Wednesday, July 20, 2005

A Ridiculous Hypothetical with New Media

Perhaps I'm letting my Philosophy major out too much, but I was thinking today about Manovich's principles, and whether the principles were necessary or sufficient conditions for new media.

For example: we took My Yahoo to be a quintessential example today of all six principles (numerical, programmable, modular, automated, variable, transcoded). Would similar media with only five of those conditions count? Please forgive the extensive hypothetical to follow; I am still a Philosophy major. Let's say we ASTP students started a business where for a nominal fee any professor could hire us to walk into their classroom and write on the blackboard a variety of content -- the current weather, news headlines, stock quotes, etc. We would offer the content based on the stated preferences of the customer (when they called us on the phone, say). Each student could have a particular specialty (Nick will handle weather; Rob, news headlines; Sara, stock quotes) and only the requested students will go to any particular job (Professor Mittell doesn't care about stock quotes, so only Nick and Rob go to his office and write info on his board). Our group will have a stated, strictly-followed business plan where we respond at once to every telephone call. The information we write in chalk clearly varies based on the customer or time. Our personal thoughts, the English language, etc. will be important parts of our work. The product then, as stated in the previous five sentences, fulfills the 2nd through 6th requirements of new media. Does it count?

I find the hypothetical interesting just because I'm not sure what the answer is. Usually I come up with a ridiculous hypothetical like this as a reductio ad absurdum, a logical extension of a principle to clearly unacceptable results. But in this case, I'm not sure if the result is ridiculous after all. And I'm not sure what to conclude from that. I came at the idea because I was unimpressed with the numerical (or as Professor Mittell preferred, digital) requirement for new media. There doesn't seem to me anything inherent in these types of media that they are in some way reducible to numbers -- numbers don't seem like an important part of it to me at all. And I've had a lot of experience recently with the idea that there isn't anything magical about people -- we are largely simple machines, and will one day fully be emulated by what we now consider the very distinct group of computers. It would seem silly to me if we determined that New Media had to depend on some inner layer of electromagnetic binary numbers, but were otherwise (and this might even be indistinguishable to an untrained eye) the same as Old Media. If this were in fact the case, we would have no reason to worry about the name "New Media" -- all we would really mean would be "Media Which Depends Upon Electromagnetic Binary Numbers".

On the other hand, I am uncomfortable calling our blackboard business New Media. This suggests either that I do have some numerical/digital requirement in mind somewhere, or that I think the other principles are not sufficient.

Maybe this hypothetical isn't *so* ridiculous. It's not so hard to believe that there could become a trend in the future where busy people hire other people to filter information for them (this sounds like something that may happen in the present even), based on their preferences. My ridiculous hypothetical is really just a group of highly organized research assistants.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

QuirksMode

I'll leave my contribution to the CSS links before I head out to a late dinner. I don't think anyone's mentioned this site yet, and it's been my absolute savior on a number of occasions, and would have saved me a lot of time if I had known about it when I started learning about CSS and the Document Object Model.

QuirksMode

The name, of course, refers to the "quirks mode" and "strict mode" that designers can tell browsers to use when interpreting the X/HTML and CSS. The site (and many others, and perhaps class lecture tomorrow) can describe this better than I can, but roughly authors wanted a way to tell browsers to continue using the old, non-standard ways of doing things even as standards support improved.

The site goes far beyond this distinction though, with extensive compatibility tables for many browsers on various CSS and JavaScript techniques, and a number of articles on best practices for CSS and DOM scripting.

Media Analysis of IMDb

The Internet Movie Database (IMDb)

I expect we've all used this site to look up anything about any movie. It is the de facto standard source for that information.

And so IMDb obviously makes significant reference to cinema, as this is its entire focus. The navigation banner across the top uses a border that looks like a film reel. New content in the main portion of the page is listed as "Coming Attractions", the standard cinematic slogan. Interestingly though, I think many of the connections end there.

IMDb is largely just like any other searchable online database. A minimalist search box in the top left hand corner is almost always the mode of navigation (of course, this could be more extensive -- why not have advanced search options on the main page, as that's what everyone is interested in?). Links to recent content, popular content, related content cover the sidebars. Some paragraphs of text and cover images fill the center area.

The media content is largely the information in the database. Likely the reason that IMDb is so popular is that it has such an extensive database of information, and that its search capability is extensive and successful. Certainly the grammar and environment are also important (the standards, institutionalized or cultural, determine much of the site navigation and content of links). Banner ads (not on the main page, but extensive in all other pages) are an important factor resulting from the economic restrictions of the website.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Technobiography

My first experiences were with technology as a creative device. I was excited as a child by computers in the same way that I was excited by woodworking.
[Note: there are a lot of good analogies here! A rough wooden table and a rough website have much in common -- powerful functionality given the time and skill input. A smooth website and a smooth carving are similar: limited functionality, but well-done, comfortable to handle, and so on]

I learned about computers largely from my father, who is not much of a computer person, but dealt with them (and their powerful future capabilities) in his work as a cartographer. I met with a local librarian at his suggestion and learned to use Gopher, and we spent considerable time and money trying to get our old Performa onto the World Wide Web. I was exhilarated to write very simple programs in QBASIC that could handle multiplication and division, and then calculator programs to do my algebra. But I was always learning from others here -- the basics of one language or another, one factoid or another about how the internet works underneath, or how computers work, and so on.

...

Technology is the unexploited, today. This is, of course, the view of any evangelist about any field, concept, etc., but technology is mine, given my personal, extensive background. I spend my time thinking about how technology could and should be used, but isn't, or isn't well -- whether it's at Amherst College with a disturbingly small computer science department, deployment of technology in the curriculum, or respect for computers in the student body, or in the broader world, where my granddad has very significant trouble using a web browser, despite being a skilled electrician. I think something many in our field have come across recently is that technology has advanced to a point now that it is very developed (functionality has been increasing at a breakneck pace for decades now) but that the ease of use has not increased at the same time.

And what about me personally?
As I've gotten better at this computer stuff, and as I've faced a community of those inexperienced, wary or outright hostile with regard to computers, I've had to deal with a different set of issues than learning the latest language, or adding capabilities to my technical skillset. I am constantly forced to defend technology to its opponents, and attempt to improve technology where their complaints are valid.

I've worked two summers now with the Curricular Computing section of the IT department at Amherst College. This group hires students over the summer to implement technology projects for any faculty that are at all interested. This is largely about user-friendliness, because if the faculty members, almost never with any computing training, can't use the software and show it to their students, it won't actually be used in practice. And another large part of this is maintenance and documentation -- interns spend much of their time converting existing websites (often created by past summer interns) to more easily maintainable versions -- computer-savvy interns commonly implement interesting designs and then graduate, leaving faculty members in trouble.

I would say that that change is parallel between my biography and that of computer technology in general. Perhaps I am just overly self-aware, but I think many in the field are thinking about it -- about how all of this technological capability and extraordinary power can be harnessed. One would think that technology itself would make this easier.