Saturday, February 03, 2007

Primary Sources

Okay hackers and slackers, it's time for another Virtualpolitik book review. Thanks to a series of airport delays, I've had the opportunity to spend the last few days looking over the excellent New Media Reader from MIT Press. In the interest of disclosing possible biases, I'll confess to having known editors Nick Montfort and Noah Wardrip-Fruin since the DAC conference in Copenhagen, but the book is well worth picking up even if you aren't familiar with their work. It's already been praised by Lev Manovich and Janet Murray for good reason, who provide introductions, but it's a notable collection of teachable texts from a number of perspectives.

I often complain that those who study hypertext and virtual worlds tend to apply literary theory to technological phenomena without considering how technological theories could conversely elucidate new media texts. This is a book that collects many of the major accessible texts from computer scientists speaking to broad audiences that should be included in the critical theory canon, given how central information culture has become.

Moreover, it's the best collection of primary sources about gender and informationalism that I've ever seen. For example, it's got the wonderful lead in to the famed human vs. computer Turing test about guessing whether someone is male or female (50). Or Licklider's laugh-out-loud anachronistic assertion that "one can hardly take a military commander or corporation president away from his work to teach him to type" (80).

Furthermore, it's a terrific look at the early pioneers of computerized information science that offers real insight into the Weltanschauung of their emerging discipline, and it contains a number of examples of how they use themselves as experimental subjects that were literally almost Freudian in their appeals.

Of course, these historical accounts include assessments of failures and admissions of limitations that often don't appear in more utopian narratives in the literature of technology. If anything, I would have liked to have seen more of this acknowledgment of programmatic restraints. Perhaps this desire for more narratives and explanatory theories about reaction, anxiety, and blindness regarding technology's role in a society reflects my own research bias, but I do think there is a tragic dimension to many of the initiatives at Xerox PARC that were stymied by certain cultural and even national biases. Readers may remember that my dad was a Xerox Senior Systems Analyst for most of his engineering career, and I grew up watching their personal computer, printer-plotter, and other ahead-of-their-time projects flounder. (Then again, my family has a long history of involvement with innovative but doomed ambitious technical projects, so I may have a more jaded point of view about progress than most people.)

Having taught similar material to undergraduates, I may have a few minor quibbles about the choices they made. Given the usefulness of sound-bites in those situations, I would have picked different pieces by Wiener, Weizenbaum, and Negroponte, but what they've chosen would certainly still work in a classroom. I would have also liked to have seen Heidegger and Bateson in there for foundational theory. And, of course, I think Weaver's introduction to -- and its essential skewing of -- Shannon's Mathematical Theory of Communication is always on my must-read list for potential syllabi.

This may seem petty, but I'm also something of a translation snob, so it bugged me to see such a stilted translation of the poetry of Raymond Queneau that used dated poeticisms like "nought" and "ere" and "O" that weren't in the original, which a wise woman and excellent translator once taught me to avoid. Furthermore, as someone willing to encourage my classes to mutilate books, I was also faintly peeved that one couldn't actually cut apart the poem with the French line and the English translation in front and back position.

Finally, I would have liked to see less work from rarefied arts communities and more of the DIY aesthetic of users actually hacking systems and creating stuff in the practices of their everyday lives. (See my nascent media manifesto on the subject in the weeks ahead.)

Overall, however, The New Media Reader is a well-designed landmark book with a great user interface that includes a timeline and -- amazingly -- a CD-ROM that actually works. Seeing Quicktime films of actual demos from the sixties and having access to actual programs from an earlier era of computing is truly thrilling. My advice to people teaching digital media survey classes would be: buy it; read it; assign it.

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Anonymous nick said...

Thanks for your comments on the NMR, Liz! I'm disappointed to read that production quality has slipped and that the French and English lines don't match up on the would-be strips of paper that you have. It is possible to cut at least one of the books successfully, as I have done it to one of my copies. But I've never met anyone else who attempted it, despite our invitation to readers.

1:15 PM  

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