In silence the clock keeps turning

Chain gangs of academic specialists are toiling night and day in libraries and archives, chipping away at variant texts for hard information and inter

There is no escaping time, of course, though I've discovered that awareness to be particularly acute when time itself is the subject of your work. Think about time long and hard enough and the world seems a changed place, stripped back to a multitude of mechanisms ticking away in their different rhythms and at their different speeds of oscillation, but all relentless.

The last month on the blog has been marked by unintended silence from me, and the last fortnight by silence from the team: our words, or their absence, like those of the other Sandbox participants, the measure of our endeavours. First came the abstract concepts, then the hints of a hardening into practice as designer, developer, producer and academic sought a common language and understanding. And after that, the graft.

I am tempted to tell you now about my recent adventures in time, both within and around this project: discussions about the reliability of memory in fiction and non-fiction, the poring over historical train timetables, or the day spent with the chronobiologists watching individual human cells pulse in their own imperturbable time-keeping. But they will have to wait for another occasion. The present moment is about practicalities.

The ultimate aim of The Next Time[line]is to define a universal form for the exploration of time and its consequences, in narrative terms, that is appropriate to touch screen tablets: to make plastic and manipulable certain cognitive functions for the improvement and entertainment of users. Its practical focus is on the processes of original creation and secondary adaptation that lie behind three classic literary texts, in their original incarnations and as we now know them. Fertile ground, for reasons that will have to await further explanation.

To achieve the versatility required to serve three very different texts (and also point towards scalability), the graphical interface, constructed of rich interactive visualisations, must be dynamically generated. That is to say, the graphical representation on the screen will be drawn computationally and the available interactions created, according to principles based on invested expertise. In practice, that has meant some intensive learning for all of us: of an unfamiliar framework for the developer, of its potentials and pitfalls for data visualisation and interaction designers, and of the intricacies of manual text mining for others.

Although the code for the project is in most senses still embryonic, with functioning organs but undeveloped limbs, alarmingly it is already demonstrating the appetite, at least, of an adolescent. To feed its hunger for test data, chain gangs of academic specialists are toiling night and day in libraries and archives, chipping away at variant texts for hard information and interpretive ideas, then filling spreadsheets with thousands of lines numbers and esoteric codes.

A spell last week in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust was particularly productive in this regard but also more widely illuminating. Quizzing an archivist about the history of production and performance of Henry V, our thoughts were stuck in the sixteenth and twentieth/twenty-first centuries. But what about the adaptations of the eighteenth and nineteenth that turned the play into a romantic tragedy or used the newest stage machinery to showcase a scenographic revolution? It is easy to forget the incessant nature of innovation.

A few weeks ago, much intense thought went into shaping the taxonomies with which to describe the data we would gather but, working as we are across three media types, comparatively, and in mature fields of enquiry already rich in ideas, every day brings the need for reassessment and refinement and in so doing opens new possibilities. Where does the common ground lie between "Exeunt Pistol", the complex operations of Macready's flown scenery, and the editing technique in Kenneth Branagh's film? How to represent the pattern of productions in relation to Britain's foreign wars, but allow explanation of the play's absence from the London stage after the victory at Blenheim?

It is gratifying to see how often these requirements can be accommodated within our schema, while stretching and improving it. To watch as those decisions then take tangible form on an iPad screen, even if only in crude and partial graphic form, is pure excitement. The next two weeks should see all the core components in place, with "walk through" user-testing beginning, though there will be many, many iterations to follow before even a public prototype is available.

The greatest challenge for me, currently, is to carve out the odd hour or two to stand back and reflect, not only on how the three texts are being served but on how the lessons they throw up can be applied more widely. It is always a schizophrenic moment, for I do so as two people: the digital producer/interactive designer who conceived the current Sandbox project, but also as an author of original fiction and non-fiction who has craved appropriate interactive forms with which to work. 

For nearly two decades my two selves have grumbled at one another, frustrated at the burden of each other's expectations, impatient for some chemical wedding. At last, though, I catch sight of one throwing a knowing wink to the other, and I am no longer quite sure who is who. It is a hopeful moment, if only we have enough time.

 

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