Web 2.0 (Have You Seen it?)

I will be one of two ‘facilitators’ teaching a short course on Web 2.0 in HUMlab on Friday 24th March between 13.00 and 16:00. Because of this I have been pursuing, researching, testing and tasting anything that might qualify as “Web 2.0” over the last month or so. It has been an interesting experience.
Web 2.0 is not easy to define but rather it has ‘qualities’ that are changing as the technological possibilities change. It could be summarized as the “read write” web where content is no longer as static as it has generally been (although very little on the web since its inception has been static). One thing about Web 2.0 is its ability to manifest strong opinions, from it being a communist plot to it being banned in schools and being a confusing condition developed by “zealots”.
I have been using some of the materials that are often assigned Web 2.0 classification for a while now. flickr is nifty. I love the Freesound project and have made extensive use of it in some sound projects. I am addicted to del.icio.us (I read somewhere recently about the psycho-sexual aspects of collecting, most often practice by pre-pubescent boys and older men as a token of virility…I have almost 3000 links!!!!). But something that has had me hung up for the last few days is Google Video…it is pretty cool. I have found videos featuring HUMlab friends Bruce Damer and Galen Brandt as well as Bonnie Devarco (well Bonnie produced this one). As a measure of what may be representative of the culture behind Web 2.0, I also found 145 videos from the visual extravaganza that is Burning Man Festival.
Other videopod sites can be found here…on my del.icio.us link of course….

Confessions of an Internet Brat…

I have been working with Billy Marius on a blog to bring together Sámi and Pygmy cultures over the last couple of weeks. It has been an exciting journey, working with Billy, and I got to approach design from an angle I had previously never considered. I love playing with blog design (and for those of you who know my personal blog, you have seen that I tend to change my design like I change my socks) and I have to admit, I am spoiled. I am spoiled by big wide screens, fast processors and high speed connections. I am spoiled by instant and constant connectivity and having all the information I need a mouse click away. I am spoiled by collaboration made possible and efficient through skype and email. I am a spoiled Internet brat. So when it was time to design a content rich site for two very different groups of people, one that had superb access to Internet and one that needed a satellite phone to get online- I had to put away my tendencies to make things media rich and bandwidth heavy and think about how I could give the readers the best experience with the lightest download. As much of Billy’s material is media rather than text, we knew that there would have to be a compromise. These incredible images and films had to be made available…but not on the front page.

Beginnings of a blog

Instead we decided to make the entrance to this site a combination of a blog and two static columns from where people can enter into more media rich areas. The two static columns will give brief overviews of the Sámi and Pygmy areas, and the middle column will serve to be a meeting place for the two cultures (in the form of a blog). Billy has created an ambitious project that is coming together in a beautiful mixture of colour and music and words. I can’t wait to see how it evolves!

(the blog is not up and ready yet, but as soon as it is we will announce it here!!)

watching with jaded eyes

Sometimes I wonder if, in my line of business, everyone has chosen to stay within their own glass bubble – refusing to acknowledge the rest of the world.

Why I’m bringing this up is, I am getting weary of people working within CG immediately assuming that everyone else sees things the way they do – and appreciates things for the same reason and from the same point of view. I understand that within reason, we’ll all understand the hard work (or lack thereof) behind a picture or movie better if we actually KNOW what’s involved… but that doesn’t mean we should judge the finished result solely based on that knowledge.

When someone who has worked on a movie watches another movie, they’ll see little details the uninitiated might miss. If they’re a 3D animator, they’re likely to notice any mistakes in the animation – as well as ingenious things that someone else might never notice. When they’re looking at artwork within their own genre, they might stomp on something beautiful because they don’t like the way it is made, or alternatively – applaud something that looks merely mediocre, because it was created in such a complicated, clever manner. Their eyes, it seems, have turned inwards and they’re no longer looking at things the way the rest of the world see them – they’re just seeing their own version.

The same goes for my kind of people – the 2D artists. We’re not so much looking at the finished result as what we consider the interesting bits. A piece of art might be admired and loved not because it is beautiful or because it is genuine, but because of how it was made. Technique over content, I suppose, in a way that makes a lot of the pieces now created – in both 2D and 3D – dull in the eyes of someone who is not initiated.

In my eyes, a painting, a movie or a piece fails to a great degree if someone who doesn’t know the techniques doesn’t find it interesting. Similarly, if you’re in the CG business and you see a movie with special effects – and you spot a few mistakes… this does not make the movie the ‘worst ever made’ (an expression I see increasingly frequently connected with movies I love, simply because there’s some piece of special effects that isn’t up to par) – in fact, as far as the movie itself is concerned, I don’t think the special effects affect the content much at all. They do not make or break a movie. The technique does not forgive an awful plotline and it doesn’t ruin a wonderful story.

I’ll take a random quote here from someone in a discussion about Disney’s The Wild:

“Disney took the soul out of animation, turned it into a money machine, and people hated them for it.”

Now. This is how many CGartists feel. Please tell me – who else feels that Disney has taken the soul out of animation? Me, I thought they pretty much put animation on the map. That they’ve created a LOT of wonderful children’s movies and that while they do release some flawed movies, that’s the case of any movie company. Yes, Disney is huge and slow the way any gigantic corporation is, but has Disney taken the soul out of animation?

No.

I was similarly shocked after having seen King Kong – and read some CGartists reviews that stated that the compositioning in King Kong was the worst they’d ever seen?

Say what? Think what you want about the movie itself, but how can the work on King Kong possibly be worse than, say, Xena the Warrior Princess?

Anyway, I am digressing. What I’d like to see is people watching the actual finished result with fresh eyes, rather than condemning with their bitter business gaze. A painting is beautiful because it’s beautiful, not because someone has used only a mouse when completing it or did it all in MS Paint. The digital effects in a movie might not be as amazing as, say, what WETA did for Lord of the Rings – but that doesn’t mean that the movie itself is horrible. I understand that it’s fun to focus on the technique since digital art is such a technical medium, but enough is enough. I’m going to try to leave my bitter eyes behind the next time I watch a movie. I’ll try to see it for what it is. I’ll attempt to look at paintings, from now on, not as results of techniques but as finished, possibly wonderful things.

I suggest that others in my line of work try the same thing. Maybe we’ll discover new and wonderful things – or at least rediscover a sense of wonder that we’ve lost along the way.

The Readings of Hayles

This week I had the fortune to attend an informal seminar on My Mother was a Computer by N. Katherine Hayles hosted by the Institutionen för litteraturvetenskap och nordiska språk here at Umeå University. The first thing that made an impression on me was moving outside of the digital enclave (so to speak) into a more literature based approach to the subject. So often I speak and listen to ‘the converted’ when it comes to the relevance and importance of the digital text and technology. To hear other, very articulate opinions was stimulating and I think helped lessen the ‘awe’ factor I am certain I have in the case of a figure such as Katherine Hayles. This leads into the next unexpected return from the seminar.
How many ways are there to read a text? Even the reading of a text dealing with texts results in a broad set of diverse readings. This was the case in the Hayles Seminar, although there were several points of overlap. We dealt with only the first two chapters of My Mother was a Computer, “Intermediation: Textuality and the Regime of Computation” and “Speech, Writing, Code: Three Worldviews”. These sections provoked much discussion around philosophy, technology and language. The literal reading of metaphors of the “uploading of consciousness” and the “universal computer” themes of the text was another point of debate. World views as derived by inscription technologies (writing, code) was also a contentious area.
Overall it was very enjoyable session. I was surprised the two hours went by so quickly. Common points that seemed to come out the seminar were the complexity and relevance of the subject area, the effects that digital media are having on humanities discourses, and need for further work in the area. I hope to attend further seminars of this style in the future.

Seminar and social infrastructures

In today’s HUMlab seminar Brian Hudson talked about a project he has been working with where they have developed a Masters program in e-learning, multimedia and consultancy. The program uses a blended pedagogical approach with online learning, local studies and independent studies – something which seems appropriate for the content of the masters. What I found especially interesting was Brian’s discussion of the importance of designing for a development of the social infrastructure in online and blended courses. Building on the work of Bielaczyc (2001), he referred to how the social infrastructure operates on three levels: the cultural level, the activity level and the tool level. Brian reported on how students in his course claimed they felt a sense of belonging, of success and of being in an atmosphere which was advantageous for their learning. When asked about what factors might influence these sensations, Brian suggested that task design, group size and dynamics, the role of the assessment and peer feedback, student expectations and trust for the tutor are important aspects. The importance of designing activities where students work towards a common goal is something we have noticed also here in HUMlab, not least with our Virtual Weddings project, where students work in groups and use technology to represent findings collaboratively in innovative ways.

We’re excited in the lab that Brian is in Umeå. His thoughts on the new opportunities for learning that are afforded by technology and on how communication technologies can help in the learning process relate to some of the work that we do (not least to my PhD research, so I certainly belong to the excited crowd!). In addition, I think that having this kind of expertise at our university is invaluable considering the developments needed in adapting to the Bologna model.

Look out for a forthcoming article in the British Journal of Educational Technology entitled “Working on educational research methods with Masters students in an international online learning community” where you will be able to read more about Brian and his colleagues’ research. For the time being, you can have a look at this article from August 2005.

Hoder at HUMlab

Hoderwithtext copy.jpg

Well known Iranian blogger (based in Toronto) Hossein Derakhshan (aka Hoder) will be giving a seminar in HUMlab tomorrow at 15:15 (CET). The seminar will be on political blogging in Iran today and its implications. The seminar will be live steamed HERE (stream opens at 15:00). All are welcome for what promises to be an insight into a topical and timely subject.

Note: The archived version of the seminar is available from here.

Designing the Story

Yesterday I spent an interesting two hours at a seminar given by Daniel Fällman on the Design Research Group at the Umeå Institute of Design. It may seem somewhat unusual that myself, someone researching electronic literature is interested in design but for me it is becoming more and more obvious as I progress.
Fällman’s seminar was an outline of the activities of the Umeå Institute of Design and the Design Research Group. The core of which is 11 people involved in design production, teaching and research. Several of the group’s projects were discussed in the seminar and HCI was central to many of them. The model of design implementation for the group differs somewhat from the traditional user centred approach which has been so popular. Instead the model does not only proceed from a problem or a need but it could be a theory, an observation or an aesthetic concern. Fällman drew a diagram of a triangle with The Possible at the apex and The Real and The True at the two base points. Within the triangle was Explorative Design (The Possible), Design Practice (reflecting ‘The Real’) and Design Studies (reflecting ‘The True’). Between each of these points there are cycles of movement and overlap depending on relevant influences and concerns.
By studying design in relation to electronic literature I try to find ways of connecting the physical properties of the works I study with the communicative and narrative outcomes they provoke. The design of a digital artefact determines how the communication it embodies will be realised. Behind this design is a complex series of relationships between what could be termed The Possible, The Real and The True (these are difficult to define in themselves of course but they can be read as criteria for choices made in the authoring and consuming processes). When I move through a work of electronic fiction I am also acknowledging or rejecting criteria of possibility, reality and truth. One clear indicator of such is genre, such as how designing to genre in a computer game delivers to the player a base reality from which any story generated in play can be grounded. As well genre gives a way of positioning the work in the judgement of the public, in a way predicting their taste.