Thursday, June 17, 2010

Evaluation of the digital process

I found the process I have implemented in the research and writing of this blog to be quite different than that of previous academic efforts. The methods included in this approach led to a much broader exploration of the topic. I learned a lot of things that I wouldn't have otherwise. This also means it was harder to figure out my direction. In my case, as well as others, additional research caused me to shift my focus and question my ideas. But when I got to my conclusion I think it was much more well-informed and had greater general value. The process also yielded some secondary conclusions and other food for thought. I think with a more traditional academic paper approach, I tend to create a more focused, straightforward product. And I think the language is tighter and more professional that way. But it's somewhat limiting. I think the traditional method is better for developing good style, but the online, open-scholar approach is better for generating ideas and learning more things. It makes it possible to learn collaboratively and contribute something to others. Some of us were able to initiate dialogue on our topics with new people. In this way, this approach has the potential to fulfill more of the learning outcomes of the course and the university. Although I think for myself as a digital scholar, and for this as a program, it's a work in progress. Like the process I had to go through, it's exploring how to realize these possibilities. But from what I've learned I think many of this ideas will be relevant in the future of intellectual discourse.

What constitutes good literary inquiry in the blog format?

Here is an analysis of my colleage Audrey's Blog:

Audrey's post clearly shows her learning and research process. It looks like she did a lot of research and tried different approaches and sources. Her research seems to be very thorough (almost did a Thoreau pun there, heh). She developed her ideas well and found something good to focus on. It looks like she made use of others' comments.

I think the focus is very clear. She focuses specifically on the Zapatistas as a part of Digital civil disobedience. Her comprehesive series of posts is very cohesive and connected. She always brings it back to Thorough's "Civil Disobedience"

She has expository posts and posts that show how she is exploring. She also shows that she reflects and evaluates. She reviews and discusses different sources, organizations, and an event-related post. She has good images and relevant video clips.

She has a sense of the community surrounding the topic and made efforts to find and communicate with those people.

Her posts have very thorough exposition. She covers the topic well. It's formal when it needs to be.  If anything I think there may be too much information. The posts get fairly long. I suppose it could be simplified a bit. It could have used a bit more analysis or even opinion.

Design: The design is good; reflects her personality/looks nice.
Overall it's a very well-written blog that deals with a relevant, interesting topic.

The Criteria: I think they address everything that could be necessary for a good blog. I don't think all of them are always necessary, though. For instance, videos, events.

Conclusions about borges and the digital world

This post will conclude my study of Borges' fiction, reality, and digital media.

Each of the stories mentioned in the previous post exemplifies a certain characteristic of Borges' fiction: ambiguity. He outlines theorems and hypotheses and maps out alternate worlds. But he doesn't tell us what to make of them. In each of these three stories, one of these supernatural ideas is realized, and it entirely changes the world of the characters in the story. Likewise, the digital can, and is changing our world rapidly and irrevocably.

But it isn't always clear if this change is inherently good or bad. I beleive this ambiguity is intentional. Borges realizes the artificiality of his fictions. They are thought experiments, like those of the the theoreticians of Tlon, and they are subject to translation and rearrangement and imagination. The ambiguity and open-endedness of Borges' fictional scenarios predicts that of digital paradigm that we are struggling to make sense of. It's a kind of  environmental identity crisis. We aren't sure what the digital world is. For the most part we don't understand how it works; we don't see the inner working of it's technology. But how that technology is utilized is dependent on us. It's shaped not just by computer programmers, but those who use the digital media to communicate and create. Like the theoreticians of Tlon, or the dream sorcerer, or the reader of Borges, we can make out of it what we want to.We really have considerable power to make things happen in the digital world, and by extension, the real world.

The Fiction of Borges

I will now discuss a few of Borges' stories and how they predict modern conditions brought about by the digital paradigm and the online world, as suggested in this introductory post.

Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is one of Borges' longer works. The narrator in this story discovers a mysterious and apparently anomalous encyclopedia article about a civilization called Uqbar, and does some research to find out if it really exists. Initially, it seems impossible to find other documentation to verify its existence. He later comes into possession of a volume that appears to be from an encyclopedia that originated in this imaginary world called Tlon. It becomes apparent that others have been scouring libraries for more information on Tlon. The content of the encyclopedia is so thorough that it must be the invention of a massive conspiracy of academics from various disciplines. The narrator describes the astounding linguistics and philosophy of Tlon in detail. A part of the description reads:
The world for them is not a concourse of objects in space; it is a heterogeneous series of independent acts. It is successive and temporal, not spatial. There are no nouns in Tlön's conjectural Ursprache, from which the "present" languages and the dialects are derived: there are impersonal verbs, modified by monosyllabic suffixes (or prefixes) with an adverbial value. For example: there is no word corresponding to the word "moon,", but there is a verb which in English would be "to moon" or "to moonate." "The moon rose above the river" is hlor u fang axaxaxas mlo, or literally: "upward behind the onstreaming it mooned."

The language of Tlon effects their epistemology and their entire understanding of the world. They reject and even have trouble understanding concepts of materialism and spatial reasoning. In Tlon, their perception of things is abstract and incompatible with the philosophies of the real world. This even effects the permanence of physical objects in Tlon. Matter is a transitive and inconsistent thing. It's difficult to summarize all of these ideas without quoting the whole description from Borges, but what they do is brilliantly convey an entirely new and foreign worldview in just a few pages.

The story ends with a postscript dated 1947 (several years after the actual story was published) which describes how the rest of the Encyclopedia of Tlon became known to the world, and it's ideas promulgated. The fantastic world of Tlon then intrudes upon reality, and the narrator sums up the results:

A scattered dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world. Their task continues. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopedia of Tlön. Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön.

This story, published in 1940, is analogous in many ways to the the creation and proliferation of the internet. Like the creation of Tlon, the internet started with "a scattered dynasty of solitary men" and later grew exponentially to be embraced by the whole world. The internet and networking technology introduced new paradigms. Communication that was less physical and personal could be considered just as real and valid. Ideas could be shared in a manner that separated them from the physical attributes of identity and body language. Imaginary worlds like Tlon have been created online and many people inhabit them as fully as they do the real world. Jamie F. Metzl, in the World Policy Journal (2008 vol:25 iss:3),  predicts that " virtual worlds [such as Second Life] will, by 2033, have overtaken the two-dimensional Internet as the predominant system of non face-to-face human interaction. Communication that now takes place by phone or e-mail will by then be carriedout largely in these three-dimensional interactive spaces." This suggests, as did Borges decades earlier, that the world at large is able to change its understanding to embrace completely invented, abstract ideas, as an extension of reality.

The Circular Ruins

The Circular Ruins is another story that deals with accepting the non-physical as a part of reality. In this case, the topic is dreams, and their ability to affect the real world. It is important to note that the story is influenced by traditional Mayan spirituality and how it incorporates the world of dreams. I have previously discussed these connections in depth, but to summarize: The main character of the story is a magician of sorts who goes through the long and involved process of creating a man in his dreams, intending to bring him into reality. The character in the story spends a great deal of time sleeping and in his dreams he gradually constructs a man, who ultimately resembles himself, and with the help of the fire deity of the temple, is able to bring his creation into the real world.The magician then learns through supernatural events that he is also the the creation of the dreams of another. The Mayans also believed that dreams could effect reality, (and that they were in fact, real) and were an integral part of spiritual and daily life. What this story, and Mayan spirituality suggest is that it is common and even natural for humans to make something outside of the physical realm a part of reality. Therefore, integrating the digital into our lives can be a productive way to fulfill this human tendency.

The Aleph

The narrator of The Aleph  becomes acquainted with a mediocre poet who is attempting to encompass the whole of the earth in a singular epic. His inspiration, he says, comes from The Aleph, a small sphere that enables the viewer to simultaneously view everything that currenty exists. The narrator describes his encounter with the Aleph:
I saw the Aleph from every point and angle, and in the Aleph I saw the earth and in the earth the Aleph and in the Aleph the earth; I saw my own face and my own bowels; I saw your face; and I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon -- the unimaginable universe.
The experience, obviously, is overwhelming.The Aleph is a powerful resource, but it is probably too much for the human mind to make sense of. The analogy to be drawn here is that, in today's ultraconnected world, people with a connection to the internet have, in a sense, their own Aleph. They have the entirety of the digital world at their fingertips, accessible from one place, with no limitations of space or distance. And although the digital experience isn't quite as universal or simultaneous as that of the Aleph, the advancement of networking technology is making it ever so much closer to it. Increasing numbers of people are becoming increasingly connected and bringing more data to the online cloud. Information and sources and becoming streamlined and aggregated with more sophisticated programs. The whole earth itself can be explored instantaneously in 3D on Google Earth, giving us a power startlingly similar in a very literal way to that of Borges' Aleph.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Intro to Borges, continued: Borges' medium of literature

This is a continuation of a series of posts that begins with an introduction in my previous post:

In an article about the life of Jorge Luis Borges (available here for those who have access to JSTOR), Alastair Reid describes him as a "mapmaker of imaginary worlds." This is a fairly comprehensive job description. To understand what Borges did with literature, it is valuable to see what literature did for him. Borges was intensely interested in books. One of the most important fixtures of his childhood was his father's library, which was largely in English, and introduced Borges to a wide scope of artistic and historical knowledge. He would spend long periods of time immersing himself in the worlds of books and libraries. He eventually became the director of the  National Library in Buenos Aires. His role as an avid reader and librarian colored his own approach to writing. His mind was wide open to the possibilities and the expansiveness of liturature, but he was also aware of the artificiality and astractness of the medium. Ficciones, his Spanish title for his collected stories, emphasizes the falseness of his linguistic creations. Although many of these stories play with the fabric of reality, Borges has made a clear distinction between this wordplay and reality. The literary metaphysicians in Tlön Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, of which a further discussion is to follow, as they set aside reality were able to freely determine how to define their imaginary world. Likewise, Borges, in his cartography of his own domain, the medium of books, showed that it could be sculpted into whatever the power of words could make of it.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Introduction to Borges

This is an introduction from which I will further explore the themes of Borges' stories, how they offer perspective on reality, and how they can be applied to our understanding of today's digital augmentations of reality.

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), was an Argentinian author. The various short stories of Borges present to the reader a world of hypothetical  and philosophical possibilities. They explore everything that reality can encompass, limited only by Borges' imagination, which is expansive. His stories are often  ambiguous as to their message or their conclusions. These brief works of fiction are a means to transport readers to a place that offers a diferent view of reality; and there they are left to revel in the ambiguity, or to sort out the implications themselves. It has been said that Borges' work embraces the "chaos that rules the world and the character of unreality in all literature" (Bella Jozev). He understood and explored the possibilities of literature in his literary approach, and also as an explicit theme in some of his stories. He had a sense, which he conveyed in his stories, of the limitlessness of what the human mind could imagine. Borges' fiction has drawn criticism for lacking connection to reality,  however I contend that it offers insight into human perception of reality and even predicts the ambiguity and chaos that new conditions bring to the modern perception of reality.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Presciense of Borges

My original topic of discussion for this blog was centered on the fictional work of Jorge Luis Borges, particularly the story The Circular Ruins, so I have decided to spend some more time digging into his ideas. As a result of my efforts to connect with others online about the works of Jorge Luis Borges and his relevance in the digital age, I got a very nice response in the form of a blog post from someone interested in Borges. This insightful blogger suggested how some other Borges stories could give insight into modern conditions. For example, Tlön Uqbar, Orbis Tertius deals with a collaborative encyclopedia that recalls Wikipedia, and how it strongly effects the reality of a civilization. There is a plethora of possibilities to explore.

So I decided to check out another Borges collection from the library: The Aleph and Other Stories. The titular short story deals with a man who has in his basement an "aleph", a strange artifact which allows him to perceive everything that currently exists in the world simultaneously, and his misguided efforts to describe it all in poetry. The experience that the Aleph brings is overwhelming to the narrator in the story. And here I find another analogous idea. The way information technology is developing is giving us an experience progressively closer to that of the aleph. We are becoming increasingly connected to more information from more of the world, more easily and more instantaneously. This idea, along with the comments some of my colleages and others have made, has suggested that there is a dark side to the hyperconnected digital life. I didn't really consider these implications in my more comprehensive post on the topic, even though my own recent online experiences have hinted at them. There are many millions of people and  ideas online, and a lot of things to sift through, many of them not relevant or necessary. The digital experience can be overwhelming and time consuming, and we can lose our grasp on the smaller, more local realm of experience(as did the character in the story). In spite of my efforts to flesh out a strong argument, I find myself falling into a disempowering ambivalence.