Thursday, May 5

the impossibility of defaultlessness

it seems so easy to be in a marvelously good mood when one is recovered from awful sickness. the work of spring semester is over. I have little margins of space all around in which to read whatever I want. and today is the first day in a week that I haven't felt like a half-rotten zombie full of slime.

so today I attended the second half of a Digital Humanities Symposium. it was exciting--interdisciplinary and spark-full--and there were pastries, too.

I might call myself a newly minted fan-girl of Amanda Visconti, a DH scholar with Purdue's libraries, who talked about her dissertation project, Infinite Ulysses. social reading, they call this. digital text, networked, layered with your reactions and my reactions and anyone else's.

socially-mediated, communal reading experience. Michael Widner from Stanford talked about it too, in the context of his project Lacuna. I have so many questions about this tool that I did not ask during the question-time of the last panel. would it work for a technical writing class? would it work for an online class? can I download it and play around with it on my own for a week or so?

during his presentation, Widner made a small aside about default settings. in building Lacuna, he and his team had millions of decisions to make about how it would function for users. as students add reading notes and annotations to these digital texts, what kind of tags should they be able to chose from in categorizing those notes? should annotations be public by default, or private? in their user testing, it turned out that unless a category tag is selected by default, most users won't select any. if readers' annotations are set by default to public, most of them stay that way. if the default setting is private, most of them stay that way. based on these observations, Widner's comment/advice was: "whatever the default is, that's what most users will do, so your defaults should promote the kind of engagement you want to see."

ah, the weight of those decisions. it's arbitrary, to some extent, which little settings are default or not. privileged, or not.

at this little comment, my brain started whirring and wondering. Widner described various options they'd tried out as the defaults for the Lacuna reading environment. only one arrangement of settings can be default at once though--that's just how it seems to work.

and then I wondered, what if we wanted defaultlessness? no defaults at all--nothing privileged or pre-set for anyone... some purely customizable, blank, open, transparent, full-of-possibility canvas of un-made decisions?

it wouldn't work. it wouldn't ever work. nobody would ever get anything done, if they had to set their own defaults from scratch.

what would 'from scratch' even mean, in a default-less world?

these thoughts reminded me of these thoughts. another word for default mode might be dominant. the default orthography for most sentences includes a capitalized first word and a period at the end. the dominant discourse about education is that official degrees from official institutions are pretty darn valuable. these aren't the only ways of working with sentences or the only ways of learning things.

my dad used to tell us, don't live your life on auto-pilot. don't walk around on default. usually the context was some kind of cleaning frenzy, and the subtext swirling around in my memory, at least, implies that a default life is one that won't stay very neat or tidy, one that might not look very respectable to any important visitors who stop by. I'm sure that's not all he meant, though. a default life is one where you give away all your choices. or one where you don't think enough about making any choices at all, even when you have the chance.

for anyone to live a non-default life, there have to be some default settings to start with, I guess. I wonder how many different defaults there are out there. mine probably weren't the same as everybody's.

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