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OK, space cadets! Prepare to hurtle through the woods

Paul Dourish’s talk last night at UCLA on Rethinking Information and Space in Ubiquitous Computing was an unmitigated joy for this anthropologist who’s been grappling with the anomie of spending most of her time in extra- and interdisciplinary contexts the last several years. A professor of Informatics with appointments in Computer Science and Anthropology, Paul gave a virtuoso performance of the power and logic of this disciplinary combination which bears some similarity to the house blend here at Garret Cool.

In using Australian aboriginal and Western Apache examples to demonstrate other logics of spatiality and, thus, argue that ubiquitous computing presents opportunities to reencounter space as a cultural construct, he deployed Anthropology’s classic thought experiment (denaturalizing the familiar via the detour of familiarizing the strange) to good effect before an audience of approximately 50 people. It seems this strategy, which James Clifford has described as ethnographic surrealism (1983), continues to work its magic outside anthropology, even as so many of the discipline’s other magic tricks have been grounded by critique, or rendered common sensical, the victims of their own success (for example the culture concept, reflexivity).

But let’s put all that disciplinary self-consciousness aside and turn, instead, to some of the really stimulating things Paul said last night about the relationship of spatiality and information. He referenced the Shannon/Weaver metaphor of information (entropy) and then cited someone whose name I’ll have to track down as saying that a walk in the woods presents a person with orders of magnitude more information than any computer interface, yet is experienced as relaxing, rather than stressful. My question is whether it makes sense of conceive of whatever it is that passes between woods and walker as information. Not that this is what Dourish was proposing, but just to address more directly the critique of Weaver’s view of information implicit in his talk.

Is it too simplistic to say that a walk in the woods is relaxing precisely because the sensory input is not organized as information, but rather as meaning, which is capable of the most astonishing feats of compression and polysemia known to humankind? If Weaver’s (to me rather surreal) contention that measuring information as entropy is only natural held true, wouldn’t the sylvan stroll with all that additional noise and signal be overwhelming? Not that one should jump so readily from Shannon’s mathematics to the realm of meaning and effects, but that, as our lecturer indicated, is precisely what Weaver’s metaphor of information worked to do.

A final note, before exiting these woods for the freeway, on the relationship of spatiality and information. One thing I noticed over and over in my internet industry fieldwork, on the part of developers and clients alike, was a zeal to employ spatial metaphors for web site architecture and navigation. For example, structuring parts of a web site as if they were parts of a house, village, or some other physical place, even if this wasn’t always a practical choice. Cross culturally, it’s very common for people to project their cosmologies spatially, building them into houses, towns, and rituals. But the symbolic freight of web sites isn’t inherently spatial and cosmologies are the exact opposite of entropy, they order universes. So, this urge to spatialize often tested my patience.

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  1. […] The “we” here is the microcomputer generation, those who came of age with the first generation of personal computers. I find it fascinating to think about such generational shifts in terms of language, and here in particular, in terms of the relationship of pidgin and creole languages. Could the foreignness of graphical “languages” mark them as a kind of creole “we” can’t process as natively, as the GUI generation can? But what kind of creoles can be forged through our visual processing capacities? Are they languages at all? In what ways are they social? […]

    Pingback by The Participant Observer » Blog Archive » Martin Helliwell: eloquent polymath, humane brain — September 17, 2007 @ 10:39 pm

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