The Computer Technician as Author

Tomorrow I will be giving a talk as a guest lecturer with the Computer Science Department here at Umeå University. I have uploaded a PDF of my lecture notes and here is a summary of the content:

The Computer Technician as Author

Constructing something that tells a story is very much at home in computer science. But what should one consider when one (tries to) communicate/s using new media? Working from the concepts of: Literacy Narrative Reading Rhetoric Art I will introduce some of the parameters of the computer technician as author.

Suggested Readings:

by Henry Jenkins


Materiality is the Message
Review of: N. Katherine Hayles, Writing Machines. Mediawork Pamphlet.
Cambridge: MIT P, 2002.

Vanity Searches and Paranoia

Have you ever done a vanity search?

Type your name into Google and hit enter. That’s a vanity search. You’re now looking into not only how many people might have mentioned you on your sites, but also what they might have said, where they said it, and if they actually said it about you and not someone else by the same name. The expression ‘vanity search’ gives away what this is all about… though I admit that when I do it, it is both intriguing and terrifying.

And, of course, quite silly.

After all, someone might have said something quite rude about you, wherever. Someone might actually pretend to be you, somewhere, using your name and faking your personality. There’s all kinds of weird connected to the vanity search, once you get your name out there.

Some time ago, I did a vanity search for the first time in a long while. I remember being absolutely shocked because I had no less than 33,000 hits on my name Linda Bergkvist and almost as many on Enayla. I was deeply unsettled by this realisation and spent a few hours looking through what kind of stuff people had posted about me. In many cases (most) there were just brief mentions here and there but in places there were things like little essays or even fan clubs and this one forum where they were posting photos of me along with the pictures, trying to figure me out. I was so disturbed, in fact, that it wasn’t until this week (maybe six months later) that I did a new vanity search.

I don’t know how it happened, but I now had more than four times as many hits to my name. I won’t try to describe my expression with words, but it looked something like this:


Imagine my surprise. Imagine me poking through some pages of this and wondering why on earth these people are talking about me. It’s just weird. Here I’m sitting, holding a cup of hot chocolate – feet on the desk – cat on my legs, awkward and tired-eyed, looking like I’ve not slept for days… and there are these people out there who seem to think I’m some kind of celebrity – perhaps a tiny celebrity, but even so. It’s so messed up.

The vanity search has made me a little paranoid. I’d like to refer to it as a Paranoia Search, thankyouverymuch. If I post a ridiculous photo of myself in my pyjamas – will it turn up on some weird site a year from now the way the greedy one where I was eating chocolate did? I mean, I can’t help but laugh at it all… anyone who knows me knows I’m everything but… well, y’know, the kind of person people should be interested in writing about… and at the same time – yeah, I am feeling the paranoia coming on.

On a more amusing note, vanity searches are a very guilty pleasure. I’d hate to be caught doing it – it’s like sitting and staring at your own reflection in a mirror, vain and ridiculous (perhaps trying to figure your wrinkles out), when someone walks in on you.

So… do a vanity search… but be prepared for the worst. Any face is all wrinkles, freckles and ick if you look at it close enough. Hee, hee, hee.

Willard McCarty in HUMlab

Call me!

Thursday and Friday this week we will have Willard McCarty visit the lab. Willard has been involved in humanities computing for a long time and many of us know him as the founding editor of Humanist – an interational electronic seminar (e-mail list). He recently published the book Humanities Computing (sample chapter available from the website). A month or so ago it was announced that Willard McCarty is the recipient of the 2006 Lyman Award. This is certainly a very appropriate time for him to visit us!

On Thursday there will be an open seminar (also live streamed and archived) in the lab.

[April 27, 1.15 pm CET]
Humanities Computing: The Plural Community of Method
Willard McCarty, Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King’s College

We are probably going to offer both chat and Skype interaction for people taking part in the seminar from remote locations. We will post those links (as well as the live stream link here) on Thursday.

We are very happy to have Willard visit and personally I am not least looking forward to interesting discussions about the state of humanities computing, education in this area and, in general, the interesection of the Humanities and information technology.


Live stream (Realmedia format)
Chat server
Skype (to be posted – or search “HUMlab” in Skype)

games teaching and learning

I was talking to a friend today about computer games and teaching. He had recently had the experience of trying to teach Swedish teenagers English at a technical senior high school. He said that online games were a major concern for 95% of the students. They did not read books and they only wrote with a pen when they had to (no spell check function…What is the good of it??).

Then I come home, check my mail and surf the blogs. A daily (plus) read for me is Grand Text Auto. Today Noah is blogging from Massive. His report can be read as a list of reasons and opportunities for games and game-like-spaces in education. It does not even have to be a purely virtual space (if there is such a thing), rather the world we inhabit is fast becoming a grid of information and space of malleable narratives. That is what I was talking to my friend about earlier; why can’t games be used in the classroom? One reason I thought of was because the teacher, as they are now defined, would become irrelevant. Power would shift from a single centripetal point to a network of centrifugal nodes spread about the classroom and out into cyberspace. How would one ‘run’ a classroom like that? Well, it wouldn’t be a classroom; it would be a laboratory or a studio.

Back to UCI’s Massive; it looks great! From Noah’s notes it is clear that change is filtering through “the industry”. Such points as “games as theory that inform and shape human interaction rituals” plus “sitting together in physical space while a subset of the group are controlling in-game characters” could combine to make for many new and interesting ways to use the medium. We need to listen to those using games and watching how they do what. But change has to come from within as well. The images and repetitive activities of many present-day games have little chance of yielding self-reflexivity or poignant knowledge for learners to work with. However, the forms and spaces that make them up are ripe for refurbishing, repurposing and generally hacking. In doing so the self-reflexivity of good critical thinking emerges. Exciting times ahead I think.

super computers

Tomorrow I will visit the San Diego Supercomputer Center and I hope to learn more about grid computing, high performance computing and visualization. SDSC is world-leading center in this field and they have a strong interest in using these kinds of resources in the Humanities and Social Sciences. My experience from talking to people at my own university’s High Performance Computing Center North (HPC2N) is that there *is* a great deal of common interest here. It is all about cyberinfrastructure here in the US and HUMlab hopes to connect to local and national resources as well as international ones. We are increasingly seeing projects in the lab with very large and complex data sets and we are really interested in exploring possibilities (sharing data, new methods for exploring, analyzing and visualizing complex materials etc.) I am presently at UC Irvine and I have been fortunate enough to discuss things like these with the great people at UCHRI. Read about their grid initiative here. Also, later this week I will participate in HASTAC activities. There is a great deal going on in our field and I will report more later.

Close Encounters in Close Reading

As a PhD candidate life can at times be stressful. Other times you have to do a double check just to be sure that this IS REALLY WHAT I DO WHEN I GO TO WORK. For the last week I have been reading/playing/listening/watching the texts I am using as a corpus for my thesis. I am developing my own method of ‘close reading’ digital media and in these sessions I have been reading for genre. Sometimes it feels like I play for a living.
Some of these seven texts I thought I was familiar with after almost three years of contact with. Others I believed I did not know so well. After close reading three of them now from “start” to “finish” (if there is such a thing) I have been surprised numerous times.
This morning I completed a round in M D Coverley’s Egypt: the Book of Going Forth by Day. It is the first time I have read it as a narrative without focusing on the mechanics of the text, but rather watching the tale build and spill and build again. Genres abound in the multimedia narrative with audio and visual contexts woven into the reading paths.
Today I started reading (once again) Twelve Blue by Michael Joyce. This piece has a style that maintains its narrative power and beauty still in its tenth year of existence (a classic perhaps). I intend to use it as a base for much of my discussions over the next three years of thesis construction. Twelve Blue hides it genres a little more deeply than Coverley’s Egypt but they nonetheless shine through, framing up the sprawling 69 links 96 lexia opus (clever that with the numbers).
The other world I have been living in this past week is Alleph by Sakab Bashir. This is a text of great complexity but relatively few written words. It spans almost (but not quite) an equal amount of historical time in its representations and genres as does Egypt. Alleph includes narrative elements from Sufi poetry, Rastafarian dub verse, Surrealism, 200 years of European painting, classical music and opera as an intermedial text.
I could write more but that is what my thesis is for. I will be presenting this chapter on May 31 in an Institution for Modern Languages English Literature Seminar. All are welcome.

Michael Valeur’s Seminar and Authorship

I must begin this entry with an apology. My Danish is not the best and so I sincerely apologize in advance if I misunderstood or misinterpreted Michael Valeur’s recent seminar. His presentation on moving from poetry to computer games demonstrated both the ease and complexity of being a creative producer in different forms of media. The title of the seminar itself was a bit of a misnomer as Valeur has been active as a punk musician, prose writer, poet and most recently as a co-creator of an interactive museum installation. Critical theories demonstrate relationships between many of these performative fields and from a postmodern perspective this concept of media convergence (to borrow and slightly bastardize Henry Jenkins’ term) is particularly relevant. This seminar was unique, however, in that the emphasis here was not so much on the similarities between media as it was on the artist himself as the fulcrum for production. As the seminar was partly geared toward Umeå University’s own scriptwriting program, this concern for how an artist is able to transfer his/her craft to different media was particularly interesting. All writing is collaborative, of course, but there are distinct differences between the author’s degree of control when writing a novel or a poem in comparison to writing a computer game, film script or piece of interactive theatre. Consequently, questions about how Valeur felt about working with different technical teams and about what it was like to consider his stories from a more visual perspective became prominent.

From an academic point of view, this aspect of collaboration has an effect on how I think about the works I examine. If I analyze a computer game then the concept of an individual author is relatively rare; games are usually produced by a whole team of individuals. If I then also consider game-play as means for the player to collaboratively author the game, as many theorists have argued, I have an even broader definition of authorship to examine. Undoubtedly this affects the work in question in many ways. Authorial intention, sophistication of purpose and artistry may reasonably be considered to be less unified. This is not because a group of people can’t work together but because even a highly focused group’s thoughts must be transferred via the reductive filter of language. On the other hand, normalizing factors in society might reasonably be assumed to be more readily present in games which are co-authored by a large team of individuals, especially if the team is relatively homogeneous. Specific considerations with respect to gender, age and other social factors come into play. A clear example of this is the ridiculous objectification of women’s breasts (and yes, I do mean just that part of the body) in many FPS games. Such a situation is likely to be produced by a co-authoring team favoring perceived masculine gender norms in a patriarchal society. It is also produced when the team of authors attempts to anticipate the preferences of an intended player/consumer/co-author. Not surprisingly, many players reject certain games because they do not find impossible-to-ignore-breasts appealing, rather the opposite, and they do not want to participate as the intended players of that game. Thus, an interesting dynamic appears in the creative production of some computer games: the author seems to be less defined while the player seems to be almost too defined to allow for truly collaborative game-play. Many literary theories suggest that the author is entirely unimportant with regard to the eternal existence of the work itself. It is worthwhile, though, to question how technology might be contributing to the death of the concept of “author” in a less philosophical and more mechanically determined sense.