The History of the Future of Writing

The History of the Future of Writing (CCCC 2006 Chicago — Day 3)

These are rough notes, typed as the presenters were speaking, and lightly edited back in my hotel room before being posted online.

Helen J. Burgess Washington State University. “Whatever Happened to My MOO?”

Administered Appalachia Moo, had fun building and coding, “absolutely no fun interacting with anybody in it.” Likes coding objects.

Talking about how moos are disappearing. “I miss my moo, and I wish it would come back, but it won’t.”

For a while, it seemed as if Moos and VR were the next big thing. Lambda Moo, Diversity University. Usability problem, the geek problem, and the learning curve inherent in both teaching writing and teaching mooing. Blogs and wikis, in the post moo world, we’re moving back towards text as narrative. “Even my mom has a blog. The question i want to ask today is, ‘Whatever happened to my moo?'”

Made the intriguing argument that the motion away from moos and towards blogs is a conservative movement, a retreat from earlier attempts to consider writing as code. Blogs have become the medium of choice for journals, self-reflection…. sees blogs as a “conservative move.” Said that “given that the mainstream media are pretty slow,” blogs may look radical to MSM.

The truth is that “moos freaked us out.” Asked to think of ourselves as objects as well as words. “We’re no more or less important than any object in the moo.” The move to blogs represents a retreat to familiar narrative, and expresses an anxiety about thinking of ourselves as coded objects. “We’re moving back in time.”

We still find narrative blogs so comforting because they don’t force us to think in this manner.

“The retreat to the textual identity construction of the blog” is misleading. Blogs are composed of database objects, discreet chunks, that complicates this sense of blogs as narrative.

[In both cases, the fact that blogs have an easier learning curve means that more non-geeks access blogs than moos, so naturally the sense by which those blog authors think of their online writing will differ from the sense that smaller, more elite group of moo-ers had when they were coding their text. “Push-button publication for the masses,” formerly the slogan for MovableType. –DGJ]

The blog objects can be tagged as a category and recategorized by editing a database.

The chunking and recategorization of the database-driven blog makes us relate to the blog as if it is object oriented — though technically the databases are relational rather than object-oriented. Second Life — in contrast, it is “true life action” animated. But the basics in Second Life are the same.

You can adjust your avatar according to sliders “so you can make your boobs go — whoo!” – (gesturing out and in with hands… laughter).

“Looks suspiciously like The Sims Online.” The Sims in Second Life are much more like MOOs than they are like games. There’s no real point to them… the point is that you build. You can do anything you wanted.

For her, the interaction, building, describing and coding was more fun. “I’ve seen really bad implementations of writing classes inside Moos.” MOOs viewed as the ancestors, not of writing environments, but coding and building environments. “And that’s what happened to my moo.”

Michael Day, “The History and Future of Machine Logic”

Day — “I don’t claim any originality for anything I’m going to say today.” Two scenarios — one’s kind of doomsday, and one’s kind of fun.

Doomsday. Most would agree writing has changed quite a bit, with students coming to us with a great deal of experience in digital media. As teachers of writing or composition, we’re faced with the need to cover a lot of venues and territories, and the discipline of comp is struggling ot keep up.

Students are adept at social networking interfaces, video games, and informal e-mal. Referred to Kathy Yancey’s past keynote, which emphasized the value of keeping up with student multimedia use.

Day referred to Youtube and Flickr and praised the mashups our students are producing.

Day referred to a number of automated processes for marking papers, with vendors claiming that the software does a good job of agreeing with the grades assigned by human assessors.

Software can be fooled by contentless writing that’s gibberish but follows the semantic patterns expected by the software.

Day said the Texas Tech model is better, in that the human graders mark papers, though the computer makes that process smoothed. Day wonders what we’re losing when students can no longer schmooze and sway their evaluators, since rhetoric is all about schmoozing and swaying.

Day paints a picture in which only the elite classes are marked by the instructors who actually teach the class. A second-tier would be a situation in which student writers are evaluated by Wal-Mart — that is, humans who don’t have personal relationships with the authors. A third tier will only be evaluated by machines.

But is it so bad to use computers to help us write?

It’s not the technologies themselves, but the ways they are used to which we have to pay attention. Yes, they can be panoptic and oppressive, but what if we used it in the formative stages in their writing, not the final evaluative stage. Will ETS let us “play” with these tools?

What if the computer were “kind of a straight man, or a differently intelligenced entity” and what if the computer’s role was to help us get beyond the limits of our own platitudes and reasoning, could force us out of the box, provide new word for us, new ways of saying.

What about the possibility that computers can help us find new mindsets? Help us create analogies, helping us break out of conventional writing and thinking.

Rob’s Amazing Poetry Generator

Yong Poets “Just For Fun” Word Play

Echoed Lessig’s consideration of your students as “The Remix Generation” and praised Lessig’s talk from last year.

Computer software can help us make the stretch between the known and the unknown.

Voice recognition software and its role in the composition process… we’ve all had that moment when the student can say it, but can’t write it out. “What if we deliberately programmed the computer to misunderstand” and transcribe something else, in order to force composers out of the box.

Introduced the concept of “Babbles” from RiverMOO — a text game involving software that grabs a “markov chain” (? – sorry, I didn’t catch that) to construct automated orations. He amused the 20 or so in the audience with an emotive oral interpretation of this hilarious mashed-up drivel.

Like most people in the field, Day recommends that we pay attention to the ways computer evaluation can be oppressive, while being open to the ways that it can help us.

Laura Gurak, University of Minnesota, St. Paul. “Writing as Code, Code as Writing.”

Began with a personal reflection on how she dropped out of school in her 20s, got an apprenticeship in the printing business, and worked in a small print shop where she learned the business just when computers were changing it.

Reflected on the time she realized she’d spend a lot of time typing. Notes that some people simply aren’t meant to write. They may be wired differently, with an oral fluency that doesn’t translate to writing.

Moved from a printing apprenticeship to software development.

We cannot figure out what happens under the hood in Word,. “You turn the thing on, and the Clippy comes up and asks, ‘What do you want to do?’ ”

Suggests that for people whose primary genre is speech, it’s a great thing to have the computer tell you what to do.

Of classical rhetoric — most is dead, but ethos is still viable.

Template-driven literacy. “No technical writer really writ
es anything from scratch.” In the real world, they will be expected to work on a huge database, writing in something called “controlled English” so it can be readily translated and localized.

Noted that the documentation for pacemakers was so expensive and wasteful because doctors in the operating room didn’t want to spend time reading the instructions anyway — they would open up the pacemaker and throw away the instructions, One solution was to put the documentation on CDs. Gurak comically mimed trying to boot up a computer while in the operating room. [I couldn’t resist, and called out: “Clippy says, ‘What operation do you want to do today?’ ” Day chipped in with, “I can’t do that, Dave.” ]

Gurak says she hasn’t done much on the aesthetics of code.