Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Narrative, Language, and Medium

So, last year I was asked if I'd write an article for a special issue of an Italian online journal called Between, which is the journal of the Italian Association of Comparative Theory and History of Literature. The theme of the special issue is Technology, Imagination, and Narrative Form, and they asked me to do something media ecological, not surprisingly.Well, more precisely, the exact theme is Tecnologia, Immaginazione, Forme del Narrare, and I've linked it to the journal issue page so you can go take a look, there are quite a few articles, and a good number of them are in English, including mine.

So, okay, the title of my article is Notes on Narrative as Medium and a Media Ecology Approach to the Study of Storytelling and if you click on that link it'll take you to a page where you can see the article online, but through a funny little window. Anyway, you can download the PDF from there, if you care to.

So, anyway, I know, so far this isn't much of a post, substance wise, but wait, there's more. You see, I let folks know about it on the Media Ecology Association's e-mail discussion list, and received a query from someone on the list who is not very knowledgeable about the field, and was skeptical about the idea of language as medium, which I discuss in the article. I provided some explanation, and thought it was worth sharing a modified version of it here on good old Blog Time Passing.

So here goes:

In regard to applying to language the idea that each medium has its own bias, that refers in particular to linguistic relativism, also known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which says that different languages give us different tools for thought, and different ways of viewing the world. Each language then has its own bias, which is why you cannot be fluent in another language if you are transposing word for word, instead you have to think in the other language. Linguistic relativism was not solely the idea of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, there was also Dorothy Lee, George Orwell (in 1984) and long before them, Wilhelm von Humboldt.

Related to linguistic relativism is the general semantics of Alfred Korzybski and others, who regard language in general as having a bias based on its abstracting of perception (itself an abstracting of reality), and in understanding language as a tool, and therefore take the position that modifying the tool can modify our ability to understand and relate to reality, hopefully for the better. Also related are various philosophies regarding symbolic form on the part of Whitehead, Russell, Wittgenstein, Cassirer, Langer, etc. And more recently, there is the metaphor theory of Lakoff and Johnson, which argues that all language is metaphorical, and the metaphors embedded in language influence the way we experience the world.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis was broadened in several ways, notably by Edmund Carpenter working with McLuhan, to apply to media, also by Edward T. Hall to apply to culture (defining culture as communication), and by Postman to apply to the general idea of structures underlying all things. An earlier connection was made by Sergei Eisenstein in referring to the language of film. In the field of media ecology, the classic essay is Carpenter's "The New Languages" which appeared in the Explorations journal in the 50s, the Explorations in Communication collection in 1960, and has been reprinted many, many times in anthologies on media and communication. The idea also appears in Understanding Media of course, in the chapter on media as translators, and in the appendix to the critical edition. In Carpenter's essay, he says that all languages are media, and media are our new languages, with their own counterpart to vocabulary and grammar, and following Sapir-Whorf, their own inherent bias as to how the world is viewed.

While the idea of linguistic relativism was suppressed by Chomsky and his followers in linguistics, it's made a comeback in the post-Chomsky era.

As for the quote, "Language is the medium of literature as marble or bronze or clay are the materials of the sculptor," from Edward Sapir's classic work, Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech, the word medium had been in use at the time he was writing (circa 1921) to refer to the material artists use. It's similar to the way that Harold Innis later uses medium to refer to writing surfaces, categorizing them as heavy or light, each associated with cultural biases towards time or space, respectively.

So Sapir is saying that language is the basis of literature in the same way that paint and canvas are the basis of painting. It's what we call an analogy. And it's an early reference to language as a medium, at a time when the term medium was not widely used to refer to what was traditionally known as the press and speech, so that it shows the concurrent evolution of terminology and the media ecological insights that go with it.

But the idea that literature is a function of language is not at all limited to media ecology. That's the basis of the humanities tradition of modern languages, the study of language and literature together, also known as philology (which Tolkien was a professor of, and forms the foundation of his fiction, based on fictional languages; Humboldt was also a philologist), and which can be traced back to the medieval trivium, to rhetoric and especially grammar, the subject of McLuhan's doctoral thesis, and before that to Talmudic scholarship. The bias of a language means that different languages are associated with distinctively different literatures, that there are aspects of French literature that cannot be understood unless you understand what is distinctive about the French language, and that cannot be translated into another language.

So, all of this is foundational within the field of media ecology, and summed up by saying, the medium is the message. And as a wise man once said, all the rest is commentary, go and learn it.

And that's the story, miei amici, so ciao, for now!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

New York Top 10 Googles

So, back on December 16, I was quoted in a brief article on top Google searches in New York City for 2014. The results had just been released that day, but I got to see them a day early (woohoo!) so that I could provide some comments on the results. 

I then had a brief telephone conversation with reporter Ivan Pereira, who wrote the article that appeared the next day in am New York (or is it amNew York? Hard to be sure of spacing and punctuation these days, it's ambiguous as it appears in print and both are used in the Wikipedia entry on the paper, and there also is the alternative of amNY as it's abbreviated and in its URL form, also as Oh, and note the pun here, between AM as in ante meridiem, or morning, the paper being put out for the morning rush and often gone by the afternoon, and am as in the verb to be, as if to say that the paper is New York, or a representation of New York, the sort of Aristotelian statement that Alfred Korzybski was opposed to, although I am certain he would have appreciated the word play, and made room in his general semantics for the ways in which such double entendres can actually raise our consciousness of abstracting).

However you list the name of the paper, and it is actually a paper, you know, printed with ink on actual pulp, it bills itself on the cover, right under its name, as "Manhattan's Highest Daily Circulation Newspaper" (a fact I have not myself verified). The paper is distributed for free every weekday, and its distribution is numbered in the hundreds of thousands. According to the paper's Wikipedia entry,

The paper is primarily distributed in enclosed newspaper holders ("honor boxes") located on sidewalks and street corners with high pedestrian traffic. Workers ("hawkers," sporting a red amNewYork vest) are sometimes paid to station themselves near NYC transportation points and offer the free paper to passersby. As a result, the paper has had much success with morning and evening commuters.

The entry also mentions that the paper is owned by Cablevision, who bought it from the Tribune Company, along with the major newspaper, Newsday, in 2008.

So, here's the cover of the December 16th, 2014 issue:

Now, before continuing on with the article, let me share with you the Top-10 Trending Searches in New York City, New York in 2014, courtesy of Google:
  1. World Cup Schedule
  2. Avonte Oquendo
  3. Donald Sterling
  4. Flappy Bird
  5. 2048
  6. Missing Plane
  7. Oscars 2014
  8. True Detective
  9. Ebola Symptoms
  10. Frozen

and here are the Top-10 How To… Questions for New York City, New York in 2014:
  1. How to harmonize
  2. How to focus
  3. How to network
  4. How to photoshop
  5. How to reupholster
  6. How to listen
  7. How to samba
  8. How to cosplay
  9. How to declutter
  10. How to wow

and the Top-10 What is… Questions for New York City, New York in 2014:
  1. What is ebola?
  2. What is tryptophan?
  3. What is ISIS?
  4. What is Alibaba?
  5. What is bitcoin?
  6. What is POC?
  7. What is squally?
  8. What is edamame?
  9. What is gamification?
  10. What is quantum?

and finally, the Top-10 News and Events for New York City, New York in 2014:
  1. World Cup Schedule
  2. Missing Plane
  3. Oscars 2014
  4. Ebola Symptoms
  5. Ferguson Missouri
  6. Brazil vs. Germany
  7. Golden Globes 2014
  8. Mayweather vs. Maidana
  9. Wimbledon 2014
  10. Unemployment Extension

And now, here is Ivan Pereira's article:

Top Google searches in NYC in 2014

New Yorkers put their own unique spin on Google searches in 2014.

The search giant revealed today the top searches made within the five boroughs in 2014, and the World Cup came in first.

Although the tournament ranked second nationally, Google trends expert LaToya Drake said the energy around the event was different in New York, propelling it to the top.

“It became this collective viewing experience,” Drake said. “Even if you weren’t a soccer fan, you were being left out if you didn’t know the matches.”

Lance A. Strate, professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University, credited the city’s diversity for making the World Cup a top trender. At the same time, he said the No. 2 search topic of 2014, Avonte Oquendo, stressed New York’s camaraderie.

Although the 14-year-old autistic Queens boy ran away from his Long Island City school in the fall of 2013, New Yorkers’ concerns persisted through when his remains were found in January.

“In New York, people are tightly packed together, so there is a sense of involvement that you don’t see in other areas,” he said.

The Google data, which didn’t include New York search trends for December, found that the top “What is” query from in the city was “What is Ebola?” The city had its own case at the end of October when Dr. Craig Spencer was hospitalized with the disease following a humanitarian trip to Africa.

“Once it came to the states, there was a lot of fear,” Drake said. “People were looking for answers.”

As I said, a very brief article, especially when it's reduced to text as it is here, or even over on their site where the article is followed by the top ten lists, and also includes this image:

This is not a search box...

Ok, I added the caption myself, couldn't help but make the allusion to the famous painting by René Magritte, entitled La Trahison des Images (The Treachery of Images), but better known by the caption that is part of the painting, Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe):

But speaking of images, I hope you don't consider it treacherous or a pipe dream if I also share how the article looked on page 4 of the issue, continuing on to page 5:

So, now, you can see that the article is not the article is not the article, which brings to mind Korzybski's general semantics principle of non-identity, and the related notion that the map is not the territory, which is what Magritte was trying to get across. And am New York is not amNew York or amNY, etc. Along the same lines, the top Google searches for New York do not necessarily represent what was most important, most valuable, or even most perplexing to New Yorkers. It only tells us what it tells us, that is, what New Yorkers used the search engine to search for most often. To give one example, love is very important to most people, and often very puzzling, but I doubt it was a search term that would ever come up in a top ten list.

Simply put, what remains unsaid is what exactly do these lists represent? What are they indicators of? What are they symptoms of? It's interesting that no one is every quite able to put their fingers on the answer, and perhaps somewhat sad to say that most people never even raise the question. So all it amounts to is a bit of trivia, a bit more of what Neil Postman called amusing ourselves to death, and what I punningly altered to amazing ourselves to death, and I think this applies because we are in many ways amazed by the searches and the fact that the results can be tabulated in this way (and we should also be a bit concerned, given the fact that big data of this sort can be used to influence and manipulate us in myriad ways).

The results are also an example of what Daniel Boorstin termed a pseudo-event, a news item that does not report on something that actually happened, or would have happened had there been no news medium to make the report. Sure the data exists, but the whole idea of doing a story on top ten lists of Google searches is a brilliant way to promote Google itself, and the idea of the Google search itself, great public relations, but what is the actual news value. As Boorstin noted more than half a century ago, pseudo-events are designed to fit the format of the news media, so they are easy to report on, and make for good news items, but they are ambiguous, and in fact part of their attraction is in the fact that they beg the question, what does it mean?

So, when we come down to it, the top Google searches represent exactly what they say they are, the top Google searches. They are nothing more than that, they are what they are. Like an image, like a photograph, like data, they may be used as evidence of something, but make no claim or argument of statement, in and of themselves. But in saying, they are what they are, we also have to say, Ce n'est pas ce que c'est, this is not what it is. Or as Korzybski liked to put it, whatever you say something is, it is not.

Non-identity is the first non-Aristotelian principle of general semantics, and non-allness is the second, and that certainly applies to my quote in the article. I spoke to Ivan Pereira for about fifteen minutes on the phone, and gave him way more commentary than he could possibly use. That's a given when reporters reach out in this way, so this is not a complaint, merely a point of reference. And it's good to have an outlet like Blog Time Passing where I can fill you in on some of what was not included in the article.

Now, if you follow my blog, you know I've done this before, and it is particularly easy to do when my comments are provided via email. In this case, though, they were delivered orally via a telephonic exchange, so I have no recorded record of them. So I'll just fill in what I can remember, which includes the point I already made about the meaning of these top Google search results. Raising that question was obviously more than could be dealt with in the article.

Beyond that, what particularly stands out for me is on the subject of Avonte Oquendo. Pereira used my general point about New Yorker camaraderie as a product of population density, and I can understand why, as it speaks to the distinctive character of New Yorkers and the New York lifestyle, and does so in a positive manner. What he didn't include were my comments about the New York Metropolitan Area also having a very high proportion of individuals with autism, which is what made the story resonate so much locally. Of course, in making this point, I noted that the metropolitan area includes the New Jersey suburbs, which has the highest incidence of childhood autism in the nation, and pointed out that a large number of individuals who reside in the North Jersey area commute to work in Manhattan, and would therefore be doing those Google searches from work. This would be in addition to the relatively high rate of incidence within New York City itself. Now, I think this is a much more relevant, important, and even insightful point. So why wasn't it included? It's possible that New Yorker prejudice against Jersey played a role, but I doubt it. I think the problem was more aong media ecological lines, in that the point was too complicated for a format that favored a short and simple comment.

I also noted that New York had a case of Ebola, a point included in the article, but without any comment that I made (I'm sure I wasn't the only one to bring it up). I also remarked that many of the items in these lists were probably high up in Google searches nationally, but what seems to speak specifically to New Yorker concerns, given the hectic, fast-paced lifestyle, the constant level of stimulation, so much so that when New Yorkers go out to the country, it is not unheard of for individuals to have trouble sleeping because it's too quiet for them, and again the density and tight spaces that New Yorkers occupy, are search items about how to harmonize, focus, listen, and declutter.

There are some interesting items relating to economics and careers, such as Unemployment Extension, what is bitcoin, and how to network, and I think that how to reupholster speaks to the thriftiness and old world sensibility of New Yorkers. Pereira used my comment on the diversity of New Yorkers, which includes the fact that so there are so many immigrants and expatriates in residence, that probably made the World Cup trend higher here that in most of the rest of the country.

All of this is an attempt to interpret the data, a kind of exercise in Talmudic hermeneutics, but again, following Postman, the problem is one of decontextualization, that like TV, these lists appear in the context of no context, to use Postman's phrase, so we really don't know what these results represent about us. What is the reason that people do a Google search for a particular term? Under what conditions do people search or don't search for any particular word, phrase, or topic? What makes particular search items more or less popular? Are we more likely to search for things we hear, see, or read about on the news? Are we more likely to search for things we watch on television? Are we more likely to search for things we encounter online? Have mobile devices changed the way that we search? These and many more questions are the kind of context analysis that's needed to really make sense out of these reports on top Google searches of the year. 

This also relates to the third non-Aristotelian principle of self-reflexiveness. Are the top Google search terms a map of a territory, and if so, what's the territory? Or are they a map of a map, or a map of a map of a map?

And of course, it follows that the terms we search for have much to do with the search results that are returned, which is after all a variation on what good old Marshall McLuhan said, the medium is the message. And we don't need Google to tell us that!