March 19, 2008

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 6:29 am

At this point, with chapter eight concluded, we have nearly reached the end of the version of Expressive Processing sent out for anonymous peer review by MIT Press. So now is the time for me to ask for what Ian Bogost, and others, have identified as a real challenge for this blog-based review form: Are there any broad thoughts on the overall project?

So far I've been very impressed by the quality of the comments on individual entries. Though there are still some to which I have yet to respond, I've carefully read and considered all of them. But the comments, almost universally, have been about the contents of one or two sections. So I'm wondering, before I sit down to think through a comparison between the results of these two forms of review, if there are broader thoughts out there among blog readers that should be part of what I consider.

Beyond that, there's still more to come in the blog-based version of the EP project. I hope to announce some of it tomorrow. (And, in the meantime, Jeff Young has a nicely-framed update on the Chronicle's Wired Campus blog.)

Total comments on this page: 7

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Scott Turner on whole page :

I would agree with Ian Bogost’s comment that the nature of the process makes it difficult to comprehend the book as a whole. The overall impression I get is of a travelogue — “I wandered from here to here to here and saw these things along the way” — without any real understanding of why you took this trip. While the insights into the various past efforts are certainly interesting (and you’re usually dead-on in your analysis), and there’s a logical sequence of how the research efforts flow into each other, I think the book would be improved by some sort of overall structure or context to understand how each piece fits into your thesis. In the end I’m not exactly sure what new insight or understanding I’m supposed to get from the book.

(Also the layout of GTA is terrible in my browser — Firefox with a sidebar — the content occupies a tiny column on the left with maybe eight words per line.)

March 19, 2008 8:22 am
noah on whole page :

Scott, that’s very useful information. I won’t say more right now, but I’m definitely curious to know if others have had similar (or different) experiences.

March 19, 2008 9:46 am
Ian Bogost on whole page :

There are problems with traditional anonymous peer review. The best reviewers, from the perspective of the author and the press, may not have time or devote time to a careful and complete reading of an entire book, especially under the time constraints a press hopes for. Returned reviews are often mixed in detail and usefulness, and its basically impossible to follow up with the reviewers due to the requirement of anonymity.

I think the present experiment has overcome some of those problems. The participants are more willingly donating their time, which seems to increase the quality and usefulness of their contributions. Because this is a two-way forum, it’s possible for you to go back and ask questions and clarifications, to have discussion. And while I don’t think anyone has done so, it is also completely possible to comment anonymously, preserving some of the blindness of peer review.

There are some downsides though. For one, because of the self-selection I doubt you are getting any real naysayers here. Since I know most of the people commenting, I think I can say without controversy that most are fans of your work and of this project in general. I think that’s actually a shame, because one of the hypothetical benefits of peer review is gaining unexpected perspectives. For another, because of the nature of the way we read websites and blogs, it’s hard to read the whole book in its entirety due to missed days and complex schedules. One can backtrack, of course, but there’s a mental sense of getting behind. The blog form only reinforces this sense: blogs are a temporal medium that values today over yesterday.

But the most significant problem is the one I’ve already mentioned here and elsewhere. I find it hard to read the book as a book, as a sustained argument with supporting claims and examples. After giving this additional though, I have a few tentative conclusions to share.

First, since comments are structurally tied to paragraphs, there’s a tendency to focus on specific points in detail rather than the overall argument. This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, specific, detailed comments, suggestions, and corrections are exactly the thing one does not get from traditional peer review. On the other hand, arguably those sorts of comments should come later anyway, based on a second draft in which major revisions have already taken place. In other words, perhaps what is going on here is not really online peer review at all, but something more like online peer revision. I think the experiment has proven the effectiveness of this approach as compared to sharing drafts with colleagues. As with everything online, though, there is a risk that legitimate observation decays into pedantry and trolling. I don’t think that’s really taken place in this forum, this time, but I certainly think we’d see much more of that if this method were adopted more broadly.

Second, serialized blog posts of a long-form text should probably bear some structural similarity to the text itself. You split up the chapters into multiple posts for easier consumption, at the cost of a significant loss of structure, or at least a sense of that structure. There are probably very simple ways to solve this problem in future versions of this online review process, such as mapping the structure of the book on each page and showing the reader exactly where the current text falls on that map.

Third, and related to the last, there needs to be some sense of the broader scope and flow of the book at all times, especially a sense of what’s yet to come. It’s hard to know if a comment or objection is legitimate absent the context of the larger argument. There is a formal uniqueness to the monograph that is hard, perhaps impossible (?) to recreate online.

Fourth, and perhaps most interestingly, I think my objections to the form of this experiment may actually lead to my main objection to the content. That objection happens to be the same as the one Scott Turner mentions above and that I mentioned in a recent comment: Noah, you don’t carry the main argument through the examples satisfactorily.

One of the questions a publisher’s peer review always asks is something like, “What is the main argument of the book?” I’d answer that question like this:

“The author claims that computational expression is fundamentally concerned with authoring processes, a fundamental difference from other forms of media.”

While your discussion of each of the examples in the book are insightful, for me there’s not enough glue putting the whole book together. It feels like a set of examples that evoke the main argument, but that do not carry it through. Another way of saying this is thus: I am not clear if you intend the book to catalog different sorts of expressive processes, or to make a historical evolutionary argument about different sorts of processes, or to question the historical evolution of same, or to point to opportunities in the missing spaces between different kinds of processes, or something else entirely. I would love it if you had a clearer agenda.

As a secondary description of the book’s main argument, I would say this:

“The author claims there are three important types of processes (or operational logics) at work in computational expression.”

As it stands, I feel like what we have are a number of close readings of different sorts of processes, but without enough of an underlying position about those to help the reader take the next step, or even to determine what you hope the next step will be. You clearly explain the operational logics that define certain “effects” in different sorts of computer artifacts. This is a welcome move away from the study of surface alone, but what ought the reader to do with it?

You suggest that your method can be used to “interpret software,” the noble goal you mention in the introduction, but I find myself unsure of what specific analytical or critical purposes you have in mind beyond simply describing the system and its resulting effect. While I’ve mostly pestered you in relation to Façade, but my impression is that once you’ve described the system and its effect you are ready to move on. Your apparent resistance to perform even deeper close readings of the artifacts in question, in relation to how they mean via how they function, makes me confused about the goals of your project. It seems to me that not enough consideration is given to the ways the system and the effect contribute to aesthetics or — to use the word from your title — expression and the reception of that expression. How exactly should the critic use what he has learned to “interpret software?” Are the “effects” you discussed meant as a set of broad-based trends that define major moments in computational expression, such that they might serve as useful starting points for a critic? I think you may think so, but I don’t think you make that clear enough if you do. Additional examples flowing out of the canonical effects would help here, even if in lesser detail. Or perhaps your concern is more historical than critical? That’s not the sense I got from the introduction, but perhaps it is the case.

The most ironic feeling I have about this online peer review experiment is that in the end, I ended up writing a long-form summary of my reactions (this comment is approaching 1,400 words — I’m sure its nearly illegible in this tiny sidebar) rather than distributing them among the chapters, sections, and paragraphs in the way the system affords. The main difference is that I’ve signed my name at the top, something you know I would have been willing to do anyway.

I hope this comment is useful, as I intend it to be constructive and not deprecatory. I think the book is very good but would be even better if you connected the examples to the core argument more explicitly, and drew out more critical conclusions from each example. Indeed, the main opposition I could see someone unmoved by digital media raising is precisely that a focus on the operational logics leads to functionalism rather than criticism.

March 19, 2008 10:37 am
noah on whole page :

Ian, many thanks. Again, as I said to Scott, I won’t respond to your points right now — because what I need to gather most at this moment are people’s current impressions, not their responses to my responses. But I very much appreciate you taking the time and thought.

Also, I hope this doesn’t go too far into the territory of response, but I’m happy to say that I had no problem reading what you wrote. Perhaps it’s an idiosyncrasy of how I have my browser and font sizes arranged, but the comments are actually presented much like a newspaper column (so quite legible). Others, please feel free to hold forth at length!

March 19, 2008 10:52 am

Yeah, it’s actually not so bad to read after all.

March 19, 2008 10:58 am
nick on whole page :

I was left thinking about a few basic questions. As we were reading, I kept thinking (despite the clear signposting you may have done at the beginning) how many chapters are there going to be again? I kept wondering about how many words we had left, within each chapter and overall. I kept wondering how much more there would be about the current system. And I still don’t have a good sense about big the book is overall – could you tell us, what is the word count? For those unfamiliar with converting between word counts and pages in a final publication, could you estimate the number of pages the book would be in print?

I’d venture to guess that Ian was wondering about these issues as he read. These are all issues that a book, or a printed manuscript, or even a PDF of a manuscript, would have answered for me automatically, with no changes required by you in the text. So while I sympathize with Ian’s attitude as a reader, I’m not sure it’s due to any failings in what you wrote. It may be the serial presentation on a familiar but reformatted blog that left both of us, and I think others, unable to get a good sense of the extent of the book and where we were within the book.

I think this is a situation in which you as an author would need to turn to the “control group” of anonymous reviewers and see if they raise this issue of coherence, connection, of overall story. I would bet that despite the differences in anonymity and formality and such, the group given the manuscript as a single object will be better able to speak to this issue. Ian may be right about the need to articulate your core argument more clearly, but he may mainly be critiquing the format in which he read your book and not the text you’ve written. Readers of the non-serialized manuscript may find that they have all they need when it comes to making connections and thinking about expressive processing, and they might find a revised book that makes connections for them to be ham-handed.

I was very pleased with the book and found that, despite the awkwardness of the blog format, your ideas about the Eliza effect, the almost opposite Tale-Spin effect, and the somehow intermediate SimCity effect, which you developed further in different ways, gave me a very useful new way to think about digital media. Without having read the conclusion, I imagine that whatever you write there could easily reinforce the positive sense I have about your main argument and could help me to understand how it applies to thinking about other works of expressive processing.

March 19, 2008 5:36 pm

Yes, I am likewise left wondering if the fault is in me the reader rather than the material. You know, I think I’d be willing to read the same text in manuscript form offline to see if it reads differently. Of course, I’d have already read it, at least in part, but I’d be curious to see how it felt.

March 19, 2008 6:12 pm

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