Category Archives: English 351: Hypertext

All entries in this category are related to English 351: Hypertext, a class I took at Illinois State University in the Spring of 2010.

Facebook and forming Identity

I just completed a project on identity and how we mediate it in online spheres. (It was a graduate project for a class on Hypertext. Check it out at Mediating My Selves.)  This is something that’s increasingly important for scholar-writers in the age of the Internet. While I’m not sure my project reached any definite conclusions, I definitely have reached some new perspectives in my own thoughts about identity. For example, someone who has contradictory identities in different online spaces isn’t necessarily a hypocrite or a bad person in my book.

But, what I think and what the powers-that-be think are very different, as evidenced by this:

http://crookedtimber.org/2010/05/14/an-internet-where-everyone-knows-youre-a-dog/

Do social media require us to have only a single identity? No reworking for context allowed?

Remix: Part 2

OK, I’m hooked. I left off my last Remix post by asking what Lessig was advocating and what it looks like, and hoping that I’d find out in Parts 2 and 3. Lessig delivered in Part 2.

This is the part of the book that the title comes from: “Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy.” Lessig is suggesting a hybrid between sharing and commercial (or thee and me) economies, and he provides numerous online models for what this looks like. My only real complaint at this point is that I, the reader, still have to do the hard work of mapping those examples onto non-online interaction. If the U.S. were to model copyright/trademark law after YouTube practices, what does that really mean? (Is it even really possible?)

On the bright side, we (the U.S.) already have one of the components that Lessig describes as integral to a sharing (and thus also a hybrid) economy: diversity. “Diversity in experience and worldviews, so s to help a project fill in the blind spots inherent in any particular view” (165). True, some will argue that most U.S. citizens have a very Westernized worldview. I would argue, though, that the necessary diversity does exist here … if only the powers that be are clever enough to seek the expertise of those with perspectives different from their own. (The anecdote that immediately springs to mind is Abraham Lincoln’s filling his Cabinet with his political “enemies” so as to have a broader diversity in his think tank.) What I’m not sure of, though, is if any government endeavor will ever be able to command the sort of volunteer power necessary to do something like this. Lessig hints in this part that he may feel the same way, but he seems more perturbed by the particular practices of our government rather than the inherent trappings of any government. I’m hoping there is more wisdom on this subject to come in Part 3.

I also really enjoyed Lessig’s inclusion of Sherry Turkle (starting on page 217). Theoretically, he could have done a lot more with her work on online identities, but I think the point about shifting identities demonstrating the value of generosity is well made. In the end, the thing that destroys the goodwill of hypertextual communities is greed. And, interestingly, the greed/generosity balance is both political and religious hotspot for many people even outside online culture. (I’m thinking income tax debates for politics, and for Christianity, at least, the passage about it being easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to go to Heaven. I can’t speak for any other religions, but I do get a sense of the same ideal from those that I have any experience at all with.)

Perhaps my favorite bit of this part of the book is on page 130, where Lessig says, “For reasons at the core of this book, inspiring more creativity is more important than whether you or I like the creativity we’ve inspired.” This passage really resonated for me. Part of that is probably because of my pedagogical stance regarding creativity. For every project I assign in my English 101 and 249 classes, I explain the learning goals and tell students that I am open to creative reinterpretations of the project as long as they still meet those goals or similar goals that I approve. Although I haven’t always liked my students’ creative reinterpretations (a wiki on alcohol-related expertise, even by non-minor students, could seem suspect), they have always responded excitedly to this possibility. There is no doubt in my mind that the students who take this option spend more time thinking in more ways about the rhetorical situation they are placing their work into.  I also have reason to believe that there investment in the project makes them more likely to continue writing for the public in the future. (My evidence for this includes both email updates from and Facebook groups formed by former students.)

But, really, I think my attraction to that observation on page 130 goes even deeper than pedagogical ideals. There is something very instinctual that tells me that creativity is important to humanity, even when it’s creativity I don’t like. I suppose I’m interpreting creativity to mean most of the things mentioned in the First Amendment, which has been so basic to my upbringing that acting on it does feel instinctual (though I recognize it’s learned). But I also think there’s the possibility that it goes even deeper. Things like art therapy make me believe that there’s something a little more basic in human nature that really needs to embrace Lessig’s RW culture.

For now, I’m excited to read Chapter 10 in Part 3, which Lessig said in Part 2 will deal with the Creative Commons license.  Since Lessig is a cofounder of that project, it will be really intriguing to learn about his vision for it. I particularly like his summary of it on page 226: “Take and share my work freely. Let it become part of the sharing economy. But if you want to carry this work over to the commercial economy, you must ask me first. Depending upon the offer, I may or may not say yes.”

Remix: Part 1

Lawrence Lessig’s Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy strikes me as a work of common sense and unique humor. Lessig’s voice, unlike that of many other lawyers I’ve read, is not only accessible but also enjoyable. He’s persuasive and, at times, self-deprecating, which makes identifying with his points of view easy. His real-life examples are informative and always applicable to the point he’s making. In short, I really like Remix. Lessig is an example of an enlightened individual who possesses the language and the tact to make a case for legalizing and encouraging hypertextuality. I particularly like that he lives by the rules he discusses. I enjoyed his anecdote about his fear in reading the comments on his blog, and I greatly admire his willingness to keep that space one that is free and open. As a former reporter, I understand exactly how hard it can be to let yourself be flamed online by faceless entities because you have conviction about the greater good.

I’m excited that Lessig uses technology terms to frame his overarching analogy. I certainly find that RW and RO references help me separate the two competing cultures he’s discussing. I do wonder if there are instances where Lessig recognizes the situation as being more complicated than this simple pairing; I trust these will come out in the parts of the book I haven’t read yet. Assuming this, I hope Lessig will complicate these terms in the ways they deserve. I’m thinking of the dangers in conceptualizing art as RO. Even though the enlightened people like Lessig might conceive of something as RO, that doesn’t mean it isn’t RW in a more Sousian context. Just because we have technology doesn’t mean we’re obligated to use it or to view the world from a technologized perspective. On the other hand, in an increasingly RW world, that critique goes both ways.

All things said, this terminology also makes me wonder about the audience of this book. Although Lessig provides an explanation of the technologized roots of the RO/RW dichotomy, I suspect a footnote isn’t enough to get someone onboard who didn’t already know these terms. In other words, I think Lessig is probably preaching to the choir. Anyone who knows the difference between RO and RW is probably fairly likely to recognize the value of both and the empowerment of RW. For that matter, despite the fact that I agree with most of what Lessig has to say, this particular analogy is pretty slanted. After all, the only time anyone ever consciously recognizes that a file is RO is when they’re trying to change it and can’t. Many people, though, will see this analogy as neutral. My own bias is that I’ve been trained to look for the ways that technology is anything but neutral.

I love that Lessig begins his book by framing it in terms of his state of mind before and after having children. Not only is this a point that will create driving force for his audience, but it calls into focus the often-overlooked reality that our children will actually think differently because of their exposure to technology. This, like all else, is a dynamic that was/is resisted at first. I remember bringing my Pokemon to school. At that time, 10 years ago, there were about three other kids who understood the empowering possibilities of this game. The others made fun of us, even though it was clear they were interested. But they were too caught up in the “American” perspective of, as Lessig says, “Here’s something, buy it” rather than “Here’s something, do something with it” (79). In this case, I was an early adopter. Remix is coming, and basic change in how future generations think is coming with it. To use George Lakoff’s scholarship about conceptual metaphors as a frame, the neural pathways and structure of a modern child’s brain are very different from the structures of the brain of a child 20 years ago.

While I’m completely on board with most of Lessig’s arguments and while I heartily appreciate his treatment of hypertextual elements of media, saying “I agree” throughout this piece is about as useful as the second presidential Gore/Bush debate. So, I feel obligated to turn to one part of this text that I took exception to, and that is Lessig’s own biased perspective. This bias does inherent damage to some of his points. The following is what I consider the most egregious (but not the only) example: Lessig argues that a remix of George Bush’s words in a 2004 debate “lets us understand Bush’s message better” (73). He’s discussing a remix that includes a lot of clips of Bush saying “it’s hard work,” and he says the mix works because “it is well known that at least before 9/11, Bush was an extremely remote president, on vacation 42 percent of his first eight months in office” (73). Well, I didn’t know that, but I still laughed. And when Lessig goes on to say the same concept wouldn’t have worked with Bill Clinton, I laughed out loud. Regardless of any strange percentage-based research or the “truth,” Clinton’s cultural legacy is one of a guy who got action from an intern while he was supposed to be working. And Lessig doesn’t think an ironic “I work hard” critique will work with Clinton? He actually says, “Whatever you want to say about them (Clinton and Bill Gates), no one thinks they don’t work hard” (73). Talk about a violent RO statement. I’d laugh at a clip like this whether it featured Bush or Clinton, but apparently I’d be missing the point. And here I thought Lessig’s argument was that RW culture reinforced diversity, democracy, and differing perspectives. Lessig’s taking up such a heavy political stance really put me off and made me wonder if I should be questioning more.

By the way, the “42 percent” citation is from a Washington Post opinion piece by Charles Krauthammer that is taken rather wildly out of context. The “42 percent” was basically a spur-of-the-moment, computer-enabled guess that Krauthammer is citing and criticizing. By citing this piece in the way he does, Lessig is doing some serious violence to the credibility of citation/remix, in my opinion.

Lessig does quite a bit of this generalizing. (Most often, it’s aimed at lawyers.) Because of Lessig’s conversational and humorous tone, I’d be somewhat inclined to forgive this … but then he takes this Andrew Keen fellow to task for being “sloppy” in exactly the same way (91). Oops.

But even if this compulsion to generalize and to take liberties with citations does damage to some of Lessig’s arguments about the value of RW culture, I don’t believe we should let the foibles of a human being detract from the message he’s trying to send. Lessig brings up a number of interesting and thought-provoking points, not the least of which is the troubled relationship between law and culture. What defines professional, anymore? What defines speech? And who gets to make these decisions? And what are the biases of those people?

But one more gentle critique: Will our kids be as interested in remixing if we don’t criminalize it? Is rebellion part of the attraction? (Well, yes, it certainly is. But how big a part?)

I’m also interested in the larger issues that haven’t been discussed in Part 1. Namely, what does this new (lack of) law look like? Lessig does a brilliant job explaining why copyright is litigated in the way that it is. His discussion of the making of copies is enlightening, and it has interesting intersections of work I’ve read regarding the rights of patients to “copies” of their bodies. While the law is a highly complex thing, and while remix is clearly integral to any culture (after all, how arrogant is it to think you’ve ever done something really new?), I’m still left wondering what, specifically, Lessig is advocating? In other words, I’m—for the most part—on board with his ideas. Now what can I do to make his vision of an empowered RW culture possible?

I hope to find that in Parts 2 and 3 …

Life on the Screen

As I finished Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screen, I found that “Who Am We?” was sort of like an extensive overview of the book. I kept coming upon personalities who I knew from the article. Thus, it’s not surprising that the main points of the book and the article are the same. The following are some pieces I picked out of the book that are particularly intriguing or useful to me.

  • I had not heard of the Turing Test before. This is a test conducted to determine whether a machine demonstrates intelligence, and it works by having an average human question the machine to see if they can figure out that something’s amiss (85). It was interesting that many people quoted in this chapter said that machines could pass the Turing Test, but only by using “tricks,” with the underlying assumption that this was a sort of cheat. Turkle addresses the “Turing tradition” of looking for intelligence vs. the “AI-as-psychology tradition” of looking for more in a machine.
  • Turkle quotes Frederic Jameson as saying postmodernism requires a kind of “depthlessness” and a reduction of emotional authenticity. He said “there was nothing beyond simulation and surface” (103). People are happy to “suspend belief” and “take the program at interface value” (103). Meanwhile, Turkle also establishes that some simulation is real and some is not. While computers as psychotherapists can help people in some instances, in others they fall short. She quotes a young woman as saying the following: “Simulated thinking may be thinking, but simulated love can never be love” (109).
  • Later, “an increasing number of people felt the tug of the computer as an extension of self” (110). She talks about how those who are technologically savvy are called “computer people,” as if they are part machine themselves. And the idea of engaging in emotional encounters with computers slowly lost its stigma. … This extension of self is fascinating and highly relevant to the work I hope to do in my Hypertext graduate project. Feeling as though one is a “computer person” and having a computer that feels like an extension of self are familiar feelings to me and, I think, many others of this time. Perhaps this is part of why losing a job or having a computer crash is so emotionally traumatic—these were parts of a person’s identity that are suddenly cut off. … This shift through time where people initially stigmatize and then come to accept emotional attachment to machines is explicated in more detail in Chapter 5, where Turkle interrogates a cycle of disavowal and appropriation “in response to a major change in the philosophy of artificial intelligence research” (126). This appropriation goes so far that Turkle is able to cite psychology greats such as Sigmund Freud, Melanie Kleine, and Jacques Lacan in this chapter.
  • The Blind Watchmaker and The Game of Life, which seem to let creatures evolve on the screen, introduce the question: Can a creator play a significant game with her own creature? And what constitutes life? While the first question goes unanswered for obvious theological reasons, an answer is offered for the second question on page 152. Life requires 1) evolution by natural selection, 2) genetic program 3) a high level of complexity (which allows an organism to self-organize) and 4) self-organization. Later in the chapter, Turkle quotes psychiatrist Peter Kramer describing an incident when he prescribed an anti-depressants to a patient. The patient came back in saying he felt anxious, and Kramer assumed a biological response to the anti-depressant. Instead, he learned that the patient hadn’t taken the drug and was anxious because of the guilt of disobeying Kramer. Kramer then found himself seeking psychological sources for the patient’s anxiety (173). In what ways is biology machine-like? Does the perfect combination of meds made the body respond in a predictable way, just like a machine?
  • Turkle introduces “identity cycling,” which some societies have kept “under fairly stringent control” (179). But there have always been those expected to perform this cycling, like the shaman in tribal societies or the “split personality” in modern times. The Internet provides a safe place for people to break this socially normative edict against identity cycling—and they do. (It is interesting that Turkle notes the Latin root of the word persona on page 182. She says it translates as “that through which the sound comes,” making it a rather literal reference to a metaphorical mask.) Some online players use identity cycling to work on the “self as a work in progress” (190). MUDs and the Internet are also an interesting alternative to the adolescent moratorium that Turkle says is now defunct (I disagree that college doesn’t function this way anymore). In many ways, the Internet can provide a safe(r) space for adolescents to play with identity. It’s important that Turkle notes the complexity of this safety, though: “Life in cyberspace, as elsewhere, is not fair. To the questions, ‘Are MUDs good or bad for psychological growth?’ the answer is unreassuringly complicated, just like life” (204-5).
  • Related to the formation of identity is the question of whether authenticity and simulation can co-exist. In some online spaces, there is an expectation that people are playing roles that are not representative of the “real” person behind the mask. But does that mean these roles are inauthentic? Turkle brings up this discussion in terms of online rape and other crimes (254). If a person’s avatar is taken from their control in such a situation, is there authenticity to that simulation? Can something psychologically “real” come out of it?
  • Finally, Turkle comes to the idea of multiplicity. “If we take the home page as a real estate metaphor for the self, its décor is postmodern … Home pages on the Web are one recent and dramatic illustration of new notions of identity as multiple yet coherent” (259). In this section, Turkle discusses building her own home page and the various kinds of identity it introduces to visitors. Turkle says some questions that have been posed to post-traumatic dissociative disorder patients in the past now apply to inhabitants of virtual communities: “What is the self when it functions as a society? What is the self when it divides its labors among its constituent ‘alters’?” (259). For some, the ability to have multiple personae manifests in “an uncomfortable sense of fragmentation, some a sense of relief” (260). This all points to the challenges and rewards of something new and real: In the Internet age, it’s likely that people who live lives on the screen will have to adapt to a more fluid sense of self.

Mind over body (matter)

I stumbled upon “Mind Over Body: The Pregnant Professional” by Robbie Davis-Floyd during readings for a different project, but I found Davis-Floyd’s work to have many intersections with what I’ve read so far of Sherry Turkle. Davis-Floyd argues in this essay that “body image not only mirrors social relationships but also worldview” (204). Interviewing 31 professional women, the author interrogates how they define their senses of self. Because of an (initially) unrelated study of home-birthers, Davis-Floyd also can draw some conclusions about the differences in how women define their selves.

The part that immediately struck me as being reminiscent of Turkle comes on the third page of the essay:

“I found it noteworthy that when I interviewed this women in their homes, they almost invariably would glance down at their casual sweats and tennis shoes and laughingly comments, ‘You are seeing my other self, my home self,’ but when I went to their offices they never said, ‘You are seeing my professional self.’ For most, the professional self was the primary self.” (206)

I wonder about that notion of “primary self.” It seemed to me at first that which self is primary would depend on context, and the author’s status as a scholar would make the women want to privilege their professional selves to her. But then Davis-Floyd points out that children and emotions do not enter these women’s offices, while paperwork and work calls often come into their homes.

Davis-Floyd theorizes pregnancy as a “violation of the professional/personal split” and proves that women understand and worry about this boundary breaking (although she also says those fears are rarely justified). They are aware that others see them as women rather than as professionals once the pregnancy becomes visible, and this forces a merger of selves much like the uncomfortable merging of windows I discussed in relation to Turkle’s “Who Am We?” article.

The author also complicates the separation of selves by introducing the idea of control. The professional women in her study spoke of a loss of control as the most undesirable aspect of pregnancy and embodiment. I wonder if there is a parallel between this loss of bodily control and the loss of control we experience when separating out a “self” for online use (or separate use in any other sense). There is something inherently frightening about acknowledging a self that does not adhere to the guidelines we (and others) have constructed for acceptable “selves.”

Finally, Davis-Floyd discusses technocratic life and compares the professional women in her study to home-birthers in another study she’s doing. While the home-birthers eschew reproductive technology as part of a oft-theorized technomedical takeover of women’s bodies, the professional women view technology as another means of control for their own use. The professional women “perceive the holism of the home-birthers … as frightening, irresponsible, limiting, and disempowering” (227). Both sets of women believe their method allows them more control.

So now I have to ask a series of questions that I don’t (yet) have answers for:

  • What role does control play in the mediation and construction of self/selves?
  • At what point is control no longer deemed desirable?
  • Can we talk about embodied control and virtual control in the same ways?
  • Is this need for control a gendered construct?

The essay discussed in this post comes from:

Sault, Nancy, ed. Many Mirrors: Body Image and Social Relations. New Brunswick, NJ: Rugers UP, 1994. Print.

Who am we?

Sherry Turkle’s article “Who Am We?,” published in Wired Magazine, begins complicating identity immediately. Turkle begins by discussing the many Sherry Turkles who exist in separate but interconnected spheres. She then alludes, in third person, to having authored Life on the Screen. (Much of this article’s material is also covered in Life on the Screen.) And at the beginning of her third paragraph, she pushes that separation a little further with the sentence: “This story is borne of Turkle’s past decade of research.” We don’t know which Turkle she’s talking about here, but whichever one it is, it’s not the one who’s speaking to us now.

Soon enough, she gets to her metaphor of windows, which “allow us to cycle through cyberspace and real life, over and over. Windows allow us to be in several contexts at the same time …” And that all leaves me feeling a little schizophrenic. But I’ve got to admit, those windows are important in structuring life, even as they separate lives. It was certainly a little strange when, as an undergraduate, I first realized my professors could access Facebook. And that strangeness arose from having two “windows” of my life suddenly merge. I think of it like talking politics. I talk politics differently at school, at home, with my husband, with my dad. Why? Because talking politics, for me, is a way to identify with someone. And that means that I always seek the areas of politics where I hold similar beliefs to the person I’m talking to, and that’s what frames our discussion. If I had to talk fiscal policy with someone from school, well, that’s a window I don’t access very often. In fact, it’s a sort of hybrid between other windows I do access, and it makes me uncomfortable.

Thinking in windows is a new thing, at least relatively speaking, because you and I are picturing windows on a computer screen rather than windows in a wall. This shift is part of the generational change Turkle talks about in which some people think of a computer as a giant calculator and others things of it as something a lot messier, softer, more amorphous than that. “Today’s computational models of the mind often embrace a postmodern aesthetic of complexity and decentering” (2). People younger than I am conceive of computers differently than I do. And people of my parents’ generation think of computers differently then either of those younger generations. It seems, based on Turkle’s discussion of Tim, the SimCity fan, that younger generations are OK with not understanding the whole picture. It’s acceptable to them that computerish workings are beyond their control. “Children are comfortable with the idea that inanimate objects can both think and have a personality. But they no longer worry if the machine is alive,” which is interesting because it’s a worry that older generations have invested considerable angst and energy on (3). (Think 1984, Terminator, Minority Report.) But, Turkle says, children are developing a different conception of aliveness: “they are increasingly likely to attribute qualities to [computers] that undermine the machine/person distinction” such as intention, ideas, even consciousness (3). (I’m still struggling with the idea of mobility as a characteristic of aliveness. Turkle quotes children as saying things with more mobility are more alive, and mobility includes an animal in a Sim universe being able to move into other programs or onto other computers, virus-like. Moreover, children assume a desire for mobility in these e-creatures.) The new distinction has to do with sensuality and embodiment—which, ironically, is something people often use computers to mediate.

Which brings me to the question I’ve been circling since I read this article: What is embodiment? What is the difference between thought and action? (This is a particularly interesting quandary in terms of religion, where many Protestant believers ascribe to the notion that one is saved by faith—something at least akin to thought—rather than works—action.) And which of those categories does writing fit beneath? Turkle tells us that MUDs (multi-user dungeons, a category that includes all simulated worlds) are “organized around the metaphor of physical space” (5). Why this metaphor? Probably because we haven’t yet evolved to conceive of something as not requiring space. An object has to have mass in order to be real, doesn’t it? But if that’s the case, how to we acknowledge those things that separate us from computers, like love, hate, and feeling in general? Perhaps it’s the contents of a being’s non-spatial components that define aliveness? Humans have emotion where computers have X. X being all the stuff that floats around in virtual “space.”

Turkle also talks about passing in MUDs, which is even more interesting when one considers the case of Doug, who effectively passes for a computer-played character in one of his MUDs (6). If computers can pass as humans, is the opposite possible? And if so, is defining aliveness a moot point?

Toward the end of the article, Turkle talks about the line between virtual and real. It seems that combining the two usually leads to disappointing results. So I wonder … is this only the case for people who play MUDs? Or is there some part of that disappointment that comes through when one tries to mediate a cohesive online identity as well? “Once we take virtuality seriously as a we of life, we need a new language for talking about the simplest things” (11). Embodiment, feeling, relationships, and self all become far more complex.

So I’ll end with a quote from Donna Haraway that Turkle uses in this article:

“Irony is about contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes … about the tension of holding incompatible things together because both or all are necessary and true.”

Definitely CSS

As I begin my research for the required graduate project in my Hypertext class, I find myself gravitating to two particular web experts: Sherry Turkle (more on her work later, trust me) and Eric Meyer.

I was hooked by Meyer’s CSS: The Definitive Guide on page 2. After beginning an explanation of the differences between HTML and CSS in a section entitled “The Web’s Fall From Grace,” he establishes a dichotomy between HTML as a structural language and CSS as a stylistic construct. “Why do authors run roughshod over structure and meaning?” he asks in regard to an example of using font elements rather than heading elements. This rhetorical approach to the highly technical building blocks of the web pulled me in by making me feel as if I not only understand what Meyer is talking about, but I also have a stake in it.

Although I don’t plan to read this entire book straight through—and I think the word “guide” in the title discourages that, anyway—I do like this opening chapter that sets up the differences between CSS and other less nuanced methods. Besides offering understandable explanations and examples, this book makes me feel validated as a web designer who doesn’t know a whole lot about “code.” The rhetorical functionality of web design simply doesn’t rely on HTML, and maybe it can even be hindered by it.

In other chapters, Meyer discusses Selectors, Structure, Values and Units, Fonts, Text Properties, Visual formatting, Borders, Colors, Positioning, Tables, Lists, Interface Styles, and Non-Screen Media. I haven’t gotten there yet, but I have a feeling that all these chapters are as enlightening as the first. Part of that feeling comes from the fact that the author, Meyer, is “the best-recognized CSS authority in the world,” according to Jeffrey Zeldman’s Designing with Web Standards, which I’m also working my way through right now. Although I don’t like Designing with Web Standards as well as CSS: The Definitive Guide (it’s less accessible), it’s still a handy book to have around for somebody struggling with web design.