3D rhetoric

by Paul Maharg on 22/10/2007

My first encounter with hypertext was Guide Hypertext, courtesy of Des O’Brian, my erstwhile tutor at GU Eng Lit Dept, and director of the STELLA lab, now part of HATTI, I believe.  That was back in 1989.  Having seen his experiments with Passus XX of Piers Plowman, I was hooked.  I spent over 16 hours a day putting together programs that would help students write essays.  It was to that, and too much strong coffee, that I attribute the waking hallucinations that I had — I was walking through an enchanted medieval garden, and all around me hung bits of text from trees.  I could reach up and touch them.  Oddly, I had the sense of a coherent form, even though the texts were in fragments around me.

That waking dream is becoming a reality.

Over on the SLED list, Eloise Pasteur has been constructing a tool that is at once brainstormer and essay planning tool — you can see images here.  It consists of a spidergram that is a stream of particles that meets at nodes.  The stream can be colour-coded, and can display hover-text above the nodes.  On the SLED list Peter Miller suggested it could be adapted to carry notecards and hyperlinks.  Eloise is planning to add these, together with a locked mode. 

Why is this so interesting?  Because it is a form of 3D rhetoric that is lacking in these environments.  Our forms of teaching and learning are still rudimentary, because much of the money and heft has gone into the development of WoW environments with different interactive needs and desires.  In we are exploring the new forms of understanding that these bewitching in-world spaces allow.  Eloise points this out in her email:

It’s had some surprising extra impact in 3D, and in SL, the ability to move around it and see if from different angles seems to add a lot to the experience.

She points to the heart of the experience of a 3D rhetoric.  Spidergraphs?  Been there, done it, so we don’t think of them as being capable of further development.  But visual forms such as these are remarkable, like rhetoric as we have not really experienced it, precisely because the bodily experience is one of walking around it, not simply looking at it.  In many ways it’s a form of Bakhtinian understanding, a sort of dialogic heteroglossia, the triumph of context over text, of body over concept. The glossatorial revolution, the Ramist revolution — each added their informational, conceptual metaphors to how we understood text as woven logos.  This is yet another slow revolution, and we’re so privileged to be living through it.

Let’s take it a couple of stages further.  Imagine being in-world in SL, and using the voice function to speak.  Your words hover in the air in front of you.  You pause, read, speak again.  Two paragraphs.  You take the two and scrunch them up with your hands to form a node.  You speak and scrunch again, and this time draw a line between them.  You unfold and edit text in some nodes, scrunch again.  You have a web of condensed meaning that you can view as a developing Empire State of text, or a Bayeux tapestry, or a scroll or any other form.  You can link text so that the urled words are transparent and you can see the linking spaces through them.  The words are like worm-holes in the text (a medieval archivist would have understodd the metaphor especially in relation to embedded graphics, and been mighty glad they weren’t real worm-holes).  You can zoom up the text so that it becomes a towering wall of words, you can fly through the worm-holes into vast indices, glosses, search engines, codices stretching as far as your eye can see.

And all this on only two cups of medium-strength arabica…

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