August 11, 2004

Hypersensitivity?

by Nick Montfort · , 4:33 pm

Unfortunately, the one bit of news I’ve gotten so far regarding the ACM Hypertext conference — which I’m not attending this year; GTxA is well-represented there by Noah, however — is from Andruid Kerne, who works with computing and collage and who I know from when he was doing his PhD at NYU. Andruid, now on the faculty of Texas A&M, describes how he was asked to change the content of a politically charged work that was accepted for presentation as a demo. Specifically, his hypermedia collage, available online, includes a linked photograph, published in The New York Times, of nude Iraqi prisoners being made to simulate fellatio. A linked photograph of President Bush, who seems to be staring right at the act, is juxtaposed.

Whether or not this issue is framed in terms of censorship or as a legal or quasi-legal matter of some sort, as Andruid claims it should be, it points out a problematic rift. On the one hand technical communities may think a researcher’s examples are interchangeable and that technical issues should be discussed without having offensive content included in any examples. Artistic and critical practitioners, on the other hand, often consider offensive, disturbing, and provocative content to provide the best and most powerful examples to use when discussing the interplay of technology, rhetoric, and art. If we’re always to avoid offense in digital media studies, I don’t see how Kris Nesbitt would be able to research “angel babies” websites, which contain disturbing images (presented at Narr@tive: Digital Storytelling). While that line of research may not involve detailed technical discussion, the relationship between spatial hypertext topics and political rhetoric seems to be something that does deserve consideration in technical as well as humanistic circles. When the offensive nature of material isn’t germane to the scholarly point being made, I see little problem with reviewers, conference organizers, or editors asking for changes. But it is germane to some topics. I hope there will be places to discuss such topics, and that the range of content discussed is not always limited that which offends no one.

Comments from any parties involved are welcome; given the adversarial nature of the issue, I’ll add a link to this post if I learn of any response to Andruid that is online.