Monday, 27 February 2012

On Building Palaces

- how sweet the silent backward tracings! / the wanderings as in dreams--the meditation of old times resumed / --their loves, joys, persons, voyages - walt whitman - memories -

I’ve been fascinated with memory palaces since first encountering them in my teens reading about Hannibal Lecter (briefly discussed here). The idea that a person could build a beautiful space in their minds and escape to it, and, at the same time, improve their memory and ability to make connections, this remains a beautiful image to me today, but it was unimaginably perfect to the unfocussed only child that I was (ok, and still am…). I toyed with building such a mental structure, and managed to do an ok job of memorising cards and attaching them to the street and house I grew up in, but a workable palace always escaped me; I was distracted and, at that time, probably felt there little worth remembering. Memory palaces became reduced to another example of wonderful things other people did, like magic or wingsuit flying.

But why bother, of course, to memorise anything at all? “We have Google for that” etc. Having to remember things is starting to seem quaint, and to be honest I have some sympathy for this view. I’ve never been convinced, for instance, that a written exam tests anything approaching a useful skill. It doesn’t examine writing skill any better than well researched coursework, and it doesn’t test your ability to interrogate an idea under pressure any better (and I think probably much worse) than a structured oral discussion. Instead, the arguments for retaining remembering as a skill, at least when it comes to education and research, must surely lie in being able to make novel links between data points that are kept in mind.

I won’t list the books and blog posts dedicated to mourning the effects of digitisation and the internet on our minds, everyone has their favourite/most loathed. These are the voices heard, arguably, at the point of transition from a culture of memory to a culture of access. The best case would be that the transition is swift and we move to a society which prides the particular skills of the digital age (as the society we leave prides the particularities of book learning), rather than trying to map the concerns of an old world onto the new with increasingly fraught and fractious results.

The worst case, however, is a lost generation (or two, or more) who are expected to possess a host of new digital specific skills in the adult world that are not yet valued by the education culture they find themselves embedded in. These are the students who might, already, be failing on academic courses even as they start to write the things which impact upon the world, even as the cultural products which surround them seem to feed, promote, and reward their fledgling abilities.

So, a pressing research question for Digital Humanities might be “how do we make tools to avoid a lost generation?” And one response might be “digital memory palaces” (though this is, perhaps, a hopeful thought experiment rather than a viable suggestion).

Imagine a system where you could easily build and edit rooms and buildings online (maybe selecting them from a list of famous places, maybe building them out of photos), rooms that could be populated with discrete objects which, in turn, could be tagged with data (if we’re being wishful it could be virtual) reality, but VR isn’t a necessary requirement for a culture increasingly used to traversing and memorising rich 3D environments in games; when navigating World of Warcraft, or Skyrim for instance, many players abandon the maps for these huge expanses as they develop a sense of scale and placement of familiar landmarks (and in the case of WOW this still ably functions in relatively homogenous terrain)). Zotero enables researchers to curate articles and references into projects for easy reference, so why not have a room? You’d perform a regular Google search to find key articles, and at a click they get saved into a holding grid. After your research, go into your memory system, go to the room built for your project and create and tag objects with the relevant associated files taken from the grid. An essay on Foucault might be attached to a sculpture of a nude, or, better, The History of Sexuality could be attached to a pornographic calendar (the point of a memory palace is that the associations are memorable!), etc. etc. You could physically draw links between objects by clicking on each and having a coloured string seen to be tied between them. If specific articles seems too much then what about the plan for an essay or a book based around the arrangement of objects tied to a particular idea giving a compelling visual (and easily adjustable) display of your work in progress?  I know that when I was writing my thesis it was hard to keep everything in mind, to see the shape of the whole project, and maybe such a system, particularly if used from the start would have helped to visualise the work.

Such a palace, a room system, stored in the cloud and used regularly, would build up a history of your projects; by glancing into old rooms you could be reminded of ideas which might help for new research, to see the old connections you’d made. More interestingly this might work offline, and this might be considered the end goal, to provide you with a digitised visual guide to your thinking that would also function when the computer wasn’t there. Because you’d have built a memorable palace you’d have been training yourself to think in this historically significant way. On the train, or taking a walk, you could amble through the halls to your new work and start to think your way through, to rearrange. If a flash of insight came the next time you logged on you’d make the changes to the room until it matched your mental map and thereby further cement the connection. Maybe, after a while, eventually, you wouldn’t need to log on at all, the palace would be mentally accessible and that’s all you’d need.

In a school setting where you’re still expected to learn the periodic table a 10 or 12 year old would build their first room, do their first revision. That small room might be the start of a palace which will be with them, growing, their whole lives, online and off. As their school system places continued privilege on memory in a world increasingly based on access and links the digital memory palace would sit between the two, an outsource of memory which also fosters an ancient memory technique lost to scholastic life. By making memory and access techniques available in the same space, students who’ll later become researchers could learn their most efficient and effective blend of creative techniques.

Maybe this is just a digital art project, a comment on the fate of memory. But it’s also a tool I’d love to get a chance to use.

*Update*: This could change things...

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

On the Perils of Balancing Old Lives With New

- i swear i think now that everything without exception has an eternal Soul!
the trees have, rooted in the ground! the weeds of the sea have! the animals!
i swear i think there is nothing but immortality!
that the exquisite scheme is for it, and the nebulous float is for it, and the cohering is for it;
and all preparation is for it! and identity is for it! and life and materials are altogether for it! - walt whitman - to think of time -

This blog has been on a bit of a hiatus. Three and a bit months is too long a gap, of course, and maybe even too long to have continued to describe myself as being an "academic blogger," but that's something I absolutely want to be, a general project I have faith in, that academics should share research early, democratically, and socially. The gap in writing also seems ungrateful: this blog has led to publications, to career opportunities that I hope I'll get a chance to write about more in the near future, and has started conversations which I've needed to have in order to make my research better.

So it continues.

I'd like to give some reasons, not excuses, for why the blog has been neglected as I think they raise issues about what it takes to be both a good digital scholar and an early career academic. I'm very very lucky to have a good academic job, I know what the market's like, I know that, there but for the grace of whatever, I could very easily have been writing CVs and temping right now. But I also know that I worked to get where I am, and that the work (and play) that I did to be good at what I do is under threat from the work I do now I've got there. I also know this is no problem but my own, that a lot of people are going through this right now, but maybe we should share more advice on how we try and find the right balance.

My old life and my new life are...different, at least in terms of what I have to fit into my time:

In 2011 I taught two first year classes and had a long distance girlfriend. In September I finished my PhD after 4 years of research. I blogged.

At the start of October I began my job as a Teaching Fellow. Since then I became a module convenor for around 350 first years and taught two classes; I helped to run an MA in Theory and ran a seminar; I taught literature for the first time to three 3rd year groups, and I gave proper hour long lectures; I helped out with a third year Advanced Critical Theory workshop; made new friends after 60% of the people I knew left; joined two research networks; published an article; marked around 250 papers (from exams to 5,000 word dissertations); advised on a book proposal; wrote a module; attended more meetings than I can count; saw my 30 personal tutees and 15 dissertation students; and I started teaching Modernism to two second year classes. My girlfriend still lives four hours away. I did not blog.

Let me say right now that it's been a blast, I would not swap what I've been up to, what I've learnt, for anything, but at least part of the reason I got to do all of this was because for the last few years I wrote, read tons of articles in my RSS feed, read books, watched films, played games, hung out on Twitter, sent emails, kept up with people and the news, and generally tried to learn about interesting things (or at least things that interested me). I study the contemporary: reading technology, internet culture, modern theory, politics and philosophy, experimental writing, developments in cognitive and neuroscience, and yet I feel like recently I haven't been engaged with anything outside of a very small sphere of admin and teaching. I read less, I write less, I watch less.

This isn't a problem, not yet, but it could be. I have students who want to write dissertations or study with me because of my interests, interests which are fast becoming "things I used to do."

Now, next year all those classes and lectures will be written, the reading will be done, and I guess it will be a bit (a lot?) easier. But what if what made me good enough to do this can't be balanced with what I now do? That's a scary thought.

I have no answers, but thought that, in case anyone else is suffering these balance issues, I'd just say what have become my digital essentials, what I've come to realise I can't live without if I still want to consider myself a digital citizen/scholar/researcher as well as a teacher:

  • A pruned and useful Twitter feed - Even if I'm just lurking it keeps me informed. I don't follow people whose opinion I don't value (this doesn't mean I always agree with them...), and I don't think it's best, at least for me, as a social network (though I still use it for that maybe 20% of the time). I've got space to follow a few more people, but I tend to keep it pretty in check so that the time I spend on there is informative as well as fun.
  • A diverse, but not over-huge RSS feed - This is where I get my news, both academic and personal interest. I've cut back a lot, but there's still plenty of reading each day on music, technology, academia, friends' blogs, politics, philosophy, etc. Having everything in one place to skim and to bookmark is the most efficient use of my time at the moment.
  • Two email accounts - One for friends and family and people who understand if I take a while to reply (this is also what I use to sign up for stuff so it takes the brunt of the spam), one for work. This separation has been essential. I might not make inbox 0 very often, but I do ok.
  • Dropbox and Google Docs (not just a thumb drive) - I need all my files everywhere and backed up, these things have saved me so many times.
  • A favourites folder of useful links backed up with Xmarks - Vital procrastination, education, and digitisation tools (including blogger, which should be all three), and with Xmarks again I can access them anywhere.

And that's really it. I follow links, of course, and I might use any number of digital services in any given week, but this is my fundamental slimmed down digital life. I miss games. I might get to play a little Red Dead Redemption once in a while, but it's not a day-to-day thing. I don't watch any TV, and I only watch movies at the cinema. I don't miss Facebook, and Google+ didn't work out. This gives me as much time as I can muster for reading and music, a semblance of a social life, a girlfriend who's been unbelievably tolerant while I've found my feet, and now, I hope, more blogging and academic writing.

I'd love to hear from anyone who's had to work out a better balance, and what they had to keep, what they had to leave out from their digital life. I'm sure my balance will change, I'm sure it could be better, but this is just about working.


UPDATE: Clairey Ross, a fantastic and enthusiastic DHer if ever there was one, has been having a heck of a year by the sounds, and she's been working on her own slimmed down digital life. Go check out that post to see how someone else is trying to juggle everything (and subscribe to her blog too, many a great project to be found).