Sucker for Software

When it comes to technological “appliances” (i.e., gadget objects), I find that I most often have the magpie response: pretty!  shiny!  want to take back to my nest!.  With a very few exceptions (the iPhone, strangely, being one of them, but only because of my bizarre dislike for cell phone apparati), I can be convinced to want a lot of shiny metal objects run by computer chips.  That same love has now transmuted itself to software, all of which promises the functionality that I’ve always been missing; or in other words, it promises, like any good product, to fix all of my problems.  The focus here, in fact, seems to be on fixing the problems of research and writing.

It must have begun with Endnote, which promised to optimize my crap recording of research.  Back when I was working on the dissertation, I had a terrible habit of getting excited about an article, photocopying it, and neglecting to copy or write down WHERE THE ARTICLE CAME FROM.  Cue montage music of my hours in the library, retracing my steps from stacks to carrel to reshelving units (and yes, kiddies, this was in the days before JSTOR, dammit).  So Endnote promised to solve that fundamental issue: if I could stay on it, then I would have a neverending database of my research.  Three years later, Endnote is still in the box; in large measure precisely because online databases are so ubiquitous, and because it seems easier to type up a bibliography than it is to learn all of the functions of the program.

Round two: Zoho’s suite of programs.  Not software per se, but something that began to speak to my desire for a common storage place to put notes, upload relevant files of all types, etc.  I spent 3 days working with the Zoho notebook and found that it did just that, except that the notetaking function was a bit clunky for my taste, and I was doing a bunch of flipping back and forth between tabs when I wanted everything in the same place.

Round three: collaborative writing on a wiki.  Now that’s more like it!  What began as a mild brainstorm over the summer (Jeez, M., how are we going to keep everything in the same place so that we don’t lose it and can show each other what we’re working on?  What do you think about a wiki?).  By far the most productive and easy to use, our PBwiki site has been the central housing place for documents and files and lists and links and notes on a faculty lunch series for teaching and learning, a co-authored conference paper, a co-authored article, and virtually all of the secondary sources related to these.

And now there’s Scrivener (hat tip New Kid).   Promising to integrate the various tools that are now crucial to extensive writing projects (pdf files, word processing, digital movies, sound files, web pages) into a single format, Scrivener appears to be the hub that consolidates all of the errata that one brings into lengthy compositions.  Shiny!  Want to bring home!!

It’s difficult to tell whether I’m more attracted to the format itself (it looks awfully clean, that Scrivener, unlike my desktop), or to the promise that I could, someday, get my research organized.  And that promise is no joke: I’ve got a June 30 deadline to talk about a series of fan videos, and the thought of keeping them all in line is daunting, to say the least.  But the question, as always, is this: will it really work, in practice?  Because if I begin a project in Scrivener and end up hating the interface, then I’ve lost three days of work time getting everything set up.  And if one already has agita about beginning monumental writing tasks (no one I know, but I’m just saying), then the feeling of double jeopardy in a false start with untried software is pretty daunting.  Oh, but the promise of organization and clean integration…

On a less personal note, I’m fascinated by the number of emerging programs now that attend to this idea of organizing information for writing.  If I hear one more word about Devon and the majesty and wonder therein, I might scream.   Add Zoho, and Scrivener, and a host of other products with good press, and it just may add up to the ways in which our collective anxiety about the glut of information—and about finding and then later re-locating the gems within the glut—is growing, and with it, we’re creating a whole new sub-market of software.  For my part, I’m wondering how long it will take for someone to provide this service with humans—a personal research assistant to rival the Hollywood personal assistant.  Now who doesn’t want one of those?

Digital Handcrafts?

I think I’m finally figuring out that it’s summer; I’ve spent days working on the house (cleaning, doing laundry, looking at paint chips for the great outdoor painting extravaganza of ought-7), and I’m back to my regular surfing habits. The latter had taken a serious blow during the last month. I’ve been a bad blogger, and a bad blog reader as well. Now that I’m in the midst of catching up, however, I’ve spent the morning marveling at what wanders across my screen.

My latest fascination is the online store Etsy. The store works as a kind of clearinghouse for all kinds of artists selling everything from photographs to jewelry to “geekery” (obviously, my favorite category). There’s a delightful handmade vibe to almost all of the products, and they’re incredibly reasonable. The most expensive piece I ran across was a $65 limited edition print. A bit more research on the Etsy blog reveals how late I am to this party; at about two years old, the site has a rather robust population of 250,000 members, buying and selling their work, rating and tagging each others wares, making suggestions about how the main site can better represent them and help consumers to find their products.

At first glance, there’s a kind of delightful irony present in Etsy: it’s a sophisticated hybrid online shop/social network—a kind of boutique meets MySpace cum Digg, yet its raison d’etre appears to be the charm of an economic community exchanging hand-made products. I have to admit that the juxtaposition works for me. I’ve been delighted browsing through the amateur digital photographs, the handbags, the screen printed tshirts. Even at its most refined and skilled, the work that I’ve seen on Etsy retains a one-off aesthetic. Everything feels individually produced, rather than run off the line by the thousand. [If I were careful, I’d do a visual rhetorical analysis of the site itself: is it actually the products themselves that maintain that aura, or is it their presentation?] Here is where Etsy’s apparent irony really starts to make sense: what better place than the internet to remind consumers of the mass-produced objects that surround them?

Some smart person somewhere must be talking about the relationship between the web and folk culture. Is it the case that our increasing involvement with digital technology is igniting a resurgence of interest in the DIY skills of yore? And what separates the people who are inspired to make the products and those of us (oh so guilty of this myself) who log on only to consume?