Digital Genres Six

Greg Costikyan is talking to us about games and business. Development budgets are increasing rapidly; he thinks this is driven by Moore’s Law (pumping polygons). A Doom level took about a man-day to build; a Doom III level takes more than 2 man-weeks. Tools aren’t advancing as quickly as the hardware.

Manufacturers feel they have no choice. They feear that consumers demand the highest-level, coolest graphics. Games are sold on the basis of demos and looks. Marketing departments run on the basis of feature lists. The sales channel is narrow. “The Industry” believes that technology sells.

Sales have increased, but not as fast as costs. Sales growth is a linear curve; the average game loses more and more money. And all this will only get worse.

The field is more and more hit-driven. Publishers will consolidate and publish more and more titles. Publishers will try to standardize (“like sports games”) with statistical, minor tech updates.

They’re trying to cut costs; they’re trying to alleviate risks; all games must be eligible to be a hit (“AAA titles”).

Developers won’t sell a game unless a marketers already knows how to sell it. Innovation thus can grow only a the margins.

Margins are squeezed, advances don’t recoup, you live from contract to contract, and developers have a hard time. . . . Greg fears the comic-ization of game design. The plasticity of game design oughtn’t be stifled.

Next up is Edward Castronova, who’s already notorious as the man who figured out the GNP of Everquest. He refers to online worlds as “synthetic”; he doesn’t like calling them “virtual” worlds (the term “virtual” is passé, and problematic).

What conclusions does Edward draw from this situation? This raises all sorts of political questions. The amount of financial assets at stake implies significant political energy. He’s presently analyzing whether two completely similar avatars — but who differ only in gender —differ also in eBay price. He tracks commodity prices in Norrath on his website. He makes the provocative comparison between physical-world governments and the administrators of online games.

Jesper Juul is getting his laptop connected for his dpresentation, “On the affinity between computer and games.” He takes as his point of departure four big questions: Why play computer games? What is a game? Games as rules vs. games as worlds? What is relation between computer games and other contemporary media/other things?

Why play computer games? Well, we play games all the time; why not do it with computers? Different games, different reasons. Why do games fit computers so well?

Jesper goes over a classic game model. It involves rules, variable outcomes, values assigned to outcomes, player effort, outcome associated with player, and optional consequences. He’s now parsing modes of play into “games,” “not games,” and “borderline cases.”

He thinks that the classic game model was broken by 1970’s (perhaps by pen and paper role-playing); quanitfiable outcome doesn’t apply to Doom; value assigned to outcome changed with SimCity, and its siblings; player effort may not have changed; but MMRPG changes the effects of consequences.

Digital Genres Five

First paper, afternoon session: Robert Moore is presenting a paper on brands, the use of language in corporate culture, and semiotics. Brands are composite entities, an unstable proprietary composite of a material product and an abstract symbol.

Brandedness (in the contemporary market) interpellates people to act as consumers (Anyone who uses the word “interpellates” has already won me over). Brand is the way producers extend themselves into the world of consumers.

In the beginningwas the Name; without a protected brand name, a brand does not exist. If the brand name devolves into a signifier for a category (rather than one particular version of products), the brand no longer exists; Moore calls this “genericide.” The name separted from the product. “Ingredient branding” names a component, which component is not itself perceptible in consuming the product (NutraSweet, Dolby, “Intel Inside”). You drink the cola, you use the computer — but you “consume” the host product without observing the component branded part. In these cases, the component frequently derives its initial cachet from the whole product, then lends its brand status back to the host. Third example: “viral marketing” produces its product in the act of branding; and in the act of consuming the product, the consumer both consumes and produces the product.

Moore proposes that online, we are dependent on our names. Machines recognize us by our names, we recognize one another by our names. . . .

Now the Happy Tutor is transmitting twenty-two aphorisms on branding — a version of this posting from April. This performance suffers lack only in the of The Tutor — whose presence perhaps would make the performance impossible. More’s the pity; but his delegate himself offers a surfeit of significance.

Laura Trippi is here (we were afraid she couldn’t make it). Two digital genres, or metapgenres: Defense Transformation (a Pentagon program that aims to take control of technological innovation and outrun private invention), and the other doesn’t have a name (P2P? Social Software? Smart Mobs?). Both are driven by disruptive technologies, using complex systems theory (emergence).

Why talk about them as genres? It calls attention to their relational nature. Defense Transformation responds to terrorist networks. They are internally stratified. Like the notion of brand, it forms a bridge that connects to the chronotope, linking to its conditions of possibility. It conveys the axiological horizons of each utterance. They’re always evolving,unfolding themselves across cultures, remixing, operating under other names. They provide narratives that explain their trajectory, but the narrative isn’t inherent in the genre itself.

Common values and beliefs: free markets, innovation (in and of itself). . . .

Defense transformation is the Pentagon’s effort to reinvent itself to prioritize informational technology (information up to parity with economic, political resources), toward the end of a Revolution in Military Affairs. Shift from doctrine of overwhelming force, to primary dominance. It’s not about destroying, but controlling knowledge and information to disorient and destabilize the adversary.

Net War: the combat shifts to non-state actors.

How does this connect with branding and the role of narrative? Brands deny a perceived good about one product or service, and persuade the consumer of another good.

Micah Jackson is talking about selves, identity, and online personality. He suggests thinking of our first year of college (Edward Castronova moans); we move away from our families of origin, make new friends —do we become new people?

He explains “self psychology” which Kohut developed in understanding and treating narcissistic personality disorders (I’m wishing Chris Locke were here to join in). Micah’s paper is good, but I’m not summarizing it because it’s so entwined with self psychology that I feel as though I’d have to reproduce the psychological background information in order to convey the points he’s making about the [self] psychology of online interactions.

Digital Genres Four

Biella is talking to us about IRC. (Her paper is online here, but she says she’ll take it down as soon as the conference is over). She’s drawing cultural criticism — specifically Paul Gilroy’s critical depiction of Black/Caribbean culture — into the study of social interactions on IRC channels.

She’s arguing against the premise that “authenticity” constitutes an essential components of community. She also argues against the homogenization of online interaction; if we invoke “technology” as a blanket characterization of what’s going on, we miss the diversity of online interactions and communities.

IRC and Caribbean street talk “are public spaces in which clever word play, performance, and stream of consciousness conversation predominate.” Whereas the Caribbean Diaspora derives from a distinct geographic and cultural dislocation, IRC brings together persons whose physical locations remain dispersed. The forms of speech in both communities converge — but the dramatic divergence of cultural circumstances of Caribbean diaspora identity (on one hand) and hacker channels remains vitally important.

Now Anne Galloway will tell us about “What Is the Augmented City?”: ubiquitous/pervasive computing. Amplified reality assembles, layers, virtual spaces onto physical spaces.

Anne proposes that “We have never been modern” (following Latour). Four facets of ontology: the real, the possible, the ideal, and the actual. The virtual is the ideally real; the abstract is the possibly ideal; the concrete is the actually real; and the probable is actual possibility.

The virtual is a real idealization, as a dream, a memory (as past-ness). The concrete is the present, the taken-for-granted event, the now. The abstract doesn’t exist in se. The probable exists (to the extent that it does) in the future.

Molly Wright Steenson picks up by talking through “imaginary architecture.” Bruno Taut, expressionist architect, wrote in November 1919, “There is almost nothing to build, and if we can really build somewhere, we do it to live. Or maybe you’re lucky enough to be carrying out a good contract? I’m finding the practice to be cloying, and in principle, you all seem to be feeling the same way. Honestly: it is completely good that today nothing’s being ‘built.’ Things can thus mature, we can collect our strength, and when it begins again, then we’ll know our goals and be strong enough to protect our residents from dangerous adhesion or degeneracy. Let us consciously be imaginary architects.” So doing, he founded “the Crystal Chain.” Molly submits that this makes as timely a claim now as it did then. As she narrates the history of the Crystal Chain correspondence, she notes her disappointment that so little design thought today is utopian: “If you silence the discourse of vision too early, you cut it off and get nothing.” “The Web grows community without even trying.” (Trevor leans over and points out that the Disseminary is utopian information architecture.”)

Digital Genres Three

Holly Swyers takes up the topic of slash fanfic in the context of Putnam’s investigation of a distinction between the “real” and “virtual” communities in Bowling Alone. She’s drawing on the Batslash list in particular.

She fell into exploring Batslash in the course of research on the popularity of Batman in the political atmosphere of the 90’s. She’s spending much of her time explaining the premises and structure of fanfic, and the testimonies of its practitioners. She unfolds the implications of the practitioners’ convention of labelling slash fanfic (for example), as a sign of acknowledging participants’ particular interests — and their interests’ differences from the likely interests of a casual browser.

Evelyn Browne is following through the discussion on fanfic, especially as fanfic traffic has relocated from mailing lists to LiveJournal. LiveJournal has catalyzed participation in fanfic by interconnecting “Friends Lists” with fan communication. (She’s talking fairly rapidly and quietly, and I’m sitting at the back of the room, near the electrical outlet, so I’m not catching all that she says. Please excuse the thinness of my blogging here.) She has quantified the posts on a number of lists over the past couple of years, and she thinks that the number of postings have remained pretty constant over that period. She thinks it’s easier to carve out an idiot-free space by using Liveournal than by using a mailing list. Marginal fandom emerges more prominently in LiveJournal.

Now it’s Steve Himmer, talking about the nature of blogging and whether there is such a thing. He cites the Meg Hourihan defnition and describes the flap that ensued. He’s questioning the technically-oriented definition, and seeks a more literary definition.

He approaches this by asking how we read weblogs. The blog lies in a blurred zone of story and reportage, factuality and interpretation, truth and fiction. A weblog focuses attention on trustworthiness rather than factuality. He here cites Jonathon Delacour’s posting on Ikuko’s name, a posting that generated a flurry of responses [finishing sentence] that reflected shock, disbelief, appreciation, strictly linguistic interest, strictly human interest, and ruminations on the relation of fact and fiction.

He’s discussing “ergotic literature” as a genre for blogs. Unlike print publications or even highly-complex computer games, blogs remain fundamentally open — the author can be expected to continue adding to the blog, to add links to a blog, and possibly to permit readers themselves to comment within the blog. All these differentiate the work of a blog from journalism or novel-writing. He doesn’t suppose that blogs are better or worse, a replacement or an alternative to other modes. His point is that the issue of whether any particular author is “really” blogging misses the value of actually reading blogs (rather than discussing the relative merits of technical tools).

Digital Genres Two

(I’m going to note-take more lightly this afternoon; I just can’t keep up and pay attention while going easy on my right thumb.)

David Rosenberg is now talking about the promiscuous comparisons between the Talmud and the internet. He’s beginning with an introduction to the Talmud. He’s usefully spelling out many, many distinctions that can differentiate Talmud from hypertext or hyperlinked weblogs.

He sums up by noting that although some comparative points can be made, the Talmud isn’t just like the internet. By eliding the real differences, we neither honor the Talmud nor elevate the ’net.

Now, Theo van den Hout of the Oriental Institute is discussing knowledge management in the really ancient (1325 BCE) world. Evidently, the Hittites had a very efficient form of recording and filing information; unfortunately, they didn’t record their system, so we don’t know how the (information) architecture worked. Although they worked with a conventional tablet size (roughly 8.5 x 11 or 14), they also kept small post-it size tablets (tablettes?) and medium-sized pillow-shaped tablets. We have about 35,000 tablets and fragments of tablets from the hittite Empire, reflecting a storage capacity of about 7,000 tablets, by van den Hout’s estimate.

Most were stored on in stacks of shelves, sometimes with labels indicating the title; some were kept in niches, chests, and jars. Van den Hout points out that light for reading was a problem. Sunlight from the left-hand side is ideal for reading cuneiform, but the tablets were stored in dark rooms; either one tried to read cuneiform by flickering torchllight (a hassle) or one carted a tablet outdoors to read (another hassle).

Colophons give the state of completion, the series, title, scribe, and supervisor for each tablet. Likewise, we sometimes find lists of the contents of a given shelf, with the state of completeness.

Now Seth Sanders is going, and his target is where the “newness” of digital genres comes from, and what a “digital genre” might be. He’s beginning with Frank Moore Cross’s history of the emergence of alphabetic writing from logosyllabic writing. Logosyllabic writing seems to have been general; alphabetic writing seems to have originated from a single source. He suggests that the elitist societies of the ancient world were logosyllabic, but that alphabetic writing engendered a more open, democratic culture.

Seth attacks the reasoning that underwrote this supposition. Empirical research points out a conclusion entirely opposite to Cross’s position.

He takes autographs as an index of linguistic function. Logosyllabic texts cite witness lists, which were authenticated with seals (for those who had them) or fingernail-imprints. In Greece (supposedly the site of higher rationality indigenous to alphabetic culture) one might mortgage a plot of land by planting a huge rock on it — not by filing a document with a signature (for instance).

The first signed alphabetic document dates from November 17 in 446 BCE, in Palestine: a deed of ownership for land. The ancestors of the autographically-signed deed were stamp-sealed Aramaic texts, mediating the Egyptian logosyllabic deeds and the Aramaic autographically-signed deed. The function of a signature doesn’t have to do with an ideology intrinsic to semiotic systems like logosyllabic or alphabetic writing, but the medium: clay or papyrus.

Daniel Headrick is now talking about alphabetical order, but I’m too tired to type. It’s a shame, because this is a fascinating record of the history of alphabetical order.

Digital Genres One

The conference is just beginning. . . I’m up first, so I won’t blog my presentation, but I’ll try to cover the rest.

OK, I finally stopped talking. Now Trevor is up, talking about performing identity in a tripartite way: we perform with attention to text, we select what we’re performing, and we embed that selection in a particular genre. But we don’t just reflect on texts; we also engage in praxis, in specific places or spaces, when we act out these texts, we understand them. At that point, we get feedback and take risks, strengthening or damaging relationships. Performances are embodiments of certain texts.

Trevor quotes from Ezekiel, when God appears to the prophet and commands him to eat the scroll that includes the divine word.

Does performance situate itself in virtual bodies? Trevor acknowledges that he was skeptical at first, but that his doubts may have been influenced too much by television. TV detracts from our capacity to pay attention, because we have no feedback; he cites the Matrix Reloaded, but he’s giving spoilers so I’m not listening.

Can we then instantiate individual or social bodies online? Not in familiar ways, nor in a novel on-substantial (not-instantiated-in-physical-worlds) religious phenomenon. He argues that touch can’t be simulated; there’s an ontological difference between a physical touch and an electronically-mediated touch. That doesn’t mean that Trevor is theologically negative and nervous about online theology; he wants to give a positive account of online interaction, and he focuses on blogs. They’re more oral and aural than other online modes in a healthy online parasitism that forms a web of social connections like the web of connections that we enact in sacraments (that one I doubt).

Trevor characterizes blogs as stories, whether in pictures (he cites Burningbird and Rageboy, an unnerving combination) or words. Now he’s misguidedly defending the idea of spatial metaphors for online activity, but that’s not necessary to the point that he’s making about blogs as fulfilling his characterization of online activity and performance.

He wants to push the performative dimension of blogging by drawing in a connection to virtue (not Bill Bennett), citing the Epistle of James 3:17f: “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity. And the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” All of this, Trevor says, can be done online, and with that he rests his case.

Now Lacey Graves is starting up; she’s the youth desk coordinator for the Bahai’i faith. The online version of her paper is here. Since she’s got the text of the paper online, I’m going to use this interval to take a break from typing (and thus rest my right thumb)

Now Naomi Chana is up, talking about naming and identity. She refers to the DIDW website, and notes that most discussions of DigID emphasize security, technical, legal, and economic issues and ignore questions about the constitution of identity. DIDW suggests that digID should restore the ease and security that once subsisted in human transactions. Naomi questions the reality of that narrative of a golden age of human interaction; was it ever that way? She points to DigID discourses as a myth of salvation from the ambiguities and fears of digital interaction. Moreover, the language of DIDW collapses theology into anthropology where “the human” is unquestionably good, and the “impersonal” unquestionably bad.

She talks about naming, pseudonymity, polynymity, and the issues of trust that that raises. If names are metonyms for reality, we need to limit the play of polynymity. She invokes the category of mysticism to escape the binary opposition of nominalism and essentialism. Perhaps by considering the question of names for God, she can help clarify the relation of name and identity online.

She picks Abulafia as a representative figure — not because he’s a representative figure, but because he opens a useful window into matters of naming. He broke down the Tetragrammaton into components, recombining (recombinant onomastic DNA?) the letters in different representations. He thought he could attain enlightenment by spoken and written versions of the Divine Name. She passed out several lines from “The Battle of Blood and Ink,” blood and ink symbolizing intellect and imagination. There are also numerical resonances with various features of the created order.

My fingers are burning out. Naomi talks really quickly, and I need a break — sorry.

Found In Augusta

Young Josiah at Fort Western AugustaBy popular demand — or at least, by suggestion from a couple of people — I tracked down my copy of the photo of Si as an apprentice in Old Fort Western. I had remembered his hair as being blonder than it shows up here, but the lighting is obviously tricky. He’s slenderer now than he was then; no baby fat on this year’s model. Still the radiance and the joyous outlook remain unchanged. The photo’s pretty dusty. My apologies to those of you who were planning to print it out and pin it on your bedroom wall.

Not only was he a good-looking, angelic kid, but he’s grown into a powerful (if somewhat grisly) writer. . . .


I’m proud for two reasons tonight. First, Michael received his offical Disseminary Hoopoe cap, and he attests that it looks good (I’d love to see a picture, Michael).

And second, even more important, Margaret got Seabury’s W. Stevenson Taylor Award for best theology essay this year. And that essay isn’t even a patch on her thesis.

I’m not really proud that Steve and Sage arrived safely tonight, but I’m very pleased they did. They’re gracious guests (they didn’t, for instance, say, “Well, you certainly have more than enough books around here,” or “Did you have to set us up in the basement, with the sump pump, the refrigerator, and the mysterious boxes of who-knows what heaped up around us”). I do hope it doesn’t rain — that sump pump gets noisy. And just our luck, it’ll flood the basement with all their stuff in it. Now I won’t be able to sleep tonight. Oh, well, more time to fine-tune my Digital Genres paper.

Well, What About It

How about Steve Himmer for President on the Green Party Ticket? I hear it pays better than TA-ing, Steve, and you obviously aren’t underqualified.

Something is going wonky with comments. For the time being, Steve says:

Honestly, I think what the Greens need more than candidates right now is a buzz, some momentum to carry them first over the hurdle of negative assumption–‘you cost us the last election’–and into political legitimacy. I’m not entirely sure the White House is even the place to start: as much I admire and agree with Ralph Nader, I still question how much he could have realistically accomplished as president without significant Green representation in Congress and in State Legislatures. As we’ve seen with W. and before, single-party domination of all three branches is a mighty powerful force, far more powerful than an outsider executive and insider legislative. Which isn’t to suggest one shouldn’t ever reach for the unrealistic, only that perhaps long-range plans need to be attended to as well as short.

But that’s enough political speculation for one morning, no?

And Dorothea Salo responds:

Okay, Steve, so run for something more local. 🙂

Does the Cluetrain Stop at Vatican City

    As I’m burnishing the deathless prose with which I expect to revolutionize the intellectual and spiritual lives of conference-goers, I’m culling quotations from pertinent sources, and found myself going over the Pontifical Council for Social Communications’ “The Church and the Internet,” which showed intriguing signs of cluetrainical insight.

    Consider: “The Church also needs to understand and use the Internet as a tool of internal communications. This requires keeping clearly in view its special character as a direct, immediate, interactive, and participatory medium.

    “Already, the two-way interactivity of the Internet is blurring the old distinction between those who communicate and those who receive what is communicated, and creating a situation in which, potentially at least, everyone can do both. This is not the one-way, top-down communication of the past.”

    Did Msgr. John P. Foley write that, or did Doc Searls script it for him?

    There are predictable manifestations of the Magisterium’s nervousness about free dialogue — “it is confusing, to say the least, not to distinguish eccentric doctrinal interpretations, idiosyncratic devotional practices, and ideological advocacy bearing a ‘Catholic’ label from the authentic positions of the Church,” and “The ‘tendency on the part of some Catholics to be selective in their adherence’ to the Church’s teaching is a recognized problem in other contexts; more information is needed about whether and to what extent the problem is exacerbated by the Internet” — but the clues are there in the foreground.