Friday, May 23, 2008

Deaf Ears and Blindfolded Eyes

Jay David Bolter gave the opening keynote at the Computers and Writing conference, where he began by recalling his earlier work in the electronic literature movement among enthusiasts for what was then the nascent medium of hypertext. Like one of the keynote speeches at the ACM Hypertext conference in 2007, however, Bolter conceded that these pioneers also made some fundamental mistakes, particularly in missing the importance of the World Wide Web.

Although at one point, hypertextual writing had declared itself to be the definitive literary avant-garde, with those like postmodern fiction-writer Robert Coover declaring “The End of Books” in The New York Times, even successes promulgated by the group -- such as Patchwork Girl -- had little impact on the literary establishment. Soon critics like Laura Miller in “” were ridiculting the groups pretensions. Although the newspaper and the encyclopedia had been transformed by the Internet, along with the production lines of books, Bolter said that the texts of the literary world had changed little in response to the advent of electronic distributed networks and remained in the realm of belles lettres and traditional forms of publication. Genres like digital poetry may have been at the forefront of the electronic literature movement, but they never got beyond a small group of practitioners.

Bolter criticized how this Bolter's recollections of the "heyday of hypertext" also looked back at how space was foregrounded and questioned. As Bolter pointed out, "our culture’s notions of writing" have been not only "expanding to multimedia but also other forms of inscription," he thought it was important to consider "new kinds of writing surfaces" and practices of "down to earth" compositions that are literally grounded in physical locations to get beyond the old paradigm of cyberspace publicized by William Gibson that was divorced from the everyday physical world and focused on the graphic representation of data as "otherworld" or "nonspace of the mind."vision of virtual reality represented a "shutting out of the world" that was literalized by googles that blocked the viewers eyes. Of course, in the book Virtual Realism, Michael Heim has challenged this notion of VR. Yet, according to Bolter, the idea of "post-symbolic communication" and its associated metaphors was spread throughout the popular consciousness by Jaron Lanier among others.

Bolter argued that he and his colleagues at Georgia Tech were challenging the notion that computing and abstraction were necessarily connected and that digital identities were bodiless entities cut off from public speech and political life. Although Bolter discussed the work of Ian Bogost and Gonzalo Frasca in the context of procedural rhetoric and authorship through processes, much of the second half of his talk involved work being done by himself and his colleagues at the Augmented Environments Laboratory. Bolter explained that projects being undertaken there had been influenced by the ideas of Howard Rheingold on social media and Paul Dourish on locative technologies and also incorporated concepts from ubiquitous computing (Mark Weiser), mixed and augmented reality (Steven Feiner), wearable computing (Steven Mann), and tangible computing (Hiroshi Ishii).

Bolter's own work on what he called "task-based AR" focuses on perceptual digital media in service of 1) informal education, 2) entertainment, and 3) expression. Projects include "The Voices of Oakland," set in an Atlanta burial site, "Four Angry Men," an interactive VR drama based on the famed play and film about a group of deliberating jurors, and "Subterranean Voices," which has the voices of local poets embedded in each MARTA subway stop.

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