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Liz Losh: a very proper and discreet girl

February 7th, 2007
Photo of Liz Losh at her desk, Harvard 1985Scantily clad, yes, but incredibly well-lettered. In the years since I took this photo, the young woman pictured here in front of her Xerox 820 has become a brilliant scholar of digital rhetoric. Back then she was the only person I knew with a letter-quality printer. Today she is the only person I know who manages to confront the outrages of our time on a daily basis with scholarly rigor, wry humor, and a detached equanimity worthy of an L.A. Punk, or a Unitarian.

I’ve chosen to open my people posts with Liz Losh, not because of her pioneering scholarship and blog, not even because she plugged this blog a couple days ago on, but because of her service to humanity as a close reader.

In my nightmares of information overload, I often wonder, “Is there a close reader in this lifeboat?” Cuz if not, RTFM is just a slogan.

The title of this post is a reference to a bizarre line towards the end of Warren Weaver’s Recent Contributions to The Mathematical Theory of Communication (1949) [PDF], that Liz once pointed out to me. In arguing for a statistical view of information (i.e. one that “has nothing to do with meaning”), Weaver writes:

“An engineering communication theory is just like a very proper and discreet girl accepting your telegram. She pays no attention to the meaning, whether it be sad, or joyous, or embarrassing. But she must be prepared to deal with all that come to her desk. (27)

Photo of Liz Losh 2003I remember this striking me a a rather odd analogy, but I hadn’t stopped to think about it. Liz had, noting that these discreet girls pop up all over the early literature of information theory, including the classic “As We May Think” in which: “A girl strokes its [the stenotype] keys languidly and looks about the room and sometimes at the speaker with a disquieting gaze.”

Shades of Milton’s daughters here, the female as faithful but uncomprehending conduit of information. What this fantasy of communication always seems to miss is that, however proper and discreet on the job, the girls talk among themselves after hours. When they do, the attention they have been paying becomes quite evident and is surely not without significance for communication in general.

At right, Liz Losh in 2003, dressed for protest.

Jonathan Steuer: online publishing pioneer

February 7th, 2007
image Jonathan SteuerA couple months ago my friend Justin Hall alerted me that the Wikipedia article on Jonathan Steuer had been flagged by an editor concerned that it did not “satisfy the notability guideline… for inclusion on Wikipedia.” Justin, whose own Wikipedia entry stands unquestioned, thought I might want to do something in response. I did, but didn’t know what until now.

I didn’t want to just go in and edit the entry on Wikipedia even though a quick look at the notability guidelines told me they’d be easily satisfied by a gathering of citations and sources, mortared with a little exposition. But I wanted to profile Steuer in the “People” section here before going in to edit his Wikipedia entry.

First, I’m going to demonstrate that, as “the subject of multiple, non-trivial published works from sources that are reliable and independent of the subject itself and each other,” Steuer certainly meets the definition of “notable” specified in Wikipedia’s guideline.

Jonathan Steuer is, as the Wikipedia article in question says, “a pioneer in online publishing.” In addition to leading the launch teams of a number of early and influential online publishing ventures (such as HotWired, the first ad-supported web magazine, and c|net’s online operations), his article “Defining virtual realities: Dimensions determining telepresence,” is widely cited in academic and industry literature. Originally published in 1992 in the Journal of Communication 42, 73-9, it has been reprinted in Communication in the Age of Virtual Reality (1995), F. Biocca & M. R. Levy (Eds.) and is freely available in PDF format.

image of vividness and interactivity matrix
Steuer’s vividness and interactivity matrix from that article appeared in Wired magazine circa 1995 (I don’t have the exact citation) and has been particularly influential in shaping the discourse by defining virtual reality in terms of human experience, rather than technological hardware, and setting out vividness and interactivity as axial dimensions of that experience. Some years ago I made this simple Flash version of the vividness/interactivity matrix for my own use in teaching.

Steuer’s notablity in diverse arenas as a scholar, architect, and instigator of new media is documented in multiple, independent, non-trivial, published works, some of which I will proceed to list here.

Some books and print articles that discuss Steuer’s role in the web publishing industry that emerged in San Francisco in the 1990s (if you know of others, send ’em in via comments):

  • Net Voice in the City by Yoshihiro Kaneda, ASCII Corporation, Japan, 1997, pp. 88-107
  • Architects of the Web by Robert H. Reid, John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1997, pp. 289-292, 296-297, 299-300, 302-303.
  • “Webheads on Ramona Street,” by Jeff Goodell, Rolling Stone, Issue 722, November 30, 1995.

Some books and print that draw on Steuer’s definitions of virtual reality and telepresence (again, let me know if you have titles to add)

Besides the printed works above, Steuer’s article is taught in university courses (for example, this Ethics class, this English class) and is cited in many online works, a few of which I list here:

Thursday Night Dinner (TND), September 1994

February 5th, 2007

For a while, TND was the place to be for San Francisco’s up-and-coming Web workers. Generation X author Douglas Coupland was a regular at the apartment. Rolling Stone chronicled the scene, as did a German documentary crew.
— Paul Boutin, “One More Thursday Night Dinner,” Wired News, May, 02, 2002

Photograph of people at Thursday Night Dinner Sept 29, 1994
Thursday Night Dinners began in 59 Ramona where I lived with Graham (now Francis) Potter and Bagus Haig and moved with me when I moved to 65 Ramona in March 1995.

They started small as you can see from this weathered Polaroid. I can identify everyone except the woman in the middle back, and the two gentlemen at far right. Kudos and a toy surprise to anyone who can supply names, especially for the poor fellow defaced by an errant thumb. The rest, from left to right, are: First Row: Ken Goldberg, Jenny Cool, Jonathan Steuer, ??. Middle Row: Safi Bahcall, Bagus Haig, Anne Francis. Back Row: Ovid Jacob, ??, Graham Potter, ??

Comments on original post (that got munged in Oz crash):

From: Nick Matelli <>
You should really bullet-point these posts. It’ll make them easier to skim while at work.

From: Francis Potter
It’s possible that the woman in the back row is Amber Luttrell, who was a friend of mine at the time. Although it’s really hard to tell. In fact, I could barely even identify myself! What’s the fuzzy thing in the top right corner?’

From: Justin Hall <>
I believe that sitting next to Jonathan Steuer might be one Jonathan Wells, who helped start RES magazine and the RESfest film festivals.

From: Jenny Cool <>
Thanks, Francis, I think you’re right, that is Amber, I remember now that I hear the name again. Thanks, Justin, but how sure are you? Somehow your note sounds tentative. Meanwhile, kudos to you both and, if you email me your postal addys, a toy surprise will be dispatched from my vast collection of dotcom era schwag.

Blokus with Nolan Bushnell: it’s all the field now, baby

January 3rd, 2007

I’ve never been big on unified field theories, but have to admit a realization that dawned on me several weeks ago (during the triple As) has held more generally than I’d thought. These days, wherever I go turns out to be the field.

Photo of people playing Blokus Case in point: last night the delightful and inspiring Ellen Steuer took me to a games party at which Nolan Bushnell (pong creator, Atari founder) turned up to play Blokus. Nolan’s the one with his hand on his head. Ellen’s the one who snapped the photo with her trusty Sidekick.

Apparently his latest venture is another entertainment and restaurant venue called uWink, but it wasn’t mentioned. Instead, Ellen quizzed Nolan about the installation he was planning for next year’s Burning Man. Something involving LEDs mounted on revolving cherry picker to project an image of a hovering flying saucer, a scaled-up use of the same light-scan technology found in those clocks that project the time in mid-air, and other geeky gadgets.

I was more fascinated with the mag-lev wind chime installation Mike Steele was designing for next year’s Burn, after going for the first time in 2006; and with Patricia Pizer’s ideas for the class on online game design she begins teaching next week. Mike and Patricia were the hosts of this Almost New Year’s Eve games (and snack!) extravaganza, and it has been a very long time since I’ve met such a gregarious, playful, and accomplished pair. This party they were throwing was a luscious testament to the capacities of human civilization, truly an anthropologists dream: a multi-generational gathering of kin, friends, and neighbors; knit of spatial, professional, and recreational affiliations; at which great swathes of non-codified knowledge were spun out in social space-time-being.

Photo of Blokus board game in endstateTo put it more specifically, I saw several people learning to play Blokus, rules and strategies were discussed. There was a show-and-tell history of caricatures in European art. I overheard an eight-year old girl ask her neighbor if she would enable communication between their Nintendo DS systems. All the while, in the front living room, a man with a guitar–who I later learned was Raph Koster–and many fine singers created a steady stream of pleasant and familiar songs, passing on traditions and practices of which I remain blissfully ignorant. Instead of ethnomusicology, I focused on finding out from Patricia what she had planned for her games class and how it had come to pass that Nolan Bushnell was in her family room playing Blokus with her teenager, their neighbor, and my friend Ellen.
Given the impending new year–which for me holds the task of writing a dissertation start to finish–I found the answers to both lines of questioning valuably portentous. To answer the second one first: Patricia and Mike took their kids to the uWink restaurant in Woodland Hills and Mike was bold enough to strike up a conversation with Nolan. Later, Nolan appears at their party. Mike’s bold gregariousness is precisely what I’ll need to strike up the conversations I need to write a dissertation, I think as I hear Patricia tell of husband’s prowess.

What Patricia said about her class, however, was an even more valuable touchstone for my project. She made a number of really astute points on misconceptions about multiplayer, online gaming. First, she pointed out the tendency to apply the label “multiplayer” only to  MMOGs (massively multiplayer online games) when, with the exception of solitaire, most games–from chess to Ms. Pac-Man–have multiplayer capability. I take it as a sign of the social, its primacy and perpetual erasure in the naturalization (one of culture’s favorite methods) of such terms as “multiplayer.”

Patricia builds on it to talk about the kind of projects she hopes her students will undertake this spring. While everyone wants to create the next big MMOG, the budget and resource realities of producing such a game preclude the MMOG as a wise term project choice in most cases. Thus, she plans to point out the diverse variety of thriving game genres and communities online besides MMOGs and encourage students to design games they can feasibly produce in a semester. Here again, the potent and peculiar combination of object lesson and subject lesson all-in-one. Or, to put it in tagline form, it’s all the field now, baby.’

assume the subject position

July 9th, 2004

drcooljr.jpgwhen i was young,
i thought i would
become a man,
if i learnt enough.

it wasn’t a bodily matter,
nor even the desire
to be hero of my own life.

i just wanted a speaking part.