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This weekend, a furious whirlwind of sleeplessness and ideas, has left me feeling kind of angry about something, I don’t know what. I am still so rotten tired from it that I can’t get on my bicycle — the sub-freezing temperature this morning doesn’t help, I guess — and part of it is my body is dragging me down. I got back to Buffalo feeling drained, overwhelmed, struggling to make sense of a number of things.

I guess I spent the weekend thinking about the body in relation to the kind of things that I’m involved in in media study. It was interesting having a meeting yesterday about what we are to do with the VR lab, since VR is a specific kind of virtual embodiment, wherein you are asked to leave your body behind but at the same time cannot escape the vestigial importance of your embodiment. I don’t think I like it. The idea of it creates a kind of weird cognitive dissonance in me. I have never been interested in VR for this reason, I think.

It was like my deep and visceral reaction to the attempt to disembody so much of our online experience at the conference; the attempt to ignore the body in so many myriad ways, whether limiting the scope of virtual activism to the internet proper, or this idea of the “post-racial,” which is utter bullshit, because we’re not post-anything having to do with identity yet, as a society. In games, and on the internet, the problem with our analysis is exactly that we try to edit out our bodies, so we miss critical parts of the way online society works. How are we even allowed to think about a society without thinking about it as a body (virtual or “real”) and about the bodies which make up its parts? (The distancing of bodily suffering; what the trolls are after; the things we assume about each other.)

This weekend made me fiercely want to be alone, but also terrified of it. Maybe it created the cognitive dissonance in me that made me like the internet so much in the first place.

I really enjoyed being at the conference — I listened to some excellent talks, met some great people, and was challenged to think about things differently, which is always a huge gain. I wish every conference could do that. I think that was the original point of having them but somehow it doesn’t always work like that. To actually go to a conference and get that — a sense of a place and time and community where you can actually do a little fighting and a little sharing — is exceptional. Thank goodness for that.

It was also great being back in New York. I realize I haven’t been there in about two and a half years, which is kind of a long time. I have a lot more friends there now than I used to. I saw a lot of them (not all of them, sadly) and that was good. It was a whirlwind of a weekend.

Yet the boundaries that were drawn this weekend are still making me reel. Located in space and time, I can’t forget that. Maybe it’s my own complex and difficult relationship with my body that makes me latch onto these sorts of things, but the thing that I noticed in the sessions I attended was a preoccupation with the screen (a hegemony, really) — some people were surprised at the powerpoints that pervaded the conference, for example. What does that mean, after all?

I have a lot to sort out. Lots of thoughts. Lots to do this week, too — getting home was a reminder that Transgender Day of Remembrance is Friday, Nov. 20. (Speaking of embodiment.)

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A couple days ago I installed Tumbarumba. It’s a Firefox add-on that waits for optimal moments to insert a line of text that appears absurd and out of place into your regular web surfing, offering a peculiar kind of secret portal into one of several original short works of fiction. It’s a pretty cool concept, and I like the idea of little disruptive artworks as an insertion into your regular internet consumption. It surprised me that it took so long for me to get a tumbarumba, because when you consider my time spent reading on the internet (I’ve gotten back into The New Yorker) you’d think I’d get tumbarumba-ed left and right.

I really liked the function that makes you click through the tumbarumba a couple sentences before the plugin deposits you on an alternate reality webpage. It was humorous because I got tumbarumba-ed on my doctor’s homepage, and so I was sitting on the website, with the University of Michigan Health System logos at the top and a photograph of the outside of their building, reading a short story about the conversations inanimate objects have. Tumbarumba also interferes with images, it seems. I also like that once you’re tumbarumba-ed, you can go back and read the story again on the add-on’s website.

There is a lot of potential for disruptive storytelling and poetics here. And cool possible applications for ARGs — say after being rabbit holed you need to install a Tumbarumba-esque device into Firefox that will progressively disclose information that might be of importance to solving puzzles. Difficulty might come in getting people to trust this compromise in their browser security, though. I guess I trusted Tumbarumba enough, though.

The possibilities for disruptive poetics interest me, too. I find it interesting that the creators chose to program it with short stories as opposed to poetry. Perhaps there is possibility in overhauling Tumbarumba for use with verse that is not just disruptive but interspersed throughout a webpage. This might be more complex but would probably utilize much of the same program as the original.

Also, I kind of wish they had named it something that was easier to turn into a verb. Tumbarumba-ed is kind of inelegant, but then again, maybe that’s what they’re going for. Textual disruptions are sort of inelegant.

Update: as soon as I went to proofread this entry, I got tumbarumba-ed again!  Great fun.  This time the story took the form of this blog and was broken up into “entries” on the main page.  Sweet.

This is sort of a question and sort of a proposal for a project.  The other day it occurred to me that wikis are just like giant diagrams with a lot of text, so why can’t we build wikis that are literally giant diagrams that rely more on images rather than text?  I think that it would be interesting to put together a program that allowed users to manipulate images and link to them by creating image map hotspots within the wiki.

I see several obvious applications of this.  First, it would be really cool to be able to create a diagram of something and be able to add infinite detail.  From a design standpoint, what if you created the floor plan of a house, and then you could click on each room to get a better picture of the interior design elements, and then click on a specific object, like a chair, to get an image of the upholstery pattern or specific item that the interior designer wanted to use.  Then, maybe, the colors or motifs in the design of that item could link to other items that might be used in the rest of the room.

Second, I think there is an interesting potential for collaborative art-making.  If I could post a piece of work that I had created (either intentionally for an art collective wiki or otherwise), it could serve as a kind of prompt.  If another artist created something in response to that piece, or maybe just using motifs or elements from it, they could upload their image, define a hotspot around something specific they are responding to or using in their own work, and create a web that way.  It would be possible to link from multiple images and link to multiple images.

I did a little research and I found wikimapia.org, which uses Google Maps to create a giant tagged map of the world, and if you zoom in you can get smaller regions, too.  I tried zooming in on my neighborhood and there was even a tag for the Mexican restaurant next door to my house.  As far as I can tell, though, there doesn’t seem to be anything which allows users to define hotspots within specific images and link to a page of new images.

Does anybody know of a site that will allow you to do that?  I’d really like to see it and maybe use it for an art project.  If there isn’t one that exists, then why the heck isn’t there one?  Do you think this would be a useful tool?

It only took me an hour to get through the entire voting process.  Down at my polling place, there was a carnival atmosphere: at least a dozen of my friends were there around when I was there, and we had sparklers and candy and there were high-fives for everyone.  We hung out with the Democratic voter assistance volunteers (one of whom was in all of my philosophy classes last year) and drank coffee and talked about the election.  Spirits are high.  People are counting on this.

But in Ypsilanti Township, people are waiting three or four hours to vote.  In Miami-Dade, people are waiting upwards of five.  It is excruciatingly clear that we are privileged.  Not only did I only have to spend an hour at my polling place, I had the option to hang out and meet other voters.  Economically underpivileged people, especially people who work bit jobs for hourly wages, don’t have that kind of luxury.  Especially when you consider that wait times are considerably longer in underprivileged areas, you can’t help but think — this isn’t an explicit poll tax, but it might as well be.  If I were working 60 hours a week and living paycheck-to-paycheck, I couldn’t spend three hours waiting to cast my ballot.  If I were making just enough money to make rent and were living on food stamps, I would honestly probably choose making my money over voting.  And even if I had the chance to plan ahead and sock a little extra away for November (some people still can’t do that), my employer might not be so cool with me taking off.  I’m enormously privileged as a college student living in an upper middle-class community that 1) I can take time out of my day to vote and 2) there are plenty of volunteers in my area to staff my polling place.

I am not-so-secretly ashamed of myself for not volunteering in Ypsi Township.

I’m also really excited that people are using the internet to give voting social capital.  While the white oval “I Voted” sticker that is on my messenger bag is pretty cool, it’s nowhere near as exciting to get involved on Facebook.  Logging in this morning, I was presented with a running count of every Facebook member who has voted.  I changed my status to the automated message from the Causes application (I was recruited by a friend, and have recruited two so far).  The sheer numbers — nearly a million people used the Causes application to change their statuses simultaneoulsy at midnight, over 2 million have reported voting already — is something that makes it thrilling, not to mention unifying.

This is cool and everything, but how can we better use social networking tools to galvanize young people?  I kind of wonder how many people would have gotten their hands dirty with this on Facebook if it weren’t such an important election to us?  I hope we immediately start working on ways to motivate people in the future.  Social capital is remarkably valuable, and also remarkably easy to come by on the internet.  So long as you have a critical mass of users who are participating, others start paying attention.

And using online social capital to get out the vote is one thing, but it still doesn’t answer a fundamental question: how do we reenfranchise the disenfranchised?  What about the voters in Ypsi Township, in Detroit, in Miami-Dade County?

We Tell Stories is a visionary project sponsored by Penguin Books, in which six young writers with specializations in emergent technology each rework a classic book.  But it’s not just any re-working.  You can, for example, follow the protagonist of Slice (a reworking by Toby Litt of The Haunted Doll’s House) on Twitter.  Charles Cumming has created custom Google Maps to retell John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps.

The whole project takes me back to the debate over whether the internet is creating a generation of philistines.  It would seem to me from the layout of the WTS website and their clear emphasis on the retelling of classic stories that Penguin is hoping that the WTS project will get some people reading books that they otherwise would never have touched with a ten-foot pole.  Moreover, Penguin ran a competition for readers in which one lucky WTS reader won a libraryful of Penguin Classics books.  Not your usual thrilling internet contest prize.  But clearly enough to get people more invested in the project!

I don’t think the internet is leeching away at the intellectual wallop of my generation, at least not where it counts.  The people who won’t read past their high school literature class — or past their English requirement in college — aren’t going to read anyway.  In fact, the internet probably gets them to read more.  Whether or not it’s “reading” in the technical, old-school sense is another debate entirely, of course.  Literacy on the computer is a different kind of literacy on paper.

But the WTS project raises an interesting question: instead of complaining about how wrapped up in digital technology young people are today, why aren’t more people doing things which will translate interest in digital technology into “valuable” high-culture things like literature, music, poetry, and the humanities?  I think WTS is a stab in the right direction, taking media that kids today (I feel weird typing that) are familiar with, comfortable with, and associate with entertainment and their social lives, and wrapping up things that adults — especially educators — might think are more worthwhile.  It would be interesting to do a qualitative study of who reads WTS the most, and whether or not they decide to go seek out the books that the WTS stories are based on.

I’m sick of hearing about the literacy debate from people who can’t think about literacy as anything other than reading books, while offering no other incentives to read books than reading books.  It’s not as though reading books and literature doesn’t have anything to offer people of my generation and younger (oh no!), it’s just that, as a recent New York Times article points out, a lot of kids’ first brushes with the classics are in boring high school English classrooms.  Who’s to blame them for not being interested in Robinson Crusoe when they can, literally, create their own adventures via fanfiction and MMORPGs?  And moreover, who’s to blame any of us internet fanatics for loving a medium that is infinitely versatile and constantly evolving?

All I’m saying is, stop complaining, internet naysayers.  Penguin Classics has the right idea.  There’s no way we, as a culture, are leaving behind the internet at this point.  There’s no way we’re leaving behind the great books that shaped our culture as we know it today.  The internet naysayers see a divide.  I see an interesting opportunity to pique the interest of people who otherwise wouldn’t be.  There are big problems in the world that there aren’t solutions for.  Here’s a big problem for which there is a solution: put the internet and great books together.  (Shift your framing system.)  Well done, WTS.

I don’t mean mind games.  What I mean to ask on Tuesday was, what games do you play?  What media do they use?  Why be constrained to your console and TV, or Scrabble board?  What constitutes a game, and why is it really so hard to answer that question?

That’s actually a question asked with glee by Ludwig Wittgenstein.  And, to be honest, I don’t know what constitutes a game, because a game can have victory conditions, or it can be infinite; it can have a plot, or it can be an exploration; it can have one player, or many; it can have spatial boundaries, or it can be spatially undefined; it can be played with equipment or with nothing but the player or players; it can involve clearly-defined rules, or the game may be to discover the rules of the game.  And that’s just the start of it.  How can we use the word “game” to refer to a thing, when it so clearly identifies a vast and perhaps unquantifiable set of things?

Which is a question for another day.  A question for today is, what games did you play today?

Let me make a suggestion.  Echogenesis (tip o’ the hat to Bryan Alexander).

What’s the object of this game?  Is there an object?  Do you perceive a plot in your wandering through it?  Are there rules, after a fashion?  Make sure you don’t miss anything.  There are hidden goodies all over the place.

Now, what makes Echogenesis as much of a game as, say, Dice Wars?  Or Tribal Wars, the massively multiplayer medieval conquest game?

All three of these games rely on digital media, either on Flash programming or on PHP.  All rely on the Internet for their distribution, and in the case of Tribal Wars, for a critical component of gameplay — literally thousands of other players who you can ally with, fight with, and conquer.

These three games still fall into some kind of traditional game trope, though.  Dice Wars and Tribal Wars have their roots in long-term planning and strategy games, both for computers and for paper; Echogenesis has hints of Myst and its sequels, which was firmly rooted in its own digital life.  How about if I told you that this site and this site are games, too, or critical parts of games?  The most exciting part about them is that they cross over from your screen to your mailbox to the public pay telephone on the corner and back again.

The most stimulating gaming experience I ever had was surrounding the Silverladder site.  I met and became a part of a community of creative, intelligent people from all over the country.  And our gaming experience wasn’t like my gaming experience in Tribal Wars, in which I play on a team with 60 other people to take over villages.  There was more problem solving.  The story was open-ended.  We didn’t know where we were going until, sometimes, it was right under our noses.

And game players met characters from the game in their hometowns.  And others received packages in the mail from in-game entities.  And still others got text messages and phone calls.  All of us, no matter what interests we had in playing the game, got very invested in the characters, their stories, as well as each other and each other’s stories.

I don’t want to go so far as to say that the Alternate Reality/Chaotic Fiction genre of gaming is completely new and revolutionary (though I really want to).  It’s certainly only possible because we, as a culture, have adopted and integrated the Internet and information technologies into our daily lives (more on this later), and we are becoming so invested in our online lives it’s okay for those online lives to ooze over into our “real” lives.  ARG and CF challenge the notion that our online lives and our “real” lives are clear, distinct and separate from one another.  And that’s why it’s so compelling.

Have a quick poke around ARGNet and you’ll see what I mean.  There’s already a community of people all over the world who are deeply committed to this new genre — I would daresay art form.  And more and more people are learning about it by word of mouth and through high-profile games like the recently completed Search for the Lost Ring, run as a promotion for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

CF Part II will come to a blog near you tomorrow.  Or something very like tomorrow.

As a note to any regular readers out there: I’m beginning to do work for a course I’m taking at the University of Michigan on this blog.  These entries will be in the “Limited Fork” category as well as other appropriate categories.  Hopefully you’ll find the class as interesting as I will.

And a note to class members, and Prof. Moss: you might enjoy reading backward a bit in this blog.  I’ve had it for a damn long time and I like to imagine it’s kind of worthwhile as a stand-alone blog.

Lately there’s been a big fuss in the psychology/psychiatry community regarding internet addiction.  Today I read an article on Wired about it.  It struck me as particularly odd is that the only studies mentioned in the article — really a stub — were from Korea and China, respectively.  Though a commenter mentioned that you can be exempted from military service in Finland for being an internet addict, I am kind of curious about what the presence of Korean and Chinese studies say about the use of technology in those countries.

What’s more, Wikipedia points out that people who are proponents of getting internet addiction added to DSM-V subdivide it into several categories.  I’m afraid I fall into the “inappropriate involvement in online social networking or blogging” category.  I am curious how many people might fall into each category in different parts of the world.  I already know that China views bloggers as trouble for the Party, so that might be a part of why the Chinese are pushing for internet addiction to be viewed as a serious disorder.  After all, if they’re mentally ill, that’s a great way to discredit the things that they say and think.  I wonder if there is some level of paranoia about the potential of the internet as an emerging tool underlying this push for legitimization of the diagnosis.

One thing that all this pathological internet use hullabaloo ignores is the fact that there are innovative people out there using the internet — especially the gaming and social networking categories — for social causes, whether they be education, community-building, organizing for social change, or what have you.  Or maybe I’m just trying to deny my own addiction…I do want a Ph.D. in information science, after all…

Take a gander at this WSJ article about how we find the glut of information on the internet physiologically irresistible. It’s actually really funny, just because I always thought the reason I sat on the internet all day was just because it was more entertaining than doing what I should be doing (which is undoubtedly true). Turns out, to make matters worse, whenever I comb through my Bloglines feeds I’m also getting high. Great. Just what a bunch of lazy college students need — the brain to produce its own opioids in response to fooling around on Facebook, blogs, and poetv.

In all seriousness though, I think it’s funny that humans find information so irresistible. It makes some kind of sense. But at the same time, just because we have a bunch of information doesn’t mean it’s valuable. I wonder what the difference is between gathering information that is interesting versus information that is merely…well…information. I wonder what the difference is between information in an area the reader knows something about versus information from an area the reader knows nothing about at all. I’d actually go so far as to hypothesize that that sort of thing varies from person to person. Information of almost any kind keeps me enraptured, personally. When I die I hope someone puts my brain in a vat and hooks it into the internet. Heaven? Probably, although it could get a little tiring, I guess. Post-mortem blogging? You betcha.

On second thought…creepy…

That’s the chorus lately. All I had to explain to Kate was that we were planning on offering a full-tuition, renewing scholarship for trans and allies at the university and we wanted to do grassroots fundraising on the internet, and she was all, “Well if there’s anything I can do to help, let me know.” That was…uh…easy. I nearly wet myself waiting for this, and I’m glad I only found out late last night or else I would have probably fretted my way into ulcer territory or something. I might be too high-strung for this game. Or maybe I’m just high-strung enough?

I have some next steps that I still need to work out. One of those next steps is putting together a working group to meet every other week, and I am compiling a list of people I’d like to get in on that. Another of those next steps is to find a team of programmers to put a site together. And another of those next steps is to get our first $5k so we can do a launch event.

Robbie and I had a serious sit-down about whether the iSchool’s JustConnect project would overlap too much with the transgender and allies scholarship social networking tie-in. I don’t think it will, and I told her so: I think our target audience is much more global than JustConnect’s is, and I think that the goals and raisons d’etre are very different as well. Also, considering JustConnect’s upcoming launch date, and our lack of even a programming team, Robbie’s initial concerns regarding early adopters were assuaged. I think we should be looking more at a partnership than a competition: interfacing SNS with each other is something that I’m very interested in. After all, it is hard for such niche markets to compete with big sites like Facebook; I think that in a lot of ways I need my smaller/niche SNS to integrate smoothly.

I’ve let the JustConnect team know about my feelings about that too. Otherwise I really doubt too many people will join up; one of the reasons this blog has gotten consistent is because I know people read it because I know people click through the links my WordPress widget posts to my Facebook profile. I think others of mine have flopped merely because there hasn’t been an easy way to integrate the two. Without integration I’m mainly just annoyed by all the sites I have to visit. I’m becoming a pretty busy fellow.

And in other news, I’m probably going to get into graduate school.

So I know you guys might abhor blogging what you’re really thinking. I sometimes have horrifying nightmares of people stealing what I’m thinking off my blog. Especially the most recent previous post — what if someone jumps on that idea before I do? How do you think that’d make me feel? That would really suck, and especially because that’s the kind of thing I want to make my career out of , it’s kind of a risky move.

Risky only from a traditional viewpoint. Now that it’s out there in the open, I’m hoping to get a lot of feedback before I decide to do anything about it. I know that the academic institution helps you guys out a lot with that whole feedback thing, but right now I don’t have those tools. And also, you don’t have access to people like me. I know that you might have a (mild?) distrust of people like me — raving blogging loonies, I know. But at the same time, there are people who are doing some really serious work who are using both the online commons and the ivory tower. Most of these people are doing research that have directly to do with other stuff that goes on in the online commons, like alternate reality games. Still, I don’t see why we can’t start expanding the conversation to more “traditional” academic topics.

This proposal is a little bit crazy, I know. Peer review in the commons can often turn into vulgar mud-slinging flame war contests. But it doesn’t have to — I think that a lot of people have this image of the internet as pretty vulgar. And it is pretty vulgar from time to time. But you’re not going to be publishing your dissertation on 4chan. Spam filters are getting as good as spam is getting bad. There are also wonderful places on the internet where people are quite civil, intelligent, and thoughtful.

Of course you’re going to run into problems with a lot of major academic journals’ anal-retentive access policies. But you might not ever publish something in your blog that is rigorous enough for publication in academic journals. Or you might shun journals which aren’t open-access friendly. But I think I might be getting ahead of myself a little here. These are ethical choices I’m going to leave up to you.

The point is, I want to know what you guys are really thinking. I know that the internet is in a lot of ways the Wild West of intellectual life. There aren’t many sheriffs in town, and those that are there can and are wildly inconsistent. It’s not safe per se — but there are also untold rewards for people who venture out. There’s gold in them thar hills, if you will. The gold is the public.

I know you aren’t too keen on it, but think about those undergrads you have who are really bright. When do we ever get a chance to interface with you on topics outside of class and class topics? I know you might never wonder what I’m really thinking, but like I said before, I wonder all the time what you’re really thinking. I mean, you guys are pretty smart.

Love,
Cayden

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