Friday, October 29, 2010

The Fable of the Porcupine and the Car

As I prepped for teaching a course on short stories this term, I struggled a great deal with where to begin. The longevity of a "short" story is well recorded, with myths and folk tales, as is its potential to become ephemera, with "You'll never guess what happened last week." Because of the vast distances that stories both can and cannot travel, it grows difficult to ensure relevancy beyond the discipline. Sure, short stories are a form that rose to popularity with the growth of subscription publications like newspapers and magazines in the early 19th Century, but they are more than that.

Viola's "Will There Be Condominiums in Data Space" gives perhaps a perfect example of the relevance of the short story in his use of the fable at the end. While it is told as a personal anecdote, this, combined with the personification of the porcupine and the merging of the "I" with their car, has all the hallmarks of a folktale or fable.

As with many of Aesop's fables and those collected by the Grimms, the location is both described but also vague, "Late one night while driving down a narrow mountain highway." Additionally, the players, porcupine and the man/car, each take on aspects of society or human nature. The porcupine is proud, stubborn, and natural, while the man/car is large, powerful, kind, and technological. The conflict is obvious and reflects the conflicts that Viola traces throughout his writing. It is a call for progress and and acknowledgment of the limits of personal perspective, but the framing as a fable has additional importance.

GK Chesterton writes, in his introduction to a translation of Aesop's Fables,
This is the immortal justification of the Fable: that we could not teach the plainest truths so simply without turning men into using animals in this austere and arbitrary style as they are used on the shields of heraldry or the
hieroglyphics of the ancients, men have really succeeded in handing down those tremendous truths that are called truisms.

To us, this means that Viola's use of a nearly universal and ancient narrative form communicates and demonstrates the points about tradition and technology that he seems to point out at various places in the chapter that there is

the importance of turning back towards ourselves...The sacred art of the past has unified form, function, and aesthetics around this single ultimate aim. Today, development of self must precede development of the technology or we will go nowhere

This reminds me of some recent trends in sacred spheres to return to more traditional forms of representation in order to recombine and recreate the now, including the monastic walk/prayer labyrinth:

and the both ironic and non-ironic appreciation of religious icons:

Interestingly enough, a friend of a friend's blog gives a very simple explanation of why icons look they way they do, and its theological importance. Not unsurprisingly, it has a lot in common in the discussion of space and ideas that comes up in Viola's chapter.

Note: I somehow lost the two posts that I did for last week. I'm going to recreate them from my notes and post them on Monday and Wednesday of next week.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Some Ideas About Tech...

I'm going to take a break from discussing and interacting with the readings until later this week. Don't worry, I have plenty of things to say about Nelson's "Computer Lib/Dream Machines" and Kay/Goldberg's "Personal Dynamic Media", and in some ways, I want this post to bridge between my Nelson-esque rant from last week to a discussion of implications for actual use.

All of this ties into the fact that...
I got an iPad!

This is fascinating to me primarily because I have always had to be supremely self-motivated in my technological direction. Other than my father's devotion to the sadly overlooked and under-appreciated Commodore Amiga,

most of the technology in my life has had to have been self-selected, vetted, and thoroughly argued for/purchased with my own money.

From my alarm clock to my numerous Walkmen, personal cd players, laptops, desktops, pager, cell phones, iPods, flash drives, home theater system, video consoles (PS, PS2, Wii), Kindle, and anything I might have left out, I have spent hours talking to people, checking out Consumer Reports, surfing the web, all in the service of not purchasing something that I would not get solid use out of.

This iPad gives me to opportunity to interact with a media technology on a different level, a reactive level, which has been quite informative.

I want to give one negative aspect and then a bunch of positive things.

Bad- Difficulties of Output
The abilities of the iPad to connect, combine, store, and access a wide variety of media is fabulous, but the difficulty of getting things off of the iPad. I assume that these will be corrected/simplified as things progress, but I would love a couple things: higher quality audio/video output, easier wireless printing, and data/file transfer via bluetooth/WiFi.

Yes, before you start inputting comments, I know that these all have workarounds that are ok, but for my use, as an educator who goes to different rooms with different set-ups (often of widely varying decades of equipment), I'd like to have one thing that I can carry with me with my presentations, online encyclopedia, Kindle access, gradebook, streaming audio/video, etc. all in one. Right now, I have to install Silverlight/Kindle on the computers that I use in the classroom (assuming that the priesthood allows such things), have a selection of flashdrives, and a connection to Google Docs.

I have to say that it's not bad. I like it much more than making overheads/copies, tapes, VHS, posterboard and so on that was the norm when I was learning to make presentations, in undergrad, but how nice would it be to walk into a classroom with my iPad, have the projector automatically recognize the iPad, establish a connection (with log-in), and allow me to type, draw notes, show videos, play audio, all without cords, remotes, or a big console?

Good- Community of Discoverers
One of the most exciting parts of new technologies is the growth of supportive communities towards the use and maximization/enjoyment of their use.

I remember the weekly Amiga BBS/SysOp meetings at the University of Delaware campus that we'd attend. We've all seen the continuance of such communities for longer periods too (motorcycles, HAM radios, classic cars). The iPad seems to have some potential towards these sorts of connections, and I'd like to share a couple:

One, is the TWIT network's iPad show, "iPad Today" (if the link is not active, it's because it is blocked by Websense, which is causing some problems). The Twit Network is an interesting podcasting network helmed by Leo Laporte, who I first saw 10 years ago on Tech TV. More interesting than the weekly show alone is the establishment of live, chat communities, wiki's, Buzz's, twitter accounts, blogs, and other outlets that grow up around it.

Second, is the "ideaplay" website that a friend at the tech and Ed, PhD program at Michigan State turned me on to.

These sorts of discussions and communities not only serve to teach one the rules and possibilities of the central subject, but they also test those rules and abilities. We can weigh the costs of "jailbreaking" an iPad without having to put yours at risk (not that there's really a big risk). In other words, they establish boundaries but also push against these, or at least they do in the best of potential worlds.


The potentials to move and interact with content is really excellent with the iPad. The screen is clear, sharp, and just begs to be touched. I don't find the keyboard overly difficult to type on for most purposes, although I do wish a wider shift key and more ready access to number keys. I'm sure that different keyboards will come in time. The sheer portability and design profile of the iPad make it very easy to pop into a bag, even more so than a laptop or netbook.

The use of the iPad is very simplistic (overly so in some's opinion). There are a select number of apps per page arranged without much variability. Clicking in and out to single applications fits most uses on a daily basis and simplifies a work-thread in a way that might be advantageous for a creature that cannot truly multi-task.

Pure Potential
There is nothing really innovative to the iPad. As many have said, the tablet PC is not new, and others have actually done it better in some ways. What Apple provides is a a convergence and synergy that makes the iPad a potential and simple locus for almost all connection/access, in a similar way to what some Microsoft people have seen with the XBox 360 with Zune-pass.

I cannot wait to see where things go and test out trails going forward.

Friday, October 01, 2010

The Problem of People: Why I Really Don't Hate Tech

In reading Engelbart's reports laying out the research center, I had no problem engaging with the text. Perhaps it is my love of bureaucracy and reports, but I enjoy seeing a vision/idea laid out in such specific terms that they seem manageable.

In these not-too-lengthy pages, Engelbart lays out a plan that would lead to all sorts of amazing things: the mouse, Cloud computing, YouTube, and We Rule. What's not to like? What's not to admire?

Well, here you go:

Yup, the information for Pandora is blocked. It's exciting to have an iPad and look at ways that I might incorporate it into my teaching. I love audio and would love to find clips of NPR stories or better yet the C-SPAN app to discuss rhetoric and give us specific content to respond to, but as I go to the App Store....

You want to know why? Well, on the campus system and WiFi, iTunes, NPR, C-SPAN Radio, Pandora, etc are all blocked because Engelbart's dream of a Research Center is not really progressing to the sort of organized and informed opportunity for self-managed and designed computer systems.

As frustrating as it is, it's understandable to a degree. After all, the system is not the closed one of ARC. It is vulnerable. Those vulnerabilities cost money and leave information to be potentially stolen, altered, or destroyed. There are all sorts of reasons why a community college might want to protect their wired and wireless networks, but they all boil down to one thing:


People are the problem. The people that design, the people that manage, the people that use, the people that misuse, and all the rest form a constantly fluctuating mass that is dangerous, powerful, and unwieldy. They are nowhere near the "skilled user" that Engelbart and English keep referring to being able to do things like "readjust his view to suit immediate needs very quickly and frequently."

Those managing and paying for our contemporary networks want as little "readjust"-ing as possible from the user's perspective. "Readjust"-ing costs money in fixing things when they go wrong. Allowing users, apparently even faculty in new media seminars, to actually use and test their abilities to integrate that technology is a cost without sufficient benefit.

Sure, having all the kids on campus with their phones and computers connected to Pandora constantly would probably eat up some bandwidth. That is a problem in need of a solution. However, this brings us back to Engelbart and English's "A Research Center for Augmenting".

The beauty in this plan is that they PLANNED for it to be manipulated and changed before they let people into it. Our current systems is not designed or planned, it's patched and stretched. It's the same as the difference between a tailored suit and one that's "adjusted" for your rental.

Darn it! I want technology to be tailored, and I want in on the consultation because whoever makes these decisions clearly does not think forward. They think backwards. It is not about using technology to make connections and explore possibilities on the campus now. It's about controlling access.

This is a fundamentally different process that is, sadly, a necessary evil to some at least.