I recently ordered, with glee, Sifteo cubes in the hopes that I might be able to use them either in the classes I teach or perhaps add them to the Archeological Media Lab which, while largely invested in studying outdated computer hardware and software, is also broadly concerned with the study of interface design. As the Sifteo cube interface is equal parts touch-sensitive and motion-sensitive – for example, you choose menu options by pushing the cubes together or you can activate different parts of the games by shaking the cubes or placing them face down – they seemed like a necessary addition to the lab’s growing library of gadgets. (And of course, after many happy hours of compulsive playing and tinkering with the cubes at home, I was also looking for a legitimate excuse to bring the cubes into my classes.)
This, then, is a short review of Sifteo cubes and my own attempt to work out, for myself and for my colleagues (especially those involved in the Teaching with Technology Seminar sponsored by ASSETT), whether these cubes are might be a productive addition to an undergraduate class on digital media or even a literature class on electronic literature. But, I should be clear: this review is in the context of the classes I’m teaching right now that reflect my own (rather unconventional) research interests.
While more and more I’m becoming interested in old media, analog media, as well as the history of computing, one reason I’m housed in an English literature department is because of my interest in e-literature with an emphasis on digital poetry. By “digital poetry” I generally mean a work that is ‘digital born,’ a first-generation digital object created on a computer and (usually) meant to be read on a computer. Whether or not the text is “poetry” more often than not depends on what critical apparatus you decide to bring to the work—many of the digital works I’m interested could be classified as fiction or visual art as easily as they could be poetry; I’ve found that once text enters the digital, genre distinctions start to break down.
In the undergraduate course I teach on digital poetry, I’ve come up with four broad conceptual categories by which to help students think about digital poems: 1) digital poetry that brings us to the absolute limits of interpretation; 2) the historical underpinnings of digital poetry (including units on how Dada, Futurism, and Concrete Poetry have influenced digital poetry); 3) the lineage of computer-generated poetry that spans the 1950s to the present day – or, basically, the use of algorithms to generate text; 4) and reading/writing poetry interfaces from the 21st back to the early 20th century. In terms of the latter, I try to teach my students to see how digital poems draw our attention to their interface, usually through an interface that’s difficult to navigate that in turn helps make writing interfaces less transparent; in contrast to the rhetoric around every new multi-touch or gestural interface that touts how its interface “just disappears! it’s completely ‘natural’ and ‘intuitive’”, I try to get my students to think about what it means for an interface to be invisible or natural – just whose intuition is driving this interface? Also, and more importantly, I feel strongly that the more invisible an interface becomes the less access we have to making things outside of ready-made software and the less access we have to understanding what’s going on underneath the hood. As such, we also look at how these digital poems have been constructed—what software has been used or hacked to create these word objects? What can we learn from studying these works at the level of the code?
The second course I frequently teach is called “Introduction to Digital Media for Humanities” which serves as a humanities-based introduction to digital media structures such as the digital archive and reading/writing software that fundamentally affects what we ourselves are able to read/write; theories and methodologies for under-taking digital media scholarship in the humanities; and, finally, digital textualities ranging from text messaging, blogging, and games to digital fiction and poetry. Ideally, this course gives students the critical skills they need to understand and navigate a 21st century world in which digital media govern the storage, transmission and reception of a whole range of textual material.
Both classes have a distinct and recurring emphasis on doing and making a necessary adjunct to learning the course material; as such, at the end of the semester we have a “demo day” where students exhibit their own works of digital poetry or digital textuality they create in response to the texts we study in class. The point of this assignment is not to impress the class with technical skills – the point is to engage as fully as possible in thinking about how you create affects what you’ve created; in other words, to enact a kind of study or critique of software and how it shapes creative production through doing. This means too that I don’t need students to learn Flash or Actionscript as there are plenty of ways they can “hack” powerpoint or keynote or Prezi to create compelling digital texts.
To slowly move to a discussion of Sifteo cubes, the nature of the final project also means I’m always on the look-out for interesting, new tech to use for this assignment – but there are some restrictions: 1) the tech needs to be somewhat easily accessible (as students have only about 3 weeks to complete the assignment); 2) the tech needs to be free or cheap or easy for me to share with my students; 3) the tech needs to have a textual, ideally literary, potential so that students can learn about how language operates in a digital environment. I can usually find tech that satisfies two out of 3 of these requirements and, in this way, Sifteo cubes are no exception.
David Merrill and Jeevan Kalanithi designed the cubes while they were graduate students at the MIT Media Lab, and they have since formed a company to produce Sifteo Cubes, games, and software. Inspired by classic games such as chess, checkers, and mah-jong, Sifteo Cubes are a hands-on interactive game system. You can turn cubes, shake them, press down on them, and connect them with each other. Each cube contains a tiny computer chip and is connected to other cubes, sensing their motion and position through a wireless network to the Sifteo application on a nearby computer. They come with desktop software that allows you to browse and play games, create your own with the Sifteo Creativity Kit, and find more in the Sifteo store. [An intriguing side-note: Sifteo cubes were recently featured in a MOMA exhibit called "Talk To Me" , featuring a number of cutting edge designs that attempt to reimagine the notion of 'interface.']
There are three games available at the moment that (arguably) include textual elements or just elements that are conceivably related to the two courses I outline above: LoopLoop, Wordplay, and Chroma Shuffle. All three games teach students individual components of what goes into creating a digital poem or even just net art. LoopLoop is about the art of the remix: so much of digital poetry/net art remixes from other sources – pulls from source texts, music, visuals to rearrange; instead of framing remix as plagiarism or laziness (“you didn’t make that yourself!”), this game consists of small music samples and beats you can layer and combine and so it demos how choosing/editing/curation is an art in itself. Wordplay is about the art of the combinatorial: many digital poems are based on the art of viewing language and words as material bits that can be re-combined to form new material bits; it’s another form of remix that takes place at the level of the letter rather than the sentence or the work of art/music as a whole. Chroma Shuffle is about the art of the game: many works of net art/digital poetry have been heavily influenced by games/gaming and as a result turns reading into playing/interacting which in turn requires an organized awareness of objects in the space – or spatial visualization.
Hopefully, given my description of these three Sifteo games, their appeal is obvious. However, there are a few drawbacks: aside from the price tag (a set of three cubes with the charger dock costs about $150 on Amazon.com which makes them prohibitively expensive for most students), they are fantastic to consume which is also the problem – they seem to strongly encourage a passive acceptance of the interface and they discourage users from thinking about how the cubes work and from creating outside of the ready-made environment. I haven’t yet thought of a way to “hack” the Sifteo Cubes to make them do things they might not have been intended to do – like make digital poems. There is indeed a software developers kit but it requires that you know the programming language C. There is also a Creativity Kit which does allow you to change some of what you might call the “vocabulary” of the games (the letters and words) but only allows limited changes to the grammar – the underlying structure – of the games.
All this said: despite the downsides I mention above, if there’s a way for an institution to provide access to Sifteo cubes without saddling students with an additional expense, my sense is that these cubes are still well worth experimenting with in the classroom. I can’t help but endorse any piece of technology that grabs students as much as these cubes and impels them to learn and create.
I’d like to continue thinking here on the future of a possible school of ICMJT (Information, Communication, Media, Journalism, Technology) at CU Boulder by expanding on a few points I raised in my first post and proposing several important additions to my vision of what this future school could look like.
First, in my last post, I pointed out that such a school would have to support meaningful cross-disciplinary collaborative research and teaching. But why exactly? Rather than me attempt to speak from some non-existent trans-disciplinary perspective, take one of the fields I work in as an example: electronic or digital literature – digital born literature meant to be read or accessed on a computer and that makes the most of the digital medium. It’s my sense that while the shift from, say, printing press to typewriter undoubtedly was a catalyst for substantial changes in reading, writing, publishing practices, the shift to the digital computer has wrought far more radical changes – at least partly because, as Friedrich Kittler pointed out some time ago, it reduces all information to zeros and ones which in turn means the digital computer subsumes all media. As such, it seems to me that the future of electronic literature cannot be the study of digital textuality purely from a literary perspective -as the net artist (previously poet, perhaps even digital poet) Jim Andrews puts it, “the synthesis of arts and media reaches a crucial stage with the advent of the computer because the boundaries of representation between media are dissolved.” Or, if you look at any one of Jason Nelson‘s works, you will see it is equal parts video-game, poem, and net-art; it’s the kind of work that demands the expertise of more than one scholar.
Or, take a substantially better funded example of these new cross-genre digital works of art that befit the digital medium: Björk’s “Biophilia,” an app album that is a suite of “interactive, educational artworks and musical artifacts” whose production involved a team of software engineers, essayists, typography experts, producers, designers, narrators, animators, and so on. How could any one scholar account for the entirety of this multimedia work? While while might object that, by this logic, any work of art or literature demands acknowledgement by a team of scholars, I would respond by asserting that the digital is – as I point out above – a uniquely complex, even all-compassing medium that does not offer such a cross-disciplinary perspective so much as it insists upon it.
However, despite what the research and creation of these digital works require, simple encouragement of interdisciplinary, collaborative scholarship and teaching will not amount to anything unless the university is willing to revisit and revise its standards for tenure and promotion – standards which, at this moment, value single authored journal articles, monographs, works of art/literature. There are indeed precedents for this shift in standards and my colleague Katherine D. Harris was kind enough to point out several resources for evaluating Digital Humanities scholarship – the first of which is a white paper that came out of an NEH/NINES summer institute; the co-authors write that “Colleagues in all fields should have incentives and formal opportunities to pursue dialogue with other communities of scholars.” The second resource for evaluating digital work comes from a report produced by another NEH funded workshop, “Off the Tracks: Laying New Lines for Digital Humanities Scholars,” that partly addressed the new collaborative practices necessitated by the digital. Finally, Carolyn Guertin has also graciously pointed out that the Modern Language Association’s Committee on Information Technology has also been a leader in articulating appropriate T & P standards.
Furthermore, aside from substantially revised standards for tenure and promotion, the other crucial component to the production of meaningful interdisciplinary work is physical work-space and equipment appropriate for teaching and researching practice/theory-based work on media (analog as much as digital media). I would like to suggest that this future school could be very productively organized by research groups whose membership changes and fluctuates with the interests of the faculty and whose work, meetings, collaborations, experiments, and creations take place in labs.
In other words, coupled with a school that emphasizes methodologies based in theory-practice and collaboration is a materialist methodology that recognizes that scholarship/teaching can no longer take place purely in the realm of the mind – it requires understanding the material dimensions of any given medium or piece of technology. As I mentioned in my previous post, there are numerous labs across the country (such as the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, the MIT Media Lab, the Critical Media Lab at University of Waterloo, the Digital Innovation Lab at University of North Carolina, or Stanford’s Program on Liberation Technology) who are pursuing on a small-scale just such a mission. However, CU Boulder is in a remarkable position to build the first school of its kind in the U.S. which is structured by numerous labs and research groups.
[D]igital scholarship is the inevitable future of the humanities and social sciences. . . . [D]igital literacy is a matter of national competitiveness and a mission that needs to be embraced by universities, libraries, museums, and archives. . . . How will younger scholars in the humanities and social sciences engage these new technologies and methods? . . . [I]f more than a few are to pioneer new digital pathways, more formal venues and opportunities for training and encouragement are needed. . . . A robust cyberinfrastructure should include centers that support collaborative work with specialized methods. (from “Our Cultural Commonwealth: The Report of the American Council of Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences,” 2006)
Through a long series of public and internal meetings, the University of Colorado at Boulder has recently started to think through the shape of a possible future school of Information, Communication, Media, Journalism, and Technology – an ungainly list of disciplines but one that gestures, I hope, to the possibility of a school that thoroughly supports interdisciplinary research and teaching. I also think this possible future school affords me the opportunity to think through what I would like to see happen – what would be my dream job? What sorts of research and teaching would I like to do that I cannot do now?
As one who writes, researches, and teaches between media studies, literary studies, history of computing, and artistic/literary practice, a future school or college dedicated to ICMJT would have to primarily support and stimulate 1) meaningful cross-disciplinary collaboration and 2) a flexible and emergent curriculum that is responsive to rapid shifts in education, technology, and even broader cultural values (regardless of the potential difficulties in creating a new administrative structure to accomodate such research and teaching). As Richard A. DeMillo asserts in From Apple to Abelard (MIT Press, 2011), “The institutions that will thrive in the coming century are the ones whose offerings are in demand in a world where there are abundant choices for higher education.”
And so, ideally, a future ICMJT school at CU Boulder would learn from small-scale successes – centers and labs across the U.S. such as the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, the MIT Media Lab, the Critical Media Lab at University of Waterloo, the Digital Innovation Lab at University of North Carolina, or Stanford’s Program on Liberation Technology – and create a largescale school, I believe the first of its kind in North American, which would also include labs. I imagine this school as one that is structured not by departments but rather by overlapping conceptual groupings (perhaps akin to the units in the Leeds School of Business). Examples of such groupings might be Computer Arts, Communication, 21st Century Studies, and Media Studies (including studies of the book, analog technologies as well as digital technologies). Faculty could, but need not, align themselves (and their labs) with several conceptual groupings as a way to faciliate the kind of meaningful interdisciplinary work I mention above.
While the ICMJT discussion groups have been urged to avoid concerning ourselves with administrative structures, I would like to point out that, since CU Boulder is a Research I institution – one whose faculty research is foremost and which often drives teaching – in order for this new school to be a success, it will have to create new and innovative guidelines for tenure and promotion that reward rather than penalize 1) co-authored publications; 2) substantial digital-based scholarship (such as data visualizations, information retrieval, data mining, and computational analysis) in addition to conventional academic articles and monograph books; 3) innovations in publishing including electronic journals and e-books; 4) and finally, related to the foregoing three items, practice-based work in addition to theory-based work. I would like to place particular emphasis on the importance of practice-based research and teaching in this new school. l believe ‘doing’ media studies (whether one is studying the book, analog or digital technologies) is an essential component of understanding and then theorizing media – theory and practice ought to be equally valued for both research and teaching in this future ICMJT school. In other words, ‘doing’ and ‘creating’ are important not only for innovative research but also innovative (and effective) teaching and learning. As the technology journalist Anya Kemenetz writes, “Workers at every level benefit from an education that emphasizes creative thinking, communication, and teamwork – the very kind of excellence already offered at top American colleges.” With an appropriately innovative ICMJT school, CU Boulder, then, could be a in a position to become one of these “top American colleges.”
As such, I would like to advocate for a core curriculum that involves at least one year-long class that is dedicated to both theories and practices of media literacy (or, I might suggest, ‘fluency’ which implies a much higher level of sophistication and understanding). However, beyond a small handful of core courses, I would very much like to see a wide of range of courses dedicated to teaching or investigating what DeMillo calls “patterns of thought” that cut across numerous disciplines and that appeal to students’ desires to study cultural memes – especially in a way that cannot be captured by way of networks outside the classroom. I am convinced that DeMillo is right in observing that “universities that cling to principled but inflexible curricula are less likely to be able to survive the competitive onslaught that surely faces colleges and universities in the Middle.” Thus, one possible way to establish a flexible curriculum that affords students abundant choice is to develop, within each conceptual grouping, several streams from which students might choose their courses. A curricular stream in, for example, Computer Arts might involve a course first in media literacy followed by courses (possibly co-taught by faculty in the same or overlapping conceptual groupings) in digital art, music, literature, and communication – all of which would tackle the tight interdependence of theory and praxis from different disciplinary perspectives. Such a system has already been instituted by Georgia Tech’s College of Computing as they have created a “threaded curriculum” which allows students to choose any two threads to make a degree.
A prospective ICMJT school at CU Boulder affords us the opportunity to make ourselves into one of the most innovative, forward-thinking, and relevant institutions in the country that could very well attract not only top researchers but also top students who in turn, once they graduate, will surely be highly sought after by employers.