and challenged, then what the fuck are you doing wasting your time here?

Maths and English – You Bet

Written twenty days ago and it’s a blast. Thank’s Rachel. Yes, everything is interconnected, how could it not? Maths and English, have a look at Raymond Queneau’s delirious beautiful sonnet work Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes (Hundred Thousand Billion Poems). It is elegantly simple. Ten sonnets, in the original you could flip each line individually (like those children’s books to create fantastic creatures), this creates 100,000,000,000,000 possible combinations, it would take somewhere around 200 million years to read them all. Just ten sonnets. This is hypertextual and why hypertextual structures aren’t choose your own adventures. Why elegant? Because immense complexity is built from a very simple set of rules, which produces a very simple system. This is the heart of making complex stories in digital environments. It is what we call generative, a procedure than enables complex things to be made, without having to design or decide all the possibilities in advance.

Novels, An Assemblage of Histories

IN today’s unsymposium the discussion wandered around the shop about the essay and the literary. On the way home it sparked a little florid flurry of ideas that arose from that half baked discussion. A couple of weeks ago Actor Network Theory (ANT) was mentioned, and while what follows isn’t specifically ANT, the way to think of it is not as a linear sequence of causes but a network of relationships that could have different sorts of outcomes, and that the novel was one particular one, and more importantly it is this aggregation of different things, at different speeds and moments, that sees the novel happen. In this view it isn’t that the novel is at the end of a process and these are the parts of steps, but that the novel finds itself within all these things that have their own, particular, individual histories and trajectories, parts of which touch the novel. (For example the relationship between making wine and the printing press, these histories touch each other, but one doesn’t ’cause’ the other and the printing press is not the ‘culmination’ of an idea.)

I want to write about the novel because the discussion today begun from there, and it is a very useful example of how to think about what we describe as the specificity of media history not as this narrative of cause and effect, but as a conglomeration of, well, stuff. Ideas, technologies, economics, religion, technological appropriation, cultural transmission, and so on. Now, if I were particular sort of theorist, for example some sort of Marxist, I might decide that one of the parts of what I’ve described as a ‘conglomeration’ is more important than the others, in trying to explain how novels happened (and so as a Marxist I might see the emerging forms of capitalism as essential to the whole thing), but that risks a sort of theoretical chauvinism (why is capitalism any more important than realising the wine press over there would solve the technical problem of applying regular constant pressure to actually be able to print?). Personally, I think it is more elegant, and possibly more accurate, to recognise it is a complex messy assemblage and then try to recognise the terms or parts of this assemblage, and as an assemblage to recognise that the parts have their own histories, and uses, and their role here is not just to somehow give birth to printing and later the novel.

So, the novel. There was a good question today about the literary and the digital and the book. My answer was simply that if you take the literary out of the question then the book is, today, irrelevant as a particular form. It simply doesn’t matter. For some things it remains the most convenient form, but that is rapidly changing. In most contexts most people don’t care if it is a book or not (something on paper, with a cover, made up of serial pages), and in many cases a digital form which is searchable and can be annotated and all the rest is more use to you and preferable to a book. Think court decisions text books, legislation, manuals, diagnostic manuals (technical, medical, psychological) even a copy of Shakespeare that can automatically show you every occurrence of a phrase, in context (what we all a concordance), and then provide links to other occurrences of the similar phrases in other works by Shakespeare. (Once upon a time not so very long ago the complaint about ebooks was that you ‘couldn’t read them in the bath’ – seriously. Then things like the iPad came along, which you could, but if you dropped it… Except if you drop your book in the bath then, well, that’s usually buggered too. Now the complaint is about the smell of the paper, or its feel. Now, seriously, if this what makes literature have literary value, just go and buy some paper be done with it, as this is so very seriously a fetish dressed up as an argument to be embarrassing!)

I digress. Unusually. I want to stick the literary back into the conversation and make the provocative claim that the literary and the book aren’t intimate bedfellows, and might not be in to the future. They were intimate, but they don’t have to be, or, more provocatively perhaps the literary will just have had its moment and fade, to be enjoyed by a small band of academics and buffs, while the world moves along to other things. Why? How?

Let’s keep it simple and think about the novel. The novel needs the book, well, it did. The novel needed:

  • the invention of the printing press
  • the printing press developed from the innovative appropriation of the wine press (so we needed wine presses first)
  • development of new technologies of metal making so that typefaces could be easily made (metallurgy and craft skills)
  • the rise of more general literacy (so that there were people able to read books)
  • so the development of more generalised education (social changes)
  • the invention of cheap paper (as prior to paper manuscripts where handwritten and painted on very expensive leather known as vellum)
  • a new ink suitable for printing had to be invented
  • the emergence of nascent forms of mercantile capitalism as the original printers generally operated as what today we’d describe as start ups, a printer would arrive in a small town or city, set up a press, and start printing and selling, with mixed success
  • the desacralisation of knowledge and stories so that the church was no longer the centre of knowledge production, dissemination and distribution (this was cause and effect)
  • with the rise of literacy people didn’t need things read to them, and so the new phenomenon of ‘silent’ reading where those outside of the educated religious elite could now read, and did
  • and with the spread of silent reading, of reading by yourself (instead of in church where the bible was read to you since you couldn’t read) the concept of an interior voice arose
  • and so novels became stories about the insides of people (what today we’d describe as their thoughts and motivations)

Printing is fundamental here, since paper is flat and small compared to vellum (which is thick and the manuscripts often enormous), and now we have a small, intimate writing intended for an audience of one. And as people wondered what to do with it, they experimented, and we eventually arrive at the modern form of literature we call the novel. Personal, interiorised characters (we wonder and are told about their thoughts and feelings), small enough to be in the home, and linear enough to be read across several sittings, short enough and in the vernacular and so not presuming to require a life times study (aka the bible, classical literature).

Therefore the novel is a confluence of lots of different things. Technologies, cultural changes, individuals, trade routes, emerging capitalism, etc.

Now, one of the founding novels in the west is Don Quioxite, published in two volumes (1605 and 1615). That makes it near enough to 400 years old. We have had writing since 3200BC in the middle east and 1200BC in China. If we take China as our case, then we have had writing for 2800 years before the novel came along. Now, while the novel will still be around when I am in my dotage, and I suspect yours, it seems to be an extraordinary intellectual chauvinism to think that something that has been around for about 12% of the time we’ve had writing (and stories) is the final, privileged forever, definitive and going to stay just where it is thank you very much, narrative form. There is, in the history of narrative and its associated technologies, nothing that supports this view.

Stories on the other hand are a constant, while their media and technical form (oral, prose, song, dance, painting, essay, letter, film, game, serial, novel, lyric, song, word, voice, image, sound, air, light, magnetic tape, digital 0’s and 1’s, chemical reactions – photos, film ) seems to me to be anything but constant. To think that the book, as the vanguard and privileged narrative form, smacks of the same sort of imperialism that assumed, a century ago, that the world wanted to be white, colonised, industrialised and ‘modernised’. A view that made perfectly good common sense now, but which gets no recognition as legitimate today. Print here is our master, and thinking that this is the end or final form or the highest form of narrative, our privileged form, is to be its servants.

We have electronic literature and poetry, so that is already one way in which the literary happily leaves behind the page, ink, and paper. It is minor in relation to all the other literary production that is going on, it might fizzle out, but we have had literature prior to the book, which shows that literature does not have to equal the book, though when it does, the novel is the privileged form. Hence, in these conversations, when we say book most people mean literature, but even then what they actually mean, is the novel. Will the novel continue as our preeminent literary form? I don’t know, but history to date says it is unlikely. This is not the same as saying it will disappear, just that its place will shift.

What has this to do with network media? Well the digital is the place where this is being tested, as we witness the rise of ebooks and in many cases see ebook sales outstripping physical sales. This shouldn’t be surprising, it happened with music several years ago where vinyl is, as the novel might become, one for an informed elite rather than its mass, popular form. But its deeper relevance for network media is simply as a case study to realise it is not a linear series of causes and effects but something like a network where different elements have agency – mechanics, metallurgy, religion, education, secularisation, capitalism, guilds and craft practices, market trading routes (which is how print and printing spread), and so on. It is, a bit (don’t force it too much) like an ecology where if we look at a forest the forest is the product of complex interactions of all its parts, there is no simple cause and effect but instead systems of feedback that include geography, geology, meteorology, soil, species, animals, plants which all have their own time scales, their own speeds, their own histories. Recognising this density is what we need to be able to do, rather than thinking there is an answer, or a specific way of approaching what it might mean, that will make guaranteed sense of it. A forest doesn’t mean anything, it just is. I can make it mean timber for houses, or a habitat for a rare species, or a beautiful view, or a site for a hotel, or an example of indigenous significance, or a place for families, but none of these help you to understand what a forest is. In relation to network media, what we’re doing this semester is beginning to think what the network is, rather than trying to provide ways to try to work out what it means.

Danish Authority

Ditte describes the Danish Janteloven, which is one of ways in which Denmark (and Sweden and Norway) are very unusual, open, and ‘flat’ societies (income distribution is very even compared to other western democracies, most social services are free – I used to work in Norway and one of my favourite bits was the group of junkies in the park behind the university, you’ve never seen a healthier bunch of junkies, happily chatting and saying good morning as you walked past). Anyway, Ditte contrasts this to social media. Two things. I was introduced to the importance of blogging by Scandanavians, precisely because it fits so well with these social democratic ideals. You can be an expert on a blog because you are an expert, not because someone else made you so, and you do this not by claiming to be an expert (which is what I get to do simply because I am employed by a university) but by contributing, freely, and letting others figure it out.

Important lesson about the emergence of authority (and therefore reputation) online: others grant it to you, you cannot claim it for yourself, no matter who you are. This is one of the most important ways in which it is a reputation network, you earn it through what you do.

Free Speech

While I did a brief outline of media law, something this post from David raises is harassment. The law in most democracies that have harassment (religious, sexual and so on) legislation follows the same model, and it is the opposite of the Facebook slanging match that David describes. The law is quite clear that intent is irrelevant – if someone experiences your comments or behaviour as offensive, or harassing, then they are. In other words, if I use some slang term to describe an ethnic group and someone finds it offensive, I cannot claim that I didn’t mean anything by it, that some of my best friends are ‘x’ and they don’t seem to mind the phrase, and so on. It is offensive as someone has found it so. Here, the rights are firmly on the side of the recipient, and you can see why, since intent (“but I didn’t mean anything by it”) is a licence to not have to acknowledge the rights of others. Remember, this includes harassment. So if I touch your shoulder as your teacher and you find that uncomfortable, whether I intended anything by it or not is irrelevant. The law takes this view as harassment and so on usually involves a power inequity, and so it is those in the inequitable position that need defending.

This means if you post something, and someone finds it offensive, it is. The test is whether a reasonable person would regard it as offensive, and this is a very broad test.

The Shirky Principle

Why does double loop learning matter? Why did we have to read it in a subject I thought was about computers? Double loop learning is about recognising the assumptions we bring to our learning and being able to look at these. Not because they are wrong – they might be ideal – but because these are, in Arygris’ terms – ‘constraining variables’. They provide constraint, and they can change. We always need constraints, but the wrong ones get in the way.

The internet is causing immense disruption to media industries. The ‘constraining variables’ these industries use to address how to evolve to survive in an online, distributed, deeply networked age is why they are struggling. Let’s use journalism and newspapers as an example. Step one: ignore the internet, since we are ‘real’ news, with professionals and so on, not just amateur opinion. Step two: oh, that didn’t work, so we need a big web presence, and maybe even a blog or two (which won’t be a real blog, the best journalism blogs are by journalists blogging outside of newspapers). Step three, still loosing market share and audience, we’ll berate and yell that all that other stuff isn’t really journalism, yes some of it is being written by the same people that, as journalists, we’d interview for the story, but that’s different (followed by self serving list of why it is different, where different = not as good). Step four, redesign web site for mobile and tablet, but still don’t have easy/automatic interconnection between stories, or let readers drill down into more detail and complexity – even leave the site for that sort of content – since, you know, it’s actually about page views for advertisers. Step five, still in decline, revert to old media model of a paying for content because, you know people will. (Except if I have to pay for online news will I subscribe to The Age or, perhaps, The Guardian, or The New York Times? Oh, perhaps you think I’ll go for The Age for local sport, but if I’m an AFL, soccer or cycling nut then in each case the newspaper’s coverage is a small sliver of what I’m actually interested in, and able to get, online, so really, it is only a generalist news service in an age of specialised media. And now of course the once maligned public broadcaster finds themselves in the box seat since their charter is to provide the service for their citizens, as a state funded right, which means once I charge for my content my readers move sideways to the ABC, or even the free news services from the BBC.)

Model I single loop learning all the way along. At no point has ‘what is journalism’ or ‘what is news’ been reconsidered. That remains the constraining variable (how it is produced, by who, and its forms and then mode of presentation). To make this visible to you, imagine news media didn’t exist (this is speculative design), but the internet did. If you were inventing journalism and news media today, from scratch, with mobile media and the internet as it technological beginning (and not the printing press), what would it be, what forms would it take? Answer that well, and you have a future business, and why most traditional media companies are slowly dying.

As internet theorist Clay Shirky rather astutely observed “institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution” (this is the Shirky principle). For journalism, the problem is going away (discussing and presenting what is happening in the world) because we all sort of know what is happening, but rather than respond to that, journalism/the press will simply become more shrill about its own validity as ‘truth’ mistaking that as its purpose and future.


Returning to some of the various things touched in the first unlecture. Speculative writing. This is the fancy term given to things like science fiction, but it includes lots of other things too. What I glossed over are the qualities about speculative writing that I think matter. This isn’t about fandom Trekkie whatever, so if you’re a Trekkie, sorry. Like design fiction, or at least some of the claims made for design fiction, what I like about speculative fiction is the way that it offers writing as a way to think with and through things.

The example I used was China Miéville’s Embassytown. The point I made (lightly) in the unlecture was that you need to move from your own position of knowing towards it for it to work. It is then an invitation, and a demand. It has an imperative. If I don’t suspend my demand (“tell me, NOW, what a voidcraft is”) then the work won’t do its job, which is to describe and propose a possible world where I need to learn its terms. Not the other way round – I am supplicant, not master. This is, I think, a useful model to think about my relationship to knowledge and learning broadly.

The second point, which I didn’t raise, was that speculative fiction is a deeply epistemological way of writing. Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge, so it is about how we know things. In Embassytown, for example, the main location is home to a species that has a very specific and literal method of speaking. So the novel actually becomes a long meditation on semiotics and linguistics, without actually saying so. But that’s just being clever. What I really mean is that on this planet there is something called “biorigging” which means the indigenous species grows its technology. Guns are living things. As are houses. There are farms that produce them. None are described in any great detail, they don’t really need to be. Now, let me be very clear. It is not the science fiction that matters deeply. It is the speculative thought. So, in the novel, without needing to justify it, it takes the terms of technology as biological literally, and just simply thinks with it. So you get a phrase like “He fired and the gun-animal opened its throat and howled.” Or the houses grow, which means they produce an atmosphere (since living things all breathe), but also they might listen since they as living things why wouldn’t they have ears. Later, they watch, because of course if they have ears they could as easily have eyes.

This is also why design fiction is a useful methodology. It establishes terms and then thinks with them. Not about them, which would get bogged down in why (“why can a light sabre cut through anything?” “why can a jedi do mind tricks?” “why is there a force?”) but takes them as givens and then develops ideas and propositions on this basis. It is speculative, imaginative, creative, playful, and serious.