Progress: default

I’m almost done with the first draft of my essay “The Logic of the Default“, an idea I’ve been kicking around since I read Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media. Manovich remarks that he’d rather use the default settings of Windows than participate in its false economy of customization and the creation of a personal identity. This seemed kind of problematic to me, and pointed to the need for more completely theorizing the way defaults work. Hence this essay.

As is sometimes the case, I’ve had to finish a full draft to realize how I can best make my argument, and I’m going to have to do some more reading and revise substantially. While I still want to do some definitional work (conditions for possibility, establishing two meanings of “default,” etc.) I want to focus on Manovich’s vision of the default as a surface-level entity. Such thinking is representative of too much theorizing of new media, computing, and customization in general: we’re too quick to focus on aesthetics and appearance, especially the visual, when in fact our focus should be much more deeply oriented. Selection and customization quite often address very profound changes, and their impacts are felt as deeply for designers as for end users (who are, at least for the default, Manovich’s focus). This is true for both technological systems and consumer culture, and I want to show how meanings of “default” perform the “transcoding” which Manovich names as one of the five principles of new media.

Also, I have been pretty happy using MediaWiki to write this essay. I’ve been able to work on it without wondering which computer has the most current version, and I’ve deleted and added text with impunity, knowing that the wiki saves everything. It’s easy to make the text bigger or smaller (so I can read it when I’ve got the lights out trying to get Madelyn to sleep). However, I’m not sure I’d be able to work with a text this long without subheads and editable sections, and I miss the “save and continue editing” button which is part of WordPress—that should be in MediaWiki as well.

I’ve got three or four more projects to do this summer, in addition to rewriting this piece, so I also need to figure out a way to get the text from the Wiki into a presentable format. But’s it’s very nice to be thinking about this problem so early this summer.

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2 Responses to Progress: default

  1. Dan says:

    Congratulations on this good progress. Just a knee jerk reaction to the false economy claim: I wonder how your accessability advice fits in–just make a small change to start. It’s the kind of thing like turning off the highlight the entire word setting in word–something that helps me but doesn’t go that deeply. I’d say that is a usable gesture even if it doesn’t replace the default economy. Composing in a wiki?–now that’s hardcore 😉

  2. cbd says:

    Good question. Little changes do go a very, very long way. I had our sysadmins tweak Windows so the web browser started on our help page. Almost immediately, the number of questions we got about computer classrooms declined.

    I’ve never really bought claims of false identity like this one, especially the “false consciousness” model of ideology, which just seems too simplistic to me (and maybe a bit elitist as well). Stuart Hall’s work is very useful in that regard.

    When I started thinking about this essay I was really focusing on the issue of the supposedly coopted identity formed by customization; now I’m balancing that with more work about the nature of defaults themselves. In some ways, that brings me back to ease—why are people content with the default? Why do they have a “get along, go along” or highly functional attitude toward technology?

    Re: MediaWiki, obviously, it lacks some of the functionality I’ve grown accustomed to in Emacs and OpenOffice. I miss word completion, in particular, and my editors will probably miss spellcheck 😉 Perhaps I should try Writely or something similar which is still web-based but offers a more robust interface.

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