The Wi-Fi Coloring Book

What does Wi-Fi look like? In these amazing images created by artist Nickolay Lamm, we can finally begin to visualize the mediascape that invisibly surrounds us. This is a perfect example, it seems to me, of what McLuhan was getting at with his enimagmatic turn of the phrase, “The medium is the message.” The content of Wi-fi is secondary to the environment that it shapes, colors, and influences, and these images do a wonderful job of visualizing the “medium” of Wi-fi through colors. They help students visualize a rather enigmatic concept about media.


I could imagine a more detailed comparison of these images to 19th century maps of railroad tracks or 20th century maps of highways, bridges, and roads; or perhaps even maps of the cables that form the infrastructure of computer networks. Today, these are the lines and waves that give color to our lives: pervasively, invisibly, and with consequences that are difficult to trace. What they lack in materiality (there are no iron rails to pinpoint in space and time) they make up for in color, at least on the spectrum.


Perhaps the only way to understand a medium so pervasive as Wi-fi is to treat it like a child treats a coloring book. And this is a great visualization of the problem inherent in the study of media.  How does one visualize and make present that which is all around us, wrapping us in the environment that it formally produces? Knowledge begins with a child’s eye, the artist’s gaze, and the innovative spirit of an artist coloring the world with a different palette.


The Dot Experiment

My ENG 400 Senior Seminar on “Literature, Media, Modernity” just finished a week talking about attention, distraction, and media. We started with McLuhan and ended with Ambrose Bierce’s “The Suitable Surroundings,” touching on William James’s dot experiment in the middle. Here’s his description of the experiment in his chapter on “Attention,” culled from his popular Talk to Teachers:

Voluntary attention is thus an essentially instantaneous affair. You can claim it, for your purposes in the schoolroom, by commanding it in loud, imperious tones; and you can easily get it in this way. But, unless the subject to which you thus recall their attention has inherent power to interest the pupils, you will have got it for only a brief moment; and their minds will soon be wandering again. To keep them where you have called them, you must make the subject too interesting for them to wander again. And for that there is one prescription; but the prescription, like all our prescriptions, is abstract, and, to get practical results from it, you must couple it with mother-wit.

The prescription is that the subject must be made to show new aspects of itself; to prompt new questions; in a word, to change. From an unchanging subject the attention inevitably wanders away. You can test this by the simplest possible case of sensorial attention. Try to attend steadfastly to a dot on the paper or on the wall. You presently find that one or the other of two things has happened: either your field of vision has become blurred, so that you now see nothing distinct at all, or else you have involuntarily ceased to look at the dot in question, and are looking at something else. But, if you ask yourself successive questions about the dot,—how big it is, how far, of what shape, what shade of color, etc.; in other words, if you turn it over, if you think of it in various ways, and along with various kinds of associates,—you can keep your mind on it for a comparatively long time. This is what the genius does, in whose hands a given topic coruscates and grows. And this is what the teacher must do for every topic if he wishes to avoid too frequent appeals to voluntary attention of the coerced sort. In all respects, reliance upon such attention as this is a wasteful method, bringing bad temper and nervous wear and tear as well as imperfect results. The teacher who can get along by keeping spontaneous interest excited must be regarded as the teacher with the greatest skill.

black dot

Keys as Media and Metaphor

Keys contain multitudes. Few things provide access to the physical and symbolic world in such an immediate and unconscious manner.  Keys twist and turn their way through the history of storage, media, writing, architecture, privacy, slavery, and so much more.  They are the portals to our dream worlds, the objects that we use to open and close doors, conceal and shut out, enslave and punish, hide and reveal.


This morning I walked out to my car with my bag, my lunch, my coffee, and no keys.  My wife had taken the car last night to run an errand and had left the keys in her bag.  I only realized this when my fingers extended to the door.  The absence of the keys revealed their presence.  Usually they operate in the background, but here they were brought to the foreground, revealed anew by the fact that I had lost them.  Lost and found – even the central metaphor of human experience is beholden to the key.

As media, keys are inseparable from metaphor.  It is impossible to write about them without calling to mind symbolic associations.  I’m reminded of McLuhan’s insight into the relationship between media and metaphor: namely, that “all active media are metaphors in their power to translate experience into new form.”  Keys do exactly that: they translate experience into new forms, opening door A and closing door B; revealing this treasure and concealing that; enslaving this person in chains and freeing another with the generous movement of a twist and turn.  They are the stuff that narratives are made up.

(Thoughts inspired by Hannah Stephenson’s wonderfully poetic and playful essay Let Us Now Contemplate the Key: An Object Lesson in Nine Parts.)


Laptop Typewriter

The hand feeds the machine, and vice versa.  In this remarkable 1936 poster, notice how the left hand is feeding the typewriter paper.  The white sheet anticipates the blankness of the screen.  It’s even tilted in the appropriate direction, throwing into relief the future history of the laptop on the lap.

1936. Francis Bernard.
Olympia. 1936. Francis Bernard. from rare-posters 

The Future of Books

The future of books: discrete and exchangeable blocks stacked and then discarded with the tap of a finger.  Just ask any toddler near a bookshelf; or, the teenagers featured here playing dominoes with books instead of reading them.

“Children at play are not playing about.  Their games should be seen as their most serious minded activity.”  – Michel de Montaigne.

Related Story: Watch the world’s longest domino chain made of books

My Interest in Pinterest

To pin, or not to pin: that is the question. But nobody thinks of it that way: that is, as an ethical, moral, or imperative question.  We just keep pinning and pinning, tagging and marking the world into a virtual map cut and paste by our fingers.  Until the map is the territory and “all visible objects…are but as pasteboard masks.”

So let us not follow Ahab and “strike through the mask” at something deeper.  No.  Let us remain on the surface, skimming and cruising like Melville’s prose, catching and collecting the loose-fish waiting to be pinned and fastened by hands.

My Interest in Pinterest is twofold: on the one hand, I am fascinated by the cultural obsession with tagging, pinning, and marking up the world of signs into a map of desire – a map that we control through simulated digits that allow us to tickle, touch, and titillate our fancy.  It is the world of poaching online, the world of reading and writing and editing all at once, and we are all addicted.  After a year with my iPad, I am convinced of only one thing: that the addiction lies in the fingers.  They are the extension that out paces the mind and the body and just keeps touching and pinning, dragging and clicking, punching and smoothing.

What does this curious activity teach us about what it means to write?  Before we arrive at the archival possibilities of Pinterest – its potential as revolving archive for communal and individual desire (the 21st century equivalent of the 19th century chapbook, perhaps) – I think we have to admit that Pinterest, at bottom, is really about the interest in pinning.  An interest that we all share.

My other interest in Pinterest has to do with the classroom, for this semester I have been experimenting with Pinterest in one of my sections of Interpretation of Literature at the University of Iowa.  It is one of the few required courses at the university, and for most students it is the only literature class they will take during their four years.  It is taught mostly by graduate students in the English Department or the Writer’s Workshop, who design and develop the course however they see fit.  The course descriptions usually indicate a particular slant (poetry, multicultural literature, drama, etc.), but according to my informal survey on the first day of class, few students read the descriptions.  Only two students raised their hand when asked if they had; everybody else said the time of the course fit their schedule.  Nobody mentioned the desire to read Henry James.

But I’ll cut to the chase.  Suffice it to say that I renamed the course “Reading and Writing Across Media” and chose to focus the semester around literature that either implicitly or explicitly engages questions related to technology and mediation.  You can check out the course website if you’re interested, and I encourage you to check back in a few weeks to read my students’s Reality TV essays.  They should be up on the site in a few weeks.

One of the weekly role assignments for the class (handled by a different group each week), is to maintain our Class Pinterest Board by finding and “pinning” two to three different items (pictures, articles, etc.) that somehow touch upon the week’s readings and discussions.  I wanted to see what would happen if we tried to take Pinterest seriously as a forum for archiving material.  Would students take the time to look for helpful material, or would they just quickly “pin” the first thing that Google fed them.  I didn’t have many expectations at first, and to be honest, I’m still not sure what I think about my own attempt to appropriate the service for educational purposes.  But I take solace in the fact that it keeps the literature in their mind for at least a few more minutes; and the fact that it accounts for less than five percent of their participation grade.

So here’s what I’ve learned thus far.  The worst part is that I have stare at wedding dresses everytime I sign in to my account.  To create a “communal board” you have to follow all of your students and they have to follow you, which means that you have to open your pasteboard mask to the flood of college fantasies.  But this is a minor issue that recedes into the background once you’ve bookmarked your class board, bypassing the wider sea.  The best part is that students actually find some really interesting material, drawing connections between the literature and popular culture, on the one hand, but also excavating information about primary source material that is available online.  At this point in the semester, however, I’m starting to question what I can possible have the students do with this material?  I’ve already indicated that they are free to pursue any “pin” they find interesting, just as they are free to use some of the material in their blogs posts or future writing assignments.  But few have.  And few probably will.

So what else?  What else can one do with Pinterest once the “pinning” has taken place?  It’s not a database so we can’t really process the information; we can’t even sort the information by tags, as far I can tell.  So what are we left with?  A virtual pasteboard of curiosities?  A reflection of what the students find interesting enough to search for online?  A popular culture rendition of the course’s reading list?

I’m not sure what I have at this point, but I’m pretty certain that it’s something new.  At least new enough for companies like Learnist to follow suit and invest money in it.  It’s a collection of something.  Something trivial and useless perhaps, but at least something.  So let me end with an appeal for help.  Has anybody tried to use Pinterest (or a service like it) for a course they’ve taught?  Or does anybody have any thoughts on how to turn this something into something more?  Is there any value in asking students to play, poach, and tickle their minds with something other than wedding dresses?

Infrastructural Media

Bundled, Buried & Behind Closed Doors from Alex + Ben on Vimeo.

This is a great short film on Lower Manhattan’s 60 Hudson Street, which according to the filmmakers is one of the world’s most concentrated hubs of Internet connectivity. The building once served as an infrastructural hub for pneumatic tubes, telegraph wires, and telephone lines, but now houses Internet cables. The film does a wonderful job of showing both the historical and material layers to the building, which looks rather dull and unassuming on the surface. I especially love the inscription of the word “communication” on the manhole which opens and closes the film. It perfectly captures the flows, networks, assemblages, and connectivities made possible by the materiality of stone, concrete, metal, wire, and all the other infrastructural supports, not to mention the holes drilled into them.

The inscription reminds me of Charles Horton Cooley’s definition of communication in Social Organization: A Study of the Larger Mind (1909), only newly minted with a more grounded understanding of the term. Here is Cooley at length, Emersonian as always:

By communication is here meant the mechanism through which human relations exist and develop – all the symbols of the mind, together with the means of conveying them through space and preserving them in time. It includes the expression of the face, attitude and gesture, the tones of the voice, words, writing, printing, railways, telegraphs, telephones, and whatever else may be the latest achievement in the conquest of space and time. All these taken together, in the intricacy of their actual combination, make up an organic whole corresponding to the organic whole of human thought; and everything in the way of mental growth has an external existence therein. The more closely we consider this mechanism the more intimate will appear its relation to the inner life of mankind, and nothing will more help us to understand the latter than such consideration.

A beautiful definition, but one that stinks of Hegel and Spencer. Cooley’s “mechanism” prefers the realm of the spirit to the ground of materiality. Its organic extension never quite hits the ground, hence my appreciation for the inscription of “communication” on the concrete metal of a manhole. I imagine the film would be a great resource in the classroom, reminding students that all that time they spend on-line carries a more literal meaning when those lines are extended into physical space. I plan to use it soon, for it raises a number of questions about power, control, ownership, storage, and so much more.