A Long Reflection on Writing a Digital Text (Part III: Why Is This Text Digital?)

In my last two posts I’ve been writing about a digital text I produced and recently submitted to Kairos. The text is an interview with Hugh Burns. And so far I’ve written some about some of the ways I prepared for the interview and some of the equipment used to capture the interview. Now I want to write a bit about how some of the design started to take shape and how it changed a bit over time.

As I wrote before, I knew that Hugh’s professional experience ranged from a long commitment to a military career, research and development in artificial intelligence, and respected teaching career in Rhetoric and Composition. These are some of the ideas around which Cheryl and I developed our questions and conversation with Hugh. And, although I really didn’t have specific ideas about how Hugh would respond to the questions, his responses stayed pretty focused on the themes we expected. Which was great because Cheryl had set up the interview to be submitted to the .mil (“Military”) issue of Kairos (I don’t know the official title of the special issue, actually).

What I’m trying to get at here is that as I sat down to start thinking about the visual design and interactivity of the text, I needed to identify what I saw as the most important or most interesting themes: Computers and Writing Scholarship. Artificial Intelligence. Rhetorical traditions. Military Rhetoric.

Okay, so I had some themes. Now what? I had video, but that was nothing more than a simple headshot of Hugh talking. This was going to be a digital text, and I still had nothing to go on that wouldn’t have been just as effective as a print-based transcript of the interview. So what’s the point of producing this text in a digital form? Shouldn’t the form follow the function? (nod here to Philip Johnson / Ezra Pound Modernists.)

Sometimes it’s not clear why a text has been produced as a digital text when it seems clear that it could have be done as a print-based text. Ugh. This is tough. It really comes down to a question of investment. I want to explore what digital texts can do that print texts can’t. Not because I want there to be more digital texts. Digital texts aren’t inherently any better than print. But I do believe that there are certain types of rhetorical work that digital texts can do that print texts can’t. Some times there are questions, themes, or subjects that just scream out for a digital, multimodal approach to exploration (writing about Hollywood movies, DIY video, websites, particular Web 2.0 technologies themselves, comics, etc.). The list is long. Almost limitless depending on the questions you’re asking. But sometimes there’s just no clear relationship between the work a text might do and its digital form.

So why digital, then? Because…

The Web exists and it would be irresponsible not to develop scholarship strategies that expand the purview of our inquiry (and maybe authority) into that realm. And that realm is digital. Yep. This one’s important. But it doesn’t really get at my question about why particular texts.

Because the nature of textuality is changing. It’s becoming more digital all the time. I want to take advantage of those opportunities. I want to participate in the development or adoption of new scholarly venues. New tools of inquiry, distribution, reception, consumption, storage, access, etc. Because, basically, things are changing, and I want to play, not watch.

To do so requires that I produced digital texts. Some awfully standard (this blog, for instance), and other less standard. What do I mean by less standard? Texts whose form explores the possibilities for digital rhetoric. Digital scholarship. Texts that attempt to do some of the same work required of print texts, while doing it better or in a new context (the Web, your computer). We’ve got to get busy developing new tools of scholarship, new textual forms, new rhetorical conventions for the technologies emerging from all around us. These aren’t my ideas. Scholars like Cindy Selfe, Scott DeWitt, Gail Hawisher, Christina Haas, Cheryl Ball, Gunther Kress, and dozens more have been making these arguments for years. Journals like Kairos, Computers & Writing, and Computers and Writing Online have been making this sort of work happen for a long time.

But what about this particular text? Hugh Burns. Interview. Digital. What digital work was there to be done? My first thought was that Hugh kept returning, variously, to the different themes I’ve mentioned above at different times. Sometimes he’d be talking about artificial intelligence and writing instruction. Then he’d be talking about artificial intelligence and classical rhetorical traditions. Then he’d just to classical rhetoric and military strategy. He has a knack for combining these themes in different permutations. Thinking about our conversation in terms of themes, it became clear that each theme was a sort of thread, woven together with other threads, to create the fabric of the interview (apologies to Spivak and others for stealing the metaphor). In this sense, the interview was much more spatial or intra-referential than it was a linear development of ideas. A web? Sort of. Linked ideas? Sort of. The relevance of digital strategies started to emerge.

This got me thinking about different ways that people use video. Non-linear compositions. Remixes. Mashups. Cuts. Juxtaposition. Recontextulizing small pieces of the text into new pockets of text. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

First things first. I wanted to maintain as much as possible the sense of Hugh as a coherent and focused scholar (which he most definitely is) reflecting with honesty, clarity, and emotional investment on the subjects he addressed. In order to do that, the most basic level of organization for the text is that each of Hugh’s answers are available in a minimally edited form organized into video clips, each clip focusing on one answer. Just like a print interview. Nice. Something for the linearly-inclined. (the image above is a screen-capture of the home screen.)

Beyond this rather standard organization, I had the idea to cut the text into pieces and put it back together again in order to cull out some of the themes. A sort of video collage. I went back through all of the clips and identified snippets of Hugh’s words that could be woven together into what I had identified as a recurring theme. Once identified, I cut the clips into these little pieces. Then I took each of the little pieces of video about one theme (say, the military and classical rhetoric), and put them into a single video clip in an order that created relationships not as clear in each individual answer. I called Hugh’s “uncut” answers, as described in the paragraph above, his “responses.” But the remixed video clips we organized as a theme consisting of small pieces from several different of Hugh’s responses. I called these new theme-based video clips “mashups.”

I also typed up the words of each small piece as it’s own little graphical snippet. (Barthes refers to these sorts of small pieces of meaning as “lexia.”) I wanted to be able to arrange these little text-snippets in a visual field on the page. Again these snippets were organized according to the the same themes as the mashup clips. And they appear on the same page as the corresponding mashup, but not in a corresponding order. The effect that I’m hoping for is an atmospheric one. When you arrive on one of these “theme” pages, the video starts playing these decontextualized snippets of video one right after another with harsh jump cuts from one to the next. Spread out around these videos in a visual field are the little lexia I typed up. Sort of immersive and non-linear. Thematic.

What’s more, each of the lexia is hyper-linked back to the “response” from which it was taken. Once the reader arrives back at the “response” page, the video of that response begins playing. To the right of that video are each of the lexia which I culled out into different themes. These are in order, but color coded according to a corresponding theme. The reader can click on the lexia (or the listed theme to the lower, left) and arrive back at the “theme” page corresponding to that lexia.

Now it’s becoming clear that straight-prose isn’t the most appropriate form for me to try to explain how this text works. Ah. Perfect. Maybe once the text is released, I can produce a screen capture of the text-in-use with commentary to explain it more effectively.

For now, though, I just wanted to actually write down some of the rationale behind the text’s organization.

There’s still plenty to reflect on. Why did I include downloadable copies of the “responses” and “mashups”? Why these colors? Why this font? Why Adobe Flash?

What’s I’m finding really fascinating about this blog-reflection is that my responses and explanations are revealing alternatives I could have pursued. And new questions I could have explored, but didn’t see them. More tomorrow, I guess.