Curious landowWhat can we learn from Curious George?

(By no means do I mean to make a monkey out of one of the forefathers of eliterary criticism and a mentor of mine, a man who worked harder than most to firmly plant hypertext in a literary and academic arboretum.  If anything, this post swings between homage and lament).


The current cinematic adaptation of Curious George teaches us, if nothing else, that interactive education is better than boring lectures.  The film begins with a crisis.  The museum where the man in the yellow hat works is on the verge of closing due to low attendance.

Rescuing the museum, he transforms it from a dull, old-fashioned vault to a contemporary hands-on wonder-space.  As a result, the museum is no longer about natural history but about how to become like Curious George.  And what enables such a transition: interactive technology.  Perhaps you are wondering what becomes of the museums former content? 

George has no patience for the boring, historical exhibits.  Who needs a roped-off dinosaur or a static display about the discovery of fire?  The NextNextGen are the children of microwave ovens, cellphones, and the Internet!  Out go the boring historical displays, in come the site to dig for bones (archaeology), the rock-climb walls (Indiana Jonesology), and a real space ship (forget-the-past-ology).   Has anyone wondered where the content of the museum has gone?  Is it a natural history/colonization museum? A science museum? An exploratorium?  More importantly, why are interactive displays the killer apps for bored school children and monkeys?


 Hypermedia art seems to follow a trajectory from the salon to the playground.  The fantastic experimental text-art creation Text Rain by Camille Utterback & Romy Achituv made a stunning showing at Siggraph 2000.  Accounts of its prowess would later appear in essays on electronic literature.  Where is this wonder now?  The Childrens Museum in Pittsburgh.  Other New Media wonders have found similar resting (or playing) spaces.  What better place to see such works?  Who better to teach us interactive technology than children?  For childrens museums arent just for children.  As in Disneyland and childrens movies, these wonders have been made with one eye towards the children and one eye toward the parents who paid for the tickets. 

The kidification of electronic interactive art works corresponds with another trend in books.  Where are all the interactive books?  Those ebooks foretold by those forward-looking innovators and prognosticators of The Future of the Book?  Who reads these hypermediated, hybrid tales? Children, of course. (For a moment, lets ignore the Blackberrys buzzing in the hands of the adult-children in the boardrooms.)  Children hop to Leap Pad and its competitors.  Children snatch up books with what IF calls feelies.  Books with music. Books with lights. Books that popup! Books you can cut out.  Meanwhile, we save our cents for ???milles milliardes de počmes.???  Most of my books have no dotted lines for cutting.  Few pop-up.   I treasure any and all of the exceptions and novelties.  Still, I wonder, does this mean that to become an adult is to become accustomed to boredom or prehaps not to need as much physical, visual, auditory, and perhaps even olfactory interaction with the written word?  Does it mean that, deep down, our cultures do not value physical interactivity as a sign of intellect? Where does our inner curious George go?  

And what of that other George who directs us to the Pompidou as opposed to the Nickelodeon?  What are the effects of drawing a magic circle of literary aesthetics around interactive works? 

No doubt the world is big enough for both sites of interactive technology and many more.  But I wonder if the cultural hierarchies and hegemonies arent showing their linear, deterministic, print-bound heads.  They laugh at the man in the yellow suit, puffing on cigars, thumbing their stacks of green-backed texts, while experimental interaction is carted off to museums for the kids or those rarified elites who frequent cubbyholes and curio cabinets.  Curiously, the simian George might offer a bit more insight. 

In the film, the interactive exhibit wasnt the only thing that saved the museum.  There was one particular mega-exhibit, a giant monkey shrine pillaged from its original setting in the jungle and presented as a wonder to the folks who lined up in droves in the heart of the cartoon megapolis.  Needless to say, the guides from its native land didnt even know this wonder had been stashed in their midst.  You see, before the arrival of the man with the yellow hat, it hid beneath thick vines.  To get that monkey, youd have to interact. Indeed, youd have to be more than a little curious.  

7 Responses to “Curious George Landow”

  1. 1 Christy

    I spend more time in the toy section of a store than the book section. I crave adult (read: literary) books with buttons! I don’t want an ebook, though I do want epaper. I want prose and projections. I want, I want, I want (stamping feet on ground and pouting)…

  2. 2 Mark Marino

    I’m obviously with you, Christy, and I half suspect that all the time I spend staring at this rectangular flashlight of a screen is the sign of that craving, but flickering signifiers hardly compare with books that buzz. Everyone seems to agree that young minds need multimodal stimulation, thanks to Piaget et al.. Old minds must make what they can out of print, like kids with a stack of blank construction paper when it’s raining outside. I’m not saying we don’t comply and we don’t engage with print in full complement to the reduction in sensory channels, I’m just wondering why the world of over stimulation, flahing, and buzzing has allocated more of its bells and whistles to hardcopy text. Writers please Respond with examples To the contrary!

  3. 3 Mark Marino

    As if to prove my point, today my daughter picked up a book that would make Raymond Queneu flip over in his grave, albeit one strip at a time. Behold: Rita Bladucci’s Barbie Mix and Match Fashions, a book that allows you to flip through 8 single sentence stories and 8 accompanying Barbie outfits of 3 panels each to create 8^3, or 512, combinations.

    My daughter created the tale, “After hiking for miles, Barbie hula dances on the tennis court,” leaving a no doubt exhausted Barbie in a tennis skirt with a lei instead of a tennis racket.

    Here is the anatomized female, the combinatoric girl, the flip-panel fem who can accessorize to any narrative turn. Jennifer Elrod asks on Squirrel Tao how the children of the hypermediated word will turn out. No doubt, the daughters and sons (granddaughter’s and grandsons?)of Oulipo will grow up toinscibe tales upon supercubes and quarks.

  4. 4 Jeremy Douglass

    I’m reminded of the old chesnut “a book is interactive, too” - that is, a book has several hundred moving parts (pages), of dozens of types (front matter, chapters, index, etc.) with a complex informational layout (page numbers, chapter headings, etc.). It seems to me that the “curious” difference is that most literary novels are to a great extent standardized in format, and this standard format is expected (interface literacy) - whereas the novel object is not. Curiosity is novelty-seeking. If hundreds of head-body-feet books filled our bookshelves, the joined-page novel would be a novelty - but it is not, no matter how much or how little interactive. Multimedia and tactile design is big, but this is also present in an ATM, which is also not novel….

    Back to museum design. Consider the Exploratorium, a science museum that is a paragon of multimedia immersive participatory education. The point is to explore, which implies something new. By contrast, consider the Museum of Jurassic Technology, a kind of adult Exploratorium. The MJT is weird and wonderful in a different way - it is full of new things, but presented in ways which are old. Much of the weirdness of the MJT derives from the way it subtly (or not so subtly) references, parodies, and defamiliarizes us from our literacy in the common language of the traditional museum: looped audio tapes and projections, cleverly lit models, miniature mechanical demonstrations, etc. The MJT often wraps 1950s and 60s participatory displays and multimedia techniques around oddly inappropriate subjects like mobile homes or dogs in space, but if you aren’t already deeply familiar with the “standard” museum format, you’ll miss a big part of the MJT message.

    One last thought, following up on the idea of older multimedia museums: I suspect the public museums / galleries / theme parks (which often aren’t clearly differentiated) have always been multimedia and participatory, since Vauxhall Gardens in the 17th century and probably before. The idea of public edification and the idea of novelty are in some ways inseparable - hence art galleries and orchestas, the replica ruins, and the hot air balloon rides, all cheek and jowl.

  5. 5 Mark Marino

    Jeremy, I enjoy your reflections on novelty and the novel. Nicely riffed and summed.

    1) I hope to continue this ongoing discussion particularly regarding the role of children’s elit.

    2) I like your connection of public museums-galleries-and-theme-parks, but I would want to see us trace out some of the lines of class, condescension, and indulgence that differentiate the address of each. They all strive with similar tools to snare our attention but the civic duty of one is the profit margin of another.

    3) If public edification and novelty have always been inseparable, why do I feel as if museums are always struggling to recapture some MTV generation? In a recent exhibit at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History, musicians have composed works to be heard while perusing the static dioramas and skeletons. It was an ingenious combination, yet in some ways, like “Curious George,” a suggestion that the museum is not enough.

  6. 6 Jeremy Douglass

    The point for me is not that museums/galleries/archives don’t struggle today, but that they have participated in the struggle to capture attention, it was never merely given - whether privately owned or nationalized, gated or open, interactive or passive, even when these archives of culture only had to impress 10 wealthy visitors of their wealthy owner a year, their unifying characteristic is that of being a presentation space in which you have an edifying / entertaining experience. That doesn’t have to be a problem - knowledge and culture has always been on the edge between guilty fun and boring, and touring exhibits (like medieval freak shows) promise to teach you something new about the world….

    And that is really the children’s elit angle, to me, not that it is necessary to be a child, but it helps to be childlike in openness to the world of novelties. A new sandwich or a new novel is seldom a novelty, simply because you say “I’ve done this before.” It may be

    When you find yourself saying “compile a code-poem? I’ve never done that before” then you are in the Exploratorium, the realm of marked participation. Your 10,000th code-poem will be just as participatory, but acts of participation (like page-turning) tend to become invisible to the eyes of old hands….

  1. 1 Disney, Mousercizing Hypermedia at WRT: Writer Response Theory

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