Category Archives: entertainment

“they didn’t belong to us at Pixar anymore”

We picked up some Toy Story toys at a garage sale this weekend, which have become the center of Brighton’s life for the time being.

John Lasseter, director of Toy Story, has a great story about how, five days after the movie came out and audiences started falling in love with it, he

realized that Woody, Buzz Lightyear, all the Toy Story characters… they didn’t belong to us at Pixar anymore,

but to the people who had made those characters a part of their own lives.

Of course, the lawyers at Pixar will tell you a very different story.

silly videos and obscure post-structuralist terms

Evgeny Morozov has a new review of Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, and he spends a fair bit talking about Wikipedia, the touchstone for how the Internet is changing culture.  (Wikipedia researcher Ed Chi offered to review it for the Signpost, but Knopf publicity has so far ignored my every attempt to request a review copy.)  As I understand it, the book is in part an extension of Lanier’s Wikipedia-centered 2006 essay “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism“.  I haven’t read the book, but I trust Morozov’s assessment.  His central point is this:

Technology has penetrated our lives so deeply and so quickly that the only way to make sense of what is happening today requires not only drinking from the anecdotal fire hose that is Twitter, but also being able to contextualise these anecdotes in broader social, historical and cultural settings. But that’s not the kind of analysis that is spitting out of Silicon Valley blogs.

So who should be doing all of this thinking? Unfortunately, Lanier only tells us who should not be doing it: “Technology criticism should not be left to the Luddites”. Statements like this establish Lanier’s own bona fides – as a Silicon Valley maverick unafraid to confront the cyber-utopian establishment from the inside – but they fail to articulate any kind of vision for how to improve our way of discussing technology and its increasingly massive impact on society.

Morozov says that our understanding of the legal dimensions of the Internet have been elucidated by the likes of Zittrain, Lessig and Benkler.  But humanist and social scientists, he says, have let us down in their duty to explore the cultural dimensions of the rise of the networked society, by either ignoring it or relying “obscure post-structuralist terms” that occlude whatever insights they might or might not have.

The overall point, that the academy hasn’t done enough to make itself relevant to ongoing techno-cultural changes, is right on target.  But I think Morozov’s glib dismissal of work in media studies, sociology, anthropology, etc., is unfair to both the main ideas of post-structuralism and the writing skills of the better scholars who do work on technology and culture (Henry Jenkins and Jason Mittell come to mind, but I’m sure there are plenty of others).  Lanier’s epithet of “digital Maoism” is crude red-baiting; I’m not sure whether Morozov’s jargon jibe is red-baiting (post-structuralism being the province of the so-called academic left), he genuinely doesn’t think much of how humanists have analyzed the Internet, or he is just being contrary.

Post-structuralism is complicated (and I don’t pretend to be an expert) but what’s relevant in this context, I think, is (as the Wikipedia article obtusely puts it) the idea of “the signifier and signified as inseparable but not united; meaning itself inheres to the play of difference.”  Put another way, culture (that is, a work of culture) is valuable in whatever ways culture (that is, a culture, a group of people) values it; what matters is not the work itself (and its inherent or intended meaning) but the relationship between a work an its audience.  Related to this is a value judgment about what kinds of culture are better or more worthy of attention: “writerly” works that leave more opportunity for an audience to create its own meanings vs. “readerly” works that are less flexible and open to reinterpretation.  The relevance of these ideas for the Internet’s effects on culture should be obvious: audiences now have ways collaborating in the creation of new meanings and the reinterpretation of cultural works, and can often interact not only with authors work, but with the authors themselves (thereby influencing later works).

So when Lanier sneers at ‘silly videos’ and Morozov complains that Lessig doesn’t address “whether the shift to the remix culture as a primary form of cultural production would be good for society”, I can’t help but see it as the crux of a straw man argument.  You would have us give up our current system that creates such wonderful culture (left helpfully unspecified, since there’s no accounting for taste) in exchange for remixed YouTube tripe? But humanists are starting to place more value in the capital intensive products of the culture industry precisely because of the way that audiences can remix them and reuse them and create meanings from them.

Wikipedia in Theory (psychology of fun and games edition)

In my last Wikipedia in Theory post, in which I looked at game theory and experimental economics, David Gerard commented:

People edit Wikipedia because it’s fun. What is the economic motivation to buy music or play WoW? The theory’s out there.

But what, exactly, is that theory?  What makes Wikipedia fun?  Is that the same thing that makes World of Warcraft fun?  The same thing that makes gambling fun?  The same thing that makes all three addictive, sometimes pathologically so?

As far as I can tell, there isn’t a single well-established theory of fun and games.  There are some interesting ideas floating around, though.

The best known comes from positive psychology: the concept of flow, which is often considered the essence of what makes games and other activities fun.  Flow is that state of sustained concentration (and associated elation) when all of your efforts are directly toward a difficult and significant task that is nevertheless within your capabilities.  Different kinds of Wikipedia work are available that can test the skills of adolescent and professor alike and Wikipedians are free to choose tasks they think are significant, so it’s easy to make sense of why Wikipedia can be fun in terms of flow.

Another widely quoted formulation of fun comes from A Theory of Fun for Game Design, by Raph Koster:

Fun is just another word for learning.

James Paul Gee expands on this concept in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.  In a short journal article, he summarizes some of the relevant points:

  • Good games give information “on demand” and “just in time,” not out of the contexts of actual use or apart from people’s purposes and goals…
  • Good games operate at the outer and growing edge of a player’s competence, remaining challenging, but do-able…
  • Games allow players to be producers and not just consumers. Along with the designer, the player’s actions co-create the game world.
  • In computer and video games, players engage in “action at a distance,” much like remotely manipulating a robot, but in a far more fine-grained fashion. Cognitive research suggests that such fine-grained action at a distance actually causes humans to feel as if their bodies and minds have stretched into a new space…a highly motivating state.

All of these aspects of games have parallels in Wikipedia editing.  In the last case, Wikipedia offers not just the illusion of affecting the world at a distance, but a way to actually do so; writing on Wikipedia has the potential to affect readers across the world.

Neuropsychology puts flow and fun and learning (and addiction) into chemical terms: it’s all about the dopamine.  All that talk about flow and motivation and fun gets boiled down to the release of neurotransmitters, especially dopamine, which is associated with pleasure, motivation, concentration, reinforcement, learning, and addiction.  Sustained released of dopamine (or in the case of some addictive chemicals, dopamine re-uptake inhibition) both creates a sense of pleasure and elation and creates an association between the activity at hand and the dopamine jolt, motivating you to do that activity again (and again).

That’s the core of activist game designer Jonathan Blow‘s critique of mainstream video game design.  To quote from my post on video game addiction:

the best practices of commercial game design, particularly MMOs, are “predicated on…player exploitation” by “plugging into their pleasure centers and giving them scheduled rewards”. He suggests that the gaming industry may be engaged in “the intellectual and emotional equivalent of [Joe Camel]“.

That same principle is at work on Wikipedia, with people compulsively checking their watchlists to see if their work has been built upon or the comments replied to.  But with careful attention to the principles of video game design, Wikipedia could probably be made much more compelling/fun/educational/addicting to a larger number of people.

the ways in which

Have you ever heard the phrase “interested in the ways in which”? If you have, it was probably uttered by a scholar in the humanities or social sciences, describing their research interests. There’s a good chance that the explanation that followed was rich in jargon, heavy on social theory, and an mostly opaque to anyone not in the same field as the speaker. It was probably also an American or a Brit. (If this doesn’t ring any bells for you, take a look at the search results for “interested in the the ways in which“.) As a fellow graduate student pointed out to me, “the ways in which” has a very strong connotation, marking a certain style of thinking and writing about history and society. Most people that come through giving talks to my program, whether for job talks, colloquia, or some other lectures, can pretty easily be divided into “ways in which” types and people who know how to hold an audience’s attention.

Reflecting on the problems of jargon that come with writing history that is only meant for other historians, I’m working on a paper: “The Pedagogical Semiotics of Interlinguistic Anglophone Discourse, 2008-1999″. On a closely related note, the grad students are think of doing either drinking games or jargon bingo to spice up future talks. “Blah blah blah, blah blah actor’s category, blah blah.” “Bingo!”

On another related note, every would-be historian needs to watch the latest The Simpsons, “That 90s Show”, if you haven’t already. See a few clips here. Choice quotes:

  • Suede-elbow-patched associate professor: “Look at that lighthouse! It’s the ultimate expression of phallocentric technocracy violating Mother Sky.” Marge: “I thought they were just tall so boats could see them.” Professor: “No, Marge, everything penis-shaped is bad.”
  • Marge: “Did you know that history is written by the winners?” Homer: “Really? I thought history was written by losers!”

Bonus link: PhD Comics on thesis titles