Inventing the Digital Medium: An Interview with Janet Murray (Part Three)

You suggest a broad range of design fields as important for addressing the core properties of digital media. I know you’ve thought a lot about the process of educating designers. Do you imagine expanding the curriculum so that all designers know at least something of these various fields or do you imagine building multidisciplinarity into the design process through collaboration across various expertise?

I do think that designers should know about all the contributory fields – such as visual design, human computer interaction, industrial design, computer science, media studies. These fields overlap one another and each one is already drawing on multiple other disciplines, so even those with a more narrow training have had some exposure to other disciplines. For me, the key thing is that we should understand design as a collective process of inventing a common medium – that all of these practices should be seen as contributing to a common design palette of conventions that are available for use by any application. For example, we can’t think of information design as separate from game design, because game mechanics can be very useful in explaining complex systems, and information visualization can be very useful in offering an overview of a complex multiplayer world. The more we think of every artifact we make as occupying this larger potential design space, the more strategies we have at our disposal for making expressive, coherent digital artifacts.

But we need a way to unify these different approaches, which is why I suggest that we think of the digital medium as having four characteristic affordances (the procedural, participatory, encyclopedic, and spatial) so that we can understand the role of each of these contributory disciplines in helping us to maximize these affordances.

Of course curriculum decisions are always influenced by local configurations – by what departments are more open to change or to collaboration within any particular university. Digital Media is being taught in many departments, and degree programs are proliferating so rapidly that we seem to have a new faculty ad to post to our PhD students every day. My hope is that Inventing the Medium will make it possible for more people to teach digital media design from a wider range of disciplines. I’m hoping that humanities and arts faculty will be able to introduce the technical issues using the book, and that computer science and engineering departments will be able to use it to integrate media-oriented design questions into their teaching. And I’ve made an extensive Glossary in order to encourage professionals from varying disciplinary backgrounds to share a design vocabulary.

You write that “media expand the scope of our shared attention.” Yet, the issue of attention remains a central one for critics of digital media. What relationship do you see between this idea of “shared attention” and the competing claims by Steven Johnson that “Everything Bad is Good For Us” and Nicholas Carr that “Google is Making Us Stupid”?

I think that Steven Johnson is right – more complex storytelling (as in the change in serial drama that he charts in that book) makes us smarter. And I see the digital medium as supporting more complex cognitive forms, not only story-telling forms, but also representations of the world as replayable simulated systems, so that we can look at how the same situation can be configured in multiple different ways, or how multiple causes can contribute to a single event. I thank that Nicholas Carr and other dystopian chroniclers of the digital era are correct in identifying the distracting effect of information overload, but they mistake the immediate situation for something that is intrinsic to digital culture. Right now, we have a growth in the quantity and variety of information that we can encode and deliver – a big growth spurt in inscription and transmission – but a lag in the conventions of representation that make information coherent. Google is making us much smarter in exactly the way that external media representation has always made us smarter: the new encyclopedic affordances of the digital medium lets us offload information that we no longer need to carry in memory, and to share information with one another that we no longer need specialists or personal contact to access. Google makes all this encyclopedic information retrieval on demand. Of course it is not as refined as we need it to be, but it has already made it orders of magnitude easier to find an address, identify an author, check on professional affiliations, etc. So it is absurd to say that internet resources reduce our ability to focus.

Now, it may be the case that people are less patient with self-indulgent prose, that people are less willing to submit to the long-winded authorial voice, to enter the trance of reading a longer work. But in some cases that may mean that we can convey the same information in more concise terms. For example, I needed to express the argument for Inventing the Medium in book form, but now that I have laid it out, I would love to make an ebook that segmented the same information in smaller chunks and allowed for multiple navigational paths.

Your book makes a strong case for medium specificity, critiquing the over-reliance on “inherited structures” from “legacy media.” Yet, others have made the argument for media impurity, seeing real value in the cross-polination of different traditions and practices. And in your earlier work, you often saw such borrowings as necessary to help people make the transition into a new medium. So, how might designers think about when elements borrowed from other media are enabling or retarding the growth of digital culture?

Borrowing is a necessary feature of design. But designers should be aware of the provenance, the origins, of design features and think about the function they serve separately from the medium in which they live. For example the front page of a newspaper and the headlines on the page are very useful conventions for conveying a common understanding of what is news in a short time. But the sound bite and display behind the news anchor, the scrolling headlines at the bottom of the screen, the magazine cover, are similar conventions, and they all relate to the core cultural task of taking in diverse summary information in an efficient manner. If we are making a news site for the web, or for a mobile device, or for some future platform that operates from a chip in the corner of special glasses, we would have to think about the purpose served by the aggregation of headlines on the front page, and consider what we want to merely borrow the legacy conventions (or the web conventions when they become digital legacy) and what we will need to reinvent.

I don’t believe that the digital medium is wholly new and separate from cultural history–quite the contrary. But I do see the need for designers to borrow, invent, and refine the appropriate conventions of the new medium in a way that is mindful of how earlier customs reflect earlier limitations (such as column size and page size and the fixity of paper) that we need not reproduce.

You focus here primarily on the work of designers. But, as you know, the digital has brought about a more participatory culture where lots of everyday people are designing and producing media. How do their “untrained” and “unprofessional” design decisions contribute to the process of inventing the medium?

That is a great question and of course one answer is that I rely on you, Henry, to tell me about that!

But I don’t think designers can abdicate responsibility. It is our job to invent the conventions that scaffold popular invention. For example, the status line and hash tag are incredibly powerful organizing conventions, which then make possible the inventive uses (such as professional convention commentary, fan commentary, political organizing, even ironic pseudo-hashtags) that we value on a viral success like Twitter. People need a coherent structure in order to share focused attention and pool their creativity.

Janet H. Murray is an internationally recognized designer and media theorist, and Ivan Allen College Dean’s Professor of Digital Media at Georgia Tech where she also directs the Experimental Television Laboratory. She holds a PhD in English from Harvard University and was a pioneer of digital humanities applications at MIT in the 1980s and 1990s, moving to Georgia Tech in 1999, and serving as Director of Graduate Studies in Digital Media from 2000-2010 during which time she led the redesign of the MS curriculum and the founding of one of the first PhDs in the field. She is the author of Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (Free Press, 1997; MIT Press 1998), which has been translated into 5 languages, and is widely used as a roadmap to emerging broadband art, information, and entertainment environments, and Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice (MIT Press, 2011). At Georgia Tech, her interactive design projects include a digital edition of the Warner Brothers classic, Casablanca, funded by NEH and in collaboration with the American Film Institute; the Interactive Toolkit for Engineering LearningProject, funded by NSF; and a series of prototypes for the convergence of television and computation, created in collaboration with PBS, ABC , MTV, Turner, Intel, Alcatel-Lucent, and other networks and media companies. Murray is an emerita Trustee of the AFI and a current board member of the George Foster Peabody Award. In December 2010 Murray was named one of the “Top Ten Brains of the Digital Future” by Prospect Magazine.


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