The Hi-Lo’s – Black Is The Colour

Absolutely exquisite:

[Via Grant Senior. Nice.]

Chris Crawford: Masterclass On Interactivity

About three weeks ago now—yeah, I know, but I’ve been busy—Chris Crawford delivered a ‘Masterclass On Interactivity’ at Swansea Metropolitan University.

Chris began with a light-hearted look back at the history of computing and, simultaneously, back over his career. Whilst offering a gentle introduction to the presentation and a chance to get to know him, the opening section did make on major point: that interactivity is what defines modern computing and, by extension, new media in general. The computer is an interaction machine.

Chris Crawford's home-made first "laptop."
Chris Crawford's home-made first "laptop."
Eastern Front 1941
Eastern Front 1941

Having set out his stall Chris went on to discuss the concept of interactivity. Firstly he said that the best example of interactivity—to which all machine interactions strive—was a human conversation: real-time, using all our senses, pure improvisation. From this observation he derives what I think is the best definition of interactivity I’ve come across: interactivity occurs when computer and user alternately listen, think, and speak.

The quality of the interaction is defined by the weakest element in that chain. For example, modern computer games are very good at ‘speaking to us’—they look fabulous and they sound fabulous—but they’re not so good at thinking: very often the characters or the basic game AI is actually pretty dumb. Call of Duty:Modern Warfare 2 is a perfect example.

Computers are also not very good at ‘listening’ to us. Interaction with a computer is usually limited to a surprisingly small range of gestures and actions: pointing, clicking, dragging, etc.. Whilst multi-touch and gestural interfaces are widening that vocabulary, it remains very limited compared to what is possible with natural language. Chris suggested a Linguistic User Interface as being the future, in turn paving the way for the social aspects of interaction (and, by extension, the social aspects of gaming, evolving into what he calls “interactive storytelling”).

Only Four Mental Modules?
Only Four Mental Modules?

Although computers are good at ‘thinking’, Chris argued that the main limitation of computing was that it currently only used a small number of the “mental modules” we possess, the main ones being spatial reasoning, hand/eye coordination, resource management, and problem-solving. Crucially, our all-important social reasoning module was not challenged at all.

Star Wars considered as a social network.
Star Wars considered as a social network.
Pacman considered as a socal network
Pacman considered as a social network

Summing up the first half of the presentation, Chris suggested that our current generation of computer games have developed as far as they can go, and that a separate industry will emerge exploiting the social aspect of the technologies.


After lunch Chris began by talking about the human predilection for talking about experience in terms of things rather than as a system of processes (nouns rather than verbs, data rather than algorithms). Interactivity is communication through process. He went on to talk about interactive storytelling environments where each use generated a new narrative instance, as opposed to our current paradigm where stories are fixed within a medium (novels, comics, films, TV programmes). Chris argued that these interactive stories—hypernarratives—would never achieve the polish of the story fixed within its medium, but that they would have much greater emotional impact because of their personal, individually generated, meaning.

For the final section of the afternoon, Chris talked about what the requirements were for the designer of these new interactive storytelling environments. This was Chris at his most overtly evangelical, throwing wide the doors of learning and revealing an endless landscape for exploration and discovery. Using Erasmus as an example, he very cleverly and humorously showed how little information there was on the Internet compared to that encoded in books. He showed how you could use equations that describe natural processes to model human interaction (for example, human attraction and repulsion convincingly modeled using spring compression equations). He tried to get as to look at the processes underlying the world we live in, not its surface features.

All This Goes In Here
All This Goes In Here
Thing vs Process
Thing vs Process

Inevitably I have only offered a very brief overview of the contents of Chris’s Masterclass On Interactivity. The presentation was funny, inspirational, thought-provoking, and very, very, smart. Despite speaking for about 5 hours there was barely a moment that was less than engaging, and the whole audience was gripped throughout. As much as anything else, it was a masterclass on giving a presentation.

Thanks Chris. A privilege.

Chris Crawford Links



Eastern Front: A Narrative History

Jim Reekes

Jim who? Jim Reekes is the gentleman who designed many of the Mac system sounds including that start-up sound. This a recent interview with him (posted February 11th of this year) from a Dutch TV program called One More Thing:

A fascinating and amusing insight into the machinations of corporate culture. Interesting also to associate a personality to the sounds our machines make and which we inevitably take for granted.

[Via Create Digital Music]

The Computational Turn

On Tuesday 9th March I attended the Computational Turn conference at Swansea University. Very good it was too, with the wide range of speakers packed into a single day all having a diverse set of approaches to the main theme. Some of the papers were very challenging, and—whilst not all were of particular interest to me—many shone light into areas I had barely perceived previously, let alone considered in any deliberate way. The highlights of the day were the day’s two keynote speakers: N. Katherine Hayles opening the conference and Lev Manovich closing it.

N. Katherine Hayles
N. Katherine Hayles

Hayles outlined the rationale for the “computational turn.” She began by asking how many books could we read in a lifetime. If we read one a day between the ages of 15 and 85, that turns out to be 25,550. Not many compared to the total number of books available. The question becomes, what if we could analyze a whole corpus of books—all the books ever written on WWII, say, or all the books written about Aristotle—using computers? What would this type of mass analysis reveal?

Of course the next question would have to be, an analysis on what basis? Computers can’t “read” in the same way humans can. They may be able to detect patterns in the data—frequency, repetition, structure—but that is a far cry from the type of hermeneutic interpretation that humans are so good at. Quoting Tim Lenoir, she suggests that we “forget meaning and follow the data streams.” Starting with meaning always embodies too many assumptions: if we start with the analytics we can work out what it all means later. She then went on to illustrate her thesis by showing the initial results of her computational analysis of Danielewski’s Only Revolutions.

The Q&A session ranged across a wide range of topics, all of which Hayles dealt with expertly:

  • Nigel Thrift’s “technological unconscious” was discussed, the observation that assumptions and limitations are embedded within the technologies we use which are largely unnoticed and unseen. (An idea that seems very close to McLuhan’s theories about media.)
  • There was talk of the “adaptive unconscious,” which posits a mind that is effectively a type of internal distributed network where the unconscious is not a Freudian dark place but an active participant in cognition and decision-making.
  • There was talk of the “Baldwin Effect,” an elaboration on evolutionary theory which suggests that specific inherited traits are emphasized by cultural behaviour.
  • Finally, Hayles talked of culture moving from a deep-attention mode (related to print) into a hyper-attention mode (related to electronic media).

All heady stuff. How some of these issues relates to the computational turn I’m not quite sure, but the whole session was never less than stimulating.

Lev Manovich
Lev Manovich

Lev Manovich’s talk was mainly concerned with his projects, all of which are related to visualizations of large bodies of visual data: one million Manga pages, all 3480 Time magazine covers, Vertov movies, the way saturation changes over time in modern painting. He also showed off the Cultural Analytics software his Software Studies initiative has been developing. Here’s one of his Manga visualizations (stolen from his CultureVis photostream):

Visualization of 50,000 Manga pages
Visualization of 50,000 Manga pages

The accompanying text reads:

X axis: Grey scale standard deviation (measured per page)
Y axis: Entropy (measured per page)

This visualization shows how cultural analytics approach allows us to map continuous style space of a cultural data set. In the current visualization, the pages which have more contrast appear on the right; the pages which have no grey tones but only black and white are on the bottom right; and the pages which have a full range of grey tone (and thus more “realism” ) on the top. Every page in the dataset is situated in the space defined by these extremes.

Here’s another example (from here) showing a subset of the Time magazine covers mapped out in the Cultural Analytics software:

Time Magazine covers
Time Magazine analytics

The accompanying text reads:

Exploring a set of 450 Time covers (sampled from the complete set of 4553 covers 1923-2009 by taking every 10th image). Mousing over points reveals larger images and metadata.

I’ve only really presented here the bookends of the Computational Turn conference. There was much else of value, some of which I intend to follow up in my own work. A special thanks must go to Dr. David Berry for organizing the conference, for attracting such marvellous speakers to Swansea, and for the invitation. Thanks also to Sian Rees for coordinating the event and for providing such a warm welcome.

Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou – Gbeti Madjro

This is super-funky:

[Via BoingBoing]

The Future of Books?

Craig Mod has just published a thoughtful, insightful, and beautifully-presented essay on the future of books in the digital era, using the emergence of devices like the Kindle and the iPad as his focus:

In printed books, the two-page spread was our canvas. It’s easy to think similarly about the iPad. Let’s not. The canvas of the iPad must be considered in a way that acknowledge the physical boundaries of the device, while also embracing the effective limitlessness of space just beyond those edges.

We’re going to see new forms of storytelling emerge from this canvas. This is an opportunity to redefine modes of conversation between reader and content. And that’s one hell of an opportunity if making content is your thing.


This essay could usefully be cross-referenced with Part 2 of Scott McCloud‘s Reinventing Comics from 2000. In other words, some of what’s on offer here is not that new. However, the distinction between Formless and Definite Content is new (to me, at least) and provides a convincing armature around which the essay revolves. And if you need convincing about the inevitability of the move away from printed matter, here it is.

An excellent piece of work, highly recommended. The page must die!

Bruce Sterling at Transmediale

Notes from a presentation made by Bruce Sterling on 6th February 2010 at the Transmediale Futurity Now! festival in Berlin. The theme is “atemporality,” the sense that new media has moved us beyond modernism, beyond postmodernism, beyond all the “grand narratives” of traditional historical discourse. Sterling asks how we survive in this new environment and offers a range of never-less-than interesting and stimulating strategies for designers, artists, and academics. Here are a couple of taster quotes:

1) The Frankenstein Mashup (aka sampling, collage, bricolage):

So how do we just — like — sound out our new scene? What can we do to liven things up, especially as creative artists? Well, the immediate impulse is going to be the Frankenstein Mashup. Because that’s the native expression of network culture. The Frankenstein Mashup is to just take elements of past, present, and future and just collide ‘em together, in sort of a collage. More or less semi-randomly, like a Surrealist “exquisite corpse.” You can do useful and interesting things in that way, but I don’t really think that offers us a great deal. Even when it’s done very deftly, it tends to lead to the kind of levelling blandness of “World Music.” That kind of world music that’s middle-of-the-road disco music which includes pygmy nose-flutes or sitars. This kind of thing is tragically easy to do, but not really very effective. It’s cheap to do. It’s very punk rock. It’s very safety pins and plastic bags. But it’s missing a philosophical high-end…

2) Generative Art:

Then there are other elements which are native to our period that didn’t really work before, such as generative art. I take generative art quite seriously. I’d like to see it move into areas like generative law, or maybe generative philosophy. The thing I like about generative art is that it drains human intentionality out of the art project. Say, in generative manufacturing, you are writing code for a computer fabricator, and you yourself don’t know the outcome of this code. You do not know how it will physically manifest itself. Therefore you end up with creative objects that are bleached of human intent. Now there is tremendous artistic intent — within the software. But the software is not visible in the finished generative product. To me, it’s of great interest that these objects and designs and animations and so forth now exist among us. Because they are, in a strange way, divorced from any kind of historical ideology. They are just not human.

3) Gothic High-Tech vs Favela Chic:

We are in a period which I think is dominated by two great cultural signifiers. An analog system that belonged to our parents, which has been shot full of holes. It is the symbol of the ruined castle. Gothic High-Tech. The ruins of the unsustainable. And the other symbol is the favela slum, Favela Chic, the informalized, illegalized, heavily networked structure of the emergent new order. The things that the twenty first century is doing that are genuinely novel, that have not been domesticated or brought into sociality. The Gothic High-Tech and the Favela Chic. These are very obvious to me, as a novelist and creative artist. Perhaps you won’t see things this way — but I think the life-span of this will be about ten years. A new generation will arise who does not need things explained to them in this way. They will not wonder at a slogan like “Futurity Now!” because they will have never known anything different.

Fascinating stuff.

[Video originally included here has been taken down.]

Quote of the Month

Begin doing what you want to do now. We are not living in eternity. We have only this moment, sparkling like a star in our hand—and melting like a snowflake…

Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

Beardyman & mr_hopkinson

I love this: very clever, very funny, great use of the technology, and the guy’s got talent! Excellent video, too:

[Thanks to Matt Ottewill for sharing this with me.]

The Poetics

I’ve started writing-up my PhD thesis supposedly for submission in March 2011. For me, this means getting up at 5am and getting in a couple of hours study before I head off to the office: there’s no way I’ll be able to do anything meaningful after a day’s work. Anyway, my new regime seems to be working and, three weeks in, I’m still on schedule!

I’ve been working on Aristotle’s Poetics. This is the ur-text for all narrative studies and forms the basis of what we might call the ‘standard model’ of narrative. Part of my thesis, then, involves going back to the original text and asking basic questions like “what did Aristotle really say?” Here’s part of my first draft. It needs notes, the image is only a placeholder, but references are included:

Aristotle’s Poetics
Probably written between 335 – 323 BCE, Aristotle’s Poetics remains a “recurrently, indeed tenaciously, significant” piece of literary criticism (Halliwell 1992). This is all the more remarkable as it is little more than a set of notes, half of which—the section on comedy—is missing (Heath, in Aristotle 1996, xxxvii). Despite its brevity, the text itself presents all sorts of problems: there are several translations which vary considerably in the way that key terms are interpreted and in the way the text is organized; parts of the original text are missing or illegible; there is some internal inconsistency; ideas expressed in the Poetics are inconsistent with the same ideas in his other texts (Belfiore 1992, p.103); and Aristotle often offers examples to illustrate key points by referring to texts that no longer exist (e.g. the discussion of Lynceus at Poetics 11). In fact the brevity of the text often works against understanding: many key terms are not explained and the style is generally elliptical.

The Poetics is largely concerned with poetry, expressed through the three main forms existing at that time: tragedy, comedy, and epic poetry. The bulk of the text is taken up with tragedy, but there is a chapter on epic poetry and a short chapter comparing tragedy with epic. Although comedy is often mentioned in passing, it is thought that the extended analysis of this that Aristotle promises (Poetics 6) lies in another, missing, text (as noted above). Aristotle identifies six component parts to tragedy which are, in their order of importance: plot, character, reasoning, diction, lyric poetry (song), and spectacle (ibid). Here we will be mainly concerned with the component that relates to the structural analysis of narrative—and which in any case takes up the best part of the Poetics—plot.

Aristotle defines plot as “the imitation of the action (by ‘plot’ here I mean the organization of events)” (ibid). He then goes on to explain why it is the most important component of tragedy, which we could summarize by saying that character (and its dependents reasoning, diction, and song) are expressed through the action: without action there is no tragedy. Aristotle then goes on to define plot in some detail, identifying five key characteristics: completeness, magnitude, unity, determinate structure, and universality.

Aristotelian Plot
This is virtually everything Aristotle has to say about completeness:

We have laid down that tragedy is an imitation of a complete, i.e. whole action, possessing a certain magnitude. […] A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle and an end. A beginning is that which itself does not follow necessarily from anything else, but some second thing naturally exists or occurs after it. Conversely, an end is that which does itself naturally follow from something else, either necessarily or in general, but there is nothing else after it. A middle is that which itself comes after something else, and some other thing comes after it. (Poetics 7)

In other words, Aristotle is arguing for a tightly organized and self-contained structure where, putting it into more modern terms, we could say that the plot must be made up of a connected series of events that achieve closure.

Aristotle’s next section on magnitude encapsulates everything that is problematic about the Poetics, being seemingly straightforward, baffling, and highly suggestive all at the same time. He begins by talking about a living organism, which not only “possess parts in proper order, but its magnitude also should not be arbitrary” (ibid). Although he would not have expressed it in these terms, here we could suggest that Aristotle is recognizing that living organisms generally speaking do not evolve parts that have no function; there is a kind of minimalism at work here that will not expend energy on developing these useless parts.

Aristotle then goes on to make two specific statements about the magnitude of a plot. Firstly, that it “should be such as can readily be held in memory” (ibid) and, secondly, that the ideal magnitude should be “in which a series of events occurring sequentially in accordance with probability or necessity gives rise to a change from good fortune to bad fortune, or from bad fortune to good fortune” (ibid). The first of these does not really bear scrutiny: although Aristotle presumably means that the plot must be graspable by the audience at a single sitting, clearly we have memory systems that allow us to maintain highly complex semiotic structures over extended time periods. The second of his definitions is more specific but introduces several new ideas that remain undefined. “In accordance with probability or necessity” is Aristotle’s formula for what many modern commentators might call causality, the recognition that the events in the plot are connected together in a meaningful way and not just a random series of actions placed one after another. Although this clearly relates back to Aristotle’s comments on wholeness and is supportive of that concept, he defines neither “probability” or “necessity” in either the Poetics or indeed any of his other works (Belfiore 1992, p.112).

Furthermore, in this short section Aristotle also introduces another new idea that is important to his conception of the tragic plot, namely that it “gives rise to a change from good fortune to bad fortune, or from bad fortune to good fortune.” This is not really explained until later in the Poetics, where Aristotle says that:

By complication I mean everything up to and including the section which immediately precedes the change to good fortune or bad fortune; by resolution I mean everything from the beginning of the change of fortune to the end. (Poetics 18)

This introduces terms that have become crucial to the development of the ‘standard model’ of narrative in general and the study of narrative structures in particular. It implies a bipartite plot structure with a “change” or turning point somewhere in the middle. If we relate the terms complication and resolution back onto the beginning-middle-end structure Aristotle has already laid out, we could say that the complication is the beginning and some undetermined amount of the middle, whilst the resolution is a similarly undetermined part of the middle through to the end; where the “change” occurs would vary from plot to plot but would demarcate the boundary line between the two:

schematic of Aristotle's plot structure

Aristotle’s concept of the correct magnitude of a plot, then, offers a kind of minimalist philosophy, with the underlying assumption that it should include only what is necessary (or perhaps, only that which performs some specific function). This is the single idea that unifies his ideas about the organic nature of the plot, its graspability, and the minimum requisite action it should include.

Aristotle’s third key characteristic of plot is unity. On the surface, this doesn’t seem to offer us very much in the way of new ideas: surely if a plot is ‘whole’ it must be a unity? However, it does serve to tie together his idea of wholeness with his definition of plot as “a series of events” giving rise to a “change from good fortune to bad fortune, or from bad fortune to good fortune” as noted above. Central to this is Aristotle’s concept of a “single action” (Poetics 8). A plot where a character undergoes a change of fortune made be made up of a series of many events, but all of these events are related to, are necessary for, this change to be represented. In other words, the change of fortune is the “single action” and the events in the plot must all be probable or necessary to it; only in this way will it have unity. There is again this emphasis on the plot containing only those events or actions that are absolutely essential.

Aristotle’s entire comment on determinate structure from Poetics 8 is as follows:

Just as in other imitative arts the imitation is unified if it imitates a single object, so too the plot, as the imitation of an action, should imitate a single, unified action—and one that is also a whole. So the structure of the various sections of the events must be such that the transposition or removal of any one section dislocates and changes the whole. If the presence or absence of something has no discernible effect, it is not part of the whole.

The first sentence is merely a reiteration and summary of Aristotle’s concepts of unity and wholeness as discussed above. The second sentence, however, does contain something new: the idea of “transposition or removal” of sections gets to the very heart of plotting, and is one of the few instances in the Poetics where we can clearly see the difference between “story” and “plot” expressed directly. The story is the events in linear order, but the plot is those events “organized” in some artistic way. What Aristotle is saying is that if events from the story are transposed—moved in time relative to each other—or removed, and that these changes have no effect on the whole, then they are dispensible, not part of the ‘unity’. Yet again there is this emphasis on the minimal means of expression, reinforced by the final sentence in the section.
In fact, we can see from this section of the Poetics that we could reasonably collapse all of Aristotle’s ideas about wholeness, unity, and the minimal representation of a single action under the umbrella term ‘the determinate structure of a plot’.

Aristotle’s fifth key characteristic of plot is universality. This section of the Poetics is concerned with the type of overall effect “the poet” should be striving for, that is, qualitative or aesthetic outcomes. Whilst it includes what is probably the first exposition of the ‘fact versus fiction’ problem, there is little relevant to the issues under discussion here.

One final issue that Aristotle does deal with and that does have relevance for us is that of the defective plot. He highlights the episodic plot as being “the worst,” and by an episodic plot he means “one in which the sequence of events is neither necessary or probable.” In other words, an episodic plot is one with extraneous or superfluous events within it, and where there is little connection, coherence, or self-referentiality between the events (and here I am trying to avoid the word ‘causality’). Which in the terms of Aristotle’s argument is all very straightforward; however, later on in the Poetics he seems to use the word ‘episode’ in a completely different way:

The prologue is the whole part of a tragedy before the entry-song of the chorus; an episode is a whole part of a tragedy between whole choral songs; the finale is the whole part of a tragedy after which there is no choral song. (Poetics 12)

What makes this worse is that he also seems to be using one of his key terms for plot—”whole”—in a new way as well. However, what he is doing is making a distinction between what he calls the “formal elements” of the tragedy—plot, character, reasoning, diction, lyric poetry, and spectacle—and what he calls the “quantitative terms” (ibid). In modern terminology, this would be the same as making the distinction between the story (as plotted) and the narrative discourse: the plot may be whole, have unity, and be the minimal representation of a single action, but as instantiated in a single performance it may be presented episodically. And in fact, later on in the Poetics, Aristotle makes this distinction very clear:

One should handle the chorus as one of the actors; it should be part of the whole and should contribute to the performance—not as in Euripides, but as in Sophocles. In the other poets the songs have no more to do with the plot than they do with any other play… (Poetics 18)

In other words, the songs move the plot forward.

To summarize this section on Aristotelian plot:

  • The plot is “the organization of events.”
  • There are five key characteristics of plot: completeness, magnitude, unity, determinate structure, and universality.
  • The plot of a tragedy is an imitation of a complete and whole action, possessing a certain magnitude, and which has a beginning, a middle and an end. It is a tightly organized and self-contained structure made up of a connected series of events that achieve closure.
  • The plot is minimally functional in the same way as a living organism.
  • The plot must be graspable in a single sitting.
  • The plot must be of a magnitude so that, with the minimum requisite action, it should represent a change of fortune for the protagonist(s). The events leading to the change are the complication, the events after the change are the resolution.
  • The plot has unity; it represents a single action.
  • The plot has determinate structure: everything must be there for a reason.
  • The plot should strive for universality.
  • An episodic plot is one with extraneous or superfluous events within it, and where there is little connection, coherence, or self-referentiality between the events.

Aristotle (trans. Heath, M.) (1996) Poetics. Penguin Classics
Belfiore, E. S. (1992) Tragic Pleasures: Aristotle On Plot And Emotion. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Halliwell, S. (1992) ‘Epilogue: The Poetics and its Interpreters’ in Rorty, A. O. (Ed) Essays On Aristotle’s Poetics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.