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.
you read the assignment?” How many cold sweats have these words caused
the earnest student of literature? How many hopeful fibs have been spun
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,
“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.’
“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?’”
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.
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
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
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?
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)
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
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 [http://www.gilbertpaper.com/lunchtime/]. 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.
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
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).
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
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).
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 http://www.english.vt.edu/~siegle/Wittig/ir2.html).
(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 http://www.design.ncsu.edu/grad/mapping.html.
Rob Wittig stands firmly at the intersection between literature and graphic design, doing strategy and design alongside Rick Valicenti at Chicago’s
THIRST (www.3st.com), directing TANK20_literary_studio (www.tank20.com), serving on the Literary Advisory Board of the Electronic Literature Association (www.eliterature.org) 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.