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On Slow Communication, Plato and Saussure September 1, 2009

Posted by shersego in EMAC 5300.
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I am a believer in slow food and slow travel so I was intrigued to read a recent manifesto about slow communication, “Not So Fast”  by John Freeman. Ironically the article was posted by a friend on Facebook–one of the speed offenders. Freeman claims that excessive use of email and social media has confused faster speed with efficiency and a twisted notion of progress.  In the process it blurs the boundaries between work and leisure, and robs us of the sweetest pleasures of being human. He asks a provocative question, “How many of our most joyful memories have been created in front of a screen?”

The three points Freeman makes echo arguments going back to Plato, in my opinion, against shifting technology in emerging media and communication. Briefly summarized, they are: 1) speed matters – speed changes the way we experience things; 2) the physical world matters – electronic communication distances us from our physical bodies and face-to-face interactions; and 3) context matters – unlike virtual, the real world provides context that promotes mindfulness leading to more sustainable and rewarding relationships. Freeman does not wholly condemn the internet, rather he exhorts temperance to use it  as a supplement to our existing world instead of a world in itself.

Speaking of temperance, this brings me around to Plato’s point of view in the Phaedrus. While the subject of this dialog is largely about rhetoric, love, beauty and dialectic, there is also a discussion about speech and writing.  Similar to comparing email to face-to-face, the technology in question is the written word versus the spoken word. Socrates relates the Egyptian story of Theuth, who, upon the invention of writing, was told by the god Thamus that it will spoil human memories and understanding.  For this reason writing is considered an illegitimate bastard child of knowledge. Speech is considered the superior communication because it can adapt naturally to situations in the moment, whereas static words never change. In short, spoken words are “living”; written words are “dead.”  I think Freeman would be sympathetic to this point of view provided the word “electronic” is exchanged for “written.” While Freeman is not as extreme in his position, the shared similarity between the two is their concern for the betterment of human life through the beauty of palpable human experience.

In contrast, Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics makes no distinctions that would elevate one type of communication over the other.  In a scientific examination, he breaks down the elemental components of language arising from interrelationships of the sign, signified and signifier.   Language communication, whether written or spoken, is distinguished by phonic substances and linguistic concepts that are not predetermined, but are defined more by the surrounding signs than the sign itself. If Saussure’s claim is correct, it means there is no linguistic difference between electronic and verbal communication.  To this Freeman would argue that the ramped up speed of online communication makes it difficult to separate the sign from the noise.

I am interested in this discussion on several levels.  Personally I relate to having a scrambled attention span as a result of being a full-time student staying current with online research, and having a job that revolves around  a stream of email flowing continuously throughout the day, not to mention having a social presence on the web that not only connects me to the academic community, it reconnects me with extended family and friends–some of whom I thought I would never “see” again.  While it is all welcome, this online cocktail consumes morning, day and night.  I have to admit that when I have spent so many hours online, I do not feel rested.  Perhaps because I remember adult life before the internet and mobile technology, occasionally being unplugged is a soulful human experience I miss.

Believe it or not, this discussion also relates to the goals of a social dance game.  Taking Plato’s point of view, if the living body is to dance as the living word is to speech, it raises the question whether creating an electronic (“dead”?) version of a corporeal experience is another step in the direction of disembodiment and soul-detachment. In the big picture of human experience, how valuable is this really?  On the other hand if the language of dance is simply a linguistic system that occurs in space and time simultaneously, perhaps the physical medium does not matter–just as the letters and phonics of a sound-image do not matter in verbal communication.  The question of meaningful embodied experience has weighed in since the earliest days of defining this game concept.  My position is that a well-designed, well-crafted game can provide joyful memories in front of a screen.  But it is a complicated question; I’m sure I will write more about this in future blog posts.

In the meantime, I think of the paradox of Plato’s work of art.  Even though he bashed the invention of writing, after 2,000 years we are still reading his words. Will anything that comes from our present age of electronic publishing achieve this kind of permanence?  If not, what does that mean?

And on a somewhat related note, this quote came across my tweet stream yesterday from my friend Lori:  RT @Durgamaa: A dog is not considered a good dog b/c he is a gd barker. A man is not considered a good man b/c he is a gd talker. ~ Buddha

Public blog or private? August 31, 2009

Posted by shersego in Question of transparency.
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Over the past two months I’ve been pondering whether it’s a good idea to post every aspect of designing this game in a public blog.  Typically a new game concept is closely-guarded, proprietary information.  For this reason, I have not posted anything since Catherine and I presented the concept in June. One possibility is to keep this blog private.

Meanwhile, as part of a summer class in Game Analysis at UTD I wrote a formal design document for Dancing on the Holodeck. It details the game mechanics, technology, characterization, aesthetics and narrative.  On the one hand I feel strongly about what this game is about and how it should be designed.   But part of me wants to see what happens if the design process is shared transparently from start to finish.  What if the evolving thoughts and developments were publicized through this blog and other social media?   Could its creation be a mass collaboration?  Or would the idea simply be stolen?  Could this idea be stolen?  (And if the outcome of the stolen idea is better-produced, would I care?  I would probably be first in line to play the game.)

The technology required to make any of this happen isn’t available yet, though potentially it is not too far off. Once it is here, creating a significant library of dances is an ambitious task that could take a lifetime.  This definitely requires serious involvement with subject matter experts like Catherine and other dance history colleagues.

It is not possible to design this project single-handedly.  Ideally, there would be an open-source template for teaching a dance.  This means capturing the essence of movement, animating it, endowing its agents with artificial intelligence and defining movement algorithms needed to measure player accuracy.  With such a template, new dances could be added perpetually in a sort of Wiki model.  Social dance teachers and dance historians could publish nuanced versions of popular dances like the Whip (Houston) vs. Push (Dallas) in western swing.  A universal template makes it possible to include dances from around the world.

What is the commercial potential of this game?  There are no metrics for it at the time being.  Dancing on the Holodeck is a thought experiment that both Catherine and I care deeply about because we want it to exist.  I’m sure there must be other people who are brewing a similar concept.  My goal is to get it done meaningfully well whether I am directly involved in the production or a contributor in a sea of suggestions.

While I consider to think about how much to share of my own game ideas, this semester I am studying the history and theory of emerging media.  It is an opportunity to explore the ramifications of  open communication using the internet and its social media outlets.  I will be blogging my analyses of class readings and sometimes this may seem off-topic for a blog about a dance game. However, it is a social dance game afterall.

SDHS Conference 2009 June 19, 2009

Posted by shersego in SDHS.
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June 20th, 2009

In June Catherine and I presented Dancing on the Holodeck at the International Conference of the Society of Dance History Scholars: “Topographies, Sites, Bodies and Technologies” at Stanford University.  The purpose of the lecture/demonstration was to share a game concept and its use of emerging technology with the historical dance community, engineers, scientists and media artists.

We enjoyed meeting everyone who attended our presentation, and others whom we met during the conference.  Thanks to all for your valuable feedback and support!

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