‘On Transliteracy’, Presidency University, Kolkata, India 24/25 September 2012

KolkataTransliteracy is really taking off internationally these days. On Monday I'll be speaking about it at the 'The Digital Humanities in India: Remediating Texts and Contexts', a conference organised by Prof Shanta Dutta and my former colleague Dr Souvik Mukherjee. Sadly I can't get to Kolkata on this occasion, so the talk will be on Skype. But it's interesting to think about how to frame it for an Indian audience. 

Infographic and Pinterest

Thinking about how Pinterest has garnered attention lately. Mashable notes that "most users are even spending more time, on average, pinning than they are on hanging out on Facebook". I thought this infographic would be of interest to readers:


Scooping Transliteracy from around the world

Short stories online

There’s a review of EC Osondu’s collections of short stories – ‘Voice of America’ in the Guardian. It’s a story about Africans. Africans in America and Africans at home.  EC Osondu won the Caine Prize 2009 for his story ‘Waiting’.  The story goes like this:

My name is Orlando Zaki. Orlando is taken from Orlando, Florida, which is what is written on the t-shirt given to me by the Red Cross. Zaki is the name of the town where I was found and from which I was brought to this refugee camp. My friends in the camp are known by the inscriptions written on their t-shirts. Acapulco wears a t-shirt with the inscription, Acapulco. Sexy’s t-shirt has the inscription Tell Me I’m Sexy. Paris’s t-shirt says See Paris And Die. When she is coming toward me, I close my eyes because I don’t want to die..

The fascinating thing about this story is that it was first published online in Guernicamag.com. Osondu's other story 'A Letter from Home' was judged one of 'The Top Ten Stories on the Internet' in 2006. In 2007 his story 'Jimmy Carter's Eyes' was also short-listed for the Caine Prize. And this too, was first published online. These stories and others make up the new anthology – 'Voice of America'.

I am currently researching the role of the internet on emerging African writers. Most of my respondents – who are writers – talk about starting their writing careers online, before being picked up by traditional book publishers. And one of the questions I asked was: ‘Do you write differently for the web?’ The answer was no. I think Osondu is a perfect example of an emerging African writer whose writing is apt – whether you are reading it online or in print.

The Whole Elephant: librarians arguing about transliteracy

This year conversation about transliteracy has really taken off amongst North American librarians. Bobbi Newman's work  initiated a lot of interest resulting in a great collaborative blog Libraries and Transliteracy  and gave rise to many other blog posts and discussions which come through to me almost every day via Google Alerts. Recently Google brought me a discussion on David Rothman's post  Commensurable Nonsense (Transliteracy) which starts "It is entirely possible that I’m just dense, but everything I’ve read recently about libraries and “transliteracy” seems like nonsense to me." That post has set off a long argument which seems to involve just about every US-library-related name I've come across in the last year, and it continues in the comments to a follow-up post.

This is great, because when the term was first developed here at the Institute of Creative Technologies we knew we could not find all the answers but we  felt sure that others would take it up and bring new insights we had not been able to imagine ourselves. However, most of the conversations I have read around libraries and transliteracy tend to be internal facing within the community, with few references to the Transliteracy Research Group blog, so I would like to recommend it as an excellent source of new transliteracy thinking across many perspectives and subjects. As it happens, the library world has been the first to take up the baton, but it could have come from any number of other disciplines as our collaborative blog demonstrates, and it's important to keep that diversity going.

Elephant-car-404a_670724c In my view, transliteracy is a bit like the story about the blind men and the elephant, where the elephant = massive changes to the way we understand the dynamics of communication media. Everyone encounters individual aspects of the beast and applies their own meaning, whether the topic is talking face-to-face, on TV, on Skype on your iPhone, or via an aboriginal campfire story. Or whether it is written in newspapers, carved onto tablets, typed into email or copied by hand (with mistakes) into parchment scrolls. Or whether it is read in a book, on a poster, a website, or from the smoke-trail of a plane. Or in body language, via touching, dancing, clapping or simple gesture. I could go on and on. But few realise the enormity of the whole animal.

All of this makes transliteracy very hard to pin down, and the predicament is made worse by the fact that this elephant is also a shape-shifter. For example,  ten years ago we had no idea of how important the literacy of using a cellphone would become, or that it would help regions like Africa deal with the hurdle of desktop computing by jumping over it all together and going straight to mobile. Seeing the whole elephant is about realising that ALL of these are interconnected and can be understood in relation to each other through history, culture and context.

So transliteracy is a shape-shifting eco-system of behaviours and it is probably neither possible nor desirable for anyone to understand enough to know the whole elephant. The vital thing is to remember it is always there and in constant motion. This means recognising the limits of your own knowledge and acceptng a degree of messiness and uncertainty.

I appreciate that some people are uncomfortable with that and prefer to use concepts which are locked down and straightforward, but that's not likely to happen with transliteracy and could even diminish its flexible strength.  Those who need that kind of tool should probably look for something else. But I hope they will occasionally set aside a moment or two to consider the elephant in all its complexity.

Photo Source: Daily Telegraph

Under Construction

I’ve been continuing to work in Layar, completing the Harris Museum Industrial Revolutionaries, and working with Martin Reiser, Ximena Alarcon and Kasia Molga on the Riverains project, which overlaid video responses to the history of Shoreditch and London to sites along Old Street and Shoreditch High Street. The experience of developing these projects, working with Google Maps and Street View reinforced an idea I wrote about in Site-Specific Stories, the idea of an immersive, site-specific cyberspace, which is woven into the physicality of the spaces we inhabit, partly enabled by mobile and locative connectivity. It has led me to think about the construction of spaces, whether virtual, fictional or real, and the aesthetics, narratives, rules and systems which underpin them.

Industrial Revolutionaries Layar with 3D model

Robert Klanten and Lukas Feireiss’ Beyond Architecture: Imaginative Buildings and Fictional Cities looks at how artists have responded to cities, creating images, installations and environments which reconfigure and rethink cites, from Slinkachu’s tiny vignettes installed in city streets to Mike Kelley’s sculptures of Superman’s home city of Kandor on the planet Krypton. The pieces in the book range from dystopian dioramas to electronic pastoral landscapes and impossible buildings, and reflect our imaginative responses to space. Virtual worlds, comics, pop songs, film and TV also reflect these responses, casting the city as an active character in their stories. The video below is a mashup by UkuleleElvis of Jamie Hernandez’ poster produced for  Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour. It uses Ellen Barkin’s spoken intros to depict the lives and struggles of characters living in ‘the big city’;

The internet also uses metaphors which link us to the built world – site, home, geocities, under construction etc. as well as nature metaphors (stream, cloud etc.) which Sue Thomas is exploring in The Wild Surmise. In 1997, I created a net-art project called ‘Home’, as part of a residency. I was interested in the metaphor of home in relation to the internet, and the amateur-created personal web pages that allowed us to peer into the lives of the people who made them. Using an early and simple cgi homepage maker script, I built an imaginary new housing estate, where users could ‘visit’ the homes of people who already lived there, and build their own virtual home.

About a year ago, I read a story about Argleton. Argleton is a place that doesn’t exist, but which appears on Google Maps, near the village of Aughton in the North West of England, about 15 miles from my Mum and Dad’s.  It’s apparently a mistake on the map, perhaps a misspelling of Aughton, or a deliberate red herring, added to catch out unwary map copyists. Either way, it exists, as a place you can search for, plot directions to and visit. The appearance of Argleton, and the responses to it including a spoof village site (now defunct) and psychogeographical explorations reminded me of two online writing/art projects which had influenced me.

Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie’s ‘An Artist’s Impression’ (1999-2000) combines a MUSH, an online text based environment with the building of a scale model of the island the artists created in a gallery space. From an initial plan which mixed up descriptions of places from the artists’ own backgrounds and memories, the island increasingly became a space modified, tweaked and developed by its inhabitants, the users of the MUSH who took up residence there. In writing about the piece, Guthrie returns often to the sense of reality and physicality inhabiting the online space, the sense of a real world shared in real time.

In particular, we would cite a conversation in a Pet Shop built on Island, between the owner and a visitor: The shop's code was comparatively advanced, with various quirky objects for sale, but rather than chatting about these virtual pets, the visitor looked upwards and began a conversation about the non-existent, uncoded ceiling repair he felt the shop needed. Without pausing, the shopkeeper responded with an explanation, and the DIY repartee that followed would not have been out of place in B & Q on a Sunday morning. This may seem a banal and trivial incident, but it's typical of the consensual imaginative space constantly recreated and sustained by MUSH players.

from An Artist's Impression – Essay

An Artist’s Impression

Tim Wright’s In Search of Oldton creates a lost village built from the memories of places and people lost and half forgotten. Through the course of the project, and through the project blog, readers were invited to submit stories, images,video and sound to create a collaborative Oldton.

Towns, cities and villages are collaborative projects, and these two projects use the idea of the urban space to create complex narratives of both shared and personal memories and associations. In the case of Oldton, the place can never exist physically, as it is a mish-mash of memories, shared through the common reference points of roundabouts, corner shops, parks and houses, where An Artist’s Impression, in the creation of its ‘real-world’ counterpart focuses on ‘the impossibility of mirroring an online space’.

Using Layar, and in particular the possibility to view 3D models in Layar, I feel it would be interesting to revisit ‘Home’. I would like to build a collaborative model of Argleton, which would be placed in the physical location marked out by Google. This augmented version of Argleton will be a place you can visit, walking around the buildings as you view them, interacting with them, and leaving messages for the inhabitants. A while ago I sent a call out on Twitter, asking people to contribute their ideas for buildings they would like to see in a fictional city, either an invented building, or a favourite one, the shop you’d like to open, or the house you’d like to live in. I plan to model the buildings and place them in Argleton. I’d like to extend the invite out here too. If you would like to suggest a building for Argleton, please contribute on the Transliteracy Notes Ning! Each building will have the option for ‘actions’ to be applied to it, so if you like you could add a story of the building and its inhabitants, links to images, audio and video. I plan to document the models and the augmented reality view elsewhere, but the only real way to experience Argleton will be to visit and to walk around the tiny settlement, a virtual space pinned to real space.

Message in a bottle: a short analysis of transmedia storytelling in Brazil

Brasil-matrixby guest author Marcelo Andrade

I work as a scriptwriter in Brazil. This year I started a business of transmedia storytelling. The goal of this post is to briefly present the scene of transmedia storytelling in my country. It is a simple article which aims at introducing readers to the situation of our content market, examining Brazilian people’s ability to absorb, in the most active manner, crossmedia content.

For one to grasp how transmedia storytelling is developing in Brazil, firstly it is required to understand how our content market works. For 50 years, TV has been the media with the largest audience – what happens to be no different from anywhere else in the world. Nonetheless, a survey undertaken in 2009 has revealed that the Brazilian people spend more time on the Internet than any other do, with an average of 69 hours a month, including apps. Such statistics (the link has some limited thought about my country and some old numbers about Brazilian internet state, but worth a reading) should make any content company look into the web more carefully.

A few prophetic voices have emerged announcing the end of the hegemony of TV; therefore of linear self-contained stories. Our TV channels thought of themselves as the sole effective link between advertisers and consumers. As a result, there was no need of reconsidering their storytelling formulas. In fact, until recently they were right. However, additional data has made this apparently unshakable certainty crumble. And I am not speaking of the lack of efficiency of traditional advertising. Brazilians are not only those who spend more hours on the Internet, but also they have been spending more time on the Web than they do watching TV.

Continue reading

Talking about Radio

‘Radio is a medium of entertainment which permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome ‘– T.S. Elliot.

I grew up in an African community where radio was a very popular medium of mass communication. Every night, when my father retired to his bedroom, I’d fidget with the shortwave radio in the living room, in search of exciting international stations. I discovered many – the BBC, RFI, Deutsche Welle Radio.

At the university, I enrolled for a BA degree in Communication Arts. Broadcasting was one of my modules. I learnt about features, documentaries, interviews, acoustics. The year I graduated, I got a job with a national radio station, and I also won a Commonwealth Short Story Award – an annual scheme to promote new creative writing, funded and administered by the Commonwealth Foundation and the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association. (Each year around 25 winning and highly commended stories from the different regions of the Commonwealth are recorded on to CDs and broadcast on radio stations across the Commonwealth).

I left the radio industry many years ago, for a career in public relations. A lot has changed now. New technologies have changed the way broadcasting operates. I now listen to the radio on my mobile phone. I listen to the BBC World Service on the internet. I play back the ones I have missed on iPlayer.  

Yesterday, I was thinking about my love for radio, and John Denver’s song came to my mind: ‘I hear her voice, in the mornin' hour she calls, The radio reminds me of my home far away, And driving down the road I get a feelin' That I should have been home yesterday, yesterday’.


Site Specific Stories

I want to add place to my own list of the modes we read and write across when thinking about transliteracy.

I recently got an iPhone, and it has changed almost entirely the way I use and interact with the web, where and when I read and write on the internet, the sites I visit and the tools I access. The change has been prompted by the portability of the device, and the ability to locate myself physically in the web via GPS.

The GPS facilities on iPhone and other smartphones allow us to pin ourselves to the map, to add our physical location to our tweets, our photos, our facebook status updates and comments. Services like foursquare and Gowalla enable us to play on the map, stealing territory, winning badges, earning real and virtual gifts (foursquare and Gowalla both partner with businesses to offer rewards to participants who 'check in' at their venues). This tagging of location adds another level to folksonomy, not only what, but where.

I stumbled upon and downloaded the Layar application to my phone. Layar is an 'augmented reality browser' which shows places around you as points on a map, a list, or in 'reality' view. The reality view overlays geographical points on the camera view, and as you walk or turn around, the points change and move with you. Different layers offer different views; cash machines near you, local house prices, geo-tagged tweets and FlickR images, Wikipedia entries and YouTube videos. You can select particular points and find directions from your current location to that point. Individual points can be used to trigger video, audio, or webpages, even to make a call or send a text.

I first tried Layar out sat on my sofa at home, just after I'd downloaded it. It was interesting, but as a static experience, once I'd checked out a few points, and played with the directions feature, I felt I'd seen enough.

A couple of nights later, I was walking to meet a friend, and tried out Layar again as I walked. It was a completely different experience. I loaded the 'Tweeps Around' layer, a layer which shows geo-tagged posts from Twitter. The users' profile images floated in space, scaling as they faded off into the distance, tweets from weeks, months ago hanging in the air pinned to real spaces, 197, 35, 280 metres away. As I walked up the street, tweets disappeared and new ones appeared as I passed them or they fell out of view. The network I normally imagined as shapeless, fuzzy and intangible, suddenly felt real and solid, less a cloud than a thick pea-souper fog. It was heady, immersive, creating a genuine feeling of being in the web, a virtual world intertwined our own physical world.

I started to think about the potential of Layar as a platform for storytelling, and the possibility of siting fragments of story, characters and histories across a city, a village or a street. I'm not so interested in finding the nearest cash machine or houses for sale, but the real and imagined stories of what happened in the places I walk through. The ghost stories, the story of the deal that went down and then went bad, the jokes told, the drunken kisses, and how the dog saved the day. Layar provides the opportunity to create narratives which immerse the participant in the environment of the story, not a place to go to, but a place you are already in, seen through new eyes. Fragments of the past(s) collide and overlay the present, the user is invited to hunt clues and to piece together the story, even to collaborate by adding their own markers, through geo-tagged tweets, images, videos etc.

I'm currently developing a Layar project with the Harris Museum in Preston alongside their upcoming Industrial Revolutionaries exhibition, creating a city wide exhibit of Preston's industrial past. The layer will contain images, archive film, stories and 3d representations of buildings and factories which are long lost. The project moves the exhibition out of the gallery, onto the streets and enables the audience to immerse themselves in a rich, multi-layered social history across multiple timelines and sites. The Layar environment invites the user to undertake a psychogeographical derivé around the city, the points potentially arbitrary wayfinders for a (re)discovery of the space. Like Ackroyd's 'London: the biography', it describes the city not simply through chronology, but through senses, voices, stories and memory.

I will document elements of this project and other experiments with Layar on the Transliteracy Ning 'Research Workshop' discussion forum. Please contact me if you are interested in discussing the project or potential collaborative projects.

Transliteracy as Blueberry Smoothie, from Brian Hulsey

Brian Hulsey at The Chattahoochee Valley Library system in Phenix City, Alabama, has posted this great video on what he calls Everyday Transliteracy which combines two good things – transliteracy and food! I'd love him to add to it further by including the literacy of reading the recipe, of using the cookery skills and tools to make the smoothie, and of course the all-important process of consumption. Brian, if you're reading this, do you have time to add a new section to your movie showing all of that? I hope so!

This is an important topic. The different literacies of food – how it's grown, processed and consumed in different cultures and contexts – are hugely important. The understanding of a particular food can unite or divide us. And that's without even starting on the literacies of table manners. I really enjoyed Brian's approach..