February 28, 2010
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Savoring Confusion

In her remarks for Future Of Digital Studies yesterday, Janet Murray proposed that we should try to avoid mystification of the digital, and that in our digital works we should not savor confusion.

That’s worth thinking about.

Mystifying the digital is almost always wrong. There’s nothing special about binary – whether we use two letters (1 and 0) or 26 doesn’t change what we say. Sure, there are edge cases; digital art has spent 30 years exploring them and they’re well understood. The essence of the digital is often inessential.

We do sometimes want to confuse the reader for a time. Confusion builds suspense. Confusion can estrange the reader, giving us a chance to make the familiar new. Confusion can break down assumptions and prejudices.

And sometimes, when we discuss difficult and complex things, we are bound to be confused. It’s a confusing world.

But we’ve been writing hypertext for a while now; there’s probably no need to confuse people in new ways simply because we can. And while we might savor a bit of confusion now and then, it’s probably not a good habit.

The University of Florida has an impressive teleconference facility at their Digital Worlds Institute, which facilitated two sessions that brought colleagues from Upsala to Singapore to join the rest of the conference. It was fun. The technological failure was essentially complete: most of the comments were incomprehensible and most of the video feeds fell into strange, grotesque patterns. Michael Joyce said something eloquent about poetry falling from the sky in the wake of 9/11 but his words were lost in the network like tears in the rain.

A conference with English professors can be challenging because English professors expect to read their papers. Physical and computer scientists, on the other hand, are taught not to do so, and apologize when they must. The literary custom seems wasteful – it might be faster to simply print and read the papers – but it does encourage the English Professors to pack their papers densely. Much of this conference, I felt I myself holding onto the talk with both hands and wanting the occasional instant replay.

Despite the technical vexations, there were lots of interesting ideas.