In My Own Back Yard

UT-Dallas is starting a new major program that sounds pretty excellent.  He’s calling it “Social Media University,” among other things, and that is certainly in keeping with his iconoclastic-yet-utopian philosophy as I’ve encountered it so far on his blog and other materials.  Looking forward to hearing more about it in the future.

On the Kindle (Really, the iPod), Ctd

A follow-up by Tim on this whole Kindle thing.  Turns out he was really talking about the iPod, and the points he raises about that I firmly agree with.  I just don’t see the Kindle as something that would ever be able to catch up to where the iPod/iPhone already are.  His point number 5 is the most compelling to me:  “Media Devices Should Do More Than One Thing.”  As long as the thing is an “electronic reader” and not a “networked digital manipulation device,” it will remain too limited for most of us going forward.

On the Kindle

Tim over at Snarkmarket dropped this one on us — a bit of a theoretical slog, but surely worth wading into–but at the center was the question from his previous post about whether the Kindle of 2020 will play a central role in the way we understand and engage with reading.

My sense is that the Kindle — or any ereader for that matter — will have to do more than manage text if it wants to still be around in 2020.  This is related to my personal sense that “iPhone” and “iTunes” are ultimately bad names for these tools; “iPod” is actually much better, in the sense that it is more able to readily take on new meanings acquired through popular use of it that things that have “phone” or “tune” in their very name.

In fact, the iPhone does so much more than even most other cellphones, while still relying on the basic cellular network that provides its phone-ness, that the name is pretty silly.

But that is the kind of tool our current social and cultural practices encourage and are encouraged by: something that’s infinitely mobile and can easily and quickly connect you with all people and all information the moment you seek it.  Something like the Kindle, at least as I understand it, limits access to text-based material (and even then I understand web-browsing capability is limited) in a way that current practice simply has little interest in, in the aggregate.  If Amazon does not see this and react to it, then I would say there will be no Kindle in 2020 or any other ereader.  More likely, the option to consume ebook content will be folded into an all-in-one pocket device and remain there.

Interactivity and Fun

Damion Schubert has another insightful and provocative post up that addresses his philosophy of game design.  In this case, he’s talking about the role of interactivity as it relates to fun.

Why are Bioware games considered among the best story-telling games in the world? Many reasons, including some traditional ones (a focus on characters and cinematography, for example). But one lost on many observers is Bioware’s insistence that the narrative is interactive – the player must be able to make choices, and the choices should matter.

So where does Fun fit in?

I happen to subscribe to Raph’s theory of fun, at least as it pertains to video games. His theory is that fun is what happens when a player encounters a game system, is challenged by it, learns it, masters it, and then takes it to the next level.

Put another way, ‘fun’ is the result of successful interactivity. And if you start with the idea that interactivity is the basis for art in games, then it stands to reason that, not only is it possible for fun games to be art, it is very likely that games that will be considered great works of art will be fun. [emphasis in original]

I would just want to tweak that position slightly in that, when he says “the player must be able to make choices, and the choices should matter,” it seems we aren’t talking about interactivity so much as “agency,” or rather, talking about the way agency, that feeling of being able to make choices that matter, is a core emotional characteristic of a player’s enjoyment or “fun” in a game.  Or maybe its just that I’m a player and not a designer.

Wish I’d Thought of That

Jason Mittell at Middlebury College just posted a more informal, contextualized version of their coming Position Search on his blog.  Great idea.

What I like about this is that, as a prospective job seeker back in 2003, I felt the entire process was too formal, rigid, and lacking in context.  I applied to positions all over the place based on a very short official Search ad, the campus address, and department website (and I had the internet; I feel even worse for all those folks who looked for positions in the 20th Century).

But here’s the thing: mostly, I was wrong, wrong, wrong.  Turns out, if you contact the department with your questions, usually someone there is more than happy to speak with you about the process.  Remember: we’re as interested in finding that diamond in the stacks as you are being one.  When I applied at my current institution, the watchword was “fit,” as in “we’re looking for someone who has the right fit for this place.”  And I like to think we did make that fit, primarily because I pushed past my own, natural inclination to keep it to myself by not keeping it to myself.  I asked questions, told them what I thought about their program, and I believe it made a difference.

So when Jason provides a brief history of the department, the average number of majors, or the general attitude of his Provost, or adds the bit about how their teaching load is a bit squirrely, its a tip off about the openness of the hiring process.  And that’s particularly smart, to me.

On Serendipity, ctd

Tim Carmody over at Snarkmarket hits the point much more accurately and directly than I managed to.

I’m just going to assume that Damon Darlin walks into other people’s houses at random, without filtering or vetting them first. I’m also going to assume that he goes through their medicine cabinets and ingests whatever drugs he finds there without filtering or vetting them. Because otherwise this makes NO SENSE.

I concur.

On Serendipity and the Web

NYT had a piece by Damon Darlin yesterday in which Darlin argued “the digital age is stamping out serendipity.”  He continues:

Ah, the techies say, no worries. We have Facebook and Twitter, spewing a stream of suggestions about what to read, hear, see and do. We come to depend on it to lead us to the funny article on TheOnion.com or the roving food cart serving goat curry. It’s useful.

But that isn’t serendipity. It’s really group-think. Everything we need to know comes filtered and vetted. We are discovering what everyone else is learning, and usually from people we have selected because they share our tastes. It won’t deliver that magic moment of discovery that we imagine occurred when Elvis Presley first heard the blues, or when Michael Jackson followed Fred Astaire’s white spats across the dance floor.

This might seem reasonable on its face: group-think is the binary opposite of serendipity.  However, this relies on a particularly attenuated notion of how we should label “filtered and vetted” information, and it also pushes a particularly narrow understanding of serendipity.  Regarding the former, I’m not comfortable referring to all the information that has been vetted for me as “group-think.”  When I ask a colleague whom to read to get caught up on a subject, I expect a professional response, personal friendship be damned.  I imagine she will color her reading of those authors with her own prejudices, but what makes Darlin think all recommendations come in the form “you must” or “don’t ever”?  Instead, most of us couch our understanding of a particular text or idea with a wide variety of contextual information, from which those of us receiving recommendations can then make evaluative judgments.  Of course many people make snap judgments, but we do this less about things that really matter to us.  Should you doubt me on this, look at any online forum’s hot button issues, whether that’s health care reform on a political blog or the timeline for the alternate Presidency on The West Wing fansites.  If it matters to us, we can and do easily overcome whatever group inertia (and I think this might be a more neutral term to describe what Darlin is talking about) guides us in a particular direction.

Then there’s this formulation of the concept of “serendipity.”  I remember first encountering this term from a children’s book series when I was living in Germany while my father was stationed there.  I have no idea what the book was about, but I saw it in the library and asked my teacher what it was all about and she told me the word meant an instance of lucky discovery.  Princeton’s Wordnet provides something similar:

good luck in making unexpected and fortunate discoveries

And Wikipedia also:

the effect by which one accidentally discovers something fortunate, especially while looking for something else entirely unrelated.

This idea of “fortune” is what I would like to dwell on for a moment.  Darlin indicates that thumbing through a friend’s book collection is entirely different from clicking on a link to something on a friend’s Twitter feed, because the latter has already been filtered and vetted.  But how is the friend’s book collection any different?  In fact, isn’t it exactly the same?  Maybe Darlin had a different experience from mine, but whenever I would find a book on a friend’s shelf that looked interesting, the very next thing I would do would be to ask my friend to tell me more about it.  We don’t just walk away with the book tucked under our arm, or even drive to the bookstore and buy it without comment.  The friend’s commentary and context, her “filtering” and “vetting,” are precisely the missing information we most often want and need in order to close the loop on the open question of whether the book is for us.  And this is not to mention the fact that we found the book on our friend’s bookshelf in the first place.

Perhaps the more pressing issue here is that many people we follow on Twitter or friend on Facebook often aren’t people we’re that close with.  But that actually makes a stronger case for calling this kind of linking “serendipity,” especially when someone I went to college with turns out to have entirely opposite political views from mine and now I’m reading an article I would never have found entirely of my own volition that’s making me think, and I got there by clicking through from that college friend’s Facebook page.

Ultimately, for me it comes down to how Darlin is assuming the core of the term, serendipity, that “fortune” bit.  Take Darlin’s Urbanspoon example:

“It was designed with a real serendipity problem in mind,” he said, recalling that his friends were once heading for the same old place for lunch when he held up his cellphone and said, “Imagine if you shook this like a Magic 8 Ball and it gave you an answer.”

For them, it was one of those magic moments because they identified a need that demanded a new business. “You get bored. It gets itchy and gets worse over time,” Mr. Lowry said. “You want a new experience.”

But a funny thing happens with frequent users of the app. They start relying on its search engine or the “Talk of the Town” feature, an algorithm that generates suggestions that uncannily echo local sentiment.

The problem here is in the assumption that serendipity happens often.  But isn’t most of the random selection that happens through Urbanspoon not all that fortunate?  The selections that are serendipitous end up getting recommended up the chain and land in the Talk of the Town, and all the stuff that was only so-so or even terrible doesn’t.  But they stay in the app for some other unlucky schmo to have to stumble upon.  If the goal is “fortunate discovery,” wouldn’t you prefer to draw from a pool of things other human beings have already found somewhat “fortunate”?  There is a big difference between a discovery and a discovery that’s actually good for you.

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