Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Textual Internet

The title of this lecture requires some explanation (as does 'Dream' by M. C. Escher - by here is not the place, its just an interesting image).

In a functional, mechanistic material sense the Internet is:
"A global system of interconnected computer networks that use the standard Internet protocol suite (TCP/IP) to serve billions of users worldwide. It is a network of networks that consists of millions of private, public, academic, business, and government networks, of local to global scope, that are linked by a broad array of electronic, wireless and optical networking technologies. The Internet carries an extensive range of information resources and services, such as the inter-linked hypertext documents of the World Wide Web (WWW) and the infrastructure to support email" - Wikipedia
The Internet is all these things, however it is more. The Internet is made up of many millions of meanings. We who use the Internet interpret it, compose it, define it, agree and disagree, and even feel transported by it. In this lecture I will first define what I mean by textual in relation to the Internet. I will then provide some examples of how meaning in the textual construction of the Internet operates. Finally I will discuss some methods of analyzing specific examples of content on the Internet. From this analysis I will provide some suggestions for authoring with the Internet.

Some Key Terms
Materiality: "the interplay between a text’s physical characteristics and its signifying strategies. This definition opens the possibility of considering texts as embodied entities while still maintaining a central focus on interpretation. In this view of materiality, it is not merely an inert collection of physical properties but a dynamic quality that emerges from the interplay between the text as a physical artifact, its conceptual content, and the interpretive activities of readers and writers." Katherine Hayles, Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis, 72.

So what are some of the material characteristics of the Internet that result in signifying strategies?
  • procedural (composed of executable rules)
  • participatory (inviting human action and manipulation of the represented world)
  • encyclopedic (containing very high capacity of information in multiple media formats)
  • spatial (navigable as an information repository and/or a virtual place)
These four characteristics are common to all digital environments according to Janet H Murray (Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace 72-90). I think there is a lot of weight in the logic of the procedural, participatory, encyclopedic and spatial as defining the medium. I would also add the simultaneous, in that is shared at the same time as a non-rivalrous resource.

Textual: The textual as we understand it today is the product of a rather long and complex series of conceptual associations that are produced by cultural, historical, social, political and even economic changes. The 20th century is largely responsible for what we have at the moment as the focus for representation and how meaning is attributed to the symbolic.
text (n.) Look up text at
late 14c., "wording of anything written," from O.Fr. texte, O.N.Fr. tixte (12c.), from M.L. textus "the Scriptures, text, treatise," in L.L. "written account, content, characters used in a document," from L. textus "style or texture of a work," lit. "thing woven," from pp. stem of texere "to weave," from PIE base *tek- "make" (see texture).
An ancient metaphor: thought is a thread, and the raconteur is a spinner of yarns -- but the true storyteller, the poet, is a weaver. The scribes made this old and audible abstraction into a new and visible fact. After long practice, their work took on such an even, flexible texture that they called the written page a textus, which means cloth. [Robert Bringhurst, "The Elements of Typographic Style"]

"This year", said Tristouse, "fashions are bizarre and common, simple and full of fantasy. Any material from nature's domain can now be introduced into the composition of women's clothing. I saw a charming dress made of corks. It was certainly equal to the charming wash cloth evening dresses which are the rage of premiers. A big designer is thinking about launching tailor made outfits made of old book bindings done in calf. It's charming. All the ladies of letters would want to wear them, and one could approach them and whisper in their ear under the pretext of reading the titles. Fish bones are being worn a lot on hats.
One often sees delicious young girls dressed like pilgrims of Saint James of Compostela; their outfits, as are fitting , are studded with coquilles Saint-Jacques. Steel, wool sandstone and the files have all made an abrupt entry into the vestmentary arts. These materials are used in belts, on hat pins, etc, and it so happened that I saw an adorable reticule composed entirely of glass eyes, the kind you see at an occultists. Feathers now decorate not only hats, but shoes, gloves, and next year they'll be on umbrellas.
They're doing shoes in Venetian glass and hats in Baccarat crystal. Not to mention oil painted dresses, brightly colored wools, or dresses curiously splashed with ink. For spring wear, they'll be many clothes made of bladders, pleasant shapes, light and distinctive. Our lady fliers will wear nothing else. For the races, there will be the child's balloon hat, made of around twenty balloons, a very luxurious effect and sometimes some diverting detonations. The mussel shell is work only on high top shoes.
Notice that they're beginning to dress in live animals. I encountered one lady whose hat had twenty birds, canaries, gold fiches, robins, held with a wore on claw, singing wildly and flapping their wings. The coiffure of an ambassador dress was, at the past party in Neuilly, composed of thirty snakes. "For whom are those serpents who hiss on your head?" said a little Romanian attache with the Dacian accent, who has the reputation of being successful with women.
I forgot to tell you that last Wednesday I saw on the boulevards an old dowager dressed in mirrors stuck to fabric. The effect was sumptuous in sunlight. You'd have thought it was a goldmine out for a walk. Later it started raining and the lady looked like a silver mine. Nut shells make pretty trimmings, especially if they're mixed with hazelnuts. Dresses embellished with coffee beans, cloves, cloves of garlic, onions, and bunches of raisins,these will be perfect for social calls. Fashion is becoming practical and it no longer looks down on anything. It ennobles everything. It does for materials what the Romantics did for words"-

The sentence "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose." was written by Gertrude Stein as part of the 1913 poem Sacred Emily, which appeared in the 1922 book Geography and Plays. In that poem, the first "Rose" is the name of a person. Stein later used variations on the sentence in other writings, and "A rose is a rose is a rose" is probably her most famous quotation, often interpreted as meaning "things are what they are," a statement of the law of identity, "A is A". In Stein's view, the sentence expresses the fact that simply using the name of a thing already invokes the imagery and emotions associated with it, an idea also intensively discussed in the problem of universals debate where Peter Abelard and others used the rose as an example concept. As the quotation diffused through her own writing, and the culture at large, Stein once remarked "Now listen! I’m no fool. I know that in daily life we don't go around saying 'is a ... is a ... is a ...' Yes, I’m no fool; but I think that in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years." (Four in America)

Stein herself said to an audience at Oxford University that the statement referred to the fact that when the Romantics used the word "rose" it had a direct relationship to an actual rose. For later periods in literature this would no longer be true. The eras following romanticism, notably the modern era, use the word rose to refer to the actual rose, yet they also imply, through the use of the word, the archetypical elements of the romantic era. It also follows the rhetoric law of thricefold repetition to emphasize a point, as can be seen in speeches dating back to the sophists.

William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963) is famously known for coining the term: “No ideas but in things.” This one line from the 1927 version of his poem, Paterson, became a mantra for poetry in the early 20th century. Its expression is still strongly influential today. It changed the look and feel of poetry, possibly more than any other single idea in the past hundred years. It was not original, however, as this essay hopes to show. His statement was a summary of the poetry trends at that time.

The historical context will show that Williams meant for poetry to focus on objects rather than mere concepts, on actual things rather than abstract characteristics of things. The mention of any object creates a visualized idea in our minds—we form an image of the thing. This does not happen at the mention of abstractions, like “truth”, or “memory”. Abstract words do not create images in the mind. Only “things” create visual images. Things can be tangible, such as a wheel barrow. Or things can be a behavior, such as a sidelong glance. The image of a thing creates an idea of what the thing means in the context it is used. Hence there are “no ideas but in things” according to Williams.

Close Reading:
Close reading describes, in literary criticism, the careful, sustained interpretation of a brief passage of text. Such a reading places great emphasis on the particular over the general, paying close attention to individual words, syntax, and the order in which sentences and ideas unfold as they are read. The technique as practiced today was pioneered (at least in English) by I.A. Richards and his student William Empson, later developed further by the New Critics of the mid-twentieth century. It is now a fundamental method of modern criticism. Close reading is sometimes called explication de texte, which is the name for the similar tradition of textual interpretation in French literary study, a technique whose chief proponent was Gustave Lanson.

In his book "Is There A Meaning in This Text?" (1998) Kevin Vanhoozer explains Jacques Derrida's dictum that "there is nothing outside the text" by saying that everything is part of a signifying system or classification system that is constituted by differences. He offers this illuminating illustration: "a Ford has its particular connotations because it is part of a signifying system that includes Yugos, Peugots, and Jaguars. The 'meaning' of a Ford Escort is constituted by its differences from other cars (including other fords). An Escort is a text in the context of other automobiles. There is no such thing as an 'absolute Ford,' whose meaning could be considered in a cultural vacuum. Rather, the particular value that we have come to associate with Fords depends as much on how cars are marketed as how cars are manufactured, and on how 'Ford' is placed in the signifying system that includes 'Jaguar,' 'Volkswagon,' 'Chevrolet,' and 'Toyota.'" The point is that there is NO grasp of "Ford" by stepping outside the system of classification, no "absolute Ford" that transcends the classification system, nor even an "absolute automobile" that is outside the "text" of different makes and models.

The union of navigation, manipulation and interpretation for the Internet can be accomplished within a reading that is performative. Such a reading is broader than that associated only with the alphabetical and goes beyond the concept of close reading due to the variables and interoperability of the diverse media forms in the work. Performance in reading is related to what Fernández-Vara describes as the interactive applications of the digital, which “may run but are not functional until there is input from the interactor, since someone has to complete the process of making meaning. […] The interactor is thus an active performer along with the computer” (5). The interactor must firstly recognize the various elements of the digital text mediated by the computer before inputs are of concern. Reading the digital works is “ to create meaning cognitively in the encounter with the text” (Dovey and Kennedy 102). Cognitive encounters with the text include the tactile and visual ranges that digital works are capable of manifesting, as well as the technological capabilities, design and the legal frameworks that define them. The act of reading multimedia works demands human manipulation, which results in the performance of discourse by readers. 

The nature of a performance text is as simple as it seems, it is finding an appropriate venue for the sharing of the text that is the challenge.  Anything written and extant falls under the umbrella of "performance text."  Thanks in a great deal to Dada and surrealist artists, many of the standards a text was held to in order for it to be considered a "performance text" have been shattered.  Today’s theater has no way of policing or authorizing what qualifies as a performance text.   The concept of formalizing some expression as "Performance Text" would be useless because even a piece everyone may agree upon as a model is, by its nature as a performance piece, an extremely protean entity.  No performance of any piece will ever be repeated and every production will be necessarily unique.  The words written in a text cannot be interpreted the same way twice and once the play lives for an audience it cannot be compared to the carcass of a text it came from.  There is a certain inherent anarchy to any performance, with no way of calculating the final results accurately beforehand despite the exactness a piece may be written with.  The script, or roadmap for maneuvering through the journey, must be as flexible and open a medium as possible in order to allow writers to explore and incorporate such extreme possibilities for expression. --Sam Gromoll

Reading the Internet
The Internet is huge, so reading the Internet is not something a person can do. However it is possible to read parts of it. I would like to give as an example my analysis of Facebook from 2007:
"Facebook is a horizontally arranged network based on association rather than interest (unlike Myspace). One builds connections with others in the viral sense; email is used to bring contacts into the system. By allowing Facebook access to email account (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo and AOL) mass mail-outs can be one way of building up you friends list and of course bringing contributing to the Facebook database. The other way of finding contacts is through work, school and college. I myself went to a tiny high school in a small town in rural Australia (Oakey State High) so it is not on the list of schools (you can only choose, not type in). But the town I went to university in is well represented. Interestingly the private schools (as in non-government) seem to be much more represented in the lists of high schools. In Brisbane, the capital of my home state there are 13 High schools listed and only 3 of them are government schools that did not charge fees. I wonder if this reflects the overall demographic of Facebook or the use of digital social software in Queensland, Australia. There is also college and company searches but when you type in the title Facebook will not prompt the line for you as there are no prior entries in the database of the term.
Setting up a profile on Facebook is not too different from other social platforms. There is lots of plug-ins that can be loaded into a page; video, books I’ve read, photos, movies and the list is growing daily. There are issues of readability relevant in regards to a Facebook site. I myself believe minimalism works on the web, this is a design question but I try to keep my site fairly sharp and to the point. I decline lots of offers from friends for zombie clubs, vampire attacks and poking or biting my colleagues. I have decided it is an identity thing I have going on Facebook and not a game. I am also fully aware of what I disclose on Facebook as it is a public space, even if it does have something of a gated community feel to it. I don’t think the gated (restricted access, password protected etc.) is that substantial."
 The in 2011 I did one last reading of Facebook before closing my account:
"When I signed on to Facebook in 2007 it was defined as "a social utility that connects people with friends and others who work, study and live around them." Now, with the implementation of Timeline, Facebook is defined by its founder as “[A]ll your stories, all your apps, a new way to express who you are.” Anyone familiar with the architecture of Facebook knows that it is far from simply 'expressing who you are' on the platform. Who I am on FB is formed by Facebook itself. If I contribute 'all my stories, all my apps and express myself' on FB, I see myself as losing those contributions to the vast database of the program. Plus with Timeline I am now part of an information flow in real time, the nature and perimeters of which I do not control. Suddenly friends-of-friends are within my feed and I am, I presume, within theirs. There is little time or space available for my own self-expression in FB now, because if I even just throw a pebble in the pool, it returns to me as a Tsunami of unknown origins. The entire equation of FB has changed. the analogy used by the Napperville Sun is today ancient history:
"To users, Facebook will no longer be a bench by the side of a river where they sit and watch an endless flow of ephemera float by and then disappear."
I prefer the village square or Agora analogy myself, where I once could go to share with a group of people whom I actually knew, and we could talk, share links and catch up. The circle I once had on Facebook seems to be possible today with Google+, or at least that is what I am hoping.

Added to the expanse of contacts and information I am exposed to on the 'new Facebook' is the somewhat sinister promise of the Timeline interface, which is described by
one commentator as,
"Your Facebook presence is now intended to be durable. In 2029, when your firstborn son’s holographic avatar is going off to lunar robot fighting school, you can rewind your Timeline to 2011 and show him what you were up to in the week before he was born."
as well
"Facebook's updated Open Graph will make the social network far more "sticky." Zuckerberg said users will have the ability--thanks to Timeline and a new addition, Ticker--to see what a friend is doing, like watching a movie on Netflix or listening to a song on Spotify, and engage in that same activity from within the social network. The Facebook CEO said he believes the improvements will help create "a completely new class of social apps" that will let users share every single facet of their lives on the social network." - (Cnet) Facebook Changes Creeping Out Some Customers
To me this sounds like a total nightmare scenario.The week before my son was born was and are my memories, my images and mine to explain to him should I choose to do so. Facebook or any other web platform (that I do not control) has no place in the representation or explanation of that period in my life. Futuristic fantasies do not convince me otherwise. Added to this is the intrusion of Facebook cookies;

"Even if you are logged out, Facebook still knows and can track every page you visit
. The only solution is to delete every Facebook cookie in your browser, or to use a separate browser for Facebook interactions." - Logging out of Facebook is Not Enough"
In both of these readings the design and materials of the text are as meaningful as the words, pictures, and audio. It is precisely this balance between the materials, the design and the ways the text speaks to you, the reader, viewer or listener that creates meaning.

The reading of Facebook give you some idea of how an interactive digital machine operating in real time can be interpreted for meanings. However, there are many texts within the structure of the Internet that defy close reading. Consider Twitter, how can one read a vast network of 140 character entries running in real time from millions of people? One suggested method is distant reading:

"Distant reading: where distance, let me repeat it, is a condition of knowledge: it allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes—or genres and systems. And if, between the very small and the very large, the text itself disappears, well, it is one of those cases when one can justifiably say, Less is more. If we want to understand the system in its entirety, we must accept losing something. We always pay a price for theoretical knowledge: reality is infinitely rich; concepts are abstract, are poor. But it’s precisely this ‘poverty’ that makes it possible to handle them, and therefore to know. This is why less is actually more." - Franco Moretti - Conjectures on World Literature
Distant reading is a quantitative method where the relationships within a text and between texts are measured according to the symbolic. Distant reading pays attention to the materials of the text, along with its design and the ways it addresses an audience. It does however have problems capturing something of the performative as indicated in the text.

So you are thinking about writing for the web 
1. Think about procedurality, encyclopedia, space and participation
2. Think about the simultaneity of the web, the sharing and the meetings 
3. Think about the performance of the text in the hands of your audience
4. Think about the rules and how they make people do things 
5. Think about the shortcuts, the ways it can be broken, the hacks and the glitches.


abhishek shankar said...
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Adstuck is Augmented Reality in Motion said...
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