Tag Archives: technology

Sonic Rhetoric: Just a little bit(rate) more

It was interesting to learn of the mp3’s functional history and to explore its status as a cultural artifact. A lot of attention is paid to the effect of the mp3 on the music industry, but I wonder if this article is situated at a turning point, published as it is only a year before the smartphone explosion kicked off with the introduction of the iPhone. Before that point, mp3s were a convenient format for those who wanted to carry a large music library with them wherever they went, but they were far from a necessity, so the industry saw no need to unify under a single format. Even if they were a ubiquitous luxury, dedicated mp3 players were a luxury nonetheless, so producers were content to pressure users to stay within their proprietary systems.  Smartphones expanded the userbase for digital music significantly and rapidly, and it may have been at this point that the battle of the dominant format was decided. With digital music players landing in so many pockets, major distributors of music saw further compartmentalization of the market into proprietary file formats as unprofitable. By 2010, the largest providers of digital media, Amazon, iTunes, and Google, had all switched to MP3 as their music sales service’s file format, albeit at the data compression rate at 320 kbps. Apparently the music industry has accepted that the digital music genie won’t go back in the bottle, and has given up using file formats that limit the free exchange of files, opting instead for the expansive compatibility of mp3.

That these services chose 320kbps signifies a lot. If, as we learned from Jonathan Sterne, the brain/ear does a lot of the work to fill in the possible gaps created by the mostly lossless 128kbps, the distribution of so high an encoding rate could be as much a choice of vanity as it is functionality. Knowing that the digital music buying public was fractured over which format was the best compromise of quality and file size, encoding at 320kbps was a boost to consumers’ perception of the audio file’s use-value. At the same time, music sales services have enjoyed expanded sales by lowering the price points of complete albums, and media storage devices have continued the general trend of greater capacity at lower cost, boosting the exchange-value. Sterne suggests on page 831 that no one is buying mp3s. I’m not so sure that’s the case now. I know I certainly see the value of a sure bet 320kbps album for only $5 over attempting to piece together the same thing via piracy.

As for my own conceits concerning audio quality, I believe I can tell the difference between 128 and 320kbps encoding fairly easily. When a song comes up in my library that sounds kinda off to me, more often than not, it’s an older encoding at 128kbps, a leftover from when I cared more about conserving disk space than audiophonic purity. Each time I discover one of these albums/tracks in my collection, I silently vow to re-encode them as soon as I can get my hands on a CD.

For some fun, try this quiz that tests your ability to distinguish between low and high encoding. Good headphones or speakers are a must.

Visual Rhetoric Rewind: “In the shadow of grief”

It’s a shame that the week I just didn’t get around to my blog post had one of the most personally fascinating articles of the semester.

One of the cruelties of memory is that you can’t always be sure that what you think you recall is what actually happened to you. This is especially true of well-known and retold tragedies, so I can be forgiven for my uncertainty in the case of the Challenger disaster. At six and a half, my first-grader recall is suspect, but I seem to remember watching the launch being shown live in class because of Christa McAuliffe’s participation in the mission, and being unsure what happened when the shuttle disappeared in a white and orange puff on the staticy CRT television that had been wheeled into the classroom. I think I also remember the second grade teacher, Ms. Barnes, jumping up to switch the TV off a moment later. Of course, these could be acquired memories, a side effect of countless testimonials and replays I’ve seen in the many years since Challenger’s explosion. Such is always a possibility of any publically observed tragedy. Like with the Kennedy assassination, the September 11th attacks, or the loss of Columbia almost two decades later, public consciousness blends and borrows until the lines between individual memories blur.

I’ve been fascinated with space for as long as I can remember, and no surprise, the Challenger disaster has always been a particular curiosity. The Edward Tufte article so effectively documented the exact causes and missed opportunities of the shuttle’s explosion, it had the unusual effect of reminding me of another moment when the visual presentation of crucial information lifted the veil of understanding – and that moment was also in relation to Challenger. It wasn’t until sometime a few years before reading Tufte that I really understood what happened to Challenger. That an O-ring had been too cold and allowed fuel to breach the hull of a solid rocket booster was always an abstract concept to me, if not particularly difficult to grasp. It wasn’t until I saw a cross section similar to that of Tufte’s that I saw how critical the O-ring was in tightly sealing the booster, and how even a microscopic gap caused by the flexing of the joint due to stress of launch was enough for a thin stream of propellant to leak past the still cold and rigid O-rings, ignite in the engine outside, and trace back into the tank of the rocket.

Where Tufte’s piece excels is in the marriage of the visual and the verbal. Within three paragraphs, the sequence of mismanagement that lead directly to the explosion is laid out clear and uncomplicated, explaining that NASA had every opportunity to delay the launch for exactly the concern that ended up destroying the shuttle: “Thus the exact cause of the accident was intensely debated during the evening before the launch. That is, for hours, the rocket engineers and managers consider the question: Will the rubber O-rings fail catastrophically tomorrow because of the cold weather? … That morning, the Challenger blew up 73 seconds after its rockets were ignited” (39). Set across the fold from the starkly effective graphic breakdown of the SRB’s failure, this history seems so dead simple in hindsight. The explicit breakdown of the written account, when combined with the perfect imagery in supplement, is so supremely effective at communicating the nature of the disaster, it makes the bureaucratic failure of not scrubbing the launch dumbfounding.

All that we can do – we who look backward with this perfect explanation of what did happen in the past instead of the abstract what could happen in the future ­– is to shake our heads and admit that we weren’t there. Perhaps Challenger was unavoidable because no one can have this perfect dissection of their choices as they make them. At least those in similar positions in the future have the benefit of such clearly defined history to draw from. The shuttles have all been retired, but the costly lesson of Challenger lives on thanks to the precise, documented, visual history by the likes of Edward Tufte, giving me much a far better account than I could ever hope to dredge from my six-year-old self’s imperfect memory.

Note: this reading reminds me of a recent arstechnica article on a the Columbia disaster. Worth a (long) read, and also rich in effective visuals to enhance understanding.

Visual Rhetoric: Threads in a web

I ultimately agree that the web is a rhetorical place, as Burbules argues. Two decades after the information explosion of the mid 90s, we have undeniably realized the potential of the personalization of the internet, and in ways Burbules couldn’t possibly have anticipated.

The most obvious manifestation of this defining of web places is seen in the rise of the social network. To varying extents, these services have offered users the ability to curate precise, rhetorically-situated representations of the web as they see it, and of how the web sees them. Social networks were the natural 2000s outgrowth of 1990s message boards, interest groups, and newsgroups.

Where Burbules’ analysis falters now is in the rhetorical navigation of the internet. Again, we can’t really blame him for his inability to see the massive changes just around the corner, considering this 2002 publication was likely in the works through 2001, if not earlier.

Burbules speaks of the linearity of the web, of how users feel the pressure of where they currently are spatially in choosing where to go next, i.e., the webpage which I am currently displaying has a high potential for semantic manipulation on which page I will choose to visit next. It is argued that this becomes something of a rabbit hole effect, where the user clicks from a starting point, and each space visited becomes one of a rapidly growing series of “turns,” and enough of these turns leads the user to a cloudy understanding of their journey in hindsight. This view of the web as an unknowable warren assumes a user experience rooted in the technology, software, and web design of the late 1990s:

“First, these links are bi-directional — users can go from page A to page B and return from B to A — but this relation is not symmetrical. Users must usually perform extra work within the browser’s conventions to return from B to A, and (especially having seen A already) the movement from B to A does not have the same semantic effect as the movement from A to B” (Burbules).

This changed radically soon after publication, and as a result of numerous pressures. A significant change on the end-user side of this relationship came in a deceptively simple package: the browser tab.

While tabbed browsing was a possibility back into the 1990s, it existed primarily as modifications or software plug-ins that were geared to the power user more than the average end user.  Browser tabs were not legitimized in mainstream browsers until the mid 2000s. Mozilla Firefox offered the first substantial penetration of the feature, but Internet Explorer didn’t offer it until 2006. This codification of the feature, combined earlier with alternative browsers like Opera and Avant, and later with expansions of Google’s Chrome and Apple’s Safari (which had existed for several years, but remained a minimal impact until the dramatic market expansion of Apple hardware in the late 2000’s), gave rise to a new user dynamic: breadcrumbs.

By using browser tabs – a process as simple as single mouse click in most browser interfaces – it has become simple for a user to leave themselves a clear route back through the multiple turns of their journey. This isn’t simply a convenience. The rise of tabbed browsing encourages the user to travel farther out of familiar territory, and to go off-road, knowing their travel needn’t be linear. The semantic pressure Burbules ascribes to the web is dramatically lessened when a user no longer feels compelled to move directly forward from their options at hand, or directly backward to the last page they visited.

A final note of difference is found between this empowered user’s browsing flexibility, and the rise of personal expression of the social network. Content aggregator websites, the most notable of which being Reddit, are the perfect compliment to this empowered browsing environment. Reddit and other social networks offer users the ability to tightly control the links to interesting material they might care to see, such as interests in social issues, news, political affiliations, or entertainment media. The user can visit their personal collection of interest-focused “subreddits,” their collection of Tumbr feeds, or their chosen list of Twitter microbloggers, and jump off to any of the numerous links featured with a new browser tab. From each landing, the user can then jump off again, creating both a rich collection of alternative browsing routes to return to, but also the ability to return back to any single waypoint along the journey.

Burbules’ critique of the linearity of the web of 2000-2002 is perfectly valid, and perhaps then, the best analogy of browsing was a fixed, straight thread. These few but critical changes in a user’s navigation, as well as the content they navigate from and to, has brought us much closer to viewing our internet browsing as a literal web.

8900: The false god of device convergence

I resonate with Henry Jenkins’ preoccupation with the black box effect, and I think the fourish plus years since the publication of Convergence Culture has only deepened the ongoing kludge of our relationship to media technology. Every feature integrated into a device, a new digital community, entertainment venue, or writing space beckons us to acquire more hardware. What we end up with at the current time is both convergence and divergence.

As an example of the divergent, I’ll fess up to some of my own embarrassing hardware missteps. Around 2007, I had thusfar resisted and in fact disdained the Blackberry trend, boggling at how difficult it was for some people to simply disconnect and acknowledge that their time just wasn’t that important. Then came the first iPhone. While my needs for mobile communication had not changed, I, as so many did, fetishized the device. I was lured by the promise of integration – of convergence. Here was a device that was both my phone and my music player, something I had actively been annoyed at carrying separately at this point. The fact that it also offered continuous access to interesting or fun or useful or illuminating content was not as important, but was easily rationalized in favor of its purchase.

I sat out the rush for the first model and came on board with the iPhone 3G. It was everything I wanted it to be, but it wasn’t perfect. I realized its limitations; it wasn’t a robust processor, it provided fenced-in content, and I realized that while it was great for short writing burst, its tiny touch screen came up short for lengthy writing. I never expected it to replace my laptop or desktop. I happily used it and enjoyed as its usability expanded through various updates, and moved on to the iPhone 4 two years later.

Concurrently, my interest in the iPad was increasing. I know this makes me sound like an Apple fanboy, but what I was drawn most to was the form factor. Plainly stated, it was just a big iPhone, but I hoped it would be the balance between the bulkiness of a laptop (the same laptop whose lightness, thinness, and relative power I marveled over only a couple years before) and the confines of the phone. Again I resisted for over a year, but again, I broke down and my wife and I bought one to share.

This is where the divergence begins to reappear despite all these seemingly convergent devices. Despite some buyer’s remorse over the iPad – for it really was just a big iPhone, so what did we expect? – the device has remained and inserted itself into a niche of use. My relationship with four very similar devices is thus: the phone I obviously carry with me everywhere (the irony of my former disdain for the Blackberry cult is not lost on me) and use so frequently for tasks both silly and serious, I cannot see having a “dumb” phone again. The iPad does what I don’t need the laptop’s serious power for, and also enables me to engage in longer and more comfortable screen reading than a laptop can, such as reading articles for classes and my own research. The laptop is there for when I need to seriously settle in to productive, high-intensity writing or research. Finally, a self-built PC desktop rounds out the onslaught as my access to the more processor- and graphics-intensive gaming world, something my laptop was incapable of doing for very long.

I have four devices that do extremely similar things, yet I’ve let them settle into precise and unique roles. This list can expand further, with my wife having a kindle for sustained digital reading, and our accumulation of 10 years worth of gaming consoles, an internet media streaming device, and a music and video serving device. Even one of the consoles has a fractured identity, having found new use recently in streaming downloaded video through the gaming PC. What galls me about this is that despite my wish to simplify, I have carved out so precise a niche for each of these items that I have difficulty considering how to let one go.

Thus, the divergence Jenkins foretells is realized, but in the name of convergence. I can’t deny the device fetishization at work, but each time I’ve acquired one of these devices, its cost relative to its offered service always seems a bargain. Before long, the device has carved out its niche and another golden calf appears on the horizon, promising to be the one device you need to restore balance to our fractious, fraught hardware existences. While I believe only the laptop holds the distinction of being truly required, I know I would sweat the loss of functionality the rest of the pack brings. I can only hope that true convergence happens in the near future, bringing a single (or hell, at this rate I could get by with only two or three) convergent messiah device to unify all these digital wants and needs, and that this is just the divergent storm before the convergent calm.

8900: Emergent Aurality

Situated Aurality

One of the resources included in our reading/listening this week was the Soundmap from Rhode Island. After clicking through a dozen or so places around the tiny New England state, my first reaction was “Meh. So what’s the worth?” I appreciated the concept, and thought its interface within Google Maps was accessible, but I had difficulty articulating its worth. My next thought was, as close to verbatim as I recall, “I’m sure it matters to Rhode Islanders, but it’s not unique; Georgia/Atlanta has a similar project , and so did Michigan.”

I was immediately struck by a wave of homesickness for Michigan, went to its Sounds of the State page, and found the sound closest to where I lived, a lone blue dot in East Lansing titled “MSU Medley.” My ears drank in ducks on the babbling Red Cedar River, Beaumont Tower’s distant carillon bells, and the route announcement of a CATA bus. I was immediately resituated from my desk here in Smyrna to the riverside between the Hannah Administration building and Wells Hall, my feet dangling over the water and ducks pulling at my shoelaces because I was too slow in crumbling up the stale bread I’d taken from Brody Hall’s cafeteria earlier that morning.

That soundscape has become part of my experience, and will always be one of the places I can situate myself. I was there. That has meaning to me. I spent a few more minutes clicking around the sounds back in Michigan, smiling and nodding at a few that resonated, and shrugging at some that had no significance. And so it must be for people living in Rhode Island. Whether they’re down the road or across the world from Narragansett, sounds from its shores, piers, and streets situate them in their experienced places. These sound maps are worth more than their appeal to listeners outside the covered region, more than a digital drinking glass held up to a door for auditory voyeurs; these sounds are, for the residents, communication that carries something much more than the surface level detail. This is auditory composition, and it is a composition that is acutely aware of its authorship, its audience, and its message.

Crafted Auality

Somewhat briefer, I’d also like to acknowledge Jessica Barness’ Common Sounds project. Rather than letting the audience be just the audience, Barness invites them to take control of a handful of layerable soundtracks. I’m sure my progression through this was just like anyone else’s: try each sound individually, shrug and say okay. Then it was time to layer ALL the sounds! I, like everyone else who tried it did probably did, winced as the layers grew into an inarticulate cacophony. I resisted closing the window and I found that my auditory processing was up to the task, no matter how distasteful. My mind quickly organized the sounds into a unified piece that had rhythm and melody, even if a little too eccentric for my usual listening tastes. What occurred to me next was that I was listening to an entirely unique piece; each sound was playing in the order I layered it, which of course was situated differently in time to the sounds already playing and those yet to be added. Likely no one else (or at least very few others) chose the exact order and relative timing of the layers I did. I didn’t let it play long, but I enjoyed the tasks both of listening to the whole, and mentally isolating the individual layers while the rest continued to play.

I’d like to share a similar flash app with the class called The Chrome Project (although it should work well in any browser). I’ll leave it to you to figure out, but I think you’ll find the same sort of self-crafted aurality here, and the same challenges in contextualizing and isolating the different sounds. I hope you enjoy the process of tweaking and refining your compositions.

Pedagogical Aurality

With this week, we appear to be leaving behind the section of the course that has been the most enlightening to me so far. We’ve established that I’m now acutely aware of the fact that composition is a term much broader in scope and content than just writing. Not wanting to make the same mistake I did when we first began our talk of interface and the visual in composition, I kept my mind open regarding aural composition. What I’m left with now is the idea that perhaps composition is better (if somewhat muddily) defined as manipulable communication. Whether we’re engaging in verbal/written, a verbal/spoken, visual, or auditory communication, it is still communication we’re wholly in control of, both in form and content.

A few years ago, during my MA composition pedagogy course, we were asked to craft our teaching philosophies. Most of what I wrote now seems situated perfectly to where I was in my still very rudimentary thoughts on the teaching of composition, a plucky manifesto filled with vague affirmations of responsibility, open communication, and grammar vs. content. It wasn’t all together myopic, but it also wasn’t altogether well-informed. I’ve since discarded that statement, but have referred to it multiple times since, using it as a sort of mile marker in my pedagogical maturation. Most of what it contained is useless to me now, but as time progressed, one cogent, critical statement emerged from the detritus:

My specialty is my passion: writing. The written word is a pure form of discourse, no matter the writer or the audience. Writing provides the author the opportunity to present his or her most considered representation of their thoughts, their identities, and their beliefs. Each word, each thought can be chosen amidst a myriad of alternatives. Each such choice in expression gently shapes a writer’s voice, leaving a unique fingerprint on every work they undertake throughout time.

It’s been tweaked and remediated several times, but the core of what I wrote remains the same (and, oddly enough, its current form above appears on my LinkedIn page, of all places).

So, with my recent revelations in the visual and auditory realms of composition, now it’s time to consider revising it yet again. I come back to the thought of composition as manipulable communication. So long as the author/artist has control of a medium and a message to send, they’re composing. While I may personally have a particular passion for writing, I will do well to at least mentally swap in “composition” for “writing” in my teaching philosophy.

8900: Interface in flux

I feel silly saying this so bluntly, but 2004 was a long time ago. So was early/mid 2003, which is probably the rough timeframe Wysocki and Jasken set about writing “What should be an unforgettable face …” for its March 2004 publication.

Let’s round this out to an even nine years ago and snapshot the changes between Fall 2003 and Fall 2012: Windows XP hadn’t reached its dominating saturation point yet, so most users were operating in Windows 98 or 2000. Apple Mac OSX was still a puny minority of usership that had no impact on the greater interface landscape. The iPod was not yet the ubiquitous music serving device, having begun only its third generation. Facebook and MySpace were still nascent. The first iPhone and the waves of similar smartphones were still four years from launch. The dominant social writing venue was still LiveJournal. Public wireless access was still mostly offered only to large university communities.

These and many other interfaces stand between us now and us then. At the time “Unforgettable face” was written, the dominant interfaces of software still played largely by the Microsoft Windows rules; the vast majority of all computing tasks, writing included, happened in Windows environment. Thus, interface advanced only as much as this massive software landscape allowed it. There were the alternatives of Linux and Mac out there, but at that time they served niche users, so virtually all writing applications for Windows had the same over aesthetic.

Admittedly, the growing Mac usership hasn’t really challenged the Microsoft model. In both environments, we still have a row of menus to choose from, and within each the same basic types of functions can be expected to be in the same basic space: the File menu still features saving, opening, and printing; we still have the same icons for basic functions at the top of the screen; our text still appears on a simulated page surface; we still utilize the same conventions of formatting our text – although that may have more to do with the persistence of the academy’s expectations than the software.

What has challenged the model is the explosion of touch screen environments. When opened up to the processing power of these small, inexpensive little computers, app developers have shown enormous creativity in recreating interfaces over and over again. Swiping, taping, pinching, and dragging offers ways to interact with our writing spaces that desktops and laptops still don’t replicate. This has perhaps restored the personal quality of writing that the authors say is missing from computer-based composition. Especially on the larger devices such as the iPad, document drafting, management, and customization has gained depth and immediacy.

I won’t deny that this same omnipresent communications technology doesn’t lead to greater distraction (although at least in cases of Facebook and Twitter, we are distracted from our writing with more writing), but surely the benefits come out ahead. If we continue to expand interfaces to more closely approach invisibility (remember that Google Glass is on the horizon), perhaps we will retake all of the immediacy of tangible composition and enhance it with the flexibility and creativity enabled by the technology we’ve come to appreciate these past nine years.