Friday, October 16, 2009

Drinking from the Firehose: Nowcasting I

At the Nowcasting conference gets underway, I find myself reminded of how Jeremy Douglass talked about how one of Lev Manovich's students was working with data streaming in from He compared this opportunity for real-time analysis to "drinking from the firehose." There was a lot of drinking from the firehose in the day's presentation.

Conference organizer Peter Lunenfeld introduced the conference with an epigraph from Rivka Galchen who despairs of the possibility of discovering "the state of things as they presently are, let alone to predict the future," because it poses a "problem so computationally complex that to solve it even approximately would require a thousand crays working in tandem?" Galchen recommends that we "forget about forecasting; even nowcasting is near impossible." As Lunenfeld points out, "Nowcasting" has become a subeject of interest for the collaborative art group TEH as well.

Lunenfeld also showed Bruce Mau's famous napkin sketch, reproduced above, to explain how design have become an ├╝ber-category for discourse in the digital humanities. As he presents the digital humanities, it is also a long list of modifiers that include "collaborative," "networked," "interactive," "rhizomatic," "locative," "productive," "active," "intertextual," "hybridizing," and "generative." Furloughs at UCLA notwithstanding, he asserted that it was a "great moment to be a humanist," since "not everything is the digital humanities. But the digital humanities are about everything." He also foregrounded the idea of the "designed humanities," which will also be a theme in the upcoming HASTAC@DAC panel, to encourage participants to think about "what ways can our thinking about everything from the hierarchies of reading to the affordances of interaction" could be understood in the context of the prior century of design to grasp how it might "inform the next century."

Next up was Anne Burdick, who introduced herself by noting that some of her interests in the intersections between electronic literature, corpus linguistics, and media theory and associated practices of "marginalia and remix" had already been previewed at the Media in Transition Conference. She noted that her "mix of analog and digital" in her body of work indicates a form of research, so that her role as a designer was not as service provider but as a colleague doing research in her own field with an aim "not to generate a commercially successful product but to engage in questions" regarding the unique materiality of different media types.

Burdick has worked closely with Lunenfeld in the MIT Press Mediawork series, where she worked on the design for N. Katherine Hayles' Writing Machines in which the "severed body part" of the "technotext" allows for the "interweaving of Kate the Critic and original source material" by fostering a visual rhetoric of "cutting and pasting" and lexicon mapping. The webtake on the Hayles' text was done by Erik Loyer, which whom I worked closely in this summer's NEH-Vectors seminar on "Broadening the Digital Humanities." Burdick had presented to the Vectors group, which also included Hayles, as did Johanna Drucker who was later in the day's program.

She also showed materials from The New Ecology of Things, which rethinks the "essayistic home of the book" and previews the coming era of "vooks" with video/print interfaces, even if the text might be dated by the fact that the M-codes imbedded in the book for pervasive computing purposes no longer function.

Burdick also inspired me to add the Fackel Gate, which is not built through proprietary software and grappled with the design challenge of having "to work in a single browser window" and "replicate information from books on a shelf." Fackel's text also needs a "dictionary of perjorative terms" in order to understand the function of his language by reading his criticism through entries such as "artist" and "historian."

In closing, Burdick suggested a number of ways that design enriches the digital humanities through elucidating structural logics, rhetorical schema, narrative hierarchies and presenting analysis that might "visually interpret, remap or reframe, and reveal patterns." She also argued that the speculative function of design was also important because it is "propositional, cast into the future, provocative, optimistic, inventive, asks 'what if.'" Her closing video, A New Ecology of Bookmarks, created by two media design shows a hypothetical bookmark that allows for filtering, interpretation, and cutting and pasting into a new composition to show a "potentially transformative communication tool." In the Q&A, in response to Drucker, she explained that academic presses had little money for user testing, even of the kind that Peter Lunenfeld said might be helpful when readers complain that magazine paper is too slick, since "people want to write on it." Burdick also reiterated that the "project is not necessarily to make something that works" but to consider the notion of "writing space" as Jay Bolter describes it.

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