To Be Both in Touch and in Control

To Be Both in Touch and in Control

1999-03-30

Stephanie Strickland unravels the crochet of categorizations used to contain data, and explores the texture and topography of a hypertext poetics.

[1] You Are Here

“You are here,” a little blinking light keeps telling me, until, after a lag, a delay, I locate myself - or think I do - in data/space. Am I climbing inside the transparent woman? Am I looking at a subway map on a kiosk? Perhaps manipulating topological constructions in a math department - or unraveling the crochet of categorizations used to contain library data.

In fact, only some of these spaces are now available with helpful blinking lights. Much less are they available through musical cues, or echo-location, for those whose primary cognitive mode is aural. And even farther from implementation is the data/space as textured field, for those whose primary manner of learning and orientation is hands-on. Cognitive preferences appear to be hard-wired in our brains, so if you are not one of the visually oriented, you are out of luck in the new information-regime.

But why, in the supposedly endless and ecological world of electronic space, don’t we have more choices? Why aren’t systems of the sophistication used for military surveillance - or for response to dancers in a wired arena - used to supply sensitive feedback to ordinary travelers as they move through an information ocean?

These questions were raised for me by the process of creating hypertext from a book of poems, True North. Strickland writes about the composition of True North And even more strongly by the process of translating it from the original software to another with considerably different features. True North is about direction-finding, in what I call a “mother-lost world.” The poems explore how bodily metaphors get transported, by a kind of semantic resonance or seepage, into the various languages of science, math, history, and myth - each of which in turn becomes a system for mapping. This process can be viewed as an enrichment, or a contamination, but in either case it determines our understanding of location. Joseph Tabbi writes about True North in print and hypertext

[2] Chris Crawford: Trying to Program the Literary

Twenty years ago, Chris Crawford was a video game designer. More recently, he has built a technology for simulating human personality as part of his goal of generating stories with higher literary content. He has challenged himself to capture as much as possible of the literary content of Malory’s Morte D’Arthur. In February, 1997, he patented a “computer story generation system and method using a network of re-usable sub-stories.”

Jorn Barger, an AI researcher who studies interactive fiction, says of Crawford’s work:

It’s very easy to list hundreds of features that a story engine should offer, but Crawford’s great genius is that he’s narrowed these down to a rich “starter set” that delivers maximal story interest, while still being programmable within a finite length of time.

He adds,

One of Crawford’s most daring simplifications was to eliminate continuous space, replacing it with a small network of points. From the perspective of naturalism, this is a significant sacrifice, but for the purpose of storytelling, it’s an enormous “win,” because almost any interesting story can be told with very little reference to precise locations.

We learn that the point-locations are called “stages,” particularly interesting to me, because stages, even more frequently than they are platforms for performance, are temporal and moral categories, including, in Crawford’s scheme, Nowhere and Limbo.

[3] Chris Crawford: Theorizing the Brain

Crawford’s paper, “The Transition from Parallel to Sequential Thinking”, available on his web site, hypothesizes that brain function was initially a holistic pattern-recognizing process and remains so in simple animals who respond predictably, time and again, to the same pattern with the same behavior. Mammals, however, do have a sense of sequence, become adroit at anticipating, and are able to escape being trapped the same way twice.

Crawford is interested in implementing these two types of thinking on a computer. Stable pattern recognition turns out to be easy, one needs only 5 gates to do it. But if the pattern information comes down a single wire as a sequence of bits, the problem gets much more complex: at least 70 gates are needed, along with four innovations - memory, clocking, routing, and a termination counter.

These two types of thinking, pattern recognition and sequential thinking, are in turn highly associated with visual and auditory processing. Visual processing is almost entirely static pattern recognition - with one exception, when we react instantly to the image of a rapidly approaching object. But this response is not handled by the brain; it is, instead, hardwired in the retina.

Sound, however, is dynamic - auditory perception inherently sequential, because sound is received not as a broad field of information, but in a stream. The brain may be more grass than tree, as Deleuze says, but is most likely variegated. Streams and fields - sounds and visions - either contend there or co-exist. Perhaps only the helping hand of haptic perception can reconcile these elements.

[4] Multimedia Designers: “We Are There” or “Where Are We?”

There seem to be two basic wishes that we bring to art: the wish to be lost and the wish to be found; to leave home and to come home; to dare terror - being frightened out of our minds - or to dare knowledge and a shift of consciousness.

The present designers of multimedia seem to me to be, also, of two sorts: first, those who would persuade us that “we are there,” for instance on the Titanic, by all sorts of computational means. Their goal is to create the most seamless simulation. They, and it takes hundreds of team-players who coordinate to do this, pursue the tiniest details of verisimilitude in order to create immersive spectacle. They help us get lost.

I would like to see, as well, more designers - John McDaid is one - who help us get found, who lead the reader into a shift of awareness, a facility with multi-levels, something closer to “The Making of Titanic,” a hybrid of reading and meta-reading, where the interface is not meant either to seduce or to induce belief.

[5] “In Touch?” “In Control?”

How would one design hypermedia that enables us to be in touch and in control? For a visual perspective, one might consult the Siggraph 98 Touchware Exhibition CD ROM, or Electronic Art and Animation Catalog. Works were selected for this show that probe the simultaneity of touch as sensory, emotional, and ephemeral - meaning, by the latter, the ephemeral experience of being “in touch” electronically.

I’m not a programmer, and I’m not primarily a visual person, but this is what I want: I want to be as able as a spider, sitting astride thousands of webs she has spun, to sense each soft ripple or bursting hail of electrons coming toward me and, of course, those pouring back - from my fingers, my mouth, perhaps even my glance.

And this is what I mean by control: sufficient sensitive feedback. I want “instantly” available a 6-parameter cue, some signal or emblem, that encodes three time measures - a clock reading, a rate of travel, a duration - with three location co-ordinates - my xy plane (which can be any pair of variables) and a third depth measure of how many logical layers I’ve dived down in data/space.

And I want my signal, my “compass clock,” to be one of many available to me. I want the ability to access with only “slight delay,” other chosen, public signals. I do not mean here a baseline set; but rather, as the 36 clocks in a news room are all correct - though not all showing the same day, much less hour - I want to see how “I” am going in terms of how “we” are going.

This brings me to my final, very highly distilled, question. It has been posed by a mathematician, in a recent Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, and there addressed in a lengthy paper:

…how and to what extent can a dynamical system be represented by a symbolic one?

Surely the question for brain scientists, AI researchers, and multimedia designers.