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LOOP: AIGA Journal of Interaction Design Education
June 2003 Number 7

Concentrating, Skimming, Multitasking
Coursework Case Study: Envisioning Cultural Behavior

Rob Wittig THIRST, TANK20_literary_studio

An overview and case study of Rob Wittig’s graduate seminar at North Carolina State University, focusing on a systematic log of students’ own cultural usage ranging from e-mail activity to reading, listening to music and conversation.



Double nourishment
Did you read the assignment?” How many cold sweats have these words caused the earnest student of literature? How many hopeful fibs have been spun in reply?
      As someone trained in literature, apprenticed in the trenches of design and now invited to teach both young writers and young designers, I have considered those awful words from both sides. And if my nearly 20 years in the field of electronic fiction have taught me anything, it is to doubt the tacit assumptions about the nature of book reading that were promulgated in my university days, and which, in many places, continue to this day.

“Did you read the assignment?”

What does this question really mean?

First, it presupposes a list of absolute behavioral routines. Among these are, usually:

  • the text was read left-to-right, page-to-page, in the sequence in which it was printed
  • all of the text was read
  • all of the text was comprehended
  • absolute, undivided attention was paid to all of the reading

Hmm. There may be people who read like that, but I am not one of them. Nor do I know any personally.
      I myself, like most people, at one time or another: skip and skim, preview and review, read when I am fatigued and less able to comprehend, and even—gasp—listen to music while I read!
      Secondly, there is another layer of assumptions that is called into existence by the way in which the readings are discussed. The work in question, and only the work in question, is considered across the seminar table as though:

The work was read straight through, without interruptions from any other reading. The work was read in a state of existential detachment, not influenced by the events and emotions of everyday life. The work and the reader are constants; i.e. a given book will produce always produce the same experience when read by the same reader.

Now we’ve wandered into the realm of pure fantasy. Just consider the following statements, utterly plausible, but utterly impermissible in most “serious discussions” of literature:

“I skimmed the last part because I ran out of time;” “I had my headphones cranked up and was dancing while I read!;” “I read pieces of five different books today and they’re getting jumbled in my mind;” “I just broke up with my boyfriend and I couldn’t concentrate on the book.”

In my 1994 book, Invisible Rendezvous, (1) I went:

“In his essay Lire: Esquisse socio-physiologique(Reading: A Socio-Physiological Sketch), Georges Perec writes that he wants to see reading

‘brought back to what it is in the first place, a precise activity of the body, bringing into play certain muscles, diverse postures, sequential decisions, choices of time, an ensemble of strategies inserted into the continuum of social life that add up to the fact that one doesn’t read in just any manner, at any time, or in any place, even if one is content to read just anything.’ (2)

“Perec’s simple observations—lists of reading postures, of places where one reads while waiting (in lines, in waiting rooms)—surprise with the familiar. He recounts dining with friends at a regular haunt and watching another habitué, a noted philosopher, read as he ate ‘a mouthful, a concept, a mouthful, a concept.’ ‘How is one to understand,’ he asks ‘the effect of this double nourishment, how can one describe it, measure it?’” (3)
      The power of Perec’s marvelous observation has continued to grow on me in the last couple of years, and this Spring, in a graduate design seminar at North Carolina State University, I asked students to study and diagram some cultural experiences of their own in the hope of getting one step closer to understanding the “double nourishment” that goes on constantly in our use of culture.


Experience design
The specific example of the practice reading, and the host of bizarre assumptions that often come with it, is particularly important to designers theorizing and working in interactive media. To this day, in academic and professional settings, one frequently hears traditional contrasts based on the traditional misconceptions.

“Reading on the screen doesn’t permit the same concentration as reading from a book,” someone will say, “and therefore it can’t be as profound.”

Or: “Books are passive, the web is interactive.”

Or: “Books are linear, the web is nonlinear.”

The descriptions of interactive media are bound to be faulty when they are formed in contrast to a notion of reading that is itself faulty.
      Books are linear, it is said. Well, only if someone uses one that way. Books can also be incredibly interactive and hypertextual (e.g., workbooks, dictionaries). It could just as easily be said that the web is linear, since it arrives at your machine in the form of a single flow of data, and that books are simultaneous, since the whole of one can be handed to you in an instant. It might be more accurate to say: “Books are instantaneous, experience is linear.”
      The dominant, fictional description of reading is such a powerful force in the culture that it frequently completely obscures from view the actual, everyday, blended reading behaviors listed above. Even when these behaviors are admitted to exist, they are most often immediately condemned in contrast to the dominant fiction, which is asserted to be older, more natural, more authentic, more effective and unique in its effectiveness. We are told that there is only one way to read correctly.
      Don’t worry. I’m not going to get into that whole theoretical discussion here. But it is important to state that there is a big-picture gesture of thought implied by the common assumptions about reading.
      That big-picture gesture of thought is to equate—and confuse—the object with the behavior. When people refer to “the book” quite often they’re actually saying “the book and a particular idea of reading.” Across the media, the unit of cultural discussion is said to be “the work,” but it is actually “the work and an assumed method of use.”
      There are many incentives to keep “the work” as the unit of discussion. Cultural objects are most often manufactured by the work. Collections are catalogued by the work. Creators are generally paid by the work. Consumers generally purchase by the work. Audience/consumer research is most often commissioned by producers of works. Numerous legal and political structures are geared toward the work as an inviolable unit of commerce.
      Only our everyday lives contradict this neatly ordered system? and they contradict it constantly. We mix and match, slice and dice objects of culture—editing and blending at will. We precisely and intelligently construct our own experience of culture to match our moods, tastes and schedules. And then (if we are literature students) we go to class and pretend we don’t do anything of the sort.
      So, in part to reclaim the validity of our own actual experiences and inspired by both Perec’s questions and the ideas of user centered design, I’m joining the number of people who are now looking at designed information objects (for example, literary works) in a different way.
      We believe that similar fictional descriptions of use behavior exist for many other cultural activities, for example television use, web use, telephone use, driving. I believe they share with descriptions of reading the fundamental error of blindly equating an object with a behavior. We believe that these descriptions prejudice design for these activities, and that there is a range of vital new information available if we examine these activities and ask the right questions.

We are asking:

What if the useful unit of discussion is not the work, but the experience?

What if the useful unit of discussion is not the book, the TV show and the website, but the hour, the evening, the week?

What happens if we look nonjudgmentally on blended experiences like “reading while listening to music” or “reading from three books in the same day” or “websurfing” while talking on the phone”?

What do these blended activities look like? How can we represent them?

and most importantly

How can understanding culture from this point of view help us design more powerful, exciting and profound new experiences?

Project description
In NCSU’s Spring Semester of 2001 first- and second-year grad students (plus one community student) enrolled in a course called “New Information Environment.” Other grad and undergrad students participated in some of the sessions. From a variety of backgrounds and experience levels, the students were patient—and ultimately enthusiastic—about the unusual task put before them.
      After an introduction to the theoretical background summarized above, students were given the following challenge.

Class Project (Summary)

1) Logs
Create and display a systematic log of one of your own major cultural usages for the period of the course. This log will include:

  • Time, date, duration, & location of each instance
  • Content description / cultural description
  • Affect report (how you feel during the experience)
  • Concurrent activities (multitasking)

2) Information Display
Find a way to display the information from your log in a scannable and meaningful way in html/web format, one week at a time, in such a way that each week can be printed on a single piece of paper.

3) New Project Pitch
Create a project “pitch” for a new information or entertainment project that uses the same usage pattern described in your log.

Among the cultural usages studied were: reading, television use, e-mail use, chat room/bulletin board use, listening to music and informal conversation.
      The main goal of the project was not a true scientific study of the behaviors, but rather the creative discovery of graphic ways of presenting actual cultural use.
      As it was explained to the students, what was produced during the projects was representative of the behind-the-scenes activity of professional design: the creation of documents for presentation to clients. The scenario used to describe the final “pitch” phase of the project was:

“I want you to imagine you’ve studied a behavior, say, e-mail, and discovered a use pattern that you think is an interesting one, a sweet spot in people’s e-mail day or week. Now I want you to build the graphic with which you’ll show your client that pattern. Then I want you to build another graphic, using the same pattern, that proposes a new project designed for that sweet spot. A bit of humor or beauty that arrives right during the afternoon slump, for example. Or pre-holiday consolation for lonely folks.”

      As one example, I used the web project designed by THIRST, the “Gilbert Diner” for Gilbert paper []. Use analysis showed that the largest spike of traffic on the site was during the lunch hour as it rolls across North America. In response, THIRST created a “diner” theme built around cultural icons of the fast lunch.
      As another example, I shared with them my current personal agenda in these issues, a work in progress, the “novel in e-mail” “Blue Company” which was “performed” via the TANK20_literary_studio during the same spring.

Student work(4)
As the semester progressed, I was interested to note how deep the “work equals behavior” preconception runs. It took a bit of time for all the students to realize that we were truly interested in experience—in other words that their feelings and state of mind and true behaviors were as important to this investigation as the titles of books or songs.
      Much of the class time was devoted to critiquing and playing with modes of representing the data. I encouraged a three-level approach to designing the documents: 1) an impressionistic sense of each week that could be read from across the room; 2) a skim/preview/review level of display text telling the story of the week in summary; and 3) accessibility to the data in detail.
      Overall, the students’ work was strongest in revealing large behavioral patterns. As a typical example, Jennifer Brungart was astonished at what her study showed her about her reading time on public transportation, and the variety of her accompanying moods from week to week. All of the students made personal discoveries through the simple act of logging of emotion with cultural behavior and were able to show this in their diagrams.
      The students’ work, probably due to the broad nature of the assignment, was less strong in showing the concurrent activities or “double nourishment” aspect of their behaviors. So many other variables were being tracked that this one seemed overwhelming in the data gathering moment, and daunting at the graphic representation moment and was given less emphasis.









. . . there is a big-picture gesture of thought implied by common assumptions about reading . . . to equate—and confuse—the object with the behavior. When people refer to “the book” quite often they’re actually saying “the book and a particular idea of reading.”

Gray Joyce’s study of television use turned up several useful graphic strategies. After many iterations, he settled on an approach that runs the days of the week from top to bottom (figures 1 and 2), and within that left hand column shows an impressionistic record of the channel selection during the evening of TV use, channel numbers going from low to high on the vertical axis, time spent going horizontally. We can see evenings he spent mostly on one channel, and evenings where he took one or more “trips around the horn” of the entire channel selection.
      One of the most interesting discoveries Gray made in his logging process was the amount of time he spent not in front of the television, and these absences are represented by the gaps in the vertical bars in the main, right-hand portion of the graphic (figure 3). After class discussions he also decided to replace the screen grabs of the TV programming that were his first impulse to illustrate the right-hand area, and instead included that much rarer vision—images of the viewer himself (and even the often-empty chair).


Figure 1.


Figure 2.


Figure 3.

Figure 4.


Figure 5.


Figure 6.

Angela Norwood’s logging of her e-mail activity, and her personal notation system, resulted in an intricate symbol system that managed to capture many subtleties of emotional texture in this very personal computer-based behavior. Notable in many of the class discussions was her identification of certain e-mails as “juicies,” which she defined in her key as “sender’s name or subject line peaks my curiosity; usually has content I’m interested in, may even evoke anticipation.” Once a viewer of her weekly diagrams has absorbed the key, days and weeks clearly take on a discernable emotional flavor. Note the concentration of “juicies” in the afternoon of Thursday of this week, for example (figure 5) or the intense action and reaction of another Thursday (figure 6).
      Angela’s “pitch” for using e-mail as a way to construct a personalized psychological study of mood, was one of the best examples of an adaptation of her findings to a new project.


Lucas Charles’ ambitious, and—as he found—sometimes exhausting plan to chart informal conversation resulted not only in fascinating discoveries of patterns in his weeks and days, but, in his display, a way of summarizing the mood of an entire week in a powerful way. See the use of headline and image as overall indicator in the very first week of his tracking (figure 7). Contrast this with the exasperation of second (figure 8) or the strong feelings of third (figure 9).
      In detail (figure 10), Lucas’s diagrams accentuated the distinction between playful conversation (the orange) and serious conversation (the green) and degrees of each (“seismographic” intensity of line).

Eunjung Cho’s tracking of her dynamic, written-and-read social life on the Korean language bulletin boards and chat rooms where she hangs out with friends from home provided some of the most intriguing finds of the semester (below). After struggling with several iterations of her weekly charts, and determined to use color, rather than layout space, to indicate the days (thus revealing cluster patterns) her breakthrough came in a class session in which she decided to reverse the orientation of the two 12- hour blocks of the day. This change in orientation both represents and makes manifest the 13 hours separating her from her friends, and the day-for-night, night-for-day life that this kind of immediate communication makes possible (Figures 12 and 13).


Figure 7.


Figure 8.


Figure 9.


Figure 10.


Figure 11.
Figure 12.
Figure 13.

In future iterations of the project I would not have the students cast their nets so wide in the logging process, but would have them attend more to the sub-parts of the general study. For example, it would be fascinating to develop protocols that could tease out just the “listening to music while reading” and “watching TV while talking on the phone” moments of concurrent activity. It would be quite enough to find ways of representing these important and complex behaviors, and to find evidence of “double nourishment” in these everyday events. I also would like to follow up on the students’ excellent graphic discoveries and focus even more on the storytelling power of the graphics as they help us see the many subtle ways in which people actually use culture.



(1) Rob Wittig, Invisible Rendezvous, Connection and Collaboration in the New Landscape of Electronic Writing (New England, Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1994). For an online flip test, go to

(2) Georges Perec, Penser/Classer Translation here by Rob Wittig (Paris: Hachette, 1985) p. 111.

(3) Ibid. p. 122.

(4) For the ensemble of the class work, see



Rob Wittig stands firmly at the intersection between literature and graphic design, doing strategy and design alongside Rick Valicenti at Chicago’s THIRST (, directing TANK20_literary_studio (, serving on the Literary Advisory Board of the Electronic Literature Association ( and teaching and lecturing in both literature and design programs.
      Wittig’s background includes a degree in Russian Language and Literature, Minor in Art History, and a Fulbright Scholarship to Paris to study technical, artistic, and theoretical aspects of creating visual/verbal literary works with online publishing technologies, on the invitation of Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard and the Centre Georges Pompidou.
      In the early 1980s Wittig co-founded IN.S.OMNIA, the early literary electronic bulletin board system that pioneered the creative possibilities of the electrosphere and has been termed “legendary” by cyber-chronicler Howard Rheingold. Wittig’s book, Invisible Rendezvous, Connection and Collaboration in the New Landscape of Electronic Writing, Wesleyan University Press, 1994, is an analysis of this heroic, early period of electronic literature.
      Working in the Design Department of the educational publishing company Ligature in the 1990s Wittig put into motion the process, principles, and prototypes for a revolution in the way K-12 textbooks are designed and written, changes that are now industry-wide.


LOOP June 2003 Number 7