Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Some rough notes on Stuart Moulthrop’s “You say you want a Revolution” (1991)

Moulthrop, S; "You Say You Want a Revolution? Hypertext and the Laws of Media",
in The New Media Reader, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, Cambridge and London, MIT Press; 2003.

Stuart Moulthrop's essay "You Say You Want a Revolution?" originally appeared in 1991 in Postmodern Culture, edited by E. Umiran and J. Unsworth.  The fluidly written text is divided into roughly six distinct sections: a theoretical introduction, examinations of hypertext according to each of Marshall McLuhan's "Laws of Media", and a brief conclusion.  As a point of departure Moulthrop reviews the history of the concept of Hypertext.  He argues that when the essay first appeared, hypertext was relatively unknown, yet the concepts hypertext enables extends as far back as Vannevar Bush's Memex.

Moulthrop focuses his discussion on Theodor Holm Nelson as a central theorist of Hypertext.  Nelson, working in the 1960's, coined the term hypertext, and developed a model for a worldwide network of information he called 'Xanadu' many years prior to the advent of the internet, even prior to the advent of the personal computer.  Moulthrop outlines and examines Nelsons propositions in great detail, focussing on Nelsons statement that "tomorrows hypertext have immense political ramifications".  Yet, at the time of writing, Nelson points out the startling absence of the information revolution that was anticipated to change the way we read, write and think.  Nelson touches briefly on many other theorists who in their work anticipated the change brought about by hypertext, and sets out the shifting interest, and expectations, from one 'bleeding edge' technology to the next.  It is at this point that Moulthrop arrives at the central proposition of this text, the (mis)understanding of technology and revolution within the postmodern framework.  In the examination of the political and social ramifications of hypertext and other information sharing systems that follows Moulthrop continually returns to the definition and expectations of revolution, contrasting and comparing.

In all of these investigations Nelson's conceptualisation of Xanadu takes centre stage as the analysed example.  Eventually Moulthrop arrives at the uncompleted final work of Marshall McLuhan, the fourfold "Laws of Media", which where to "form a framework for a  semiotics of technology" (Moulthrop ,697).  These laws pose four questions that can be asked of any invention, assessing the extent of which it is transformative in its field.  Moulthrop proceeds by asking each of these questions of Hypertext, and evaluating the results.  What does Hypertext Enhance or Intensify?  What does Hypertext Displace or Render Obsolete?  What does Hypertext retrieve that was Previously Obsolete?  What does Hypertext become when taken to its Limit?

Moulthrop examines these questions in relation to hypertext in great detail, concentrating on a post-modern analysis of socio-political implications, again returning occasionally to Xanadu to concretise the theory in practical example.  In conclusion he returns to the question he posed at the beginning of the text: "Do we really want a revolution?" (Moulthrop, 703)  As well as using Xanadu to concretise the question, he examines the political climate at the time, sighting examples of resurfacing conservatism and economic pressures.  His conclusion still however remains hopeful, if cautionary:  "Yet, in the face of all this we can still fond visionary souls who say they want textual, social, cultural, intelectual revolution.  In the words of Lennon: Well, you know… We all want to change your head.  The question remains: which heads do the changing, and which get changed?" (Moulthrop, 703)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Reblog: Fear of an App Planet

This is a brief look at the ideas of censorship that are implied by the move to app stores in obtaining cultural content. Interestingly, in a similar move of random censorship to that which Juul describes below, Amazon today removed an e-book on pedophilia from sale due to public pressure while many others on the same topic remained available on the shopping giant.

From The Ludologist by Jesper Juul:
With Apple announcing an App store for the Mac following the App Store for iPhones and iPads, it’s worth pondering what this means for video games.
  1. It’s a great way to allow the distribution of games of different scope, so why is this the first major commercial internet-based software store for a major operating system? Seems so obvious. (Though Linux users have long had similar systems, though only for non-commercial software.)
  2. The Mac App store will have similarly strict and semi-random policies as the iOS app store. As I have argued before, I think the app store policies are ambiguous and inconsistently enforced by design: this has the desired chilling effects of self-censorship among developers, while Apple can claim that it intended no such thing.
  3. It has historically been the case that console games were heavily controlled and censored, while PC and Mac games allowed for freedom of expression. Assuming that more software sales move from boxed and regular web to the Mac App Store, we are going to see the Mac becoming less of a platform for edgy and experimental content. You can still get your software elsewhere, but convenience matters.
  4. And again: there would be an uproar if a major bookstore censored books according to Apple guidelines, so why do we accept censorship for games?
  5. Which means that the potential future in which all games on all platforms are distributed through app store-like channels … that is a potential nightmare."