Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Million Syllabi in the Sea of Information

This should probably be a post-script to one of my more popular essays here at the Muse, Geocities and the Digital Archive Potential- but check out Snarkmarket's recent post about Dan Cohen, at the George Mason University's Center for History and New Media, releasing a data set of syllabi collected online from 2002-2009.  The total comes to a million syllabi and Snarkmarket asks, what can we do with this data?  Here is a quote from their post:

So the real question is: what sort of questions should we ask?
I’m open to anything, but my bias goes towards something slightly wacky, rather than, you know, something of scholarly significance. Let’s reverse-engineer an inquiry by starting with a Slate headline!I mean, think about it—a syllabus is 
  • a course of study,
  • a set of instructions,
  • a statement of values,
  • a collection of related documents,
  • an indirect payment to a bunch of authors,
and more, all in one.  What might we learn from a million of them all together?
I think this is a very exciting venture, and wanted to promote this as best I could.  I would love to see how texts come and go, which ones receive favor in what parts of the country.  What would be even more interesting would be to look at who taught the courses and then map out their academic networks.  Who studied with whom?  Who were the advisors and who were the proteges?  That would be more difficult, as I'm sure this data is not encoded in the syllabi themselves, but figuring out the networks and their impacts on the expression of teaching could be very insightful.  Figuring out the transmission and reconfiguration of knowledge at the syllabi level- now that would be a great project for the 'Digital Humanities'.     

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Transformation of the Product

Full caveat: even though this is about Apple products, I use *several* Apple items everyday.  I love their products but dislike their approach to emerging technologies, seen best in the incarnation of the iPad- read below for more.  Caveat over.

For those not in the know, I am somewhat of a technology nerd.  Not a full blown nerd- I can't code, for one, and while I feel somewhat on top of tech trends, there are certainly elements which throw me for a loop.  Case in point- I really enjoy listening to Dan Benjamin's '5x5' livecasts and podcasts on various aspects of tech industry and development, but there are many times when Dan or the guest on the show begin to dive into the world of techno-jargon and I become lost.  Luckily, I have rewind capability and the mighty Google to assist in these needful moments of techno-ignorance.  I find it's a lot like owning a modern day car- you know (the basics) of how the car works, but the engine underneath is far from accessible to most amateur mechanics.

But if you show me a Ford and a Subaru, I'm not likely to mistake either for being anything else but a car.  Different models of cars to be sure, but cars nonetheless.  

Now take a look at the magical iPad.

Photo by Yutaka Tsutano
It looks nothing like computers of old.  It uses an intuitive operating system that brings the level of device interaction to largely the flick of a wrist or point of a finger.  Like many Apple products, it just simply works (most of the time).  No confusion, no hesitancy- just a great computer that uses elegant design to draw the user into a new level of personal technology experience.

But wait- it's not a computer, it's a tablet.  And there is a big distinction between the two.  For one thing, computers are modifiable, while the iPad tablet is not.  I can't add more flash memory, or upgrade the RAM on the iPad (without some high degree of difficultly), like I could on a computer or laptop.  In fact, as the iFixit team discovered on their breakdown of the recently released iPad 2, Apple has made the tablet increasingly difficult to even crack open.  Due to the heavy amount of adhesive used in securing the glass plate, the iFixit team had to use a heat gun in order to open the iPad- even then they noted that the thin glass and large amount of adhesive used made it very difficult to remove the glass without cracking.  Just like the recent Apple decision to replace iPhone phillips screws with proprietary pentolobular screws, the design and construction of the iPad 2 is meant to deter user modifications.

These construction decisions do not deter, however, from the very usability of the iPad or iPhone- indeed, they are phenomenal examples of design at all levels.  What concerns me is that, increasingly, Apple is recasting these new devices as something other than a personal computer.  Take a look at the section on the iPad.  Not once is the word 'computer' used, outside of the one-time requirement that a user must sync the iPad with a Mac or PC computer.  Even the powerhouse of the device, the A5 processor, isn't called a processor- it's called a 'chip'.  

Now some of you have already shaken your heads in slight disgust, thinking, "So what?  They used different vocabulary- why all the fuss?"  I point it out because it appears, to me, that Apple is actively trying to set perceptions of their devices into a new category of personal computing technology, while at the same time essentially stripping out all assumptions and linkages that come with the association of a 'personal computer'.

Software?  No, the iPad has apps.  The difference?  Software is something from the realm of personal computing, code that was written for a purpose and then released for the free market to decide if it was valuable or not.  If people liked the software, they could buy or download it and use it on their computer.  The modern rise of the internet made sharing software very, very easy (see SourceForge) and while not all the software was good, gems that stood out garnered attention and, generally, out-shone the competition.

Apps are something Apple controls entirely via their approval process.  You might have an idea for an app, say one that measures cellphone radiation, but if the powers that be at Apple don't like it that app will never enter the iPhone/iPad App store.  The market cannot decide if your app is valuable or not, because the market is circumvented by the gatekeepers at Apple.  They do this in order to bring a high level of user experience to their products and, like I said above, their devices perform, in general, very well.  But the shift from the idea of personal computing software to iPad apps, and the exclusionary practices the shift entails, are troubling.  Because once you convince people a product is something different, you can begin to dictate the relationship a person should have with their device.

Further evidence this is occurring?  Apple Design Awards 2011 will only consider those examples of software that are already in the App Store.  (Thanks, Daring Fireball for pointing this out)

The consequences of such a shift can be seen by returning to the Deleuze selection I quoted in a previous post, "Postscript on Societies of Control":
The conquests of the market are made by... transformation of the product more than by specialization of production.  Corruption thereby gains a new power.
Now some will say that the iPad represents a new specialization of personal computing production- but that is not the way Apple is choosing to present their new product.  The iPad is not the specialized personal computer, it is the transformation into what computing should be- at least, according to Apple.  By claiming such, Apple gains control over both user and device at a level not seen before in their already storied technological history.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Blog Post Script- Wadhwa, Friends and Finance

Even though I'm a few days late pointing this article out, I really enjoyed reading Vivek Wadhwa's recent post on TechCrunch entitled "Friends Don't Let Friends Get Into Finance."  I felt like it was a perfect post script to a post I wrote a few months ago- "The Flow of Money is the Other Root of All Kinds of Evil."  Here is a telling quote from Vivek's post:
An analysis of MIT’s graduate-employment data shows that the financial sector increased its hiring from 18 percent of its graduates in 2003 to 25 percent in 2006. So not only are the investment banks siphoning off hundreds of billions of dollars from our economy with financial gimmicks like CDOs; they are using our best engineering graduates to help them do it. This is the talent that our country has invested so much resource in producing. 
When most sectors of the economy grow, new companies are created. The authors found, however, that the finance sector is not driving firm formation; it is cannibalizing entrepreneurship in the U.S. economy by offering wage and skill premiums to individuals who might otherwise have started companies. It is also causing far greater volatility among publicly traded firms and a reduction in the quality of businesses started.
Kind of reminds me of another quote, this one from Gilles Deleuze:
As for markets, they are conquered sometimes by specialization, sometimes by colonization, sometimes by lowering the costs of production. But in the present situation, capitalism is no longer involved in production, which it often relegates to the Third World, even for the complex forms of textiles, metallurgy, or oil production. It's a capitalism of higher-order production. It no longer buys raw materials and no longer sells the finished products: it buys the finished products or assembles parts. What it wants to sell is services but what it wants to buy is stocks. This is no longer a capitalism for production but for the product, which is to say, for being sold or marketed... 
The conquests of the market are made by grabbing control and no longer by disciplinary training, by fixing the exchange rate much more than by lowering costs, by transformation of the product more than by specialization of production. Corruption thereby gains a new power. 
- "Postscript on the Societies of Control", 1990 (Emphasis mine)
Finance is a necessary part of the Capitalist engine.  However, as Deleuze pointed out twenty years ago, Capitalism of today no longer pursues goals according to a model that most people were taught in economics class- it increasingly subverts those goals in the name of control.  Potential entrepreneurs that are instead working finance are not creating new products, they are simply 'transforming the (financial) product' so that it can be 'sold or marketed'.  As an ironic twist, these financial 'services', initially meant to provide firms and individuals access to capital, instead bring untold volatility to the market and thus make it harder for actual production to occur.

You can follow Vivek Wadhwa on Twitter via his handle, @vwadhwa - his most recent forays into the blogosphere centered on the importance of a liberal arts education in today's business world, a view I certainly share.  

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Looking For Old Believer Primary Sources

Today I visited the Oregon Historical Society to search their archives for holdings related to Old Believers.  Thanks to a little homework searching the online catalog beforehand, I knew the OHS Research Library had several files under the heading of 'Ethnographic Materials'.  I made sure to send the research librarian an email ahead of time, as I wanted to ensure the materials I wanted to view would be there and it allowed me to establish a first contact with someone who knows the OHS holdings far better than I do.  Within minutes of arriving and signing in, I met with the librarian who received my email and he suggested that I look in the card catalog to find sources not yet indexed in the online version.  Help like this is invaluable when undertaking a large research project, as local experts can often point to sources that might otherwise go unnoticed.  

Even though I had only a couple of hours to survey the materials, I was not disappointed with what I found.  At Portland State University, I found some dissertations written in the late 60's and mid 70's about the (then) recently immigrated Old Believer populations around Woodburn and Hopton here in Oregon.  Within these secondary sources, I found some potential leads on archival source bases (like the now defunct Mt. Angel College and Valley Migrant League) as well as names of leaders in the Old Believer community.  Thanks to the holdings at OHS I surveyed today, many of the names and institutions I read about in the dissertations are not taking greater shape and form in my mind.  This may only be the start of my research, but I already have several leads to follow up and a much better idea of what exactly I want to pursue in my historical inquiry.

As I learn more and visit more archives, I will update my findings here. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

How Digital Sources Could Merge Journalistic and Historic Fields

Today, while researching potential archival sources for a dissertation project, I was listening to This Week in Google (TWiG) with Leo Laporte, Gina Trapani, Jeff Jarvis, and special guests Chris Messina and Andy Carvin.  (If you don't listen/watch TWiG, it is an hour long weekly show covering the developments of 'the Googleverse and the Cloud', among other things, and part of the larger TWiT family of programs)  I was interested to listen to Andy Carvin discuss his use of Twitter to curate others tweets about the recent revolts across North Africa and the Middle East.  His twitter handle is @acarvin and is highly recommended by myself if you want to see how Twitter is changing the way journalists can cover and transmit information about current and developing events.  

Andy Carvin
The reason I mention him is that I found his commentary on how he developed contacts in the Libyan community during the recent and ongoing conflict interesting.  To paraphrase, he said that one necessity in establishing relationships was verifying the validity of the source, mainly because Andy was not on the ground but instead geographically 'isolated' in the USA.  Yet, using the power of communication that is Twitter, Andy is able to convey an informative perspective of events on the ground, due mainly to his close relationships established online.  He described one way in which he began to establish how a potential Twitter source could be verified- he analyzed the networks of their tweets.  This involved both looking at data, like the tweets and retweets of a source, and cultivating personal relationships with those who could guide Andy towards those alias accounts that could be trusted.  The data was out there- but the context, in effect what Andy is attempting to provide, could prove elusive to those not intimately associated with the event.  

You can watch or download the episode I listened to here.  The part discussed above occurs between 8:12 and 13:05.  

In previous posts, I discussed how digital archives present to historians similar challenges to those faced by journalists with regards to the incredible 'data dumps' coming out of news events today- (Gina Trapani hits on this in the selection listed above) how does one establish authority and make the linkages of networks readable so that validity and applicability to ones interest can be easily discerned?  Networked behavior in the spread of information is not something Twitter, or cell phones, or even the telegraph 'created'.  Networked behavior in the spread of information is an old behavior whose circulatory process is made ever faster with new technological innovations.  

The problems briefly outlined by Andy Carvin are similar to those encountered by historians in their own craft.  In my own limited work in peasant studies, I found that understanding the networks of particular Russian peasants- in religious life, feasts and celebrations, travel to markets and fairs, marriage patters- all of these behaviors better informed my understanding of how they reacted to historical change.  Once more source material is made digital, these networks of behavior can be more readily analyzed and interpreted.  In many ways, Andy's quest to bring followers the most accurate curation of the data firehose coming out of Libya could have major implications in the study of historical networks. 

As the sources of both the historian and the journalist become increasingly digital, I believe the tools and outcomes desired by both will share common cause.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

If Writers (could) Have Pills For Writer's Block, What Would Historians Do With A Time Machine?

Time to put another 'X' on the calendar.  See yesterday's post if you are confused.  Today's topic deals with an idea I had while reading Laura Miller's recent Salon article on Writer's Block.  Using the recently debuted movie 'Limitless', about a writer named Eddie who overcomes his crippling bout with writer's block via advanced pharmaceuticals, Miller explores the fascination and actual cause of writers who find themselves unable to summon the muse and engage in verbal flights of fancy.  Here is a selection from her article:
Most cases of writer's block are not, however, the result of a biochemical imbalance. Those not caused by being, as Eddie puts it, "depressed off my ass," are more likely to be rooted in fear. It's here that something called the Yerkes-Dodson Law applies. First proposed by two psychologists in 1908, this principle holds that the more "aroused" (i.e., engaged and challenged) a person is by a task, the better he or she performs, up to the point that the arousal becomes anxiety or worry, at which point performance declines. 
In other words, beyond a certain point, the more difficult a writing task, and the more you think it matters, the more likely you are to become blocked. This may explain why journalists with, say, two deadlines per week almost never get blocked: no individual story ever has to carry that much weight. (The paycheck helps a lot, too. Not long ago, a woman sitting next to me on a plane asked if I had a trick for getting past writer's block, and I replied, "Yes. It's called a mortgage.") 
This made me think- what if a 'blocked' Historian was suddenly offered a test-ride in a prototype time machine?  Here's the deal: I study, generally, Russian peasants of the first-half of the nineteenth century.  While certainly canny, many peasants were illiterate- meaning they left behind precious little in the form of documentary evidence for budding students like me to analyze.  Instead, I have to use elements of peasant culture to probe into the deeper meanings behind actions taken in response to, say, rent hikes or labor demands.  For example, if I want an approximation of how peasants conceived of ideas like 'justice' one source I can turn to for context would be folklore.  There are several tales of the peasant receiving just compensation from the tsar, or the peasant outwitting an 'evil boyar', a derogatory term for members of the Russian nobility.  Maureen Perrie suggested that analyzing folklore would bring greater depth to the social history of Russian peasants, allowing the careful and conscious observer to, in effect, acquire a framework of the peasant worldview.  

Fascinating work for sure- but what if I had a time machine?  What if I could just see, first hand, the actual behaviors of Russian peasants?  

I think it would be terrible.

That sounds counter-intuitive, even blasphemous to some, but I really think a time-machine would only hurt my studies of Russian peasants, not help.  To begin, there is the problem, often encountered by anthropologists, of becoming to close to one's subject.  Vine Deloria Jr. famously remarked that anthropologists have produced reams of useless knowledge when it comes to observing Indian culture.  This ties into the second problem- bringing ones present into the past.  I am very interested in how knowledge is produced and transported, undergoing mutations as new locales take in the knowledge and make it their own.  As a result, I find the operation of peasant 'networks' to be fascinating- but would my questions make sense to a peasant in the 19th century?  Would my Western bias creep in and alter my perceptions of a society if that society was presented up close and in actual reality?

In a very real sense, when historians read documents from the past it is akin to stepping into a time machine and going back in time.  We try to abandon our modern day preconceptions and look at the document as an artifact made up of several forces and inspirations.  We attempt to draw out the separate threads in order to place the document in its proper setting as a means to escape the tyranny of the written word and, instead, produce insightful commentary.  While it might be nice to have first-person observations, ultimately  detachment from the era we study provides a space in which more objective thoughts can emerge.  This alone is one of the reasons I love studying history- you can immerse yourself in a culture from the past, yet the unique perspective hindsight brings allows one to see the greater impact speeches, reports, articles, etc... produced in their time.  

However, having said all that, I still might be tempted to take a quick peak at the past.  I mean, come on- who could resist a real-life time machine?  Especially if it looked like this:

Photo by Stefan

Monday, March 21, 2011

Silly Rabbit, Writing is for Writers (who write everyday)

When you own two border collie/german shepherd mix dogs, you tend to visit the dog park a bit.  Quite a bit, actually.  I should probably visit more often, but that's beside the point.  What is the point you say?  Writing.  Daily writing.  It's something else I should do more often, a point made abundantly clear in a podcast I was listening to while taking the dogs out to our local free-range play land, One-Thousand Acres.  The podcast in question was Dan Benjamin and Merlin Mann's excellent 'Back to Work'.  In an older episode, entitled 'Expectational Debt', Merlin explained that the secret to productivity was.....wait for it.....just doing something every day that works towards your goal.  Wow- not brain surgery for sure, but very true.  If you want to be a writer, you have to make time everyday to write.  It's that simple and also that hard. 

Photo by the trial
Take me, for example.  I started this blog to work on my writing skills, to help hone my argumentative analysis and approach to topics I encountered in my myriad studies.  But I don't do it everyday- which is something I plan to change.  I really enjoy writing longer pieces, but I need to focus on just being succinct.  Once, while listening to another very good podcast - The Nerdist- I heard a secret to success Jerry Seinfeld imparted: get a wall calendar and for every day you work towards your goal (for Jerry it was writing jokes) you place a big 'X' on that day, the idea being that as you continually work towards your goal you will have the reinforcing image of a string of linked 'X''s that exemplify your daily work ethic.

Time to start producing those linked X's.  Today's topic- Libya and the Board Game Simulator.       

One interest I have in board games is their ability to produce for the player(s) involved a generative narrative experience, the idea being that through play a participant is involved in the active processing and assembling of game stimuli into a 'coherent' narrative that not only informs that participant of the past but actively shapes how that past is interpreted.  Today I want to look at one particular game, Hornet Leader, and its decision to release a campaign add-on for the game that covers the recent air campaign in Libya.

Hornet Leader is produced by Dan Verssen Games, a combat simulator that models modern day carrier air combat operations.  Here is a video review of the game by Marco:

Now take a look at the recent add-on released by DVG, depicting a 'Libya 2011' campaign.  Keep in mind, the UN voted last week to enforce a NFZ over Libya and this add-on arrived for public consumption only a few days ago.

To be honest, I must admit to never having played this game.  But it is interesting to note that DVG decided to release this add-on in the wake of current action against Libya.  Of course, DVG is not claiming that this is an attempt to 're-create' the current UN mission- how could they, given that no one knows how this campaign will turn out- but I wonder how artifacts like these impact a players interpretation of unfolding events?  It would be interesting to see if players modify this add-on to more accurately reflect the Libyan situation as it develops.

There- first 'X' accomplished.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Russian History: Old Believers

Having just finished a rather lengthy post on Board Games, I decided it might be time to update the Muse with something, well, Russian related.  I've been busy working on my portfolio and dissertation project over the past few weeks, and my posting here has suffered accordingly.  Part of the reason I don't post more is that I tend to write rather long pieces, and these take time to produce.  Yet Russian history is a very big part of my life, so I've decided to spend a little more time here at Peasant Muse describing what exactly I'm studying now- first up, Old Believers.
Old Believer Church in Tomsk
via Vladimir Pletenev

If you are not a student of Russian history or culture, you may be asking yourself, "What is Old Belief?"  It is a question not easily answered due mainly to the sheer variety of movements found under the large umbrella heading of Old Believers.  Yet we can begin to understand the movement by looking at the time and milieu from which it sprang- the mid seventeenth century of Muscovite Russia.

In order to comprehend the foundations of Russian culture, you must first acknowledge the immense presence the Orthodox Church possessed in the period before the ascension of Muscovy.  Prior to the rise of the Russian state as we know it today there existed Kievian Rus, a territory that centered around the present-day Ukrainian town of Kiev with extensions as far as the Novgorodian territories in the north and eventually stretching to the shores of the Black Sea in the south.  Reaching the height of its power and territory during the early 12th century, Kievian Rus' became the primary progenitor for many aspects of Russian culture that developed in later periods.  One major contribution was the Orthodox religious belief, brought by missionaries from Constantinople to the Slavic peoples beginning in the 10th century.  While the invasion of the Mongols in the 13th century brought an end to the rule of Kievian Rus', the legacy of Orthodoxy remained, its cause taken up later by a new power in the North that emerged free from Mongol rule in the 14th century- the Muscovite state.  

Following the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in the 15th century, religious leaders in Muscovy began to articulate the new idea of Moscow being the 'Third Rome' and last bastion of true, Orthodox belief.  Aligning itself with the rise of the Grand Princes, and later Tsars, of Moscow, the Russian Orthodox Church became a major pillar of state power and helped to solidify a presence of rule among the various peoples then being incorporated, generally via conquest, into the Muscovite state.  (If you haven't guessed, this is quite the short summary- a reading list for further information will follow)

Zoom forward to the middle of the 17th century and the arrival on the scene of a rather charismatic and forceful personality of the Orthodox Church- Patriarch Nikon.  His emergence came at a time when traditional Russian institutions and cultural beliefs were being questioned against the backdrop of rationalistic and scholastic influences emanating from the Western European nations, then engaged in the bloody process of Reformation and Counter-Reformation.  While Nikon did not want to embrace Western ideals and traditions outright, he did seek to use the power of Western innovations- like the printing press- to help solidify changes to Russian Orthodoxy that would tip the balance of power from the state towards that of the ecclesiastical.  This was a period in which the absolute power of the Tsar was not yet assured, and while Nikon never succeeded in establishing theocratic rule many of the changes he implemented brought dramatic changes to the Russian religious landscape.  

What did Nikon change?  Here is a summary from James Billington's seminal work on Russian culture, The Icon and the Axe:
Between his deletions from a new psalter in October, 1652, and the appearance of new service books in 1655-6, Nikon sponsored an extensive and detailed series of reforms.  He changed time-honored forms of worship: substituting three fingers for two in the sign of the cross; three hallelujahs for two; five consecrated loaves for seven at the offertory; one loaf rather than many on the altar; processions against rather than with the direction of the sun.  Nikon eliminated some practices altogether (the twelve prostrations accompanying the prayer of Ephrem the Syrian during Lent, the blessing of the waters on Epiphany eve); introduced textual changes affecting all three persons of the Holy Trinity.  He altered the form of addressing God in the Lord's prayer, the description of the Holy Spirit in the creed, and the spelling of Jesus' name (from Isus to Iisus) in all sacred writings. 
At the same time, Nikon tried to impose a new, more austere artistic style, ordering the elimination of florid, northern motifs from Russian architecture (tent roofs, onion domes, seven- and eight-pointed crosses, and so on).  In their place he introduced a neo-Byzantine emphasis on spherical domes, classical lines, and the use of the plain, four-pointed Greek cross. (133)  
Needless to say, these changes provoked responses from the far-flung and varied populations of Russian Orthodox believers.  Many saw Nikon's reforms as an affront to true Orthodox belief, an invading force from the West that would corrupt and destroy the sacred mission of the church.  It is this period and these changes that prompted the 'schism' of Russian Orthodox belief- while the Russian state largely acknowledged and accepted the Nikonian reforms, those who resisted and continued to use the previous rites and traditions of the church came to be known as 'Old Believers'.  Despite the singularity of terminology, Old Belief encompasses a diverse set of views; some embraced a 'priestless' way of practicing their belief, while others sought to bring in 'fugitive' priests from the 'official' Church in order to continue taking the sacraments using the old rites.  Others engaged in a quasi-mix of accepting some rites from the established church while keeping other beliefs separate.  Yet, no matter what form of religious practice 'Old Believers' engaged in, their presence, until the 1905 edict on Religious Toleration, alternated between quasi-acceptance and impermissibility.  

Old Belief is a fascinating aspect of Russian culture.  While my summary above is strictly that- a very quick and dirty surface level look at a complex movement- if you want to know more here are some authors to check out:


Robert Crummey- The Old Believers and the World of the Antichrist

Roy Robson- Old Believers in Modern Russia

Journal Articles:
Irina Paert- "Preparing God's Harvest: Maksim Zalesski, Millenarianism, and the Wanderers in Soviet Russia" Russian Review 64 (2005): 44-61

John Sullivan- "'Dukhovnye Stikhi' among Twentieth-Century Old Believers: Song Books of the Kilin Family" The Slavonic and East European Review 75 (3): 422-438     

Friday, March 11, 2011

Boardgames as Complex Cultural Artifacts, part III: Design, Control and the Analog/Digital Divide

It has been several months since I last wrote in my series on boardgames (here is Part I and Part II) and I wanted to introduce some new concepts I've come across with regards to the study of gaming.  A large inspiration for my investigation into boardgames arose out of playing Twilight Struggle, a card driven board game that pits two players, as either the US or USSR, in a global contest of growing influence networks.  The first two parts of this series focused on analyzing Twilight Struggle as a complex cultural artifact, essentially a 'dense text' that is capable of encoding several layers of the milieu that went into its creation.  Playing the game brings both players into a simulated experience of cold war tensions, ultimately helping to craft a narrative of the period that is shared between the two.  While I said in my last post that Part III would look at the materials of Twilight Struggle, these posts will veer away a bit and focus on a new topic that I became aware of through my further reading of studies related to gaming.  In this post I want to introduce the issue of 'Design' and 'Control' as discussed in recent works on digital gaming, then expand this argument to incorporate the characteristics, both in similarity and difference, of digital and analog games.

Photo by Jill Clardy
There is no way I could dissect a topic this large in one post, so my hope is to introduce the initial ideas and concepts here through the exploration of texts associated with our topic of design, control and the analog/digital divide.

To begin, I want to take a quick look at Gilles Deleuze's short essay, 'Postscript on the Societies of Control', as it succinctly defines and places the issue of 'control' as the primary concern for modern societies.  Next, I want to visit the essays of Alexander Galloway, who wrote on the nature of what he termed 'algorithmic culture' in gaming.  Galloway is a contemporary theorist who draws inspiration from Deleuze, among others, in framing his ideas on the nature of 'control' in digital games.  Having set the ground of our analysis, I then want to look at how other scholars attempted to address issues of 'control' in, primarily, digital games.  The works of Tom Apperley addressing 'Gaming Rhythms', T.L. Taylor and her look at the designer/player interaction and Jennifer Whitson's investigation in the methods of making and breaking rules in player behavior all provide further avenues for the questioning the deeper relationship between games and 'control'.

Photo by {Guerrilla Futures | Jason Tester}
While these are excellent evaluations in their own right, they focus largely on the digital side of gaming and leave little room for bringing in the analog experience found, for example, in tabletop board games.  It is my belief that in the matter of 'control', analog games present different issues than those encountered in digital games, and I want to end this introductory post by briefly outlining some of those issues.  Definitely a text heavy post- but one I think will bring these questions to a larger audience while also allowing me to gather my thoughts and assemble them into a somewhat coherent whole.  At least, that's the goal.

Deleuze & 'Societies of Control'

Gilles Deleuze, the French philosopher, wrote several tracts during his lifetime, many of which directly inform the analysis of the analog/digital divide in games,  but today I want to specifically focus on one of his shorter works, 'Postscript on the Societies of Control'.  It is within these few pages that Deleuze begins by describing how his friend, Michel Foucault, famous for his works on describing the inception and growth of the 'disciplinary society' in works like Discipline and Punish, recognized the transience of the societies he analyzed.  Deleuze suggests that the disciplinary society is breaking down, and that 'societies of control' are replacing them, represented by the rise of the corporation that no longer seeks to sells goods but instead services, that no longer influences markets by lowering the costs but instead by fixing exchange rates, and that no longer seeks specialization of production but instead transformation of the product through marketing.  'Control' is not so much the use of power, but rather the use of mobility to define the execution of power.  In another work, 'What is the Creative Act?', Deleuze further elaborates on 'control':
Control is not discipline.  You do not confine people with a highway.  But by making highways, you multiply the means of control.  I am not saying this is the only aim of highways, but people can travel infinitely and "freely" without being confined while being perfectly controlled.  That is our future.

Photo by .faramarz
The machine most indicative of the 'society of control' is the computer, which has made data ubiquitous and dependent on 'code'.  Whereas the 'disciplinary societies' relied upon watchwords to regulate access, the 'societies of control' utilize passwords to authenticate or deny access.  The code of a computer is like the highway described above, in that it allows you freedom to do things like surf the internet or create a document; yet these capabilities are entirely dependent on what the creator of the program allows the user to do.  This idea that the computer, or more specifically the code of the computer, exercises 'control' over our  own agency of power is the crux of many recent works on digital gaming and is also a major concern of Galloway and his analysis of gamic action.

Alexander Galloway & Algorithmic Culture

In his wide ranging work, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, Alexander Galloway explores the ideas presented by Deleuze and others on the 'control society' in the realm of playing digital games.  The act of play is very important to Galloway, and it certainly is a key component of my own analysis of Twilight Struggle.  Instead of probing the narrative value of digital games, Galloway focuses instead on creating a classification system to define the spectrum of actions encountered while the player, or operator, interacts with the game, or machine.  Borrowing terms from film and literature studies, Galloway spends much of the first essay defining what constitutes 'diegetic' and 'nondiegetic' action; diegetic elements are defined as a digital game's total world or narrative action both on and offscreen, while nondiegetic defines those elements that are within the gaming apparatus yet distinctly outside the portion of the apparatus that define the fictional world and story.  With these four defining characteristics (the operator, the machine, diegetic and nondiegetic action) Galloway creates a classifiable scale that can organize the varied styles and designs digital games embrace in the operation of play.  

However, defining the action of play in digital games is only one aspect of Galloway's analysis.  In his later essays, the topic shifts to the issue of digital games using 'informatics':
But how may one critically approach these video games, these uniquely algorithmic cultural objects? Certainly they would have something revealing to say about life inside today’s global informatic networks. They might even suggest a new approach to critical interpretation itself, one that is as computercentric as its object of study.
Using the very popular Civilization series of pc games, created by famed designer Sid Meier,  Galloway extends his thoughts quoted above:
Video games don’t attempt to hide informatic control; they flaunt it. Look to the auteur work of game designers like Hideo Kojima, Yu Suzuki, or Sid Meier. In the work of Meier, the gamer is not simply playing this or that historical simulation. The gamer is instead learning, internalizing, and becoming intimate with a massive, multipart, global algorithm. To play the game means to play the code of the game. To win means to know the system. And thus to interpret a game means to interpret its algorithm (to discover its parallel “allegorithm”).... 
I suggest that video games are, at their structural core, in direct synchronization with the political realities of the informatic age. If Meier’s work is about anything, it is about information society itself. It is about knowing systems and knowing code, or, I should say, knowing the system and knowing the code. “The way computer games teach structures of thought,” writes Ted Friedman on Meier’s game series Civilization, “is by getting you to internalize the logic of the program. To win, you can’t just do whatever you want. You have to figure out what will work within the rules of the game. You must learn to predict the consequences of each move, and anticipate the computer’s response. Eventually, your decisions become intuitive, as smooth and rapid-fire as the computer’s own machinations.” Meier makes no effort to hide this essential char- acteristic behind a veil, either, as would popular cinema. The massive electronic network of command and control that I have elsewhere called “protocol” is precisely the visible, active, essential, and core ingredient of Meier’s work in particular and video games in general. 
Photo by Gabriela Camerotti
While this is only a *small* selection of Galloway's writings, it does highlight the fundamental issue of how 'control' is exercised through the play of digital games.  While I didn't label it 'control', I noted similar effects encountered when playing Twilight Struggle in that the design embraced both game theory and domino theory as core components of tension building and winning the game.  However, one of the main differences between digital games and their analog brethren is that board games tend to, generally, openly display the 'informatics' contained in their design- the game board for Twilight Struggle represents countries as little 'dominoes' and the card driven mechanism that moves play forward incorporates elements of 'management' familiar to the 'min-max' solutions of game theory.  

Yet, despite this openness, board games too can code informatics in a way not easily read by the player.  In a discussion group I follow that focuses on the academic exploration of conflict simulation games (consims), one member noted how Brein Miller's submarine warfare designs utilized copious amounts of statistical data related to the historical operation of submarines- sortie rates, losses, tonnage sunk, etc... that a player will never see when playing his games.  In this way, the 'code' that governs the action of digital games, which for all practical purposes is 'invisible' to the player, finds correlation to the design motivations and sources used by designers to create the 'code' for board games, which can also be made 'invisible' to the player.  But in this similarity there is a fine distinction to be made, that being the ability of the player to engage in modifications of a game.  Looking towards the works of Tom Apperley and T.L. Taylor, we can begin to elaborate the differences and similarities of digital and analog games with regards to the issue of control highlighted by Deleuze and Galloway.

Tom Apperley and 'Gaming Rhythms'

Apperley, much like Galloway, sees in the play of digital games an avenue towards understanding the effects of the control society in our regular lives.  Yet, while Galloway advocates little opportunity for 'players' to escape the effects of control as found in digital games algorithmic culture, Apperley proposes to use 'rhythmanalysis' as a means to evaluate the interaction between player and game in the localized setting in an attempt to demonstrate that not only do games shape and change players, but players shape and change games through their act of play.  This two-way interaction is explained through the idea of 'counterplay':
Counterplay suggests a leveler, a global connection that can be traced through common rhythms in the practices of play that resonate in the local. As a practice, counterplay suggests that whatever games may do to us, this issue is inseparable from what we do to them. It is easy to focus on the futility or banality, of digital game play, to suggest that their digital environ- ments are characterized by choices and configurations that are largely meaningless, or at best devoid of politics. Counterplay provides a counterpoint to this view. (8)
Acknowledging Galloway's concerns, Apperley nonetheless suggests rhythmanalysis demonstrates that the imposition of everyday life into the gaming process produces new forms of power, i.e. 'control', but also allows for the player to re-configure their conception of the everyday and produce new creative forms.  This sidesteps the assertion of Galloway that digital games exercise only control over the player and instead brings in the key concept of modification of either the game itself or the experience drawn from playing the game.  For Apperley, the body becomes the conduit through which the various rhythms of play travel and enact themselves, whereas Galloway marks the center of action the algorithmic code the digital game operates upon.  Apperley defines this process as 'situated gaming':
Situated gaming is an approach to examining digital games that is based upon two core principles: the materiality of the embodied experience of gaming, ‘the gaming body’, which is influenced by conditions stemming from the local cultures and contexts of play; and that the game experience is played out as a negotiation between the ‘global’ immateriality of the virtual worlds of the digital game ecology and the myriad material situated ecologies that are manifestations of the ‘local’. The concept frames the gaming body as a node in the communicative network where the global medium of digital games encounters numerous local contexts. While, in terms of global production digital games follow a particular hierarchal dynamic, the ergodic process of play is in the framework of situated gaming, open to wider ‘cultural inputs’ that are both characterized by the local and by global influences. This situated approach to gaming acknowledges the imbrication of the local and the global, and explores it in its embedded context. (35-36)
This approach has several implications for games in general, without being tied specifically to the digital realm.  Take, for example, Twilight Struggle- part of the process of playing the game is recreating, in abbreviated form for sure, a narrative of the Cold War.  I called this process 'narrative shaped memory', as the limited simulative nature of Twilight Struggle restricts players full choice of moves (you can only do what the rules allow- thus, 'control' as explained by Galloway) but in doing so each game presents a multitude of narrative experiences that are created not by the game itself but by the players themselves as they combine the media presentations of board construction and card play (much like the 'situated gaming' explored above).  'Control' is far from absolute, although the issues related to control are manifest in the expressions of both digital and analog games.  This idea is further explored in the writings of T.L. Taylor, who analyzes the relationship between player and designer in Massively Multiplayer Online Games, or MMOG's.

MMOG's and the Designer/Player Interaction

For the final piece to be reviewed, we turn now to T.L. Taylor and her work, "Command Lines: The Emergence of Governance in Global Cyberspace."  One major trend in digital gaming of the 21st century has been the rise of MMOG's, best evidenced by the wildly popular World of Warcraft (WoW), run and maintained by Blizzard Entertainment.  In case you have no idea what I'm talking about, WoW is, at a very basic level, simply a traditional Role Playing Game (RPG) where instead of one player in the game universe there are tens of thousands of players, all of whom are pursuing different goals or objectives.  You perform various tasks to gain experience and gold, both of which are used, respectively, to 'level up' the character and buy increasingly more effective weaponry and armor.  

For Taylor, MMOG's provide an interesting digital medium in which to study the interaction between designer and player, because once a MMOG is released to the public it becomes something beyond what the initial designers envisioned through the process of play and modification.  
Designers are always already working with a model of the user (sometimes real, but just as often imagined) when they approach the process of creation. This formulation plays a powerful role in how the space is circumscribed for the eventual user in terms of what is deemed not only legitimate use, but more fundamentally, what identities are sanctioned and inscribed within the artifact. Designers construct not only a product, but attempt to embed within it particular forms of use and, by extension, particular users. Actual users then engage in an ongoing act of negotiation with devices and systems, often reinscribing and remaking them. This process can then, especially in the case of MMOGs, simultaneously feed back to designers (not to mention marketing and customer service departments who have their own often competing formulations) which themselves then reorient and adapt. Rather than a linear, top–down process, ultimately what we find is a complex co–construction of technologies that occurs between designers, users, and the artifacts themselves. (2)
This circulation, and subsequent reorientation and adaptation, of the MMOG among the myriad players and chosen designers is the exciting point of contact requiring further study.  While designers strive to create these universes and imbue them with facilitations and restrictions that either spur or shun the desired behavior among their target audience, the players themselves, through the act of playing, actively challenge preconceived design notions, especially when those notions run counter to the desired play outcomes.  As Taylor notes, when players give their friends the user name and password to log on as one of their high-level 'characters', they are breaking the End User Licence Agreement (EULA) but are doing so in order to gain the desired play outcome.  Again, this approach attempts to show that play of digital games is about more than direct issues of 'control' through code, that in fact players have quite a wide range of agency when it comes to actually playing a game.  Taylor explains there are many avenues players pursue that result in the changing of the game itself:
We might also think of the ways players make intensive contributions to game mechanics and interfaces through serving as unpaid play–testers, software developers via the creation of user interface modifications or other add–ons, and generally providers of vast amounts of feedback through message board sites. The player produced catalogue of user interface modifications surrounding World of Warcraft provides an impressive example not only of the ways players can directly intervene in the technical aspect of the game, but how those interventions reshape the experience of play itself. (7)
Questions For Further Study

One issue all of the above works possess is that they tackle, primarily, digital games.  There is almost nothing in these texts that deal specifically with analog games.  While some questions are applicable to both digital and analog games- namely the issues related to 'control'- there are areas that are common to both yet follow different forms and means of expression dependent on their respective mediums.  Modifications represent a topic that spans both digital and analog, yet their implementation follow very different paths in both spheres of gaming.  This is one area I would like to tackle in a future post, especially because the idea of modification also steps on other interesting areas- say, intellectual property for one example.  Regardless, as the articles above demonstrate, there is very fertile ground for the exploration of the player/game interaction, especially in the oft neglected analog world.