Liberal arts

A colleague and I were discussing the changing meaning of the word “literature”, given the rapid rise of interactive, responsive and collaborative media. This led to a conversation with another colleague and a gradual awareness on my part that a lot of people are grappling with many of the same ideas.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “literature” as:

“writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.”

There is always some debate as to what gets to be included in this amorphous canon of cultural artifacts, but Shakespeare and Goethe usually make the cut, as well as a few hundred other authors, poets and playwrights down through the ages whose works have stood the test of time.

Just what new works might end up in the canon is a very tricky question, because artists generally create for a contemporary audience. In Elizabethan times a new Shakespeare comedy was not thought of as literature, but rather as pop entertainment. There is a long tradition of pop entertainment being reclassified into literature. The early works of Bob Dylan managed to make the transition fairly quickly, whereas Leonard Cohen still seems to be in some sort of in between state.

Part of the problem lies in the difficulty, when you are in the midst of a cultural moment, of being able to see what works will outlast that moment. Does your work speak only to your own generation, or to all generations? The works of the Beatles seem to be standing the test of time, whereas the works of many of their contemporaries now seem quaint and frozen in their own era. The best Marx Brothers comedies are just as funny today as they were seventy five years ago, whereas many comedies from the same period are so out of date as to be almost impossible to watch.

One reason it is useful to define “literature” is so that we can offer a meaningful liberal arts curriculum to young people. But now there’s a new wrinkle in the equation: interactive media.

Will The Sims become part of the canon? Myst? Half Life? Weisenbaum’s Eliza program? When it comes to new interactive media, it can very difficult to disentangle long term meaning from contemporary tastes, particularly when the medium itself is undergoing such enormous transformations every few years.

Some might argue that the entire question is absurd. After all, we are talking about games. On the other hand, a century ago it would have been equally absurd to talk about cinema as literature. Yet along came “Birth of a Nation”, “Nosferatu”, “Greed”, and an enormous flowering of experiments and genres in a remarkably short period of time.

We seem to be entering an equivalent phase in the creation of interactive games and narratives. In the Scratch community alone, several hundred thousand children around the world are creating interactive games and stories. As these children grow up, they will continue to apply the skills and ways of communicating that they are now learning.

So while it may be early to comfortably include this or that interactive work in the literary canon, it is essential that we start now to rethink how we define that canon. We must accept that interactive literature as an expressive form is already here. Rather than treat this collection of works as a cultural oddity (eg: creating a ghettoized “games curriculum”), we must prepare now for a changing literary world, and appropriately expand our definition of liberal arts.

The legend of Jake, Canto the third. Verse 3:

“I think,” said Jake, “I now see your position,
That bots assembled bots since time began.
But I’m afraid I’m really not much of a fan
Of causality replaced by superstition.”
With that Jake started exiting the room.
“Wait!” replied the voice, “We aren’t done.”
“I think we are, it’s been a lot of fun,
But now I see no harbinger of doom
Is threatening my planet with its might
And I really must return back to the shop.”
With that Jake left. “No, wait!”, the voice said. “Stop!”
But Jake was rolling quickly out of sight.
      “It’s too late,” sighed the voice. “He’s gone. Oh hell.”
      A familiar voice replied, “You argued well.”

Look who’s talking

Today I attended a panel about the future of on-line toys and games. Near the end, during the Q&A, a concerned member of the audience asked the panelists whether they thought there was a danger, as kids spend progressively more time in tweeting, SMS, and on-line chat, that our children will become diminished in their ability to hold a conversation.

An answer instantly sprang to my mind, but apparently it wasn’t the answer shared by the panel. One of the panelists replied, soothingly, that it’s all a question of balance. Parents should monitor how their kids spend their time. As long as the mix includes real physical play, in addition to time on-line, then everything will be ok. The other panelists nodded approvingly.

My take on this was quite different. To me the problem is not that children will lose their ability to hold a conversation, but rather that grownups will lose their ability to understand that conversations are going on all around them.

I suspect something like this happened in the late nineteenth century. Young people everywhere started talking on that new-fangled telephone, while their elders fretted that the new generation would lost the ability to hold an actual conversation. The fact that actual conversations were occurring over electric wires may never even have occurred to concerned parents not quite comfortable with Elisha Gray’s great invention.

Conversation is something humans have evolved to do. Not only don’t you need to worry about kids and conversation, you can’t even stop children and teenagers from chattering away. It’s one of our most powerful instincts, one that, from the evidence, must have had been associated with serious survival value in the last several hundred thousand years of our species’ evolution.

But conversation, not surprisingly, moves to whatever medium is most convenient. Just because your friend is not in the same room, that’s no reason to stop talking. And just because you’re listening to some boring lecture in school, well that’s no reason to stop talking either. Not if you’ve got two thumbs and a Blackberry.

I don’t think kids are losing anything in the way of conversational skills, as they continue to move their conversations on-line and on-screen. But I do think their concerned parents may be in danger of being left out of the loop of where society is going. After all, you can’t join in a conversation if you don’t even know it’s happening.

The legend of Jake. Canto the third, verse 2:

“So you think gods are invented?” Jake replied,
“Then tell me, voice, just who made the first bot?
It seems to me you do not know a lot
For someone with an attitude so snide.”
There was a silence then, for quite a spell
His opponent now seemed well and truly stuck.
Jake thought, perhaps through skill or just dumb luck,
He’d argued his position very well.
But then the voice returned, “It was a bot.”
“A bot?” said Jake, “A bot was the creator?
But this other bot would have to have come later
Than some other early bot, but that’s just rot.
      The recursion never ends, and you’re a clown.”
      The voice replied “It’s robots, all the way down.”

Peacock feathers

Saint Valentine’s day seems an apposite time to discuss a recent revelation I’ve had about a difference between the way men and women look at love. This thread of thought began several days ago in a meeting with some colleagues with whom I have been working on making games for education. To do such a thing right, you need to make some games, ask kids for feedback, and then repeatedly iterate your game design based on that feedback — ideally extracting principles of good educational game design along the way.

In this meeting one of my colleagues reported a difference in the feedback from twelve year old boys and girls on a game to teach math. Most of the boys wanted the game to be a race, or an adventure, with a driving narrative and lots of things moving on the screen or blowing up. The girls, on the other hand, said, essentially, “hey, I just want a learning game. Give me something that lets me practice my math skills, and shows me how I’m doing.”

A caveat here: This was just one group of kids, and certainly it would be wrong to suggest that all boys or girls think some particular way. But there was a definite tendency which, in one of those random associative sparks, got me thinking about the nature of love.

But first, a short digression to some fine feathered friends. The male peacock possesses remarkably vibrant tail feathers, the sole purpose of which (as far as we can tell) is to impress any eligible peahens with his fitness as a mate. We humans can’t really know how a peahen feels about this display on an emotional level, but we do know that a good tail feather display indeed attracts the gals, all other things being equal.

In humans, something a bit more subtle goes on — and it goes both ways. Men and women each try to impress each other with advertisements of their sexual desirability. But in this case, we do know a bit about the emotional level of things. And I think the difference in what those twelve year old boys and girls wanted from educational games might provide some real insight here.

On Valentine’s day — at least in the U.S. — the situation becomes notably asymmetric. On this particular day, a man is expected to impress his mate by spreading his metaphorical tail feathers. This might be through a gift of flowers, or exactly the right necklace, or dinner for two at an exclusive restaurant — preferably one that needed to be booked months in advance — or perhaps an intimate home-cooked meal by candlelight.

The details vary from couple to couple, but in my experience observing people, the larger pattern is consistent. The woman doesn’t book the restaurant — the man does. And if she was expecting some gesture of this sort, and none was forthcoming, there will be disappointment, and perhaps conflict.

A naive reading of this dynamic might suggest that men and women are focused on the giving and receipt of surface pleasures — flowers, fine food, candlelight. But in fact, I think that is far from what is going on. The real dynamic here is that the man is declaring: “I think you are special, and I will put sufficient thought and effort into convincingly expressing that.” It is not the money spent on the necklace, or the size of the bouquet that constitutes the tail feathers, but rather the thought and effort that the man has invested.

And the success of that thought and effort is judged by the woman solely in terms of whether the gift represents the man actually seeing her — understanding and acknowledging her for who she truly is, rather than merely as a projection of his own desires.

In a very pragmatic sense, the woman is testing the man. This is not always an easy test to pass, which explains why there is often a certain amount of anxiety around Valentine’s day. If, in some alternate universe, men and women thought the same way, there wouldn’t be nearly as much anxiety. In fact, the entire need for this test probably would not exist, and cultural rituals would be quite different.

But there is a difference — exactly the same difference described by those twelve year old kids: Men are focused on the process around the emotional exchange, and women are focused on the underlying emotional ground truth it expresses.

So a man might go out of his way to buy a fancy necklace, or two dozen red roses, or a sports car. And he might find that while his mate is appreciative, she is still unhappy — and he won’t understand why. The problem is that he is looking at the game that they seem to be playing, and he is trying to win that game.

Meanwhile, she is seeing the physical transaction merely as an indicator of something that is far more important to her — whether the man truly understands her, and truly sees her. So if she craves dark german chocolate, and her man got her roses, and she doesn’t even like roses, there’s a problem, no matter how lovely the bouquet, or how much money he spent at the flower shop.

Both are trying to reach out to each other and to affirm their connection, but it’s like the difference in the way boys and girls look at games that teach: The guy is focused on the video game, and the gal is focused on the lesson.

The legend of Jake. Canto the third, verse 1:

“What use is a religion without God?”
Within his CPU Jake felt betrayed.
The voice replied “You’re angry and afraid,
But remember that this path is quite well trod.
No bot was ever built to last forever,
There comes a time we all must start to rust.
Eventually we crumble into dust
And eternity’s another word for never.”
“Oh please,” our hero snapped, “just what’s your point?”
The voice said “Hey, I’m here to give assistance.
I appreciate your courage and persistence,
But please don’t get your circuits out of joint!
      Life isn’t owned, my friend — it’s merely rented.
      We need to cope. Thus gods must be invented.”

Buzz kill

Google’s “Buzz” is a wonderful feature, one that took me completely by surprise. Out of nowhere, right in the middle of my Gmail session, I found that I’m already enrolled in a Twitter-like social network. Not only that, but I also saw that Google had graciously provided me with people to follow my tweets (buzzes?) and other people for me to follow, all culled from the people I email most often.

I love the boldness of this move. No longer will you need to decide whether you want to be in a Twitter-like social network. Google has already decided that you do. And they’ve even decided who your friends are. None of this old fashioned choosing your own friends nonsense. Such quaint notions are soooo 2009. The best part is that Google makes all of this information public, so that everyone in the world knows who you email regularly.

Some people might object that this is an invasion of privacy — that the entire point of email as a medium is that it is a kind of semi-private space, where you can have conversational exchanges without everyone in the world automatically knowing your business. But those people clearly haven’t gotten with the “buzz”.

I found myself excited by this freedom from having to think for myself, delighted to be rid of the intolerable burden of needing to choose my own lifestyle choices and my own friends. So I called up my friend George Fingler at Google Labs, and asked him if he could give me a sneak peak at what is coming next to our Gmail accounts.

George showed me some pretty cool things, and he told me that it would be ok for me to share them with you, my loyal readers. So let’s take a look at what’s coming next from the people who brought you “Buzz”.

Have you ever wondered what happened to all of those embarrassing digital photos you decided not to upload to the Web? Like that one at the Christmas party where you got drunk and naked and somehow ended up in a compromising position with a rubber chicken? Well, it turns out that all of those pictures are still stored somewhere on your hard drive. In fact, thanks to an advanced disk crawler that you automatically downloaded with your last Gmail upgrade, they are now also sitting on Google servers. As part of its new free service, dubbed “say cheese!”, Google will soon be posting those images of you, at the rate of one per day, to popular social networking sites. Of course you can opt out of this free social networking service if you’d like. Unfortunately, due to the extra maintenance costs involved, the opt-out fee for this service is approximately $1000 per month.

Another cool feature that is soon going to show up soon in your Gmail is Google’s “Shared Telemedicine Database”. This is a feature that automatically displays your complete medical history for people in your extended “friend” network. The upside here is enormous. For example, have you ever wanted to date someone, but weren’t sure if they had genital herpes, or gonorrhea, or one of the various forms of syphilis? Well thanks to Google STD, you can rest easy — the complete medical history of everyone you’ve ever “friended” will show up on a convenient sidebar. And the best part is that every STD will be automatically loaded into your Gmail client when you log on. I have a feeling that this one will be going viral!

But the best feature George showed me was a little something Google calls “meta-search”. This one is pure genius. Basically, every search term you’ve ever typed into Google, from “drug dealers in the greater Seattle area” to “junior high hotties”, will now be available to your ever expanding network of Google friends. And the entire database of those terms is itself searchable (this is Google, after all!). Any time a new friend is added to your Buzz or Google Chat list, a random set of your searches will automatically be forwarded to them. This can be great when you are first starting to work with a new colleague or supervisor, or when you’ve just gone on a first date with someone you really like. After all, isn’t that the perfect time for this person to learn about your interests in “sexy clown pictures” and “interspecies dating tips”?

I’m sure you are as excited by these new developments as I am. Luckily for you, while you were reading this blog post, a Google Ajax client has been loading and embedding these delightful features into your operating system’s kernel. Congratulations, you’ve already opted in. Feel the Buzz!

The legend of Jake. Canto the second, part 4:

Jake stared down upon the lifeless girl
Had he just seen his own creator die?
Could he revive her? Should he even try?
So many thoughts! His mind was in a whirl.
“You seem confused,” a voice behind him said.
He turned around but saw no other bot.
“You wonder was this real, or was it not.”
The voice, he realized, was in his head.
“Our intent, you see, was never to deceive;
“We programmed you to seek the human out.”
“But why?” he asked, “What is this all about?”
“We sought to test your power to believe.”
      “You mean there is no truth behind religion?”
      “There is,” replied the voice. “But just a smidgeon…”

People are not cats

I was having a conversation with some friends the other day, and one of them wondered aloud why human sexuality is so weird. She pointed out that there seems to be little rhyme or reason to the vast array of psychological, cultural and aesthetic responses to this same basic instinct that we all share.

That prompted me talk about cats. In particular, I sketched out for my friends my own (admittedly quirky) theory of human sexuality which is based on the way that cats walk.

I had read a research paper several years earlier that described what has been learned about how cats know how to walk. It turns out, not surprisingly, that if a cat’s cerebrum is seriously injured to the point of being non-functional, the cat will simply sit in one spot all day long without moving, like a living statue.

However, if you give the cat a push, or drop it from a height onto the floor, the cat will walk, run, leap, land on its feet, and make all of the other graceful locomotive movements that cats make. So here you have an animal that moves with masterful balance, grace and precision, all without benefit of a working cerebrum.

It is clear that these capabilities reside not in the cat’s cerebrum — the most high level and general purpose part of its brain, and also the most recent to have evolved — but rather in its cerebellum, a part of the mammalian brain known to be essential for motor coordination.

But here is where it starts to get interesting. In known cases where a human is left with an essentially non-functioning cerebrum (eg: due to a massive brain tumor), the human, like the cat, will remain immobile and non-responsive indefinitely. However, if you try to get this poor individual to walk, he or she will just fall over. No human cerebrum, no human locomotion.

What seems to be happening here is that whereas the cat’s abilities of locomotion and balance (which are substantially better than ours) evolved over a very long period of time, becoming “hard wired” in the cerebellum, our movements as bipeds evolved much later, after the cerebral cortex had already evolved to be quite large. Consequently, for humans the process of learning to walk and to balance involves a lot of participation of the more general kind of unsupervised learning that goes on in our cerebrum.

Practically this means two things. First the bad news: We will never be able to run and jump as well as cats, no matter how hard we try, and no matter how long we train and practice. Now the good news: We humans are capable of learning varied ways to move our bodies that are far outside the capabilities of the feline brain. People regularly learn intricate sports moves, exotic dances, techniques for playing musical instruments, and other physical skills that lie completely outside any particular movement that might have been “wired” into the evolving prehistoric human brain. In effect, we don’t get to be the ultimate specialists precisely because we get to be the ultimate generalists.

Which brings us back to sex.

My theory is that the human brain responds to sexuality in much the same way that it responds to the need to walk and reach and balance. Rather than react to sexual desire by going through a predefined sequence of behaviors, every individual human learner makes use of that powerful engine for unsupervised learning – the cerebrum. Each one of us develops, with the help of the very highest level of our brain, a highly individual set of responses and coping strategies for dealing with this powerful emotion.

Which, arguably, tends to make certain aspects of life a lot more interesting for humans than it is for cats.

The legend of Jake. Canto the second, verse 3:

Jake was stricken. This was too much to digest.
What were these humans? A source of life or doom?
His world was changing, right here in this room,
Was this the end, or the start of some new quest?
He felt afraid, as frightened as a child
Who’s stumbled on a deep and endless void.
“Are you my God?” asked the hesitant young droid.
The girl looked thoughtful, then suddenly she smiled.
“I’m afraid,” she said, “it is time for me to go.”
Then she shrugged, and began to turn away
He felt that there was something more to say
“Wait!” Jake cried, “There is much I need to know!”
      All at once, the stranger’s face went blank
      And as Jake looked on in horror, to the floor she slowly sank.