Infinite Musings

The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it. Edward R. Murrow

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Payphone Epiphany

While I consider myself young at heart a visit to Musuem London brought me to the realisation that I am a pre-digital age relic. I learned to type on a manual typerwritter. I used a Gestetner machine in high school -- not unlike the machine Museum London plans to exhibit. I remember black and white television, 45s and LPs, the Imperial system and public payphones a-plenty. I don't have and have never owned a cell phone though I do understand, in theory, the concept of texting. At most one generation separates me from most of my classmates who probably can't make those same claims. It is an indication of the rapidity of technological change in the late twentieth century not to mention the twenty-first. Technology at every turn still has the power to awe me in ways that may seem quaint or odd to those that take it for granted or were "born digital" (to steal a phrase). Living abroad for six years also means that what I experience as "new" technology is sometimes old hat to just about everybody else around me.

What has most awed me lately, however, is my inability--not for want of trying--to get a simple Bell phone connection. Suffice it to say the online "application to order new phone service" route didn't work. I fell back on old-fashioned practice and called Bell directly from a payphone. Public payphones are not so plentiful anymore but thankfully they still take coins when you can find one. Perhaps next year there will be a payphone in the Museum London vaults for future exhibition. (Note to Mike Baker probably cheaper if you acquire now.) I was connected to "Emily" the interactive, automated assistant. In a dulcet, well modulated tone Emily asked me how she could assist me. I was momentarily taken aback, speechless in fact. "I'm sorry I didn't hear your response," said Emily with no hint of impatience. What happened to the menu of options? Emily was waiting for a response. After I stammered out hesitantly, "New connection?" hoping nobody was walking past listening Emily asked me what type of connection. "Residential?" "Business?" There were more options. I didn't wait instead in a mumbled whisper I told Emily residential. Emily: "I'm sorry did you mean residential? Please say yes or no." And then, suddenly, without warning, I had an epiphany. I was talking to an algorithm.

A few weeks ago I would have had no idea what an algorithm was and if asked to guess I would have thought a musical term. But an unbidden recognition of Emily as an algorithm…it was a proud moment of reflective, albeit subconscious, practice made real. The lessons of Digital History (the class) are, seemingly, all around me. What led me to the epiphany was, I think, my mind wandering over the class discussion on folksonomies… the project …audience…curators engaged with and employing cutting-edge technology used by multitudes…Bell…nobody likes automated systems…everyone wants to talk to a human being…Emily a step in between, interactive more human than a machine-voice menu…an illustrative example of techies and savvy marketing folks coming together to use technology to improve business practice…WAIT: Emily is an algorithm!

The brief elation of my epiphany was replaced with a vision of a learning curve as steep and tall as the Himalayas. I’m not even in the range of the foothills and I’m not really a mountain climber. I’m struggling to simply be cognizant of and have the most basic understanding of the digital technology we discuss in class. Can I ever catch-up? Is just being aware of the technology and trying to learn and apply that technology within my pre-digital boundaries enough of a first step to having some useful tools in my novice public historian’s belt?

The only thing that saves me from despair is the comfortably familiar shape of the payphone handset I am holding; like me a pre-digital age relic. And I remember how grounded I felt at Museum London surrounded by other pre-digital age, material relics; how I experienced some of Schlereth’s theoretical observations about material culture in a visceral way (See: Thomas J. Schlereth “Material Culture and Cultural Research” in Material Culture A Research Guide: University Press of Kansas, 1985). Physical entities; three-dimensional, tangible, sensible, solid, accessible, historical--the antithesis of digital. A far more comfortable world to me than the dynamic but somewhat sterile digital world. I recognize that the coming months will bring greater perspective to both the material and digital historical worlds in very practical ways. I look at the diversity in experience and approaches to history and even life in the class and I look forward to working with my classmates in creating both a physical, material museum exhibit and a companion website. Clearly I won’t be the one bringing profound technical know-how to the table but perhaps this pre-digital relic has a few other tricks up her sleeve.

Oops, Emily is still waiting for an answer.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Dear Old Dad's Dictum for Drivers

My late father taught me to drive in a 1967 Chevy Impala - a behemoth of a car. He was a tough task master. He would set-up pylons, stunt course fashion, and make me drive through them in reverse. Parallel parking...I shudder at the memory. But this was not all. Dear old dad had a dictum for drivers, especially young female drivers. "It is not enough that you put the key in the ignition, slide into gear, press on the gas and drive. That is not driving. Any idiot can do that". Oh no. One must know, in practice, how to remove and replace a flat tire. He also expected a basic technical understanding of how the car ran. His explanations were supplemented by the fourth edition of Automotive Mechanics which I still have as a memento. At the time I have to admit it all seemed very tedious not to mention excessive. What was wrong with just putting the key in the ignition and driving?

I'm been minded of my father's dictum in my Digital History course. I feel like I'm learning to drive again - this time a different behemoth. And this time I am not an argumentative, impatient, know-it-all teenager. Rather, I am a pre-digital newbie dumb-struck and very small at the edge of the digital universe. I know how to turn the ignition but I'm struggling to reach the gas pedal. I take refuge in learning, reflecting and seeking to comprehend in a structured (though certainly not rigid) learning environment. The readings for discussion are like maps to the digital universe, the technical background readings reminiscent of Automotive Mechanics and the lab exercises and projects practical skills like learning to change the tires on a car. It's left to me to decide what and how much to learn and how much to share, in pride or shame, publicly on this blog. I realise I may never graduate further than a learner's permit but at least I'm in the driver's seat.

First stop learning how to search properly using Google. Why didn't I take the time to do this years ago? I realise I used to search with the equivalent of one hand tied behind my back. "Negative terms, "+" search; synonym search; "or"; numrange search: These could have saved hours of laborious, unfocussed past searches. The trick of course will be to remember everything I've just learned. I think a good idea is to periodically return and refresh my memory. Reviewing the language tools I was amazed at the number of languages available - Goggle really seeks global dominance and the digital universe is certainly not English only. But - Elmer Fudd as a language? "Gwoups", "Diwectowy"; "Wangauge Toowls"? This made me immediately check the "Google in Your Language Program" to learn more. I felt a little curiosity killed the cat-ish, however, when I received the message "Welcome back Diana. Before using Google in Your Language, we need to know a little more about you." I thought I was anonymously browsing Google's search page. My pulse quickened. I felt as if I'd been caught out and quickly hit the back arrow. It appeared Google already knew more about me than I cared for.

And I see, now, the wisdom of my father's dictum. It's not enough to just put the key in the ignition and drive. I was now, hopefully, better versed in using Google as a search engine but I wanted to better understand algorithms not least because they are fundamental to what search engines do but also to understand this form of problem solving. The Virginia Tech site explained the concept in a clear, precise way. I can understand what an algorithm is, how it works but I have to confess - perhaps it was too much Sopple, search grid, Find it forward, some scavenging, Elmer Fudd - I choked when the program waited for me to fill in the number of memory cells needed in a simple, insert and select sort. I couldn't think rationally, mathematically, algorithmically or any other way at all any more. Electronic hands sorting electronic playing cards swam before my eyes as an old Kenny Roger's tune echoed in my ears: "You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, know when to run...." It was time to stop. You can't learn to reverse between pylons, change a tire and parallel park all in one day. But nor is there time to sit back and relax. There is so much to learn that the important thing is to push the boundaries as far as you can - when you start singing old Kenny Rogers songs perhaps you've pushed too hard for one week.

Monday, September 11, 2006


At the risk of appearing to have emerged from a cave - I find myself moved to reflectively blog on Wiki. Wiki-wow-wow. Speaking English doesn't always guarantee I'll understand an acronym, jargon filled document written in English. So I must pause and record how the Wikipedia has made me stop and gap in wonder at how the digitial universe really has changed how I can find information and glean new knowledge. For close to six years I have not had internet access at work (security reasons) and didn't have a computer at home. As a result, on many levels, I find myself feeling a little like Rip van Winkle. ( In this week's readings for Digital History I was presented with such "everybody reading this should know what this is" acronyms as CILIP, JISC, ICT, OPAC and OCLC, to name those that immediately spring to mind. I made a note to follow-up and check what these terms meant. Each had an entry in Wikipedia. Amazing -- at least to me. The idea of what exactly a "single box search" could mean in practice became clearer to me. I didn't need to get up from my computer. Everything was just a click away. Perhaps if I had to hunt further afield I wouldn't have had the inclination (wait, I shouldn't admit that) or the time to check what the terms above meant. With the Wikipedia I was able to further enhance my understanding of the readings and the concepts being presented through quick access to background information about some of the institutions involved. But what really made Wiki wow for me, because technology alone only gets me so far, is that completely by seredipity and as a result of this week's Digital History readings I discovered Frederick G. Kilgour. If you don't know who he is he is worth discovering ( At a ripe old age he recently passed away but what a legacy he left behind. What foresight, vision and energy. Somebody that for me brought alive some of this week's concepts regarding the Infinite Archive and the importance of far-sighted, reflective individuals.

The Naked Blogger

The requirement of keeping a "reflective practice" blog is like being asked to do a new yoga position - naked. I've read and reread the concept as described by Donald Schön and I'm not sure I fully understand it. And, look, here I am admitting that publicly - quick pass me a fig leaf. But this an instance of "allowing [myself] to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which [I] find uncertain or unique?" Is this reflective blogging the same process that automatically and constantly goes on in my head already when I'm learning and researching but just in another format and made more conscious? I guess I'll find out. So putting aside all shame and personal and intellectual shyness (bye bye fig leaf) here I go ready to share my infinite musings....