Category - Reader’s Report

Let’s Talk about Talk
Curiouser and Curiousest
Teaching Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore [#tbt]
Gérard Genette on What Art Is

Let’s Talk about Talk

I ordered Sherry Turkle‘s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age after having read an excerpt in the New York Times Sunday Review titled “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk.”—a piece I enjoyed so much that I used it in a class I was teaching the very next week. Her previous book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2011) is a masterpiece that I’ve referenced repeatedly. Because I needed some nonfiction to take with me during my holiday travels, I didn’t page through a copy of the book before deciding to purchase it. I hate to admit that I could have done without reading Reclaiming Conversation in full. Nearly all of its main ideas are previewed in the NYT excerpt as she sketches out her answers to the question motivating her recent research: “What has happened to face-to-face conversation in a world where so many people say they would rather text than talk?” There she describes two often unacknowledged social conventions that illustrate what she calls “the flight from conversation” (the title of her earlier New York Times opinion piece from 2012): the “rule of three” (roughly half of one’s group needs to be paying attention to one another, leaving the others to drop out for a while and check their phones) and the “seven minute rule” (the time it takes to for a true conversation to take off, which otherwise will never happen if interruptions cut it short).

But I read every last page of Reclaiming Conversation because of the richness of the examples that Turkle shares from her conversations with people of all walks from life. She analyzes their statements to reveal latent preoccupations and unsaid concerns that are we as a culture should recognize then address. These are the same qualities that made Alone Together so compelling. But Turkle’s new book isn’t written for me, whereas Alone Together was still quasi-scholarly. Reclaiming Conversation is targeted squarely at parents, educators (mainly K-12), and white-collar professionals. In retrospect, it’s easy to appreciate how this book naturally follows her 2012 TED talk (with over three million views) and NYT opinion piece that year. I wouldn’t even say that Turkle is tailoring her message to a general audience so much as wanting to facilitate bottom-up change by helping people understand how to address the dissatisfaction they feel as technology has assumed such a prominent role in their lives.

I appreciated in particular Turkle’s unapologetic defense of the value of empathy and reflective solitude, both displaced by our technologically mediated interactions. She focuses on interpersonal exchange—or a withdrawal from it in order to converse with oneself—because of her training as a psychologist, no doubt. (At one point in Reclaiming Conversation she explicitly defends talk therapy.) But this is important to hear instead of, say, “reading novels builds empathy.” Of course there is messiness in real-time interaction, though we need to experience that to derive value from sustained conversation. And solitude is not as an escape from ourselves but an escape to a space of reflection, a pause before returning to building our relationships.

That way of seeing sets up an unexpected but fascinating discussion of the quantified self. The problem she sees is that devices for personal data tracking provide people with a “number without a narrative”: “Numbers are an element in a narrative process, but they are not just an element. When we have a number, it tends to take on special importance even as it leaves to us all the heavy lifting of narrative construction. Yet it constrains that constructions because the story we tell has to justify the number” (93). Hence the importance of conversation: the data is a conversation starter, a means of discussing possible change, not a line to a foregone conclusion that may be recognized by the individual alone. This is especially important, she notes, because algorithms that crunch these numbers are not made transparent to users.

Perhaps one of the reasons why Reclaiming Conversation was harder for me to enjoy was because I thought that Turke had left aside a discussion of artificial intelligence. A study of attitudes toward robotic companions actually occupies a half of Alone Together, the half not addressed in her TED talk.1 I was surprised to find it was the focus of the very last chapter of Reclaiming Conversation, which seems to relegate her question “What do we forget when we talk to machines?” to the status of appendix. I believe it’s here where the subject of “treating machines as people; treating people as machines” (to quote a subheading in the chapter) clearly surpasses the matter of conversation. “Nurturance turns out to be a ‘killer app.’ Once we take care of a digital creature or teach or amuse it, we become attached to it, and then behave ‘as if’ the creature cares for us in return” (352; italics hers). Not only are our exchanges with artificially intelligent robots not real conversations, but these are fundamentally displaced investments. It would be a real challenge to take up a sustained investigation of this important insight for a general audience, to be sure, and maybe that’s where Turkle ought to direct her next project.

  1. See also “Authenticity in the Age of Digital Companions” (2007) in Interaction Studies 8.3 (p. 501-17) and “In Good Company?: On the Threshold of Robotic Companionship” (2010) in Close Engagements with Artificial Companions, edited by Yorick Wilks (Philadelphia: John Benjamins, p. 3-10).

Curiouser and Curiousest

Ian Leslie’s Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It was a great summer read. My interest in the book was initially professional: I wanted to compare it to the textbook I use in my undergraduate research course, UNIV 200. While the textbook is primarily a how-to primer for academic research, it too privileges curiosity as the first step in the process, crucial to the development of an inquiry. Leslie, freed from having to discuss curiosity solely in the context of research, explores a wide range of examples and makes arguments that help readers of any specialization understand what inspires and sustains curiosity.

One key concept from Curious is the difference between diversive and epistemic varieties of curiosity. The former involves flitting from idea to idea in the manner of surfing the web, as it used to be called, and the latter is deeper, sustained engagement with a particular issue. Leslie recommends, as I do in my course, that diversive curiosity be harnessed and converted to epistemic inquiry. I usually introduce this notion to students by contrasting seeking information with investigating an issue, yet maybe I’m not doing justice to diversive curiosity. Leslie associates the diversive with mysteries, and points out that one may read mystery stories with an intense desire to know and enjoy a journey of some length leading to its conclusion. Epistemic curiosity is characterized by asking how and why questions, which I have students refer to as “issue questions,” in line with the textbook I use. So I was pleased to see that asking probing questions was central to Leslie’s notion of curiosity.

The final chapter of the book is indeed prescriptive, titled “Seven Ways to Stay Curious.” But what I found more fascinating was Leslie’s treatment of why some people are more curious than others, an exploration he skillfully handles without resorting to overgeneralization. Early in the book he describes the Need for Cognition (NFC) questionnaire, 18 statements about feelings associated with the work of thinking that can be used as an indicator of how curious a person may be. Here are a few sample statements:

  • I would rather do something that requires little thought than something that is sure to challenge my thinking abilities.
  • I really enjoy a task that involves coming up with new solutions to problems.
  • I usually end up deliberating about issues even when they do not affect me personally.
  • I prefer to think about small, daily projects to long-term ones.

I could see referencing the NFC test in my class and debating its merits. The test itself doesn’t explain why people would agree or disagree with these statements, though it could prompt such thinking. Leslie spends a chapter of his book describing a “sweet spot” for curiosity, which depends on the level of one’s surprise, knowledge, and confidence. Simply put, if any of these three qualities are too high or too low, people tend to be overwhelmed or underwhelmed rather than productively curious. Leslie is careful to highlight that curiosity thrives in the presence of what Robert Bjork calls desirable difficulties, or enhanced learning that comes from having to think hard. He shows, too, that curiosity involves being in the moment, willing to entertain new ideas and follow thoughts where they lead, without makes long-term investment in an inquiry possible. Merely setting progress goals or imagining future rewards, in other words, is not enough.

The relationship of knowledge to curiosity is a particular emphasis of Leslie’s. He points out repeatedly that if a person doesn’t have a base knowledge of an issue, there will be no foundation for epistemic curiosity. He disagrees with those who feel that curiosity is best encouraged by deemphasizing the imparting of information to students (e.g., think of Paulo Freire’s banking education versus T-shaped skills rooted in expertise). In fact, he argues that social hierarchies are entrenched by lack of access to knowledge:

“[C]uriosity, like other thinking skills, cannot be nurtured, or taught, in the abstract. Rather than being stifled by factual knowledge, it depends on it. Until a child has been taught the basic information she needs to start thinking more deeply about a particular subject, it’s hard to develop her initial (diversive) curiosity into enduring (epistemic) curiosity … The curiosity of children dissipates when it doesn’t get fed by knowledge, imparted by parents and teachers. Even when they find something interesting to begin with, children without adequate background knowledge of a subject will soon give up on learning about it, deciding that it’s just “not for me.” Knowledge gives curiosity staying power.”

Thus youth who have not amassed a store of information are put at a disadvantage that only grows as they age. This circumstance is exacerbated, Leslie shows, by the fact that those of higher socioeconomic classes encourage questioning among their children, especially higher level how and why explorations. It would be interesting to take up with students the matter of institutional advantages and disadvantages in light of curiosity, if it could be done in such a way that it doesn’t reinforce fatalism or self-handicapping. I may at least offer students the block quotation above to solicit their thoughts.

This view of knowledge explains Leslie’s attitude to the Web as a resource. The Internet and social media can be used profitably to build one’s base knowledge, yet reliance on the Web alone may only exercise diversive curiosity. So although Leslie acknowledges concerns that technology may stifle curiosity, he believes the determining factor will be how the Web is put to use. This is a safe conclusion. In this context I would have rather he returned to points he made about family upbringing and education that show that ultimately there is a social dimension to the means and ends of technology. You can teach someone how to use the Web to gather information for herself, or you can use the Web to collaborate, which changes the equation entirely. Leslie remains focused on an individual’s curiosity when perhaps what we need to consider more is how curiosity is externalized and shared. I know this is important to my colleagues and me because we want to promote a culture of curiosity within and beyond the classroom.

Teaching Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore [#tbt]

Throwback Thursday blog post: I wrote this two years ago for a now defunct personal blog. I thought about Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore frequently while reading Dave Eggers’s The Circle, which was VCU’s summer reading selection for 2014. I thought my colleagues in Focused Inquiry and their students would be interested in this novel of ideas that also considers the consequences of rapidly changing technologies.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
It had been too long since I read a book for fun. Remembering NPR’s quirky interview with Robin Sloan, I picked up his novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. I excused myself for taking the time to read Sloan’s book because I thought that maybe it would prove useful as a teaching tool in courses on new media or the digital humanities. (While reading I was reminded of the time I taught Matt Beaumont’s e: A Novel, which I just learned has a sequel.)

To an extent, Mr. Penumbra is a novel of ideas, but the kind that I wanted to keep reading to see what would happen next. I was reminded of the humorous books of that type by Aldous Huxley (especially Chrome Yellow, which I’ve also taught). Huxley also excels at exploring the intersection of the aesthetic with the ethical.

The New York Times‘s review of Sloan’s novel is right to point out that the plot moves along swiftly thanks to some implausibly simple resolutions to problems that stand in the characters’ way. I think that’s beside the point, though. I believe Sloan offers up convenient and fast solutions made possible by new technology in order to show the limitations of such breakthroughs, more obvious in retrospect. Unfortunately, the novel itself doesn’t encourage readers to circle back to some of these moments and examine them more closely. Or maybe it’s a good thing that Sloan hesitates to offer direct cultural commentary, which risks making his fiction seem didactic. The book is all the more readable for it, and fun.

But class discussion could dwell on the ethical questions that are left unanswered. I identified two issues that could be readily explored via Mr. Penumbra. (I’ll try to avoid dropping any spoilers!)

1. The Work of Data Processing: There are three moments when the main character Clay and his friends engage in swift data crunching. In the first, Clay’s love interest Kat uses Hadoop, a distributed computing system where users volunteer their spare processing power. The second requires actual manpower: the Mechanical Turk, which “instead of sending jobs to computers, like Hadoop, it sends jobs to real people. Lots of them. Mostly Estonians” (120). Clay describes Hadoop and the Mechanical Turk as armies on the march, a loaded metaphor certainly. Any allusion to outsourcing and its ills are glossed over, however. The last data crunch is performed at Google, whose corporate structure allows for these ventures, hyped as experts at work.

It is clear that collaboration is required to pull off these feats, despite the fantastic technology, and these plights may be easily contrasted with the individual quests that punctuate the novel. Compared to the analog methodologies that require careful investment of energy, one character (the corporate villain) believes that by simply processing data researchers “don’t take the work seriously” (152). Penumbra himself is at first ambivalent about computer models, telling Clay when he cracks a code, “You cheated—would that be fair to say? And as a result, you have no idea what you have accomplished. … And yet … you did it all the same” (97). And moreover, maybe that’s the point: with new technologies, we may not know what we are able to produce until we actually set them in motion.

2. Intellectual Property: In order to scan a book vital to Clay’s project, his team must create a convincing fake volume to put on the shelf in its place. It requires that he pirate a font, since he refuses to pay the exorbitant licensing fee: “TLC Type Foundry is probably somehow a subsidiary of Time Warner. Gerritszoon is an old font, its eponymous creator long dead. What does he care how his typeface is used, and by whom?” (79). In Sloan’s fictional world, the font is similar to a default typeface on a number of devices, including the iPhone. Clay’s irritation may be partly due to the fact that he can’t rely on the almost good enough version to replicate the book cover; he knows better. (Any typeface will do for data crunching.)

Later Clay finds out that he does have a connection to TLC Type Foundry. In fact, his “salary is paid by font licensing fees and copyright infringement cases” (142). This arrangement is all the more strange considering that the company uses the moveable type for printing while licensing a digital copy, and worries that it will break all its exemplars because the original punches were stolen. How does TLC own a font, exactly? Is it really eponymous?

There are plenty of other topics that the novel brings to light. Most, like these examples, run through the entire book, so a discussion can compare situations at various points.

Sometimes even very straightforward narratives can contain a remarkably dense set of thematic connections, and I would regard Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore as one of them.

Gérard Genette on What Art Is

I’m halfway through Gérard Genette’s The Work of Art: Immanence and Transcendence (1994; Cornell University Press translation, 1997). This book sat in a box for several years, in part because I was put off by its mystical title. I could also tell in skimming the contents that Genette had to contend with Nelson Goodman’s Languages of Art (1968, 1976) for a good many pages, and I didn’t want to read bickering over finer points of distinction. It was only a matter of time before my respect for Genette would cause me to set aside these minor reservations. Thankfully, neither criticism has seriously impacted my engagement with this book so far. I should qualify my admiration for Genette, though, for he is a structuralist through and through. I enjoy his careful systematization, while at the same time I can’t help but notice the points where he’s stopping short for the sake of preserving its coherence. It would be criminal to call his scholarship “groundwork” because it is so valuable in itself. One doesn’t build a structure on top of it so much as look around a corner that Genette left less brightly lit. He’s the tour guide that knows his material, and I linger behind to consider a particular detail for myself while he moves the group toward the next stop.

The Work of Art reminded me that Genette’s interests uncannily intersect with mine: narrative theory (Narrative Discourse, Narrative Discourse Revisited), parody (Palimpsests), and the trappings of the printed page (Paratexts). So his turn to textual ontology—what is a work of literature?—comes as no surprise. Actually, he’s well disposed to bring philosophical approaches to ontology into conversation with literary considerations, informed somewhat by an attention to the concerns of textual scholars that comes out of his investigation of paratexts. I love the convergence of all three streams, which I attempted to unite in my article “The Design of Fiction and the Fiction of Design.” Textual ontology is also important to my ongoing work on the short story cycle when dealing with multiple versions of a story in various publication contexts. (What is the ideal work if a story appears in different forms directed at more than one audience?) It even cropped up last semester when teaching a course on conceptual writing, too. Appropriation art and procedural work challenge the traditional ontologies of the work of art. (If I transcribe a radio broadcast and publish it as literature, what is the status of the text I created and had reproduced?)

With that last example in mind, the section of The Work of Art that was most compelling so far explored autographic art that results in multiple products (cast sculpture, printmaking, and tapestry-making). A mold, for instance, is a singular artistic production that allows one to create identical cast sculptures. This is not the same as a text existing in many copies, since the authorial production of a literary work would not have the same material self-sufficiency as the mold. The work of literature is instead ideal (allographic), made of language rather than material, and not coeval with its material forms (i.e., the printed page). But in the case of appropriation literature, cast sculpture might be a fitting metaphor. Take the texts of Kenneth Goldsmith’s Seven American Deaths and Disasters where radio and television broadcasts are written out and presented as literature. Goldsmith is not copying an ideal text but the actual language recorded. Sure, the transcriptions rely on what he hears, but he is trying to hear (and render) what was said, not what was meant. The radio broadcast of the Challenger explosion, in this way, is like what shapes the mold for a cast sculpture (the resulting text representing an ideal work). There would be some that might debate the ideality of that production: those for whom Seven American Deaths and Disasters is not literature but in fact non-fiction. How is a text literature just because someone says so?, they might protest. But maybe the cast sculpture comparison allows us to reply, how can it be otherwise? The cast sculpture requires the mold to exist, and the existence of the cast supersedes the mold.

Genette, in setting the boundaries of his study, claims that “a work of art is an intentional aesthetic object” or, put another way, “an artifact (or human product) with an aesthetic function.” Goldsmith’s appropriation literature clearly meets the first condition but perhaps not the second (just what is an aesthetic function?), calling into question the equivalence of the two definitions. I understand that Genette introduces the idea of function to distinguish aesthetic objects from natural ones or from tools. He must be aware that aesthetics and functionality have commonly been opposed to one another. But the value of this odd conjunction is to separate physicality from functionality. Duchamp’s readymades don’t change physically when displayed in a gallery; the object changes its function, though, Genette notes. I find that a clear and important distinction while still being skeptical about his deployment of function (the word and concept) here. His later point that the existence of the work of art is “extrafunctional” (what it is is more than what it does) makes sense and is strange, because isn’t the aesthetic function is precisely to transcend (functionality and physicality)? I hope that my confusion will dissipate with the arguments to come in the book, and if not, I can revisit these statements to decide whether to speak of function in this way is more trouble than it’s worth.

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