Archive: March 18th, 2009

Janet Murray: Inventing the Medium

[Readings] (03.18.09, 9:43 pm)

It should be noted that this hasn’t been published yet. The following notes were taken on a draft which Janet Murray has distributed to her students. Thus, when it finally is published, my page number references are likely to be very wrong. We are also not supposed to cite from this, but there are a few short definitions which I went ahead and cited anyway because they seemed very valuable.

My notes here are also a little cruder than usual, since I took them directly rather than through my normal 2-step method, so apologies for this in advance.

Chapter 1: The Goals of Design

Design is a historical phenomenon, ancient in its origin. It reflects cultural biases and values. Murray proposes inclusion in design as a way to achieve the best designs.

Design crosses media, as well as existing within media. Murray uses the analogy of building blocks. Digital media is new, and therefore has cruder building blocks, or more homogeneous ones. A new medium has undifferentiated pieces with potential, but everything must be built from scratch. An established medium has more specialized and varied pieces. Digital media also inherits many building blocks from legacy media. This raises a problem over whether to use the old ones or build new ones for the medium.

Chapter 4: Inscription and Transmission

Media are everywhere, and we are surrounded by not only the media, but the discourse about media. This omnipresence makes it difficult to identify and define what a medium actually is, as it exists at cultural and cognitive levels. Murray asks how design takes place and what occurs in the process of inventing a medium. This is given by three purposes: inscription, transmission, and representation. These are systems of meaning making.

Inscription is process of learning and use of the medium. Writing takes a long time to learn, but once learned becomes transparent. In immature media, the inscription does not seem transparent, but confusing and cumbersome. Inscription is the dimension of the human interaction with the medium on the surface.

Transmission is also transparent in a mature medium. Transmission is about how the medium works underneath the surface. The example given is with a telephone line, which has developed to be an invisible but pervasive part of infrastructure. The alphabet is too a means of transmission, because it is a method by which written information may be stored until retrieved. With media that are not yet mature, the flaws and inconsistencies in transmission rise to the surface and become painfully visible, for instance incompatible formats of computer files.

The last dimension is representation, which is about how people can make sense of the content transmitted by the medium. This is characterized by cultural codes, and also genres. This is the dimension that is most closely associated with cognition, and meaning making. It ties into the dimensions of practice and use. At this level, the difference between a mature and immature medium are quite clear. The mature medium is one which has a long practice and history of usage and interpretation, which the immature medium lacks. Artifacts in immature media are confusing and require more attention because we do not know how to interpret them as we know how to interpret other things.

Argues that cognition is tightly related to the development of media, and that cultural development works in synchronization with media. Media works because of schemas, or cognitive patterns of meaning. “Inscription is the intentional shaping of a receptive physical material with an appropriate technology so that produces a perceptible pattern.” (p. 62; draft) This thus requires an intentional agent, a markable material, an appropriate technology, and a perceptible result.

In discussing transmission, Murray uses the transmission model of communication, where communication occurs along channels, and is encoded as to reproduce with the most clarity the original “meaning”. This is an interesting model because it assumes a certain literal sense of the content that goes through the medium. In many cases, this is exactly what is intended and needed, but for some practices, most notably artistic ones, purpose of the artifact is not to reproduce data, but to encourage active meaning making on the part of the audience.

Chapter 5: Language, Sign, Genre

Chapter introduces language as a model for media conventions. This denotes what is the content of a medium, and this can range from spoken to written words to the visual language of film, described in shots. Language is intrinsically arbitrary and dependent on social agreement of meaning. I would actually argue that the arbitrariness of language is actually contestable. Several of the dimensions of language, especially visual and other languages, are dependent on other factors, which may be either cultural or cognitive.

To understand language, Murray suggests the use of substitution rules. However, with substitution rules, the connection between written language and other media becomes difficult, as substitution rules may be used to analyze other media, but these rules are usually not sufficient to as generative syntax. The example she gives is of filmic language. This is a distinction that I argue is a differentiation between descriptive and generative models. It is important to note that a single medium may be analyzed using many different forms of language (or models) which describe and account for different aspects of the medium.

Languages and models may be understood as the interchange of signs, and thus the content or the representations enabled by media consist of signs, which depend on social agreement to suitably designate meaning. It is at this point where the expressive variability of a medium becomes significant. Murry explains that signs may have meanings shared by an interpretive community. Different communities may endow the same sign with varying meanings. Signs thus contain some inherent ambiguity that is different from noise. Murray argues that context is necessary to make sense and absolve this ambiguity, but may also make the ultimate meaning deeper.

Genre is about conventions. These conventions may be determined by ritualized codes, practices, physical constraints, among others. Under this definition, genre would be seen to be greatly determined by the shape and structure of the medium. Murray does acknowledge a difference between media-specific genres and media-independent genres. Genre is basically a meaning making system, based on patterns of interpretation according to conventions. “We can think of a media genre as a powerful substitution system based on a flexible set of conventions that allow for the right mixture of predictability and variety to allow us to focus on the meaningful elements.” (p. 99; draft) In this sense, a genre is a model in the purest sense. It is a system for meaningfully interpreting structures in a specific and internally consistent way.

This understanding of genre also includes as genres many things which may often be described as media. In this distinction, the medium is the system of encoding, communication, and channels, while the genre is the system of conventions. It is important to note that media also depend on conventions, for the use and understanding of content transmitted through the medium, but the importance of media is tied into the channel itself. This is rather unconventional in terms of some conventional uses and definitions. Thus, telephone communication is a medium, but a buisness call is a genre. Physical gesture and enunciation is a medium, a theatrical performance is a genre. At this point, the relationship between media and genre becomes convoluted, though, because a play exists in written form, as something crafted through direction, and finally as a performance.

In examining the genre of a theatrical play, Murray looks at several of the conventions that are used to compose it. Social conventions prescribe how the audience and actors are arranged and separated. Physical staging conventions give specialized meaning to the changes of lighting, as well as the transformation of scenery, and the vocabulary of gestures and props used by the actors. Plays are subject to conventions of temporal segmentation, establishing a special understanding of the passage of time within the performance. Finally theatre makes use of conventions of plot, the variations of which are what are colloquially referred to as theatrical genres.

Chapter 8: Abstracting Complex Behaviors

This chapter is admittedly the one most relevant for my work. The focus of the chapter is on abstraction, and this ranges from a conceptual understanding of abstraction, to procedural to simulation focused.

Murray introduces the chapter by citing the Oxford Dictionary of Computing definition of abstraction, which focuses on what is ignored in the subject being abstracted. The process of abstraction is necessarily one of simplification, and thus it requires ignoring some things, but also emphasizing others. Abstraction can be seen to work at levels, where something (either data or procedures) are successively “abstracted away.”

The focus of this chapter remains on design, and how abstraction may be used as a tool for design, and as a design strategy. This knowledge is generally significant by thinking about designed content in a form that is modular and extensible, that is, it can be made to work with other things, and can be put toward other goals, and especially be made useful for other users.

Abstraction been woven integrally into the fields of programming and system design, and is a necessary requirement and component of any medium. Using Murray’s definition, media are communication systems, which depend on data encoding and transmission, and these require means for abstracting that data.

Abstraction exists in distilling systems, which are means of analyzing some data to produce a simplified statistical model of that data. Examples of this are used frequently in economics, to model groups of consumers, but are also frequently used in silly quiz websites that attempt to define what type of person the user is by getting them to ask several questions. Abstraction also exists in substitution systems, which are means of collecting a large collection of possible options under one heading. Any of those options could be employed in the substitutions.

The core principles of abstraction are things that I would call models. My understanding of a model is principally about abstraction, it is a way of interpreting some system into another, simpler internally consistent system. Under this view, I think that both media and genres are essentially models, where a genre is defined by the interpretation of its conventions and a medium is defined by the interpretation of its encoding.

Murray discusses simulation. She gives a definition of a system: “A system is a set of processes and actors that work together in an integrated manner.” (p. 215; draft) This definition is general, but can be applied in interesting ways to different subjects. This definition of system also hinges on a temporal nature, seemingly excluding static structures.

Abstraction in simulation is about defining the boundaries of the simulated world, which are both physical and conceptual. Simulations must also be designed at a certain level of granularity, which is the “depth” to which the simulation may be understood. Giving the example of Sim City, she explains that its level of granularity does not include individual citizens. Simulations do not need to model the real world, they may in fact do nothing of the sort; but in order to be believable, the simulations must be consistent.

In presenting a particular abstraction of the world, a simulation includes with it its own system of values. The rhetoric of simulations often is through its implicit and unstated assumptions. Murray discusses the persuasive games Darfur Is Dying, and Gonzalo Frasca’s games Kabul Kaboom!, September 12th, and Madrid. These games are systems that encode the designer’s values into the very rules of the simulated world.

Murray compares these and some others with Papert’s concept of the microworld. Papert’s original concept was oriented around learning mathematical and scientific concepts, but political games introduce a dimension of social and political science into the mix. These communicate effectively by explaining their assumptions, their model, and how the consequences of the game relates to the real world. Not all games do this, and I would argue that games can be dangerous when they fail to communicate or miscommunicate their assumptions. Civilization is a great example of this.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorMurray, Janet
TitleInventing the Medium
Tagsmedia theory, digital media, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs, and Steel

[Readings] (03.18.09, 11:47 am)

My interest in Diamond comes not from an anthropological perspective, but from a systemic one. Diamond is important because he gives an account of human history that focuses on the systems that give rise to current situations. This is presented as a gradual change from ultimate factors to proximal factors. The question Diamond seeks to answer in the book is why Western Europe came to dominate so much of the globe. Why didn’t the Incas sail to Europe and lay waste to the Spanish instead of the other way around? The arguments that are usually employed to explain and justify European expansion tend to involve such racist themes of inherent superiority of people. While these arguments are false and usually acknowledged to be so, they are often accepted subconsciously as folk explanations for history. Diamond first presses to look first at the direct causes for the domination (technology, ships, diseases, steel, horses, etc), but shows that these are not enough. Why did Europe develop guns and steel weaponry and not Polynesia? The ultimate causes for these can be traced back to environmental factors.

Diamond is relevant for three reasons. The first is that he presents a view of the world that is system focused, that views human history as an emergent system that is the product of rules and circumstances. The second is that the system perspective can be employed pedagogically, as a theory which can be used to empower students by offering an alternative to conventional theories. The third is that it can be used as an alternative model in other historical simulations, most notably it can be compared with the system of history presented in Sid Meier’s Civilization. Much of what I am interested in is using this to compare against Civilization, and to show how the models used in Civilization encourage the classic racist interpretations of history.

I am not alone in my interest in these comparisons. Ian Bogost makes an analysis of Jared Diamond as a procedural representation of history (both here and in his book Persuasive Games). There is also a now defunct group that has been interested in using Guns, Germs, and Steel as a model for Civilization IV, the most recent installment in the series, which offers an extensive modding platform. It is arguable, though, that such a model would not be successful as a game because of how inequality is a natural consequence of Diamond’s model. Ironically, in attempt to make the game fun and even, where all societies have an even chance, the game makes them assume the history of the colonizers.

A Natural Experiment of History

Diamond gives a small test of a larger hypothesis. He looks at a particular conflict within Polynesia, specifically between the Maori and Moriori in New Zealand. The latter lived in a constrained environment that prevented excessive growth, while the Maori grew, developed a population beyond what was needed for support, and fought internally. In the same pattern as other colonizing and expansionist forces throughout history, the Maori eventually found the Moriori and destroyed and enslaved them. This small encounter reveals a microcosm of patterns that emerged across the world.

On the whole, Polynesia is interesting because it contains an intense diversity of cultural groups, and an equal diversity of environments in which these groups reside. To examine the issue of Polynesian cultural diversity, Diamond looks at environmental differences, specifically the variables of climate, geological type, marine resources, area, terrain fragmentation, and isolation. An interesting detail about this is that these types of variables are things that are receptive to simulation. These are also variables that occur within the game Civilization, although the model of the game is constructed to give every player a roughly equally “valuable” exchange of these variables.

These environmental factors give way to first issues of sustinence, which can be expressed in what types and volumes of food are available, ranging from hunting and gathering, to domestication of animals and agriculture. This then leads directly to population density and size. The size of a population is dependent on the size of the political unit, which may be a single island, a part of a large island, or a cluster of islands. The political unit size is dependent on the isolation of the mass. The population size affects the number of potential non-producers. Non-producers are people who do not spend their time on sustenance, but can be chiefs and bureaucrats, craftsmen, artists, and so on. The number of these  non-producers and the population size tends to lead to greater social complexity. Again, several of these factors are available in Civilization. The game has a model of producers versus non-producers, but this dimension is included in the model anyway. The important distinction is that Civilization takes size and complexity as assumptions, as inevitabilities.

Further factors emerge in the types of tools that are developed and used, which is dependent on the number of specialists, as well as the available materials. With large numbers of these, there can be ever greater production sizes, leading to the massive monuments at Easter, among others. These are dependent on the centrality of the political organization. The interesting dimension is that these types of monuments seem very reminiscent of other sorts of monuments in other cultures, notably the Egyptian pyramids. Diamond suggests that the size of the monuments is directly related to the scale of labor that the political leaders could draw from the population.

Collision at Cajamarca

Diamond in this section looks at the Spanish destruction of the Incas at Cajamarca, and the capture and ransom of Atahuallpa. He discusses the differences between the sides coming from their history. These differences are presented step by step through a series of questions. Why did Pizarro capture Atahuallpa? How did Atahuallpa come to be at Cajamarca? How did Pizarro come to be at Cajamarca? Why didn’t Atahuallpa instead try to conquer Spain? Why did Atahuallpa walk into the trap? These each depend on some particular difference between the forces. The Spanish captured Atahuallpa because of their guns, horses, and steel weapons and armor. The Incas were vulnerable because of civil conflicts and the smallpox epidemics spread by other Europeans. The Spanish invaded the Incas because of the massive political and economic infrastructure that enabled expansion. Writing and the literate tradition enabled Europeans to communicate their experiences with the Native Americans and make use of successful strategies in their bloody conquest.

What is remarkable about this is that each step is defined by an environmental difference, where the Inca civilization took one route and the Spanish took another. In Civilization the game, these steps are not assumed to yield differences. Instead, the course of history that the Spanish followed is the course that everyone must take in Civilization. Essentially, it assumes that all societies must inevitably develop the kind of power that colonizers have used to oppress others. In Civilization’s model of history where these steps are natural and inevitable, it would appear that the destruction of the Inca’s was their own fault, for not developing the technology and production that came so naturally to the Spanish. Civilization’s model is thus racist because it disregards the existence of other options in cultural development.

Farmer Power

The last thing I want to include is a handy picture of the transition from ultimate factors to proximate factors.

Ultimate to Proximate factors

Ultimate to Proximate factors

Reading Info:
Author/EditorDiamond, Jared
TitleGuns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
ContextExtremely useful for contrasting against the rhetoric of Civilization.
Tagsspecials, media theory, anthropology
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon