Monday, January 24, 2011

Week 3: Guest Lecture from Neil Baldwin

Neil Baldwin. Image from the Creative Research Centre. 
Thanks so much to Neil Baldwin (Director of the Creative Research Center at Montclair State University) for sharing his thoughts and expertise with us here in the form of an open letter.

Students - please remember to respond in the comments.

January 23, 2011

Dear Jess: I congratulate you on the magnificence of your New Media Narratives course – all of it! -- the Syllabus, the probing and provocative questions, the required readings, the entire “culture” of the work you are doing, and the thoroughness and depth of scholarship.
I am honored to be asked to share my thoughts on transdisciplinarity and on publishing and thereby to make a simulus/contribution to the building-up and looking-forward phase of the course.
I hope you don’t mind that I am communicating as if I were writing a letter.
It’s a way for me to pretend that I am speaking to you and your students since I cannot be there in person, which would be wonderful.
You, Jess, way back when, were one of the first “appreciators” of the Creative Research Center

I won’t go into the mission and originating impetus behind the CRC, because all of that is well-spelled-out in our Mission Statement and other rhetoric pervading the site.

I would, however, like to direct you and your students to the Web-Bibliography and the Links pages of the CRC.
These have grown exponentially in the past six months, and are the two dimensions of the site of which I am proudest, even moreso than the blogs.
Let me explain why – by way of actually and yes, metaphorically addressing two of the core issues of your course.
The thoughts that follow herewith are actually the first time I have shared publicly a selection of segments of a long essay/book in progress that began gestating at the end of last year, when I finally came to terms with how much time I was spending on the Web.
For most anyone between the ages of 12-35, this is the norm.
For someone of my generation (born 1947), a “Baby Boomer,” this is a breakthrough.
That admitted, I spotlight the Web-Bibliography and the Links pages for many reasons, the primary one being pedagogical.
To me -- a lifelong teacher and learner (those two are inextricably linked), starting in the analog world and now deeply immersed in the digital -- links represent the cultivation of the ideal sensibility and habits of Mind that should be applied to the use of text on the Web. 
There is a remarkable degree of attention and sensory discrimination required to correctly, appropriately, & constructively embed a network of links into a born-digital text.
The CRC as intentionally link-laden/link-heavy.
This intention is an inherent aspect of our causal aesthetic.
If the medium is the message, then the efficacy of the medium will be judged by the degree to which the message is exploited.
I want to open up born-digital,Web-based writings and make them more permeable, reflective, and directive out into the world.
Linking breaks down the walls of the Web text that I am “on,” [as it were] – making the text into a permeable membrane.
Powerful decisions and choices are made with each link put into place: to whom, and for what reasons, are links chosen to be set into, and then to lead out of, a Key Word or term.
Links possess compositional importance.
They are not just mere elaborations, to “force” the piece wider. If the writer does that, the piece will come across as self-conscious and artificial.
Linking makes a structural statement about the way one curates and conceptualizes information and presents it - framed in a certain manner - to others.
Links open up the singular text being composed to a multiplicity of other influences and associations which make the work being written and posted become transdisciplinary on the most fundamental linguistic level. 

Flashback: Twelve years ago, at which time I was the founding Executive Director of The National Book Foundation, sponsor of the National Book Awards, I was invited by Microsoft Corporation to pay a visit to their Seattle headquarters.
I signed a non-disclosure agreement, however, nothing I am about to tell you and your students will violate that.
One of the reasons the Microsoft executives wanted me to talk with them was so they could show me the first prototype model of an e-book reader.
Remember, this was a dozen years ago.
The e-book was a glimmer in the eyes of the technology world.
The most vivid impression I retain from that visit was a mural I saw on the wall of a conference room. It was a kind of “evolutionary” chart with the Gutenberg press at one end, books as we knew them toward the middle, and electronic books at the right edge.
Someone waggled their index finger at me by way of a warning: “Books are dead. We have the wave of the future.”
They handed me a hand-made e-reader, cobbled together with screws. “This is where we are going,” they said. “The train has left the station.”

I have singled out the power of links because they are the most fundamental building-blocks of transdisciplinarity. Links are the most viable currency of digital communication because they permit texts to connect without disrupting original words. It was an extension of link-thinking that inspired me to make the CRC; because, in a higher education setting, where disciplines are hard-wired and immutable on an analog level, I believed the CRC would break new ground without threatening existing academic “units,” as we call them here in the USA. And now we are seeing the efflorescence of a hypertext boom in publishing allowing us to carry around thousands of books unencumbered.

I remember saying to myself a few short months ago that I enjoyed expressing my thoughts and observations on the exponential growth and expansion of media technology; but I also harbor no illusions that my opinions – well-considered and interesting though they may be – are going to in any way effect the pace of change.

All the best, & please keep in touch. Yrs., Neil Baldwin      


  1. Dr. Baldwin conveys a very interesting idea: that links are a statement about how one “curates and conceptualizes information”. His choice of the word “curate” is significant, as we traditionally think of a curator as the caretaker of a museum, the one responsible for maintaining and displaying the exhibits or works of art. Yet the curator’s role goes beyond that of a custodian: the curator makes choices about what art to display, how to display it, which combinations of artists to bring together in a show and numerous other decisions that affect the experience of the viewer of the exhibition. In this sense, the curator is exerting some degree of editorial control over the viewer’s relationship with the exhibits.

    The use of links in “born-digital” text similarly provides a way to try to shape the reader’s experience by supplementing the author’s original message with further support. If the author is trying to persuade the reader, then clearly the links chosen will support the particular thesis being asserted. However, the author could also deliberately choose links that express contrary points of view if the goal is to stimulate debate. Although Dr. Baldwin is correct in stating that “links permit texts to connect without disrupting the original words”, it is possible that the reader’s interpretation or evaluation of those original words may change as the links are explored further.

    One of the main problems I see with the extensive use links is the issue of filtering. The Creative Research Centre provides a substantial list of many engaging and illuminating links. However, like most information consumers, my time is limited and it is impossible for me to explore all of the links provided. Thus, I have to make choices. The question is: how do I make my choices? I can graze the alphabetical listing of sites with their brief descriptions, looking for those areas that interest me. This can be fun and enlightening, as I am big believer in the principle of serendipity, but it is also time consuming. To make the best use of my time as information consumer, I need a way to filter and refine my search. When looking at websites such as the Creative Research Centre, I am relying on the creators (curators) of the website to do the filtering for me. However, if the list of links is too great, then I must further filter based on my own, somewhat random criteria. I think the management and focusing of the ever-expanding amount of information now available is the biggest challenge and biggest opportunity of the digital age.

  2. Thanks for sharing this.

    This really highlights the importance of links within content and presents a new way to look at links. I tend to think of web links as a way to substantiate claims and provide some detail to content. Dr. Baldwin’s comment about web links as “building-blocks of transdisciplinarity” required me to think past what they are and instead focus on what they really do.

    Dr. Baldwin notes that “links are the most viable currency of digital communication because they permit texts to connect without disrupting original words.” Quite often I find articles and other digital material that rely too heavily on links to get the author’s arguments and ideas through to the reader. The most valuable material found online uses links as a supplement rather than a vital component of an authors content.

    My current blog is on Wordpress, which offers a lot of applications and options for the presentation and layout of a site. What I find most valuable are the statistics that Wordpress tracks for blog authors. Along with the number of clicks the weblog receives, Wordpress also tracks which sites send traffic and what links readers click when reading the weblog.
    After reading Dr. Baldwin’s post, I’ll pay more attention to what links people click to ensure that the text I provide is thorough enough. I understand if readers require additional detail, but it could indicate to me what readers prefer as supplemental information. These statistics will also give me some idea of what other disciplines my topics and ideas fall under.

    Glenn – your bring up some interesting points about filtering. The filters we use to select links are influenced by so many factors depending on experience and personal preference. I agree with your assertion that as a reader, we leave it to the curator to plan our experience in the digital realm. This idea made me think of how Google has really taken this to heart and aggregates all the links I might be interested in when surfing the web. Our privacy is reduced, but do we benefit from this curation?

  3. I had not previously explored the idea or importance of links and the significance of links when publishing content on a blog or webpage.The links and the web bibliography on reflection introduce material that is relevant but may be a diversion or distraction from the current flow or presentation of ideas. Links allow me to investigate further ideas or details that I may find interesting or need further clarity on.The ability to provide links is useful for the new or advanced learner to bring together a number of related ideas and find the connections without having to do their own search. The choice of links and/or composition of links presented by the author needs to be recognized by the reader as inherently biased although extremely useful. The inherent bias will come as the links presented will be chosen by the author of the page and you will are given links the author feels is important.For academic institutions or researchers what they choose as links is a direct reflection on their own knowledge.To direct students to links assumes there is trust and credibility in the webpage/aauthor in the chosen links as here was in previously required textbooks or readings.
    The links do provide the opportunity for each individual who journeys to the page to have a different experience. Each individual will make their own associations and different connections and choose different links, building different knowledge and experiences in each reader.
    One of the dangers I found in the links, was that there were a number that were no longer functional. Provision of links that don't work or direct you to the information decreases the credibility of the web page and the information on it.

  4. Interesting that Dr.Baldwin notes that links "permit texts to connect without disrupting original words". I often struggle with the use of links because quite often you forget where the 'original' words came from. Sometimes moving from one link to another, the text from which you started from either becomes lost or maybe even irrelevant.

    Perhaps this is the benefit as well as the downfall of links-there really is no final chapter or last page as there is in a printed book, links lead to more links and as Dr. Baldwin also mentioned, perhaps the discovery of another subject or field of knowledge that you may have otherwise not associated with what you are currently studying.

    Although links make it easy for us to permeate through so much information-perhaps we need to see whether it always works in our favor. What if someone didn't want their thoughts, links etc linked to a particular school of thought, website or organization? Can they control that?

    Carolyn brings up a good danger of links and that is the functionality of them. I touched on this in my last week's comments as well. The ability to link and the ability to publish immediately has brought us a world where there is knowledge that seems endless, however the responsibility to make sure that knowledge is accessible, current and truthful is sometimes not adhered to.

  5. This is a late post and it relates to the end of books, not links. This was the best place to post this article.Below is a link to a National Post article to back up the statement in Neil Baldwins essay that "books are dead". In the article H.B. Fenn blames “the loss of distribution lines, shrinking margins and the significant shift to e-books” for their financial difficulties". Is this where the publishing industry is heading and who will be next on the bankruptcy list. Which publishing companies will survive and what adjustments will they make to ensure financial viability?