Tag Archives: hypertext

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 …

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.

Information Architecture and Navigation

In response to Jim’s post regarding the timing of these readings, I do think I understood them better because I already have a sense of what McIntire is talking about. The vocabulary she uses is the vocabulary we’ve been using for seven weeks now, and it helps to reinforce those terms (and concepts) and internalize them as we go along. I did notice a couple instances where McIntire refers to a difference between artistic and corporate sites. In general, her book is aimed at those designing corporate-style sites. I would argue that, for the most part, the distinction there (at least for McIntire) is whether a site is content-driven or form-driven. McIntire juxtaposes site architecture and visual design to illustrate this point (54). As I’m far more interested in the rhetorical function of web sites, I really appreciate the approach both this book and Krug’s book take to talking about web design. For example, I particularly appreciate discussions where the form and function are explicitly placed in conversation with each other, like when McIntire describes the expectations for underlined words on the web (and, increasingly, in general, as evidenced by the MLA’s latest changes to its style guide). It’s important to me to think about both approaches so that I learn to integrate form and function as I create and critique hypertextual documents.

The first tidbit that interested me in these readings was McIntire’s sidebar discussion of design and the legal system. As it turns out, some entities have successfully patented software patterns—the example McIntire gives is Amazon’s one-click purchasing option—and defended those patents in court. This has interesting implications for web designers, who largely work by bricolage (whether they admit it or not). What does it mean for a person/corporation to own a software pattern? What defines a discrete pattern? How large a chunk does something have to be before it is plagiarized/stolen rather than appropriated/borrowed? (For that matter, why are these patterns patented and not copyrighted? They are intellectual, textual works, yes?) While I don’t have answers to these questions, I think they bear thinking about and I think how they get answered in the courts and in the public sphere will have a big impact on web design in the future.

I was also interested in some usability and accessibility issues in these chapters. I LOVE the list of suggestions for greater accessibility beginning on page 123. During the creation of my Master’s Portfolio, I was keenly aware of the need to provide accommodations for users with different accessibility needs, but I felt quite lost in terms of trying to make my site available to them. Explanations of things like the transparent “skip navigation” link provide me with concrete ways to improve the accessibility of my sites (125). This also ties to goodwill, which we talked about last week. Users with different accessibility needs will likely still encounter problems in viewing my sites, but items like a “skip navigation” link may refill their “goodwill gas tanks” (to use Krug’s metaphor) and encourage them to keep trying because they know I’m attempting to reach them.

I also appreciate McIntire’s attention to small but potentially important items like creating favicons (121) and the naming of files that need to be saved within the site’s folder hierarchy (63). Favicons are an excellent tool for branding, and file-naming appropriately can save a lot of headaches. McIntire suggests naming files according to their functionality rather than according to their physical attributes, which will keep them relevant even as the visual design of the site changes (63). Another helpful hint was to create a custom 404 page (122). I’ve seen these before, and they certainly altered my perception of the site that caused them to appear. When I get the generic “404—file not found” page, I’m generally disgusted enough to move to another site. A custom 404 page demonstrates professionalism and goodwill. A site I critiqued earlier this semester (www.lincolncourier.com) used to have a custom 404 page with text that echoed the local mission of the newspaper in style. It apologized for the inconvenience with clever text that said something like “We’ve looked everywhere, including under the couch, and we can’t find this page.” It then encouraged users to browse other sections of the site. That page has since been replaced by a corporate-designed site that reads “We’re sorry. You received a 404 ERROR because the Web address you entered is not a functioning page on our site.” Although this is still a custom page, it’s not nearly as well done as the original. It assigns blame to the reader and provides no call to action for future browsing. I won’t make this mistake, and I’m really glad to know how to create a custom 404 page. These are the sorts of things that don’t seem so vital until one has already tried to create a website. Having already worked so hard on the Sandbox assignment helped me to appreciate these timely hints.

There were several things mentioned in these chapters that I will need to experiment with before I understand. While I can comprehend their rhetorical function, I’m doubting my ability to use McIntire’s explanation to make these things happen. For example, I had a hard time following her explanation of creating hierarchy charts in Dreamweaver, although this sounds like it could be extremely useful (78). I’m also not sure I totally understand the process described for disabling links. I know I can do this manually, as I did on the website for my first website critique (http://students.english.ilstu.edu/eaclar4/351/critique1), but I’d love to actually be able to figure out the more streamlined process McIntire describes.

I do have one minor critique: I’m with Heather in being puzzled over the idolization of Amazon. While I find Amazon to be a functional and even well-designed site, I wouldn’t have picked it as an ideal example for usability or aesthetic purposes. The fact that both Krug and McIntire seem to see it as the Holy Grail of web design is surprising to me. But . . . I do think their customized home page is unparalleled. It always makes me think of the first time Facebook implemented its News Feed (then dubbed the “Stalker Feed” by most of my friends). Facebook’s clunky appropriation of customization makes Amazon’s skillful marketing look even sleeker.