Friday, October 31, 2003

Computers and Stories

Computers can mediate many things: music, or visual art, or poetry. But I'm mostly interested in stories, and storytelling, and narrative. That can be as text, as our stories have been for millennia, or the more recent visual form.

Within this topic, there's still a host of interesting subareas. Most basically, software has created a mildly new medium, of short animated, semi-interactive cartoons. Second, computers can enhance existing works of literature, by offering (semi-automated) annotations, cross references, indexes, etc. It's actually surprising that there's been so little attention spent on this, or on the closely allied question of enhancing non-fiction works, especially textbooks. Second, computers can, potentially, generate stories. It hasn't been done yet in a convincing fashion, but you can certainly imagine more sophisticated programs generating decent, if boilerplate, stories. In form, such stories would be no different than standard works of literature (in fact, would probably be indistinguishable from Hollywood summer blockbusters or sitcoms); different only in their authorship. Software might serve as an improved authoring tool for literature. Certainly, the word processor has made author's lives easier, and there's countless packages that claim to help you write screenplays. Have we really exhausted the ways in which software might help writers?

All of these are fairly interesting, but there's another topic which holds the most promise. Software could act as an intermediate between us as readers and some form of new medium of story. Hypertext, interactives, and even more exotic forms of literature could be as different from all of our existing media as writing was five thousand years ago when stories were first written down.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

The Computer as a Medium

Marshall McLuhan is famous for saying that "the medium is the message." Strangely, it seems to me that his stock hasn't really risen (a curiously market-informed metaphor now that I think of it, but never mind), despite the fact that his other sound-bite, the "global village" seems to have been a home run of a prediction. For stories or other creative works that are presented on a computer, the medium -- the computer -- may not be the message, but it's such a significantly different medium from any previous creative form that it deserves its own analysis, and until we have fully assimilated it into our culture, the medium will indeed be part of the message.

First, computers can serve as visual or aural media, or, in the overhyped term of the mid 90s, multimedia (what in high school we called "audio-visual"). This isn't particularly new - the arrival of sound in film (or the use of live music integrated with silent films earlier) unified these two senses decades ago. Everything new is old again; even that was just a return to the live theater (but with a curious loss of dimensionality). Second, computer media is potentially generative; a large (and in some cases infinite) number of potential incarnations of a given creation can possibly exist, depending on random numbers, user interactions, or other input. This generative aspect is based on the fact that, unlike most other forms of media, computer media can receive input from the audience.

From the point of view of computers, this all sounds painfully obvious. Computers have screens! Computers can take input, and then respond in some pre-programmed way! But when matched up against our expectations of media, of creative work, of literature, this is all new and unusual. And to the extent to which our preconceived notions of literature are more limited than our capabilities as creators in this new medium, it is often our imaginations that limit our creation.

Monday, October 27, 2003

Getting Back

Is anyone still there? Let's put on a show!

Other than taking care of Sawyer, what have I been up to? I've been reading Alan Turing: The Enigma, Andrew Hodges' excellent biography of Alan Turing. My brain was full of things to blog about but then I had to wake up at three in the morning to change Sawyer, and now I've forgotten most of them. Here's a good one, though: When Alan was a child, his parents (who were living in India) sent him and his older brother to live with a Col. and Mrs. Ward in England. It happened that living across the street was H. Rider Haggard, author of King Solomon's Mines. Once, Alan found a diamond-and-sapphire ring that belonged to Lady Haggard; she rewarded him with two shillings. Does this not sound like the start of a Tim Powers novel?

Also, I just finished Janet Murray's Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. It loses points in my book for using the irritating word "cyberspace," and then loses more for not really being about narrative. She seems to equate any kind of interactivity to narrative, a point of view that I think dilutes the importance of structure to narrative. She also seems to ignore the whole realm of enhanced narratives - can software make us better readers of traditional literature? Since I've got a bunch of reactions, I'll start writing up what I think she ought to have said. This is a little unfair, I suppose: one of the reasons I found the book so frustrating is that she clearly has thought about it and has some interesting points to make. But somehow the book never quite delivers the insight or structure it keeps promising.

Here's my favorite part of the book. The "winning" ending of Myst, in which you free Atrus, is really the most boring and unrewarding ending. Worse, it doesn't match the arc of the rest of the game, as you slowly discover just how terrible Sirrus and Achenar really are. The "losing" ending, in which you free one of the brothers only to be imprisoned in the book, is a perfect endcap to the arc, matching the symmetry of how you saw them before. She's exactly right.

Thursday, October 02, 2003

What I've Been Up To

Sorry for the intermittent publishing schedule. I've been up late at night working on my new project.

Sawyer Eliot Timberlake Cohen was born at 2:07 am on September 28, weighing 7 lbs. 10 oz.

I'll get back to a regular blogging schedule in a week or two.