In Defense of Ephemerality

A couple of weeks ago, while reading through some weblogs, I came across the following quote in Don Park’s weblog:

“Blogs will fade away within two years. What we know now as blogs will not be recognized by web users of tommorrow, not as blogs, but as websites. Website technologies and blogging technologies will converge into one.”

When I first read this, I had a fairly clear-cut reaction to the statement – it went something like “here’s hoping you’re completely, totally, and absolutely wrong, Don”. The reason for this reaction has to do with today’s topic – ephemerality and education.
Much of the worrying taking place on the Internet today has to do with issues of ephemerality and its prevention – what do you do about newspaper archives that become pay-only after a while? How do you react when someone objects to their content being archived on Google or the Wayback Machine? How do you prevent permalinks on weblogs from breaking? In all of these discussions, there seems to be an unspoken assumption that permanence=good, ephemerality=bad. Now, it is absolutely true that in many of the discussions I’ve mentioned other important issues are at stake – for instance, some of the groups trying to dearchive their content from Google are doing so as a way of covering up evidence about some rather unsavory activities. That being said, though, the preceding dichotomous equation always seems to be taken as a given. This is very unfortunate, since I believe that ephemerality is not only not always negative, but is in fact essential to many aspects of life that are now mediated by the Internet, not least of all education.
Consider the following scenario: you are at the neighborhood watering hole, and you’ve run into someone who shares your interest in early blues music. You have some fairly unorthodox ideas about the genealogy of the field, but when you mention them to your newfound friend, they react with enthusiasm, and make their collection of recordings available to you for your research. Now, replay the preceding scenario, but this time have your newfound friend pull out a tape recorder as soon as you start to talk, and announce enthusiastically that every word you say will be archived for the ages to come. How likely are you now to share that unorthodox idea that could potentially make you look foolish? How likely is it now that that research partnership could come into existence? Somehow, ephemerality is starting to look much more like a virtue than a vice here…
Anyone who has ever worked in education knows that a similar dynamic operates in the context of a successful classroom. For an instructor to stimulate thoughtful and creative discussions, they have to provide an environment that encourages risk taking on the part of the students. Risk taking does not occur in environments where every single act is permanent, indelible, registered for the ages. Rather, there needs to exist a range of possibilities that can accommodate everything from the truly ephemeral (comments in a brainstorming session) to the permanent (a final project) and everything in between, with the possibility that elements can increase or decrease in ephemerality (for instance, allowing a set of comments from a brainstorming session to be selectively archived so that they can form the basis for a project).
Where do weblogs come into all of this? The richness of opportunity in face-to-face interaction in the classroom deserves no less of a wealth of options in the electronic tools now available. To cite just three examples, chat rooms belong to the realm of the highly ephemeral, traditional architected web pages are perceived as highly nonephemeral, and weblogs are somewhere in between. You’ll notice that I used the term “perceived as” in the previous sentence – this is actually an important point. While, as Don correctly points out, weblogs are just another form of web page, technologically distinct only because of the way they are currently created, they are perceived at this point in time as quite distinct from traditional websites. A traditional website is expected to grow and change, but retain a core of stability in its content; again, at this point in time, weblogs have much weaker expectations in this regard. If Don’s vision comes to pass (which, speaking from a technological viewpoint, is not unlikely), and the concept of a weblog as a distinct entity becomes merged with that of the traditional website, we will be the poorer for it.
It is beginning to sound like I’m in favor of incorporating ephemerality as an explicit design constraint in the networked tools arena. Which I am, in a sense. The issue is not just one of incorporating an “archive after time x, and delete after time y” feature in weblog software, but rather incorporating tokens of intent within the tools that are clearly and visibly communicated to users. As with all other issues regarding tools for social interaction, I do not believe blunt interdictions on forms of use are the way to go; rather, thought needs to be given to the issue by software designers so that social norms and tool features can coevolve. There are generally no laws barring you from bringing a tape recorder to a public gathering place and recording everyone’s conversations – but in most societies it would be viewed as unspeakably rude, and could very quickly make you a social pariah.
My research and experience in using networked tools for education points to the issue of ephemerality as one of the most crucial ones in this area of pedagogical design – and, unfortunately, one of the most neglected ones. If enough people start discussing this topic and using it as an explicit component of how they plan their work, I’m hopeful that this situation can be remedied.
Postscript: on Wednesday, August 6, at 4:30pm I’ll be presenting a talk at the MERLOT International Conference in Vancouver – some of the material I’ll be discussing there relates directly to the topic of ephemerality.

Creating Cognitive Art

I had to give some careful thought to today’s weblog before committing it to the electron stream – I wanted to make sure that it was more than a list of nice tools for creating analytical images, and instead provided a framework for educators to develop new digital storytelling approaches incorporating elements such as graphs, charts, diagrams, and maps.
The toolset should not be viewed as a “one solution fits all” dictum, but rather a means to achieve a broad range of expressive explorations in this domain. An essential portion of this process is a workflow designed for all the parts to fit together – a lovely tool for creating graphs is not much good if, when the graphs are brought into the drawing tool for further annotation, they become a horrid pixelated mess. In the tools selected below, I found that PDF on Mac OS X, WMF/EMF on Windows, and SVG on Linux are the preferred file formats to avoid interchange issues.
Those preliminaries taken care of, there are some essential components that I would suggest should be a part of the toolkit:

  • a tool for creating tables, the simplest form of analytical images, and one that can provide structure for embedding the results of other tools;

  • a general drawing tool, that can both be used for semi-freeform drawing, as well as to edit and touch up the results from other tools;

  • a structured drawing tool, oriented towards the creation of diagrams where the parts bear systematic relationships to each other, and where modifications to one part are correspondingly reflected in the other parts;

  • a data plotting tool that can produce multiple visualizations of the quantitative relationships among different types of data;

  • a map generation and analysis tool that can present the spatialized relationships among different types of data.

Of course, one of these tools can do the job of many – a general drawing tool can in fact substitute for any of the others – but will generally do so clumsily at best. The tools I suggest below are not meant to be the only possible ones – in fact, I will be very happy to hear suggestions others may bring to the table. I chose them for reasonable ease of use, suitability to the task at hand, and free or reasonably low cost (i.e., under fifty dollars academic pricing for any one tool, with free try-before-you-buy periods available for all). Also, this is not intended as an exercise in denying the usefulness of some of the more expensive tools – for instance, one of the best data graphing packages for Windows is well worth the five-hundred-odd dollars it sells for. Instead, the goal is to compile a lean toolkit that still allows for significant exploration of the expressive space outlined in Tufte, Monmonier, and MacEachren.
An Additional General Consideration: for many of these tasks, standard office software suites provide an appropriate point of departure. For those people who lack such a suite, the free OpenOffice is fully comparable to the commercial offerings, and suitable for many of these tasks.
Tables: the standard office software suites are generally adequate to the task of producing expressive and communicative tables – once their presets, generally laden with ugly and unnecessary graphical elements have been overridden, that is. Fortunately, this can be done rather easily in most cases.
General Drawing: while the office suites usually include a minimal set of drawing tools, a dedicated application will tend to provide a more graceful drawing experience. On Mac OS X, iDraw is an inexpensive and elegant tool. For Windows, DrawIt is a surprisingly powerful tool for the price, capable of integrating and exporting to many different file formats. For Linux, the free Sodipodi has a very nice feature set, even though it is strictly limited to SVG for its file import capabilities at this point in time.
Structured Drawing: this is a far less common feature within the office suites – OpenOffice, interestingly enough, is one of the few to include some diagramming features. Fortunately, excellent alternatives are available on all three platforms. For the Mac, OmniGraffle is powerful and easy to use, with very strong integration features with other applications such as outliners and presentation software. On Windows, EDGE Diagrammer has one of the richest feature sets available for software of this type. For Linux, the free Dia provides most of the features of the commercial software packages with a particularly compact and efficient interface.
Data Graphing Tools: as was the case for tables, basic graphing types are reasonably well covered by the office suites. However, the presets are, if possible, even worse than those for tables – many of the defaults could serve as perfect examples of Tufte’s chartjunk. The best results tend to be obtained by turning off unneeded or ill-designed features, and adding any necessary elements in a drawing application. When a range of graphs beyond what most of the suites provide is desired, there exist several options. On Mac OS X, the free trial version of pro Fit is not time limited, and its scope is perfectly well suited to most educational needs. On Windows, Dplot provides a reasonable subset of pro Fit’s capabilities, albeit not for free. For Linux, Grace is currently the most mature interactive graphing program, although its interface can take some getting used to. If an even greater range of options is desired, three free non-interactive programs are available on all three platforms: gnuplot, R, and ploticus. All three of these programs require learning a series of commands for producing graphs, but the range of creative options they provide far exceeds that of the previous programs – ploticus is particularly well suited to developing some of the ideas presented in Tufte’s books.
Map Generation Tools: this is perhaps the trickiest area in terms of both cost and complexity of tools. The best way to start is not with the more complex standalone GIS (Graphical Information Systems) software, but instead by exploring some of the online options. Two free sites stand out in this regard. The first, the David Rumsey Map Collection has over 8800 maps that can be explored online via its specialized GIS software. The richness of this resource cannot be overstated – the maps range from a 1657 map of Osaka, Japan to the 1970 USA National Atlas, and in many cases can be overlaid with contemporary geospatial data. The second, ESRI’s Geography Network allows for the exploration of additional mapping and GIS concepts via the online ArcExplorer application, coupled to a broad range of free data. More adventurous readers may want to try their hand at using a full-blown GIS application, the free cross-platform TNTlite. TNTlite is a very powerful, but quite complex, piece of software; fortunately, the program is accompanied by a generous complement of tutorials that constitute one of the best introductions to GIS I have ever encountered. These tutorials can be digested in small bites, with good rewards at each stage – I would strongly recommend starting at the first one, and progressing through the set.
Thus ends this exploration of a basic toolkit for bringing cognitive art into digital storytelling – if it helps anyone find a new way to tell their stories, please let me know – it would make me feel happy to hear that.

Thinking About Cognitive Art

Much of the richness of digital storytelling is due to the use of a wide range of images as an integral component of the narrative. There is, however, a type of image essential to education that is underrepresented in many of the current digital storytelling projects. This class of images could be called “analytical images” – images that are structured in such a way as to enhance the systematic investigation of a subject. These include – but are not limited to – graphs, charts, diagrams, and maps, a group described by Philip Morrison as “cognitive art”. Unfortunately, these tools are used in much of education in an excessively compartmentalized and narrow fashion that negates their broader expressive potential. Thus, while graphs are used in math class, diagrams in biology class, and maps in geography class, very little is done in terms of teaching students how to conceptualize any of these tools as interrelated members of a wider set of tools for thinking. Some of the materials detailed below might help remedy this situation.
The best sources I have found for clear thinking about analytical images are offline. I would recommend starting with a trilogy of books by Edward R. Tufte: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, and Visual Explanations. Rather than focusing on the technical details of a particular graphical tool for the presentation of information, Tufte develops a rigorous theory of communication via analytical imagery. The first volume in the trilogy is probably the most important – the basic components of Tufte’s theory are laid out here, from the identification of those elements that interfere with visual communication (e.g., the commonly encountered forms of visual clutter that he terms “chartjunk”), to those that promote it (for instance, ways of optimizing the data to ink ratio). The second volume extends Tufte’s thought from the realm of quantitative information into a broader sphere of concepts to be represented, including spatial, chronological and part-to-whole relations. Volume three in turn places these concepts within the context of their use in narrative and evidentiary contexts. It is important to keep in mind that Tufte’s theories can (and should be) thought of separately from the specific examples he proposes – in most instances the examples only represent one particular instantiation of some of his principles, and not a general set of graphical design dictates. In fact, translating Tufte’s thought from the printed page to the computer screen yields results that can look quite different from his examples.
Complementing Tufte’s approach are three books from a specific subset of the cognitive arts – the discipline of mapmaking. While it might seem to run counter to the spirit of this commentary to highlight mapmaking by itself, these books are rich with implications and ideas that stretch well beyond their disciplinary confines. Additionally, they also embody a definition of mapmaking practice that is far more expressive than the “turn left at the gas station, then go for another mile and a half” images that are commonly evoked in educational contexts. Two books by Mark Monmonier – How to Lie With Maps and Mapping It Out: Expository Cartography for the Humanities and Social Sciences act as an outstanding introduction to the subject. The first, despite its ironic title, spends at least as much time exploring how to use maps to communicate as it does warning about their possible misuse. The second book is an efficient guide to cartographic techniques, accessible to even the least experienced mapmakers, and rich in examples of the use of maps to visualize data, make arguments, and tell stories. As an added bonus, both of these books are available in inexpensive paperback editions. A final volume by Alan M. MacEachren, How Maps Work: Representation, Visualization, and Design, parallels Tufte’s work in proposing a theory of maps that goes beyond a particular graphic practice, while developing a theoretical backdrop with applications to all uses of analytical imagery. The scope of MacEachren’s work is outstanding, incorporating topics ranging from cognitive psychology to the theory of signs; while it may take more than one reading to digest all the material presented here, the effort will be richly repaid with original and powerful conceptual tools.
Having a strong set of conceptual tools is good; being able to bring this set into active practice via technological tools is even better. More later on software that does just that…