So Relatable

Very briefly, I thought this passage from “The Secret Lives of Tumblr Teens” reminded me of last week’s discussion about avatars and AI, Turing tests, and the paradox of identifying with something that is not human or not “real.”

Researching their way to relatable played out most interestingly in one demographic: girls. As of last fall, only 10 percent of internet users use Tumblr, according to the Pew Research Center, but 23 percent of teen girls do, compared with 5 percent of teen boys. At one point, Lilley and Greenfield noticed, 65 percent of the So-Relatable readership was female. Greenfield confessed he’d written many posts from a girl’s point of view, posts he didn’t relate to, and, when he got flustered as I repeatedly demanded specifics, Lilley interrupted: “We’ve never had a period.” Period posts do really well. Lilley showed me a post about a girl asking a friend to check her pants in the bathroom. “That’s obviously something we’ve never said to each other.”

This takes me back to Alan Turing’s original test, the one that asked participants not to identify non-human speech, but female speech.

In So Relatable, the participant was able to use what he calls “research” to relate to females on Tumblr so well that they demanded to know how he handled his own experiences with periods, much to his discomfort as a teenage boy who’d never had one.  It seems to me that his tacit intelligence as a social communicator far outstrips his knowledge of how social communication works–what’s happening here isn’t just “research” but an ability to understand a discourse community outside of his own physical world experience.

Also this exists:


Patchwerk Girl

Next I want to talk about Patchwork Girl by Shelley Jackson, and this is not going to be easy or pretty–but neither is the Patchwork Girl.

Last night I got the results of a DNA test that my mother paid for, for a Christmas present. Nothing is better at emphasizing how we are all patchwork than a DNA results report. We’re all made up of recombinant chunks of information, material information or information that materializes, as is the PG, bastard remediation child of Mary Shelley out of Frankenstein.  Looking at the illustration of my 23 DNA chromosomes, and especially of the X chromosome that directed me down the path of identified womanhood and all that implies and entails, was strangely gratifying. The human genome or the human program, the writing of being alive. Runtime.

In this video, Shelley Jackson is mesmerizing as she reads her work to the camera. It feels as if I’m witnessing someone who has just been let out of an oppressive situation, or prison. At 2:14 in the second video of her Pathfinders’ session on YouTube, she pauses after reading a longish passage on Mary’s meeting with her female monster, and directs the audience to a fork in the text, a link called “written” and another called “sewn.” The reader can choose: do you want the familiar path of “written” text or the less known path of sewing a bodily text like that of the story? While you  must choose, you can return and try a different path, which provides choice, and a kind of freedom.

Before going on, we’ve talked earlier about how the digitization of texts seems to promote the hypermediazation of print, with at least part of the population hyperaware of the material nature of print and books in a new way.  I talked about the interest in making bound books by hand and in handmade journals to be written in by hand, often with handmade paper (on this site, with recycled materials) as well.  One of the neatest apps I’ve seen is Paper by 53, which allows you to go around the loop again and redigitize and simulate the experience of working on handcrafted paper with simulations of watercolor, oil, charcoal, etc. Jackson chooses writing “for the hell of it” and reads a beautiful, dense passage that describes the sewing of the monster to quilting, a tribute to a traditionally female activity that wastes nothing in the process, and aligns writing with sewing. Then she reads the “sewn” passage which leans into metaphors of writing to describe sewing the monster together. These forked choices seem like a making apparent of the insistence of metaphor to own our actions and spaces of the real, and also of the gap between what is done and what is experienced.

One of the most powerful sequences of the text is the hypertextual image map of the monster in which every body part is linked to the story of its original woman. Each of these women has a life which was limited by circumstances but also filled with some passion or obsession that is now expressed by the monster. They were in hidden pain of one kind or another during life, and in death, they are worn by the monster and no longer hidden.  The tongue’s (Susannah’s) story, for example, is one of unbridled desire and expression, through food, drink, and words, and even punishment in the stocks for public drunkenness cannot contain her: “a fishy stew” of gossip, poetry, heresy, and news emerge from the monster’s mouth. After spending time in this graveyard–as the stories are mapped onto images of graves–you emerge with the parts you need to create her.

The quilt section moves away from the analogy of a physical body being brought back to life toward something much more clearly about composing in a digital environment–moving writing front and center out of the shadow of the body. This illustrates Hayles’ description of how pattern/randomness is superseding presence and absence.  The original Frankenstein story is not about mutation, but about the constructed presence of an artificial life form, energized by science to simulate life and to have a conscious mind. Jackson’s tale, however, is using the image of this constructed presence to show us something new: the manipulation of patterns held together by data/codes to “sew together” a unified text.  And in doing so, it hypermediates human bodies and the condition of being flesh and living, suffering, experiencing, and dying.

Patchwork Girl is also about women’s work. Women’s work is now a focus of pop music such as the rap videos of Cardi B. and the musical productions of Rhianna and Beyonce, and these artists also do not shy away from the woman’s body as a site of work, whether it be by singing and dancing, making videos, dealing with oppressive politics, or dancing in a strip club. Men have always claimed their work as a source of power, and sought pleasure from it when possible, and claimed pleasure from the love, labor, or entrapment of women.  Patchwork Girl celebrates the grimy, gritty, material activities of women’s work, celebrates their pleasure, and hypermediates it through a virtual platform of digital work.




More Hayles…

We are now in a position to understand mutation as a decisive event in the psycholinguistics of information. Mutation is the catastrophe in the pattern/randomness dialectic analogous to castration in the presence/absence dialectic. It marks a rupture of pattern so extreme that the expectation of continuous replication can no longer be sustained. But as with castration, this only appears to be a disruption located at a specific moment. The randomness to which mutation testifies is implicit in the very idea of pattern, for only against the background of nonpattern can pattern emerge. Randomness is the contrasting term that allows pattern to be understood as such. The crisis named by mutation is as wide-ranging and pervasive in its import within the pattern/randomness dialectic as castration is within the tradition of presence/absence, for it is the visible mark that testifies to the continuing interplay of the dialectic between pattern and randomness, replication and variation, expectation and surprise. (48)


Orange is the New Black. Mutation is the new Castration. Maybe in 20 years, that joke would be mainstream enough so that Netflix could name a series that too. (Or maybe it wouldn’t take 20 years for that to be funny–seems like culture moves faster in both directions now.)

This is going to be a short post, but I would like everyone to think about how “mutation is the new castration”–assuming that you have some knowledge of what Hayles is talking about. If not, review this. Hayles does a good job of describing the difference between Lacan’s “presence/absence” and Freud’s. Modern pop culture is fairly obsessed with mutation, so it should not be very difficult.


Noise, Pattern, and Complexity

I’m going to try at a few shorter blog posts this weekend and publish them as I finish them. The first one is an informal, rather collage-like response to Hayles’ chapter.

…”an infusion of noise into a system can cause it to reorganize at a higher level of complexity”…(Hayles, “Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers“)

This ^^ seems like one of the most optimistic takes on present reality ever, but more about that later.

What does Hayles mean when she says “noise”? Does noise mean chaos? Obviously she’s not talking about noise as a simply aural exchange of waves hitting an eardrum or other interpretative organ of sound. What is noise when we’re speaking of information?

Shift occurs in this chapter after the above statement to a discussion of the material conditions of writing and how they changed between hand-to-pen script, the manual typewriter, and electronic media (presumably electric typewriters into word processing). In the flickering signals of electric text, text is both absent and present. This is a constant of intermediacy, the flickering that looks present, but is actually in and out and a bit unstable. We can better grasp the instability of electronic text thinking about downtimes, lost files, recovery processes. We can lose a book but we are certain that the lost book still exists in the material world. A lost file is a pattern lost to an indeterminable virtual space that must be reconstituted from data–a pattern that must be reclaimed from the noise of other data.

“Reality is not my best window.”–participant in Sherry Turkle’s MUD.

The material nature of books and other print texts, as Hayles points out, is only becoming noteworthy now to us. Last semester, faculty in the Writing Program where I teach were as delighted as children to attend a workshop given by our university library on making tiny books from scratch. Print books, or even better, handmade ones, have a preciousness to them now. In a time when most people are losing their ability to write out things in legible longhand, there is a premium market for handcrafted embossed leather journals to be filled by hand. This can be related back to last week’s discussion of hypermedia, I think. The elements of a printed book that were once relegated to the background of awareness can become their most prominent and appealing feature.

Even this WordPress site: in the dashboard where I am typing this post, there is an appearance of presence of words, but as my fingers fly over the keyboard, stopping and starting, backing up and erasing, I cannot use any language that actually states what I am doing. I am not flying. I am not erasing anything. I’m managing data, organizing it in a series of patterns via keyboard/computer/server. The language I generally use to say this is archaic, metaphoric. But I don’t want to give it up.

“The pattern/randomness does not erase the material world: information in fact derives its efficacy from the material infrastructures it appears to obscure” (Hayles 43).

Looking at this Dashboard (what we call the organization of digital tools we use to pull patterns of meaning out of the noisy data being input and processed and put out again), I see columns that are just the surface of what I imagine is possible for this blog to do and say and organize. Behind every plugin is a story and people. But what about the activity that the plugins do without human intervention? The programs are creating patterns out of noise, too, without any intervention from me, although I can intervene in small ways to sometimes make big changes in the way they do this. And I have the ability to crash it all down, like I did earlier this week when I uninstalled two instances of WordPress on my server.

Hayles’ stated thesis regards the systemic movement from presence/absence to pattern/randomness in contemporary informatics. Informatics, after Donna Haraway,  is “the technologies of information as well as the biological, social, linguistic, and cultural changes that initiate, accompany, and complicate their development” (44). I am interested in how everyone processes this thesis, and I think that Hayles does well to include examples of how this might manifest. I have two examples that help me to follow. One has to do with online teaching and attendance, which will take us away from texts for a moment. The face-to-face model of classroom teaching rests heavily on the presence and absence of the teacher and the students. Digital technology has changed the way that we relate to this and has made us hyperaware of the oddness of the insistence on presence in education. Online education, in all its various forms–online classes, MOOCs, self-teaching through YouTube, webinars, Twitter conferencing–models this shift from presence/absence to pattern/randomness. An online class is marked by patterns of information exchange and activity rather than attendance.

Another example is the Sherlock episode mentioned in the syllabus–“A Scandal in Belgravia”–but there are examples all over current television and video channels like YouTube that would be equally fit. I like what “Scandal” does with flickering signifiers, cell phones, gender relations, and sex–Irene Adler’s dominatrix (pixelmatrix?) is a controller of dispensing informational patterns first and foremost, and she is even for a while able to match Sherlock’s ability to read them. SIB, like all of the new Sherlock episodes, is another obvious and highly successful attempt to remediate a series of beloved books–not the first attempt to do so, but the first one in the post-smartphone era. To take the original Irene Adler of “A Scandal in Bohemia” and read them side-by-side using Hayles as a guide would be an interesting project. Surely Steven Moffat was thinking of a computerized matrix when converting Adler to this new role.

In the image above, Adler is naked, which she calls her “battle suit” to do “battle” with Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock in this series reads people, as we literally see typeface of his thought process across the screen, making sense of the seemingly random details of their clothes, skin, hair, gestures, and other signs of their presence. Here when he is confronted with Adler au naturel, he can’t read her anymore. He associates her in this state with incomprehensible chaos, as you can see by the question marks ??????. But as the episode progresses, this chaotic state propels Sherlock to an even higher state of complexity, astuteness, and speed to read signals and decipher clues.

“In contrast to Lacanian psycholinguistics, derived from the generative coupling of linguistics and sexuality, flickering signification is the progeny of the fascinating and troubling coupling of language and machine.” (Hayles 50)

Do you have an example of evidence like this that focuses Hayles’ thesis? Do you see problems with Hayles’ thesis? If you read further in How We Became Posthuman, where do you think this thesis leads us regarding textual studies?









The Technologizing of the Word and Other Weird Tales

Digital rhetoric has sparked much new interest in the quirkier forms of classical rhetoric, due in large part to the rise of “secondary orality”–another topic that the readings this week should have probably covered in more detail (think Walter Ong), but one has to start somewhere.  Ong wrote Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word in 1982, around the time that typewriters became word processors and a few pioneers began to send e-mail (with the hyphen that has since collapsed for most to email). Guess what TIME’s cover of the year was in 1982?

 It looks like The Watcher from the old Doctor Who series.  That would have been pretty appropriate since Tom Baker was Doctor in the early 80s and he was terrorized by a gauzy white figure like this before being replaced by a really pale and blond younger actor in “Castrovalva,”with a script inspired by an Escher painting.  You can almost feel the nervousness, the technophobia, even as TIME celebrates the “personal” computer. Enjoy the beginning of the end, humankind.  TIME even altered their annual “Man of the Year” back then to “Machine of the Year.” Pity that the machines got there before gender-neutral humans.

Doug Eyman set out to craft a unified theory of digital rhetoric in his book, but changed his mind. Digital rhetoric remains a multiplicity. The general sense that Ong had, and Eric Havelock in Preface to Plato and The Muse Learns to Write, is that writing unifies, and fixes, thought.  Landow touches upon this in Hypertext–the beautiful irony behind the printing revolution is that it provides the means to fix ideas and language while multiplying texts–everyone can have the same book, read the same words. We find a base to share in books. And so, books appear–different books, more and more, with different points of view–but we all see the same text, we all read the same words.  It was still pretty labor-intensive to change a book at the level of language. It could be done, of course–more easily as the technology moved from human-manipulated ink-coated metal to machine-manipulated metal–but it was slow until the late 20th century. And then printing became digitized, even before everyone had the means to bypass it. What happened to writing? That may be the question behind any course in digital rhetoric.

Printing is messy–everyone has had the experience of an ink cartridge leaking on their hands or even clothes, and it feels somewhat like being a bird caught in an oil spill–and fundamentally material. Printing is the primary way that we made copies of texts before the digital revolution. As a high school newspaper editor, every month we got physical galley proofs from an off-site printer. I have a vague memory of riding with Mrs. Sealing, our advisor/journalism teacher, to the shop to pick up some galleys that had been delayed, and being struck by the grittiness of the shop and the noise; I can’t recall but I imagine it smelling of ink. Another memory from my journalism career involved a celebrity–Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, our public school’s most famous alumnus, who had also been editor of the paper in the 1940s (I think). In a wooden drawer, the office carefully preserved records of his participation, including a set of linoleum-cut printing tiles of cartoons featuring big-busted women (he was always the same). Making newspapers before computers was a physical activity in more ways than one. I have a photo where I’m sitting perched on top of a big gray steel file cabinet and the rest of the newspaper staffers (i.e. sleepy teenagers in blue jeans)  are gathered around, and in the corner there’s a machine. On a throwback Thursday on Facebook a few years ago, I posted the picture,

Wikimedia Commons

and a younger friend asked how a computer printer got into such an old photo. I was puzzled too–until someone older than me identified it as a mimeograph machine. They were correct. It was another bit of evidence of how physical making copies was–no child born before 1980 could forget the stunning odor of those replica texts, usually wet with ink and having to be held by the fingertips to dry so assignments would not be smeared. That exchange might be an example of how remediation is hard-wired, it would seem, into our brains. Even I, who was in the room when it happened, tried to remediate the mimeograph machine into a computer printer in my mind.

Computers also used to be a lot less “immediate,” to use Bolter and Grusin language, than they are now. By that I mean that were messier, slower, and took direct human intervention in many aspects, in addition to having more machine moving parts and being huge–usually occupying multiple floor space of office buildings. Data keypunch operator was a hot job for young women with high school diplomas in the early 80s, and several of my friends got jobs doing it, sitting at a machine that made cards full of little holes that were shuffled and stacked into mainframe computers to program them. In high school computer programming class, we had a “lab” with around seven IBM terminals that looked like large electric typewriters and, in the corner, a data processing area sectioned behind glass windows where keypunch cards were processed. There was no actual computer in the lab–all the information was sent to the mainframe in the IBM building in downtown Chicago. Only the early-arriving, punctual and persistent students could regularly get the terminals, and everyone else had to use the keypunch cards, which were queued and took overnight to process. Unlike the rest of our public high school, the computer lab had air conditioning in warm weather; while the rest of the school sweated and smelled like gym class, we flocked to the chilly room to do our debugging. Still on the fence about the technical side of life, with my heart in English lit class, I did not attend the class where Mr. Gazda walked the die-hards through Assembler, or machine language, which had to be physically programmed on a board that looked like a marriage between the cityscape below your window as a plane descends toward the airfield and a cribbage board.

An assembly (or assemblerlanguage,[1] often abbreviated asm, is a low-level programming language for a computer, or other programmable device, in which there is a very strong (but often not one-to-one) correspondence between the language and the architecture’s machine code instructions. Each assembly language is specific to a particular computer architecture. In contrast, most high-level programming languages are generally portable across multiple architectures but require interpreting or compiling. Assembly language may also be called symbolic machine code.[2]


Rockwell Aim-65/

Assembler was unique to a computer’s architecture–which sounds kind of the opposite of what you’d expect from a machine. At the time, I would have never associated this with writing, either.  What does interest me is that while writing (or programming) with the very long arms of this far-away, not- immediate-at-all mainframe was the central experience of my high school computer class, Assembler was about as immediate an experience as one could have to getting inside the “brain” of unique and mysterious computer, something akin to mind control or playing God.

Early computer enthusiasts tended to not, I believe, think as much about the rhetorical implications of computers as communication tools or devices as about how close they could become to being godlike–situated at the nexus between the machine and its language, as one is while programming ASM. More likely the Bible (the Word) or poetry were evoked by that relationship between human and machine than a conscious assessment of  rhetorical ideas such as techne, praxis, and phronesis.  

Not long after that, though, computers became much more accessible, much more attuned to human scale. Thank Apple for pushing that on us, although they were neither isolated nor alone in that. As the imposing presence, or absence of presence, or both simultaneously, of the computer mainframe receded, the personal computer burrowed its way, nested itself, in our homes. Not everyone’s home, though. It was still the television that held sway in every home during the 80s; the personal computer was the purview of early adopters. When America saw the Super Bowl commercial for the Macintosh, directed by Blade Runner’s Ridley Scott,  smash its way across the screen in 1984, they were probably seated in front of their television screens. (It was, and still is, an awesome commercial. You can see more starkly the nervousness about being assimilated by the Borg that is apparent in the TIME magazine cover of two years prior.)

The Macintosh’s design was meant to make it look like a television set–a tv set that you could talk back to, and control, bend to your will. Computers still tend to resemble television sets, because they serve as a remediation of it; television was the prior technology that people were comfortable enough with to not only let into their living rooms but to fall asleep to in their bedrooms at night. There is no reason a computer needs to resemble a TV, logically. Today we have computers all over that do not resemble television sets in any way. They are INSIDE of things like smart clothing, home security systems, and refrigerators. Computers are getting smaller and smaller, moving more deeply to the inside of objects, and gradually disappearing from view altogether. There is a computer on my wrist, inside my phone, and inside my digital scale where I weigh myself every morning. (I know, it’s not a good idea, weekly is better.) Even Sherry Turkle admits that she sleeps with her smartphone as she parlays her new scared-of-technology-driving-us-out-of-family-dinners routine.

As computers shrink they become more powerful and one could argue that they become hypermediated in their entirety. We interact with them in ways which seems much more immediate than it did back in my high school programming class days, but actually there are many more layers between my computer’s brain and me; it just doesn’t feel like it.  We are so far from the days of moving components to communicate directly with a computer’s “idiolect.” In fact, computers are now designed to act more like us, they are learning our languages. Perhaps one could say they are remediating us. It’s a good sci-fi story. But in any case, we are approaching them as vehicles of communication for ourselves, among their many other functions, and that is where an complete remediation of classical rhetoric, as see in Eyman’s table, comes in.
















Introduction and a quiz

Hello class!

I’m going to start by offering you a quiz, because who doesn’t love quizzes when they are fun with pictures?

Here is my result: Lykorgos, the adventure wolf

You enjoy adventure and are open to new experiences and ways of thinking. You are good at working with others because you like to hear new ideas and perspectives, and are willing to try out different approaches to seeking answers and solving problems. You dislike conflict, and are attuned to matters of justice. Friends depend upon your willingness to listen and come to you for advice. Writing strength: analysis, legal writing, fiction, scripts, analogy, collaborative compositions.

This quiz was part of the to-date biggest multimodal project I’ve been involved with, which is WOLFIE (Writer’s Online Learning Forum and Information literacy Environment), a social network for our writing students (feel free to sign up and check it out–we use it mainly at the moment with our undergraduates, but it has potential for a bigger target audience). You can sign in with your Net ID and create a profile. (If you are teaching on campus and want to use this with your students, you can–I’d be glad to orient you.) WOLFIE is a WordPress blog, like this one, although obviously it’s a different type of blog–a multiuser blog that has many working parts and allows for the issuance of badges for various accomplishments.

Dr. Kristina Lucenko and I create the quiz above. It was a lot of fun, made possible for two people who don’t have a background in serious coding (I took computer programming courses in high school, when BASIC was just a twinkle in Bill Gates’ eye, but that hardly counts) by the work of many other coders who have invented add-ons and apps to allow the development of web objects like Playbuzz quizzes that can be integrated into a WordPress blog. This quiz is the first step to achieving a badge on WOLFIE called “Way of the Wolf.”

I took the quiz multiple times while developing it, and after, and I usually get this result, so like the sorting hat in Harry Potter, it must be me. It’s a pretty good fit, I think.

WOLFIE was begun in 2015 and launched in 2016, and currently is going through the throes of puberty–while it isn’t exactly viral, and that in part because it is limited to Stony Brook for a variety of reason, it’s starting to burst at the seams at bit. We have around 800 registered users (many are not active) and a great deal of content, including a big photo library because of all the images that have been uploaded. It’s run by three people–myself, Kristina, and Darren Chase, who is our master WordPress guru of the group–and all of us have many more projects going on than WOLFIE. So WOLFIE is a kind of master example of the challenges of maintaining a good user experience. The latest group of students to use it really seem to grok it–and I wonder if that means WOLFIE will take off over time, but also, that means expectations for a great user experience will rise.