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Mary Lou Maher on “Curious Dances” (Media Systems)

We can build a computer system that could generate a surprising event, and we can build a computer system that would recognize it.

When Mary Lou Maher said these words at the Media Systems gathering at UC Santa Cruz, she wasn’t talking about hypothetical systems working in sterile domains like block stacking. She was talking about the already-demonstrated power of computational models in rich areas of human creativity, like music and humor… creative domains in which strong expectation is key to our experience.

Maher’s wide-ranging talk encompasses examples of the simulation, synthesis, evaluation, augmentation, and enabling of creative behavior by computational systems — in domains ranging from dance to architecture to crowdsourcing. All of these can be productively framed as “operationalization,” a major theme of Media Systems also addressed in Nick Montfort’s and Ian Bogost’s talks.

Maher’s talk, and the discussion it inspired, also serves to highlight some of the differences between the engineering and art/humanities cultures that it bridges. For example, attempting to operationalize the ways that designers actually work — which often involves changing the problem definition — highlights how different it is from mainstream engineering culture, in which making sure all constraints are satisfied is often a baseline. But this realization then identifies an engineering challenge: creating systems that can experiment with shifting problem definitions, potentially creating powerful new approaches.

Such cross-field connections can also be opportunities for reflection. For example, Anne Balsamo points out, also in this video, that when we operationalize we inevitably engage cultural constructs — as with Maher’s definition of creativity as involving novelty, value, and surprise. What counts in each of these categories is culturally determined, and varies across cultures. Reflecting on such things can point to a new kind of practice of engineering. In response, Maher mentions that from another cultural perspective — not that of engineering, but perhaps that of arts/humanities — “intentionality, aesthetics, emotional response” are associated with creative works, rather than value.

Discussion during the talk also points to even deeper issues of online identity representation, at cultural and technical levels. Maher suggests that operationalizing identity representation gives us language for talking about it, as well as ways of formalizing, abstracting, simulating, and more. If you wish to discuss the ideas in Maher’s talk further, please leave comments here or take to Twitter with the #MediaSystems hashtag.

Like Ian Bogost’s talk posted last week, PDF slides are available on the main Media Systems page for this talk. Look for Anne Balsamo’s inspiring talk here next week!


This material is based upon a project supported by the National Science Foundation (under Grant Number 1152217), the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor, the National Endowment for the Arts, Microsoft Studios, and Microsoft Research.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, Microsoft Studios, or Microsoft Research.


About the author:  Noah Wardrip-Fruin is a Professor of Computational Media at UC Santa Cruz and the author of Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies. Read more from this author


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