Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Transcendental Black Metal

- [fuck] the demand for reality - that is for unity, simplicity, communicability, etc. - lyotard(ish) - "what is postmodernism?" -

First: An apology, to all who've been reading for the last couple of years, an apology for disappearing for a bit. Blogs ebb and flow of course, but this one has ebbed more than I would have liked while I finished writing up. For now, we're back in business.

But what is this business? Still ebooks, ereaders, and all (sometimes tenuously) related material, at least for the most part. My PhD viva is at the end of next month on this very subject, and, if all works out, a book to follow on the same or similar. So this blog will continue to discuss such things (which means I guess I should have said something about the Kindle Fire, but then again the news was kind of boring. Mark Sample tweeted a while back that he thought the same, that LCDs weren't the future of ereading. I'm inclined to agree: a reliable and affordable hybrid screen would have been news; a cheap touchscreen that will grace landfills everywhere in 18 months as new tech emerges is somewhat less impressive. No doubt it will perform well this Christmas, but I'm not here to cheerlead Amazon's share prices).

But I'd like to broaden what gets discussed here on 4oh4 too. I've just started a teaching fellowship post specialising in Digital Humanities and Critical Theory, and my MA students in particular are reminding me of all the theory I loved before getting lost in ereading. Over the course of writing the thesis I also became more interested in politics, philosophy, cognitive psychology, and experimental literature, and I hope ideas relating to all of these will get an airing over future postings (which, whilst on no fixed schedule, will be more frequent and with shorter discursive postings alongside the essay length entries).


An aside: One of my students has an awesome project brewing on transcendental black metal, nationality, maybe some ecology, maybe some poetry. He turned me back on to Liturgy who've made one of my favourite albums of the year so far. He also gave me a copy of Hunter Hunt-Hendrix's manifesto for a Trascendental Black Metal (caps required) which is utterly bonkers, occasionally flat out wrong (or maybe just not fully realised), and also courageous (an admirable and admirably defended aspect of the genre(?) it's held up to define).

The ever fascinating Timothy Morton's been getting excited about Wolves in the Throne Room recently (sample quote: "Wolves in the Throne room provide a kind of musical antihistamine that enables humans not to have an allergic reaction to working at the depth necessary for reforging our broken coexistence with all beings"), and I think Hunt-Hendrix's manifesto (for a similar if not at all the same music) taps into a similar vein (sample quote).

So, a heads up: transcendental black metal and ecology. Just sayin'.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Evolving Everything

- knowledge…lives in the muscles, not in consciousness - John Dewey - Human Nature and Conduct - 177 -

I've been thinking about technology and bodies a lot recently. Frequent readers of this blog have probably heard that topic come up here more and more often over the last year, and to be honest I think it's what I'm going to be spending most of my time on over the next few years: what are the specifics of the embodied reader meeting an equally embodied reading technology (be it Kindle, iPad or codex)?

Maybe it's because I've been reading about Evolutionary Epistemology again. I've written about Henry Plotkin's work on EE a few times, and again I'm finding myself drawn back to it as, to me, it's the most coherent and persuasive branch of the subject. I thought I'd post something which might find its way into my thesis, but mostly just scratches my current EE itch (and is a bit off topic from e-reading). The idea of applying EE beyond biological evolution just appeals somehow.

I'd like to discuss the vision of EE that Henry Plotkin outlines in Darwin Machines and the Nature of Knowledge as the simplicity of his theory clearly matches the bare-bones mechanism of evolution - the three forces of the variation, selection, and reproduction/heredity of individual members of a species within an environment - that enables ideas like Universal Darwinism to function. I would like to argue that Plotkin's approach allows us, through it's stripping out of the specificities of biological organisms' reproduction and genetic encoding of information, to talk about EE as it might apply to technologies in their alternative environment (alternative to climates and predation and suchlike) of human culture. With non-artefact, i.e. biological entities their environment is easily defined: everything in the milieu in which they exist which can have an impact upon their development or surviving long enough to reproduce. But for technologies that milieu is more specifically defined, though the same principles apply. I would like to argue that we are the defining selective forces for our artefacts, human users are the environment for our technologies. As I hope to show alongside this discussion of EE, we provide selective pressures in a manner very similar to traditional evolution.

Plotkin's central idea is that as organisms adapt to their environments, via evolutionary selective pressures, what they pass on to their offspring in each generation is not just genetic instructions for building new bodies, but knowledge about the world that came before them (hence EE). His most striking example is that of the stick insect: a stick insect looks like a stick not because it tries to, but because generations of stick-insect parents survived better the more that they looked like sticks and avoided becoming prey long enough to reproduce and pass on genes which stipulated increasingly stick-like bodies. Plotkin argues that the stick insect's body has a knowledge of an aspect of the world far greater than its own mind is capable of.

This immediately raises the question “why use the word 'knowledge' to describe an adaptation?”, and Plotkin asks the question himself: “why take the further step of equating adaptations with knowledge?...How can the wing markings of a moth [for example] be knowledge?” (Darwin Machines, 117). Plotkin defends the word choice on the grounds of looking at what knowledge, in 'everyday life' means, saying that “knowledge, in its most common meaning, denotes a mental state that bears a specific relationship to some features of the world” (4). When we say that we “know” something we're stating that there is parity between two things “a brain state, which is a part of organismic organization, and the world itself...which is the feature of environmental order relative to which that brain state stands” (117). Knowing someone's name, or where our house is, or what a book looks like, we incorporate that thing we know into ourselves in some way; we have modified ourselves to reflect an aspect of external reality.

For Plotkin there must be a brain state which represents the thing in the world, or the aspects of the thing in the world we have access to:

knowledge is always something that comes in two parts. There is the 'knower's end' of knowledge, comprising feelings, brain states and, of course, the means of expressing the knowledge; and there is the 'world's end' of knowledge, which is that aspect of the world that is known. All knowledge is a relationship between the knower and the known (pp10-11).

Now this is not to say that there's a miniature version of the world playing out within our brains, simply that for an act of knowing to occur there must be a state of cognition and memory which has a physical instantiation and which maps to our experience of, recall, or interaction with an object in the world, and in that sense might be said to incorporate and represent it.

By envisioning knowledge in this stripped down sense we are able to use the word to describe adapted biological organisms' relation to the world. Evolutionary adaptations, like everyday human knowledge, also always have a

relational quality. Every adaptation comprises organization of an organism relative to some feature of environmental order…The wing markings of a moth stand in relation to the nervous system of a predator, specifically the way in which that nervous system is wired such that the ‘eye’ [of the moth's markings] startles the predator and perhaps causes it to flee…All human knowledge has the same two-component relationship that adaptations have (pp116-117).

This matching of body or brain states to world states is the underpinning assertion for Plotkin's vision of EE. Adaptations conform the bodies of the evolved organism to the worlds that housed its lineage; stick insects' bodies are the sum total of the knowledge acquired from the environments of its ancestors. In this way stick insects incorporate an aspect of the environment into their being: simply, they are material instantiations of the knowledge that the environments which preceded them favoured insects which looked like sticks.

My question now becomes “Are technologies manifestations of knowledge of the environments which shaped their lineage?”

For our stick insect, her ancestors were a mix of more or less stick-like insects; the fact that she exists today shows that her ancestors were the most stick-like. The gene pool of early insects generated billions of more or less ‘sticky’ bugs over time, through various mutations, and those that most resembled sticks, who were better camouflaged, avoided being eaten, and survived to reproduce and pass on their stick-like natures to their offspring resulted in our current stick insect - an instantiation of the sum total of the biological knowledge of the aspects of the environments incorporated into the bodies of her ancestors living in them through natural selection and passed on to their offspring. If we want to say that equipment can be a similar instantiation of knowledge then, as with the bare-bones evolutionary theory used above, we must find, in some way, parity between an artefact and the stick insect.

To begin with, evolution must be in place, which, as before, requires individuals, an environment for them to exist in, and the three stages. Let's use a simple artefact for our example.

The modern machete is a ubiquitous tool in many tropical countries where it's used to cut away vegetation when travelling through dense jungle, to harvest tough crops such as sugar cane, and in the home for butchering practices where a cleaver is a common alternative in other parts of the world. It's essentially a long knife, typically set into a wooden or plastic two part haft that is bolted together through a full tang. The machete, for our discussion of EE, is the individual, and, unlike the stick insect's experience, its community of potential human users are its environment.

Variation in knife manufacture and design is clear; from the first stone blades used by early hominids, through to multi-component contemporary cutting tools, the sheer variety of blade lengths and shapes, handle styles, materials, number of components, etc. is staggering. This is to be expected of a tool which has been put to so many different uses around the world and for so long. Each new development comes from a mutation which alters the range in which a feature is expressed. In a culture where knife blades are usually between two and five inches, a 15 inch blade is a mutation which, if used successfully, permanently alters the potential range of blade lengths for future generations of knives.

The contemporary, relatively standardised machete comes from a process of selection dictated by its environment. The stick insect's ancestors ran the risk of being eaten if they were not significantly stick-like. For every mutation which made them more vulnerable, predators, as part of the environment, frequently stopped them living long enough to reproduce. But for every mutation which made their genes more likely to provide a range of colouring akin to their surroundings, a range of appearances more accurately fitting the vectors of a twig, then the environment rewarded that trait by allowing it to be passed on. The insects' bodies matched a world state which remained consistent over generations; their biological knowledge of that aspect of the world grew; they had incorporated an appearance to be found in their environment into themselves.

Machetes don't look like any aspect of their human environment, but, I would argue, the same process of selection occurs. Fitness to the environment for equipment is the same as for insects in as much as it's about matching a state so that the environment doesn't obliterate the traits your particular instantiation is expressing. In a tropical climate the machete shape is the best fit for its environment. This is not to say that the machete matches the jungle, or incorporates an aspect of the jungle, it doesn't. The machete has no evolved knowledge of jungle environments. But it does have a knowledge of how part of its environment intersects with the jungle, how human users experience the jungle. A short stone knife is no use for clearing jungle plant life, so when metal came along, which allowed for thin, strong blades which could be carried easily, it was adopted. Metal also introduced a new variable: blade length. A longer blade allowed for large slashing motions to be made - inefficient for precision work, but perfectly suited to human passage through tropical terrain. This is what the machete matches, this is what the machete incorporates, the repeated moment where knife users meet the jungle, the aspect of their environment related to blade length, just as the individual stick insect is the product of past insects' repeated intersections with predators unable to distinguish between sticks and insects. Blades would have become longer and longer as users discarded shorter blades and created, or requested the creation of increasingly machete-like knives, and, similarly, blades that were too long or unwieldy would have quickly been rejected.

This is the moment of reproduction/heredity. Stick insects, having successfully evaded the selective pressures of their environment, would mate and return their particular combination of genes to the gene-pool, causing new phenotypes to express them in new ways, more or less successfully. The machete doesn't have genes, and it can't facilitate the creation of the next generation of long bladed knives, but the third evolutionary criteria of reproduction/heredity I believe still stands. When the stick insect mates this is also an adapted behaviour, and therefore, in EE, also an instance of knowledge. The ability to mate relies on knowing, in Plotkin's conception of the term, that there will be other stick insects in the environment with which mating can occur, i.e. other stick insects are part of the environment of the individual stick insect, and they have internalised that aspect in the same way as any other adapted trait. When offspring are produced an aspect of the environment (another stick insect in this case) has caused our individual stick insect's genetic material to be reproduced. Machetes have a knowledge of the consumer forces of its environment of users; its traits also get reproduced when an aspect of the environment causes them to be, i.e. when a long bladed knife is used successfully an individual user is more likely to recommend it to other potential users, and to produce or request this trait themselves when they next need the tool. Thus a machete's blade is a knowledge, not only of how humans encounter jungle plants when moving through them, but also of the consumer forces which can allow such a blade to come into being and be repeated. Blades that are too short are rejected, blades that are too long are rejected, blades which have a trait that marks a fitness to their environment have that trait reproduced in the next generation; blade length is a heritable trait in knives.

In a discussion of EE Tommi Vehkavaara (.pdf) argues that

The ability to act successfully presupposes the knowledge how to act successfully. Discoursive [sic] linguistically expressed justification is not always necessary - if the ability to act is (successfully) demonstrated, no argument can overcome this ultimate proof of knowledge. This kind of demonstrable knowledge connects us to other forms of life - every living creature needs at least some knowledge how to act successfully (in its environment). Of course, knowledge does not determine the action it enables, it is just the precondition for the action. Although an action can be seen as a presentation of knowledge, the actual action is not necessary for the existence of knowledge - knowledge is potential action, the power to do (210, emphasis in original).

A stick insect is put into action in the act of being a stick insect; a genotype is knowledge in potential, a living phenotype is knowledge in action. Every second that the stick insect is alive it demonstrates that it has a knowledge of the consistent aspects of the environments which led to its being, that there will likely be oxygen to breathe, food to eat, light to see by, predators to evade, and other stick insects to mate with. The machete differs in that it doesn't act second by second, it only acts during use; the stick insect also only puts knowledge into action when it is in concert with its environment, it just happens to never be outside of that environment. A stick insect born into a vacuum doesn't act, it has nothing to know and simply ceases, it might be argued, in some way to even be a stick insect. A machete outside of use also doesn't act, it cannot demonstrate, and therefore cannot prove its knowledge until that concert with its environment begins. But the moment that it is picked up it comes into action, and the success of its use is a measure of its knowledge. This fact actually allows us to use the notion of an Evolutionary Epistemology of Artefacts (EEoA) to define the term artefact: anything that manifests a fit with an environment, but that cannot act without the impetus of another individual is an artefact. Artefacts exist as potential knowledge until they are in use, they have, in Vehkavaara's terms, “the power to do.”

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Maybe the Dumbest Generation Came Before Us

- many people have a tree growing in their heads but the brain itself is much more grass than tree - deleuze and guattari - a thousand plateaus - 17 -

UPDATE: Mark Bauerlein replied over at Teleread.com and I'm waiting for my comment to pass moderation.  I've added the exchange to the bottom of this post, and I'll update if there are any more replies.

Recently I've been trying to make my way through Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation (2008), but now...I've given up. I just couldn't face it. As part of my research I've been collecting people's accounts of resistance to reading on screen from blog posts, newspaper articles, conversations etc., and I thought that Bauerlein's work would provide me with some interesting anecdotes for my research, on the assumption that the plural of “anecdote” is sometimes, if you're lucky, “data.”

From the first few pages, The Dumbest Generation smacks of the worst kind of get-off-my-lawn resistance to change, and Bauerlein often bashes “pro-technology” commentators, as if the printed book reading that he exalts somehow wasn't a technology itself. But I was kind of expecting this, it's the rhetoric which sells these kinds of books (see also Keen's The Cult of the Amateur). I was fairly shocked, however, by the large number of studies that Bauerlein cites, about literacy, language skills, and cultural engagement in America, which seem to report huge drops in quality (of various measures) whilst completely neglecting to take into account the effects of increasing numbers of non-native English speakers joining the country over the course of the sometimes decades long data collection. He mourns, for instance, that only “one in 10 [18-24 year olds] attended a jazz performance [in the last year], and one in 12 attended a classical music performance. Only 2.6 percent of them saw a ballet, 11.4 percent a play...One in 40 played a classical musical instrument...” (p24). But, it seems like these are (with the exception of jazz) (a) cultural activities associated (rightly or wrongly) with the heritage of the white middle classes and (b) (often including jazz) expensive pursuits. Maybe less young people in America (in the absence of data from other countries) do see less ballet or classical music now, but what of the rise of Salsa or Mariachi; of ethnic, artisanal, and slow food movements; of live (increasingly esoteric) popular music; or a few hundred other more diversely cultured pursuits? And what about the growing division between the disposable wealth of an ever expanding poor and the middle classes, couldn't this also impact on these particular forms of cultural participation?

Again, maybe I should have expected such data analysis. The broad brushstrokes of these kinds of interpretation aren't designed for sustained attention or interrogation, they're for telling people who already hold certain opinions about the state of a nation, or a generation, or a cultural product that their views are well founded. Selling people's prejudices back to them can be brutally efficient.

But I digress. I mostly hated Bauerlein's book because I couldn't finish the damn thing (I went through anger, which kept me reading, to boredom, which couldn't). Rather, I hated that, for a second, it seemed like I was bearing out his thesis: that, as a member of the digital generation, I was unable to concentrate on sustained linear arguments due to the hypnotic and anaesthetising effects of “the screen” (Bauerlein talks a lot about “the screen”).

All of this got me thinking about the kind of data such writers cite when disparaging the abilities of anyone under 30 (subtitle of The Dumbest Generation: “or, don't trust anyone under 30,” no joke). Take the “f-shape” reading that I'm apparently meant to employ when I read online: when faced with a screen rather than a book I won't read in neat lines, I'll read the first line or two, just the start of the next few, then maybe have a dig through half of the next few lines, and then go back to just looking at the first words until I hit the bottom of the page (the eye-tracking software that captures this kind of reading reports this data back as the f-shape).

So, is this how I read? Yes! All the time. I skim maybe two or three hundred articles a day if my RSS is clogged, maybe 50 emails, and 500 or more tweets (and I paired down who I was following to get to that). Most of this content doesn't even get an f-shape, more an equals sign, a title and a blitz of the first couple of lines. But this doesn't mean that I'm a drooling, clicking, screen-sapped victim of technology, it means that I go to all of those things to dig out information, and that they're an imperfect source of it, at least as far as my interests lie. I've learnt to filter an RSS feed of 300 items in half an hour, cutting out the irrelevant (from my perspective) and bookmarking the potentially enlightening. That, for me, is a new skill and it keeps me up-to-date with roughly what's going on in the major stories of the world, and in the worlds of the things that particularly interest me, and it also provides access to a relative diversity of opinion on each subject. It's not perfect (I know because it's getting slightly better all the time), but it's the best system I've found.

The “real” (read: “traditional”) reading, however, is interspersed with the hunting, or comes later, when I read books (on screen and off), and I read those book-marked RSS finds (with relative degrees of intensity), and sometimes I can't help but read something as soon as I find it, and what mostly manifests is linear progression. Why? Because what I've found, to me, is interesting. For no other reason does my eye track each line onward, one at a time. I've just finished reading a collection of writing on Husserl, a paper on the neuropsychology of gripping objects, an article about a comic book series, and an unpublished short story, all on screen, and I read every word because they were fascinating. But someone else, someone who couldn't care less about Husserl or my taste in fiction, would have f-shaped them into oblivion in the absence of something which truly gripped them.

Leaving aside whether we would have preferred them to scan material we might consider more elucidating, I wonder how many teenagers, the dumbest generation after all, just flipped through Twilight (or Harry Potter, or any book that catches their attention) rather than reading every page? If they read it on a Kindle or an iPad did they pay less attention, or did they remain rapt, learning every scene well enough to complain at what the film scripts left out? In short: does any screen have the power to make something which grips you lose that grip?

The mistake that Bauerlein, and a thousand other commentators make is that a big lump of printed prose is not an inherently good thing in of itself. If people are reading things poorly, or reading poor things, then we have bigger problems than the existence of screens, and it's to these wider issues that we should (we must) turn. If readers are just skimming the surface of words they choose to turn to, and only skimming (because skimming isn't the end of the world in an information rich environment, it's a necessity on the path to finding quality content), then there needs to be both in-school education of how to read in multiple ways in such a space, and compelling content needs to be produced.

Something that never seems to come up in the denigration of the new generation's reading habits is what it says about where they came from, that when faced with the largest repository of human knowledge and creations ever conceived of they choose to select materials out of the morass that the past generation, its progenitors, feel is beneath them. In a world where the internet archive exists and yet people watch grainy re-runs of tired shows on youtube maybe we need to ask questions of the society, what it has valued, and what values it passes on, rather than saying screens are corrupting our children (or our adults). This isn't to say that we shouldn't enjoy our time online in whichever fashion we choose, that the latest memes are worthless or to be avoided, that you shouldn't enjoy the media which gives you pleasure, guilty or not. But everyone asks, at least once in a while, whether what they consume is sufficient, whether they could be improving themselves with other content, and is it really the sheer numbness of the screen which makes us ask such questions? Or is their still some flicker from our education, from our culture more broadly that makes us wonder what we could be missing out on? Surely the more interesting challenge is how to amplify that flicker, rather than how we can get people away from a screen which, after all, as with radio or television, or even books, can present the best or worst of what our species has to offer, more or less at our request.

If people are going to keep being asked to publish books on the problems with our cultural productions then I'd like to see more of these missing arguments, arguing why people might turn to certain things, arguing for the provision of quality materials, arguing for why they're quality, and arguing convincingly, continually. We need that flicker in our midst to send us down the new paths that the screen has enabled us to follow. If readers are skimming everything they come across then maybe what they're being guided to isn't doing a good enough job, maybe it's not holding their attention, not because it's too hard, too complex, too challenging, but because it's saying nothing new, nothing compelling, nothing challenging at all.

Maybe that's why some things get skimmed, maybe that's why some books just don't get finished.

From Teleread:

Mark Bauerlein says:
A weak analysis of the data in the book. All you cite are the numbers from the SPPA on arts participation (and your assertion that opera, classical, and jazz listening have been “middle class” pursuits in US history is flat wrong–and the survey asked about listening, too, not just attending, so the “too expensive argument” doesn’t wash). What about NAEP reading scores, college remediation rates, employer surveys, SAT writing scores, etc., which are in the book? What about leisure reading rates in SPPA, NSSE, HSSSE, American Freshman Survey, etc.? Sorry, but the rates of immigration don’t come close to accounting for the declines. And to cite yourself and your own habits as contradiction isn’t even anecdotal. It’s ego. Finally, didn’t you get the joke of the sub-subtitle?
Mark Bauerlein
My reply (with a couple of typos fixed!):

I apologise if you took my piece to be an analysis of the data in the book, that wasn't my intention, I was just trying to explain my frustration with a certain kind of data analysis that seems to be repeated in the discourse associated with popular books on the decline of "preferred" cultural participation; I only held your work up as the example I had most recently engaged with.  There seemed to me, to be a neglect in the book of wider cultural issues (perhaps by necessity of a particular assignment?) which would just as significantly impact on the reception of particular cultural forms as any technology, and this frustrated me enough to write asking why such things never appear to be considered.

To address your other points: I realise that jazz, and to some extent opera and classical music more generally have not always been deemed middle class pursuits, in the case of jazz very obviously not.  But to say that they are not frequently seen that way now would naive.  I do not think they should be middle class pursuits (and I certainly don't think that no one outside of the middle classes enjoys them), so why has this become the perception?  I don't think that "the numbing effects of the screen" is a good enough answer.

More importantly where is the defence for these being more valuable cultural activities than any others?  There's a reason that these are picked out as examples of "quality" activity, it's a complex of race and class based prejudice.  This can be seen in the breadth of the claim which renders it banal, for instance: will any jazz do?  Would we rather our children listened to, or worse attended gigs of smooth jazz rather than listening to some of the challenging, complex, innovative work in hip-hop, dub-step, folk, etc., etc.?  Are we talking about Miles Davis or Kenny G here (hardly the worst of his peers, but you get the point)?  In short, I was wondering why your book, and others like it, choose to be complicit with this kind of received wisdom of quality?

As for the issue of expense, granted home listening is clearly less expensive (but, as my quotation showed, there's no doubt that you and the original study chose to pick out declines in the more expensive aspects of the pursuit of these forms).  But why was there no mention of the fact that educating yourself in listening to classical or jazz is not cheap from the perspective of a great many families?  Far too many people are unable, even if inclined, to shell out for CDs, CD players, or internet connections for their children.  This isn't uncommon, and this does affect participation rates.  The increasingly niche status of classical music in particular also pushes up CD prices making it an even less attractive avenue for those who do have a disposable income for music.

I didn't go into the other ratings that you outline in the book because a) I'm not arguing that there isn't a problem with what we seem to value culturally (only that the screen isn't to blame, and the mere availability of content we might agree on as facile or, at best, irrelevant cannot be held up alone as what guides people toward it) and b) because, again, it wasn't the intention of my piece to do a blow by blow analysis of the book, simply to share the thoughts that it promoted.

Finally, citing myself as evidence.  It was an article based on my report of reading on screen, so there's that - "I hated that, for a second, it seemed like I was bearing out his thesis: that, as a member of the digital generation, I was unable to concentrate on sustained linear arguments due to the hypnotic and anaesthetising effects of 'the screen'."  I did worry about this, it was the thought that prompted the piece, so I thought it worth spending two paragraphs out of 12 on.  Also, in the absence of data on new reading modes we *have* to rely on personal report.  I offer up my reports, other writers offer up theirs, and then we look at the official data which says "you're doing reading all wrong now" and some of us are able to say "no, we're just reading in different ways sometimes."

It would surely be odd to use a new technology in the exact same way as an older technology, but as we haven't settled on the new form's received wisdoms yet I think it's best to be as vocal as possible so that we can compare notes (incidentally, most reading used to occur out loud, standing up, and with a finger following the text?  How stupid they must have looked with their different reading mode!  Or maybe to those early scholars we'd have looked like we weren't paying enough attention when we settled down on the couch?).

To be honest, I think we'd probably agree about a lot if we were ever to meet in person.  We both seem to worry that people could be engaging with more significant content in the age of the internet, and we both worry, of course, whenever we see that children are struggling in school, and later as adults, in whatever way.  But I think that laying the blame at the foot of technology lets too many systems off the hook: lets off education at all levels; lets off a media which has lost its way and serves only a clearly failing status quo; lets off increasingly fractured communities; and lets off an economic system which causes the disparities which create and/or further all of these problems and more.

Having the platform to have your voice heard by so many, and in so valued a medium as a printed book, seems an enviable opportunity to address some of the problems in the field you chose to tackle.  But there have been too many books recently which (rightly) question the new technology, but leave everything else alone, and become complicit with data collection and interpretation which promulgates old prejudices at the expense of nuance or elucidation.  I felt that this was worth writing about, even if I couldn't do justice to all of the material you presented.


Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Reports on the Changing Bodies of Books

- but ho! if only they would make some sound, / or wear a face where faces should be found! - h.p. lovecraft -

It seems strange that I don't hear this more often, but I think it's important to remember that with a codex, a material printed and bound text, the work and the medium are as physical as one another, they are the same thing, bound in an unchanging dialogue within that one item. Not to say that the work and the pages it's printed on are the same thing, rather that when we talk about War and Peace being a book what we used to mean is that there is a codex which contains War and Peace that we can point at and say “that book is War and Peace.” We've grown, over centuries, to understand that this is the reading experience: to acquire a specific and unique (though replicable) thing and to work out what it means (plot, argument, etc.). The e-reader/e-book relationship is entirely different; what do we point to when we say “that book is War and Peace?

As Katherine Hayles puts it “[a]n electronic text literally does not exist if it is not generated by the appropriate hardware running the appropriate software. Rigorously speaking, an electronic text is a process rather than an object, although objects (like hardware and software) are required to produce it” (Katherine Hayles, “Print is Flat, Code is Deep” 79).

E-readers are as physical as any codex (though they obviously have their own specificities which establish different gestures and actions during use), but the e-books that can be read on them are ephemeral, ghostly, brought to the surface to establish a bond with the tangible object, but then returning to somewhere else, leaving the physical form of the equipment to mean by itself and in other contexts, with other works. We have corollaries for this experience of course, in television, computing, cinema, and varieties of music players; these all deploy stable physical objects which can call up diverse content, and as such we should hardly be surprised by the new equipment for reading. But perhaps the surprise is to be expected: reading had always, until the advent of the moving image, meant interacting with an object which is the book (or the scroll, or the parchment). Cinema, television, and, predominantly, computing changed that arrangement and eventually brought it into our homes and to our engagement with long form texts (rather than just subtitles) like books. E-reading threatens to make this shift irrevocable, and there is, I suppose, something to be lost here. Though it might well become trivial, at least in terms of its importance to future generations of readers, it can, and maybe should seem significant to the current generation: with screen reading the book and the object are taken apart.

I'm very interested in the effects that this has on readers, and I'm fascinated with the language people use to talk about their experiences of reading on screen as it seems like a constant outpouring of valuable data. In the same way that folk psychology has become a recognised discourse, we can see the various reports of reading on screen's “unnaturalness,” and ergonomic inadequacies as a kind of folk phenomenology - a description, stemming from first person analysis, of experience which the creator often feels can be exported, with limited modification, to other experiencers of the same or similar phenomena. Thomas Metzinger, in one of the few available classifications of the term, describes folk phenomenology as “a naïve, prescientific way of speaking about the contents of our own minds - folk-phenomenology is a way of referring specifically to the contents of conscious experience, as experienced from the first-person perspective...and is characterized by an almost all-pervading naïve realism.”  But as folk psychology can often demonstrate useful examples, methods, and states to its more academic counterpart, I would like to argue that the folk phenomenology of intuitive report, at least when it comes to e-reading, has a lot to offer us in terms of prompting us toward the issues that are central to negotiating what is qualitatively different about reading on a screen with its capacity to present an infinite array of texts.

For example, Lynne Truss, in her punctuation pedant's handbook Eats Shoots and Leaves, offers an illustrative folk phenomenological experience which seems to support this attitude: “Scrolling documents is the opposite of reading: your eyes remain static, while the material flows past” (181). Now, I don't agree with Truss' claim here, that the eyes don't move during reading where the material is scrolled rather than paginated, indeed all physiological data about eye movement during reading runs counter to it (see, for example, Stanislas Dehaene's Reading in the Brain), but there is certainly value to the report - fluid scrolling, to Truss, doesn't feel like reading at all, in fact seems its 'opposite,' where the eyes do no work and the experience seems passive in comparison to the warp and woof of the machinery.

Christine Shaw Roome, a professional fundraiser for an academic library in Canada, writing this year about her first experience of reading from an iPad for the blog Life as a Human, reports a similar position to Truss: she wonders if she's now reading a book at all, the feel of the activity has completely altered.

I noticed many things about my e-reading experience. First and foremost, my eyes grew tired faster. This was particularly true of the days that I spent in front of the computer screen only to take a “break” from my work in order to look at yet another screen. This did not feel like reading a book...[her husband interrupts her] “I’m reading a book!” But, was I? I was missing the tactile features of the book, which often comfort me. The smell and feel of the book and the way you can see how far you’ve read by measuring the thickness of the pages. When I buy a book, I always take time to look at its design - the type face, the page weight and colour, the way the ends appear to be torn or are cut precisely. The texture of the cover and the photography or illustration that accompanies the title all draw me in and are part of the experience of enjoying a book. Sometimes, I buy a book just because I like how it feels in my hands.

Roome offers us a good survey, here, of the most familiar elements of the folk phenomenological debate surrounding reading on screen: eye strain; too much time spent reading on screen; it no longer seeming to be a book; it not feeling like a book; it not smelling like a book; the wedge of remaining pages being a consistent indicator; and the object as aesthetic artefact.

The scent of physical books, old and new, has become such a shorthand for the deprivations of reading on screen compared to codex reading that a spoof range of aerosols (SmellofBooks.com) did the rounds in various discussions of the subject. The appeal to smell might seem an odd reason to cling to a medium, but, if nothing else, it shows how deeply passions run in this regard, or just how far appeals will go to demonstrate the sanctity of the old form - everything about it is 'comforting.'

What really comes through in this report from Roome, however, is the importance of haptic experience: the feel of the book in the hands is an essential part of grounding the experience as what it is. When this aspect is missing the effect is so profound, the cognitive dissonance so great, that seemingly unintuitive questions arise: “is this even a book?” “Is this reading?”

When, in Print is Dead, Jeff Gomez suggests that “there is one area of knowledge that is sacrosanct, seen to be both untouchable in terms of its utility and unimpeachable by its very nature. I’m talking about the words found in books” (12), and when when Lucien X Polastron suggests that the sole difference a paper book carries - in addition to the clearly superior epidermal pleasure it provides over that produced by touching plastic…is that the total weight of the text is constantly felt by the reader. This sensation perhaps gives the reader an impression...of possessing the whole of its meaning, an illusion whose loss could panic fragile souls” (The Great Digitization, footnote 35), then we start to close in on some of the detail motivating the folk phenomenological reports of resistance to reading on screen rooted in tactile experience of the technology of reading. A paper book represents knowledge, rather than just containing it, and its fixed and physical coherence, completed and separated from the world by its covers, assumes the projection of a definitive truth. The acquisition of knowledge and the “perfect” form of the bound and printed book are intimately associated.

An expression of this might be found in Sven Birkerts' work on the subject, work which also seems to have a folk phenomenology of codex reading underpinning its assertions:

Why, then, am I so uneasy about the page-to-screen transfer - a skeptic if not a downright resister?...I’m not blind to the unwieldiness of the book, or to the cumbersome systems we must maintain to accommodate it - the vast libraries and complicated filing systems. But these structures evolved over centuries in ways that map our collective endeavor to understand and express our world. The book is part of a system. And that system stands for the labor and taxonomy of human understanding, and to touch a book is to touch that system, however lightly (“Resisting the Kindle”).

This quotation shows a distinct attitude towards the embodiment of the text: to touch a book is to experience a unique history of evolutionary dynamics. For Birkerts there is a history of haptic engagement which comes into play with every turn of the page, a kinesthetics (and, as we also saw with Roome, a kinaesthetics) which acts as a physical reminder of the forces and efforts which go, and have gone into understanding. From the reports of the skeptics it is clear that when we turn pages we engage with the systematic pursuit of knowledge, but it's not enough just to look, we have to become, for Birkerts, for Roome, and for Truss, involved, to physically engage. And can we find that involvement in a Kindle? Or a touchscreen reader? I know that if I want to understand and persuasively support reading on screen then this is what the folk reports suggest I must find.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Interdisciplinarity: Whatever it Takes to Understand

I'm in Dundee for the Poetry Beyond Text conference.  Before I go out and investigate the city for food and a dram of something or other I wanted to post the talk I'm giving tomorrow on interdisciplinarity.  It's more of a reflective piece intended to provoke discussion rather than a presentation of research, but hopefully anyone interested in combining disciplines, particularly with English Studies, will get something out of it.  Apologies in advance for weird italics, line breaks, punctuation etc. just my tics of writing things to be read out.


Expanding on Discipline: Whatever it Takes to Understand

I'd like to discuss three things: I'd like to offer some thoughts about a specific definition of interdisciplinarity; discuss why my thesis draws on a few different disciplines; and then look briefly at a research paper that I'm intending to explore in my own work, and use it as an example of some of the possibilities and challenges that come from looking a bit further from home.

1. Interdisciplinarity.
I've come to understand “interdisciplinarity” as the production of work which truly adopts, not multiple discourses, or even multiple practices, but instead a synthesis of a newly integrated methodology and accompanying language. Regenia Gagnier, in her opening remarks to the 2009 Compass Interdisciplinary Virtual Conference, described interdisciplinarity as “a way to combine the objects and methods of different disciplines in order to solve a particular problem or tell a particular story.” There are some problems that are too complex for a single way of looking at the world, and that require new models which can only be produced by imbedding yourself in a discipline which differs from that in which you have previously trained, written, or worked, or by collaborating with a practitioner from another discipline and allowing your voices to merge. And I'd like to make it clear that, at this stage of my research career, I'm only very rarely able to attempt either.

Collaboration will, I hope, come about soon, and indeed plans are underway for a study into digital screen reading undertaken alongside a Neuropsychology researcher from the University of Nottingham. But until this comes about, if I want to be interdisciplinary under the definition that I've just given, then I've got to synthesise, or write as part of a newly synthesised discourse that doesn't yet exist in my home discipline of English Studies or the field that I draw on.

It's worth briefly clarifying how I'm thinking of some of the distinct ways of combining disciplines, besides interdisciplinarity, that come up most frequently.

Cross- and multidisciplinarities are the most common forms of linking fields, and also seem to be the methods most often confused with interdisciplinarity. They revolve around study where the item that your research focuses on would often be considered the province of disciplines different to your own. For example: a geographer writing about Quantum Mechanics would be crossdisciplinary; writing about Quantum Mechanics, English Studies, Biology, and History they would be multidisciplinary.

It should not be considered an interdisciplinary project, however, if the geographer doesn't adapt her methodology to combine the fields. In the same talk mentioned above Gagnier describes disciplines as being at least partially “defined by what they count as evidence.” If an English Studies researcher draws on work from Mathematics, but eventually relies on a form of textual interpretation rather than the production of coherent proofs, then they haven't produced interdisciplinary work, as they are relying on the same conditions of evidence that they always have. If they were instead to draw on Physics and produce empirical evidence via proof or practice, then again the work is not interdisciplinary, they are just doing Physics. The researcher has certainly moved across disciplinary lines, but no blending has occurred, and most importantly, no problems resistant to solution by either discipline can be solved by her movement.

This is not to denigrate cross- or multidisciplinarity; sometimes work from one discipline can readily solve a problem in another, and the two simply require a medium to force them to communicate. But, in line with Gagnier, some problems are just too big, or rather too complex, for this approach to function.

Lastly, though a discussion of the contested nuances of transdisciplinarity is beyond the scope of this paper, it's well worth noting that it can loosely be thought of as the breakdown of disciplinary boundaries in order to produce an attempt at a unified and holistic knowledge of a subject. Interdisciplinarity doesn't call for us to dispense with disciplinarity in this way, only the perceived inviolability of its boundaries.

2. My own research.
With these definitions in mind I'd like to turn to the experience of my own research.

I've always found disciplinarity challenging. During my Creative Writing undergraduate, where I quickly realised that I wasn't the novelist I imagined, and ended up trying to write about atomic structures and the chemistry of paint molecules in ekphrastic poetry, I developed an interest in Critical Theory, and it was during my Critical Theory MA that I really got into Copyright Law. So during the first year of my PhD I sat in on some classes for a Copyright MA, and it must have been sifting through legal history for another two years that got me interested in Cognitive and Neuropsychology.

Now I find myself in an English department finishing up a PhD on the new technology of reading from portable screens where the first half of the thesis looks at Neuropsychology and STS studies in order to attempt to better understand the class of objects we refer to as technologies, and the second half focuses on the tactile experience of reading on a screen and eventually depends on a mix of Evolutionary Biology and Phenomenology to make its claims about how we experience and adjust to objects over time.

Whilst it's become clear that I might well have commitment issues, I'm unfortunately not polymathic and don't pretend to be. But the idea of going to whatever is required, whatever you think might help, whatever it takes in order to better understand something that escapes you, that fascinates me.

Often when I meet someone at an English Studies conference who asks me what my thesis is on, and I say that I look at the new technologies of reading, and try and see why so many people dislike and mistrust reading on screen, then I get a warm smile, and an approving nod. “Yeah, they're horrible aren't they?” they say, “nothing like reading a book.”

“I agree,” I say, “I'm learning that it's really nothing like reading a book, despite the fact it's still just words passing in front of our eyes. That's what got me started on the project really, wondering why I prefer reading from paper so much.”

And then there's a couple of stock responses: “Well, it's obvious really, isn't it, they just don't feel right, do they?” or, more weirdly, “they don't smell right,” and “you can't read them in the bath.” Or, the best one, “well, we weren't meant to read from a screen, were we? And that makes it so bad for people's brains of course.” Variants of this last one are coming up a lot more lately.

But I've held all of these views myself, every last one: Paper feels better; it's more robust; it's more interesting to touch; and technology is this unnatural thing which might get in the way, and might even do us harm. But my two favourite questions are “how?” and “why?” and it turns out that when you attack these stock responses, these stock attitudes, with how and why then you get some very unsatisfactory results.

“Screens stop people paying attention” - how? “Because it's nothing like reading a book” - why? The words are the same. “Well, because it doesn't feel right” - why? “Because paper feels better than plastic and glass,” and then we descend into this childish game, why why why why why? And it really doesn't feel like there's a bottom to those “whys” because often people, myself certainly included, don't even contemplate why they might hold the beliefs about certain kinds of objects that they do.

The physical world, of which physical books are a very pleasant part, is just something most of us accept as meeting our hands and eyes unmediated. The idea that what we feel, I mean rawly, viscerally, gravity goes down, stone is hard, feathers are light, feel, that our emotional response to such fundamental sensations could be even subtly different from person to person, based on occasionally borderline hegemonic cultural preconceptions, this is something that we rarely consider.

As to the “fact” of a screen being worse for a brain to read from then a physical book: whether that's true or not I want to know the how and the why of it before I'll advocate imposing the mythology of codex reading onto the next generation of readers, a group who might, conceivably, be far better off without the fetishisation of linear print on paper, and the types of intelligence it fosters.

Sometimes, if departmental wine has been involved, I might even attempt a version of this diatribe, at which point my hypothetical interlocutor is good enough to ask: “well, how can you find evidence for this either way?” and the missing words and intonation are clear “how can you find the evidence: you're an English student.”

It's certainly a fair question; English Studies, traditionally, only has a few successful ways of thinking about such things.

Research investigating the materiality of texts has been around for a very long time in Humanities circles, and Book History and Textual Scholarship are well established fields. We've gotten pretty good at understanding what makes a codex do what it does from a textual standpoint, and there's a whole language readily available for explaining how an author or an editor might alter page space, binding, editions, and myriad other material decisions, to produce particular effects.

Phenomenology has become increasingly available to English Studies researchers interested in objects' and bodies. But Phenomenology, at least at its inception with Husserl, and then to varying degrees with later adopters, is marked out as a philosophy which initially strips out both the transcendent and the scientific in its quest to see things “as they are,” to remove any prior apprehensions we might be working under, and to get to things, phenomena, as they are manifested.

Although its true blending with English Studies should definitely be considered as interdisciplinary, because Phenomenology is not primarily seen as being empirically evidence-based, researchers in English can feel that Philosophy is so much of a sister discipline that they are able, for better or worse, to simply glom the findings and language of Phenomenology onto their usual work with relative ease.

The digitisation of texts, the rise of the Digital Humanities, and the so called “computational turn” in general, have also produced numerous approaches to discussing materiality whilst working with written materials, and represent, as with Textual Scholarship, a genuine demonstration of not only the power of interdisciplinarity, but also the potential for Humanities scholars to move well outside of the previously fixed boundaries of their disciplines and add immense value both to their own scholarly background, and to the new fields that they encounter. The new databases, languages, artworks, games, tools, and entire disciplines that are emerging out of this work are often the products of synthesis, not just of juxtaposition, and as such they can be better equipped to tackle novel complex problems and narratives.

So English Studies has, to my mind, three compelling discourses fairly readily available to it to discuss the material effects of reading: Textual Scholarship and Book History; some aspects of Phenomenology; and work still emerging out of the Digital Humanities.

But when it comes to understanding the impacts of digitisation on reading; on research; on thought; on pedagogy at all ages; on development at all ages; then researchers in English need to realise that this is an inherently material affair. This is all about bodies, objects, and changes in their embodiment, and if English Studies wants to be truly engaged, and truly useful in this conversation then we need to face up to its size and complexity, and this might mean asking if our current strategies are enough.

3. A research paper
I would like to finish by suggesting that Cognitive Neuroscience, particularly as a naturalised form of Phenomenology, is a great site for interdisciplinary and crossdisciplinary research, from the Sciences and the Humanities, into the impact of digitisation on reading.

In December of 2009 Christopher Davoli, Feng Du, Juan Montana, Susan Garverick, and Richard Abrams published a research paper entitled: “When meaning matters, look but don’t touch: The effects of posture on reading.” The paper is interested not so much with posture as with hands, and asks: if our hands are physically near written material, does this affect our textual interpretation skills?

If you happen to be a Psychologist then that this paper exists is probably not too surprising, but to me it was a revelation. I've just gotten to the stage of my second chapter where I need to support the notion that hands and bodies affect cognition, and that this might be part of the reason that people worry about changes to reading activities which involve new uses, or even the absence of use of the hands, at least at some subconscious level. And here's a paper which addresses that exact issue. Does holding a text for reading have a different effect than when the hands are removed from the visual field, for example when words are up on a computer screen?

The short answer appears to be yes, but not in the way, I suspect, unless you're familiar with the paper, that you might be thinking. In fact holding a text in the hands appears to be worse for comprehension.

The paper begins by citing numerous studies which demonstrate the brain's acute interest in visual and spatial information directly surrounding the hands. This makes intuitive sense when we think about tool use: we need incredibly precise information about our hands' position in space when we dextrously and accurately manipulate objects.

But this incredible precision - and it really is remarkable, particularly when you compare even the infants of our species to our closest primate relatives -, this precision comes at a cost, and Davoli et al identify that cost as manifesting in decreased semantic understanding: when our hands are near something the drain of producing a heightened spatial awareness interferes with the comprehension of information required by another realm.

This conclusion comes from Davoli's team carrying out Stroop tests, a standard test in experimental Psychology for determining the speed of semantic processing, where the congruence or incongruence of the example was indicated by the test subject either pressing a button to the left or right side of the screen, i.e. their hands were near the text, or pressing a button on their left or right leg, i.e. their hands were away from the text.

The team found a statistically significant, and in some cases dramatic drop in response times when the answer was indicated with the hands by the sides of the screen over being indicated with button pushes on the legs. Their conclusion, iterated in the title of their paper, is that when it comes to semantic comprehension: look, but don't touch.

Naturally I want to incorporate this research into my thesis because it provides a compelling counter-narrative to those who say that screen reading impedes comprehension. Things might not be so simple: Adjustment to a new reading practice may well cause a drop in comprehension, but reading from a desktop screen seems fundamentally no more, and could potentially be less cognitively demanding than reading a text held in the hands.

So how do I use this work? And why might it be hard to?

When it comes to use I have three choices.

  1. I do some Cognitive or Neuropsychology, I get involved in the production of data, and this is what I'm actually hoping to do with the researcher from Nottingham that I mentioned earlier: we're trying to devise a useful follow up experiment and publish the results in different forms in both a Psychology journal and an interdisciplinary Humanities journal, sharing the task of writing in different proportion for each write up. This work could either be cross- or interdisciplinary depending on how we affect one another's practices, and whether we enter into a discourse which doesn't already exist in disciplinary Psychology or English Studies.
  2. Secondly I could quote the paper as evidence for an assertion. This is the solo crossdisciplinary approach, where I'd simply draw on work which would normally be considered outside of my field and bring it into my existing study.
  3. Lastly I could work alone to use the paper as part of worrying out a new interdisciplinary approach.

My second chapter attempts a blend of Evolutionary Epistemology and Phenomenology in order to discuss tactility and digital reading, and I hope that the language that emerges out of that combination is new, and productive, and, yes, interdisciplinary.

But rather than producing a new language, my work could also enter into the existing interdisciplinary “middle” language that Shaun Gallagher describes in his work How the Body Shapes the Mind, a discourse which Gallagher believes must sit between Phenomenology and Cognitive Neuroscience in order to best allow them to talk to one another.

Regardless of the specifics, there are obvious potential upsides to drawing on such work, most notably finding a way to provide evidence and understanding of something that would otherwise be unavailable to me via the conventional discourses of my discipline.

But it's also clearly not easy, not just in the intellectual activity, but also in some of the basic problems of drawing on another field. For instance: I'm not so familiar with Neuropsychological research that I can accurately or intuitively contextualise this particular paper. I've studied various flavours of English at university level for nearly eight years, but I've looked at even the tiny aspect of Psychology that I'm immediately interested in for only about 20 months. And this disparity isn't going to fix itself in even another 10 years of work.

I will always know the history and discourse of English Studies better than I know Neuropsychology, unless I give up English and start my Neuropsych undergrad tomorrow. This may seem an obvious point, but everyone seems to know a researcher doing inter- or crossdisciplinary work who believes that it is a problem surmountable in the short term. To put it bluntly I think that they are hugely mistaken, and that it is disingenuous to presume even a roughly comparable sufficiency to disciplinary practitioners in the new discipline, even just in the niche that they're investigating, until they've been occupying that new field for a period of several years. Disciplines are just too dense.

A related problem is that I have no idea what this means. 

Really, none. I have no training in statistics, and therefore I rely on others, either in their discussion sections, in reviews, in forums, in emails, or in face-to-face conversations to aid me in interpreting results. This keeps you very humble, but these harsh displays of disciplinary inadequacy can also be a great reminder of the need for balance.

On the one hand, to intentionally blind ourselves to aspects of an object under discussion isn't a workable strategy if we wish to progress in our understanding. On the other, however, for most of us the requirement of polymathism simply isn’t an option. But I don't think that a lack of extensive contextual knowledge or specific skills are reasons to abandon attempts at interdisciplinary work, or any work which questions the rigidity of disciplinary boundaries. Instead I firmly believe that, as Merlin Donald describes the incomplete data available to evolutionary psychologists, “some knowledge is better than none,” provided we fully realise and acknowledge our limitations.

Recourse to a few lines of abstract ‘science’ is not enough to expand, let alone explode a discourse; there must be an attempt to engage with the new discipline on its own terms, at the same time as acknowledging when to refer readers to the relevant disciplinary materials if they want to pursue the roots that lie beneath the synthesised, adapted, or appropriated idea, metaphor, or concept you've explored.

Dialogue, generosity, and a deference to established expertise can only strengthen a position which doesn't offer the pretence of comprehending every aspect of a problem, but which instead demonstrates the complexity of the issue of understanding, and calls for a blended methodology suitable to the task.