We’re now two questions (with two rounds per question) into this dialog and
I find I’m more interested in the process than what’s actually being said.

I realized this while reading the various comments trying to decide what to
reply to. Sven wrote: “Also, let me respond to Michael’s responding to
Carolyn (is this a meta-meta reference?), her “it’s easy enough to imagine
our grand- children…” If I comment on Sven’s point, we will then be three
times removed from Carolyn’s original passage. How will you represent such
a complex nested quadralog when the comments appear not in serial form as
in an ordinary conversation, but as an interlaced spiral (thanks to Ashton
Applewhite for the phrase).

The rhythm and shape of the experience is unnervingly different from
anything I’m familiar with. It’s not real-time, nor is it marked by
publication schedules measured in days, weeks or months. When four people
sit down at a table to talk, there are unspoken rules governing the order
of speaking. Here those rules don’t apply. I can write a response to any
part of anyone’s comments. Finding a thread is harder than in the most
difficult face-to-face discussion in which people aren’t paying attentiont
to each other. At least in that context it’s easier to say “Whoa! wait a
minute.” We can’t modulate the discussion ourselves, the way we would in
actual conversation. I feel trapped, because I can’t say something to all
of you at one time. It’s also possible that the role of the moderator is
not helping us to talk to each other rather than at each other.

Conceptually it seems exponentially more complicated with each person added
to the dialog. Is this a transitional problem which will go away when we
have so much bandwidth that we will be able to hear (and see) each other in
real time? Maybe, but that won’t be the case for some time. In the interim
we may need to develop new modes of attention and responding. Maybe this
stuff is old-hat to the rest of you, but for me this is really the first
time I’ve done any communicating online that wasn’t either two-way mail or
broadcasting. The Feed Dialog is starting to make me think about the
potential and complexity of online discussions involving more than two
people.



Without devoting too much of the FEED Dialog to a discussion of the FEED
Dialog, I’d like to use Bob’s comments here as a springboard for the next
round of conversation. I’m interested in both the formal issues that Bob
raises (how do you represent the “interlaced spiral”?) as well as the
perceptual ones. What do we think of the “new modes of attention and
responding” that Bob envisions? How does our perception of time fit into
all of this? Surely it doesn’t reduce down the Attention Deficit Disorder
phenom — the FEED Dialog, after all, is unfolding over a two week stretch,
certainly an unusual pace for a conversation.

As for the format itself — I should say at the outset that we’re as new to
this as Bob is, and in a real sense we’re making it up as we go along. As
most of you know, the idea of tagging responses to specific passages (the
hypertext element that seems to be unsettling Bob the most) came to us two
days into the Dialog. It’s certainly a little confusing right now, but the
end result, I think, should be a very interesting “discussion-space.” We’ll
be putting up an overview in the next day or two that will represent the
sequence of responses in an outline form. Other suggestions for the format
are welcome — we’re still very much in the experimental stage with this.



I’m glad this is the question — topic — before us now. I, like Bob, have
been feeling somewhat discom–bob–ulated by the format. Intrigued,
certainly. Engaged, often. But also thrown off, cut loose from my usual
non-line ways of doing things. For various I think obvious reasons. 1) I
don’t know, can’t picture, my fellow correspondents. 2) I don’t grasp the
“cubist” space this conversation is going into/creating (don’t know how
much I’m writing for Bob, Carolyn, Michael, and Steven, and how much for
whatever population is reading us and may even be posting responses that I
don’t know about.) 3) I am uncentered by the hyper-linkages, which do, in
their ungainly way, mime a conversation — except, of course, that the
components of the conversation are mediated and seem to emerge from the
writer’s side of the brain. 4) I’m not used to a writing process that is
always looking about but doesn’t know its intended destination…

All of this, mind you, is interesting, and the structure, no less than the
interchanges themselves, has gotten me thinking differently.

I realize, for instance, how much both single track writing and face to
face conversation are, for me, governed by a desire to persuade. This
format sweeps the power base out from under me. The conversation is an
on-going 4+ way street and if something by, say, Michael has tickled or
stung me toward response, I can’t get myself to feel the satisfying push of
it, for I already know that the occasion is lost, that the context has
changed, that my point would be for the record only.

Paradoxically, I also feel the liberation of distance and extended time.
Face to face conversation is often frustrating either because one is
coerced by the dynamics in the room to move quickly past something
interesting or else one is maybe seized by the spirit of l’escalier, finds
out later what one should have said. Here there is something of the
associative drift of conversation but also the opportunity to zero in on
the point of interest and respond to it with attempted coherence. Do these
perspectives cancel each other out?

Those of you who have experience on-line can tell me whether this is par
(what we’re doing) or whether it is somehow a heightened version of
bulletin board discussions.

If I sound fragmentary today I think it’s because I’ve absorbed the
fragmentariness of our format and am responding accordingly. I’m finding it
hard to pursue my thoughts as I usually like to, which is in a sustained
and, I hope, consecutively developing (evolving?) way. I come at you in
shards because you come at me in shards — and concealed here may be a
useful idea about how this medium conditions its messages.

Finally — it is odd to write to and for several people one does not know
— different than writing a letter, say, to a single person one doesn’t
know. The implicit presence of the others changes the space within which
the communication is received, thus it changes the way the communication is
conceived. I have the odd feeling that the rest of you are in a room
together winking at each other and that I’m out here alone.



I have to admit that, looking back on the last few years experience with
simultaneous (synchronous) conversation online, the FEED dialog seems
pretty tame by comparison. But I in no way mean to diminish the amount of
frustration and even anxiety that Bob describes. I certainly have
experienced those same things myself, occasionally to an almost hysterical
degree. The first time I was on a MOO, for instance, was an occasion that
had been publicized some and there was rather a large attendance. The
numbers of conversational threads to keep track of was completely beyond my
ability and I was frustrated to the point of snappishness and outright
anger. The next time wasn’t a lot better. But it did get better
eventually. I became more able to skim and weave, picking up various
threads, recognizing significance as well as foam (there’s an awful lot of
that), sometimes using the rhythms of those differences to give me time to
participate (even very fast typing is not the ideal mode for this kind of
interaction). I believe Bob is exactly on the mark when he suggests we
may have to “develop new modes of attention and responding.” Learning the
multiplicity of such conversations is awkward at first, reminding me of
trying to learn to use chopsticks or something (what a revelation to
discover you don’t have to hold them tightly in ready position all the
time, you can relax between bites and let them become part of your hand, it
becomes “natural” after a while).

Even though this FEED dialog is spread out (asynchronously) over a longer
period, there is something of the same character in it. Perhaps it’s a
little closer to a lively discussion on an email list. If it’s a really
strong discussion, there will be disagreements, tangents, loops (and lots
of people will be downloading the whole thing to a word processor where
they can read it carefully – though others are experienced enough to read
on the fly, saving nothing but the postings they particularly want to
keep). Now if people keep those conversations somewhere on disk, it is
most likely to take the form of a long scrolling word processor document, a
little like the way most of our talk here appears (except here we have
“footnote links” marked like sidebars). But I know of instances where,
because of the multiplicity of voices and branches, many-layered electronic
conversations have been kept in hypertextual forms like Storyspace or
Hypercard. It takes a little more time to set it up like that, but
provides far greater access to possible threads and connections, especially
in Storyspace which provides a visual mapping of areas of dialog or
thought. The format that FEED is using to indicate links seems
straightforward enough, traditional actually. But I think that’s probably
a good thing. The whole Web right now seems a very transitional form to
me. (Sven, are you ever going to see this? Do you have someplace you can
go to take a look at what we’re talking about?) I wonder if FEED might be
able to create a visual orientation – a spatialization – of the form of
this discussion. That might be more interesting than an outline, although
it would also give an *authorized* form, which diminishes the reader’s own
forming process.

I do have to ask Bob a question directly. Do you feel that in this
discussion we aren’t paying attention to each other? Or just that *all*
the things we say don’t get responses? When you speak here in this dialog,
do you feel you aren’t speaking to all of us (“us” including many who visit
this site)? I am trying to understand the sense you describe of being
trapped. That interests me. Is it a matter of too many choices?



Once again Bob has done a great service to this dialogue in questioning the
evolving forms of electronic discourse. His questioning and the further
momentum Steven adds to it may perhaps help to explain the vision those of
us who have been working for some time with multiple fictions,
collaborations, hypertext contours and dimensional writing bring to current
electronic forms. For many of us there is little satisfaction in merely
remapping the (expanded) book upon e-space or in flattening and compressing
the temporal-spatial experience of hypertext within the impoverished
interfaces of the web with its thusfar relentlessly flat and document typed
netscape.

What SGML/html type accounts for the document which intends to be a
document unlike any other? IRL we call this poetry or philosophy or music
or love. Or (a question I ask almost every audience these days), say you
have the increasingly common and exhilarating experience of a
transformative web session of several hours duration: What do you have left
afterward to represent your experience (short of a list of lists)? More
importantly what evidence have you left, what star trace or trail, on the
web itself? My Consciousness Went to WebWorld And All It Brought Me Back
Was These Damn Bookmarks.

The question is indeed what languages (verbal, visual, tactile, and other)
we will evolve within as we come to consider the culture we create and
inhabit in our situated knowledges and our (interlaced) spiral dances.
Indeed we may (and, this may hearten Sven, we probably should) look to
languages of dynamism and mortality, whether film and dance and music; or
family, friendship and conversation. Why say we are “three times removed
from Carolyn’s original passage” rather than we have joined our energies to
the impetus of Carolyn’s passage on three successive passes. Why not say
that we are, in the ways of wise aunts and uncles, three times closer to
Carolyn’s grandchildren and everywhere interwoven now in their history.

Steven suggests that representation may be a temporal question but the
polarizing of the question into temporal versus spatial itself seems to be
one of the problems confronting us as we develop renewed arts, criticism,
theory, polity, and technology. That is, to layer my own discourse here,
culture is our experience of living in a place over time.

Indeed it is exactly this self-conscious (and in fact other-conscious)
layering that is under question here. How, to use Jane Yellowlees Douglas’s
term, do we develop a genuinely “stratigraphic” culture “richly banded with
singular versions of reality that must be uncovered and analyzed in
geologic fashion, one layer at a time” and yet in which the various layers
suffuse one another. Rather than talk about the formal issues of
representation I’d rather talk about the artistic and human issues,
representation should start with sufficiently compliant and neutral
structures for willing participants trying to represent the richness and
multiplicity of what they experience. We have too many formal structures
and not enough (yet) informal and constructive structuring. We are building
this history by littles and (thank goddess) among ourselves. When Bob says
“we can’t modulate the discussion ourselves, the way we would in actual
conversation. I feel trapped, because I can’t say something to all of you
at one time” it is a cry for the kind of constructive hypertext tools (to
beat the tiny tocsin of my own term) which will allow us to link in the way
we talk: gestural, rhythmic, interim, malleable, multiple, open, and so on.
The embarrassingly primitive box-arrow-and-window-in-window visual
elements of Jay Bolter’s and my Storyspace program have, for instance,
somehow engaged my Vassar students enough that they fashion from these
electronic lego blocks structures with both the delicacy of Sven’s spider
webs and the enriched temporality of Bob’s “new modes of attention and
responding.”

Steven asks for suggestions about other structures and at the risk of
sounding like the weary academic in an age of Imagologies (where, as Taylor
and Saarinen suggest, previous knowledge has no real currency and must
always be re-energized) I would suggest that these questions have been a
matter of active speculation in the research community. The ACM and ECHT
hypertext papers especially suggest various structures (among the most
exciting to my mind being Cathy Marshall’s work with Aquanet at Xerox PARC)
to represent (inter)active thought, complexly interlaced visualizations,
and multiple screen modalities. At the risk of sounding doubly tiresome,
however, I’d repeat my contention that interface itself is a red herring
and will (and must) disappear in the face of structures which readers and
writers create as part of making meaning and community. We already see this
happening in the helplessly hierarchical html-ized world of the
list-in-list web where enormous pressure from artists and makers and
readers (for instance the Telematic group in Hamburg ) is resulting in
polymorphous and polylogic (and deeply idiosyncratic: can you say Netscape
blinked at me?) structures of creation. But since you ask…

For starters, I’d layer the voice labels in the margins, giving them
thicker shadows where other voices link off the footnotish links (i.e.,
some sense of the mix and weave). Likewise I’d use gradiated Netscape
backgrounds to suggest where a text has deeper contours. I’d look at
trellis structures (viz. Furuta et alia) rather than merely hierarchical
“overviews” and most of all I’d invite FEED readers to suggest the
structures they have in mind as this dialogue evolves.

(Sven, don’t you ever wonder what we see in these lights?)



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