Tree Is Not Arbol (Unless You Add Silly String)

unicorn-origami

Bill Readings introduced me to linguistics back in my undergraduate days at Syracuse University. It was only a 200-level Contemporary Literary Theory class, not nearly enough knowledge to rest a proper degree upon, but that wasn’t Bill’s concern—he just wanted us to stop for a second, listen, and think.

Bill had a wonderful way of illustrating his teachings, placing our 19 year-old minds into comfortable arenas where we could casually move towards comprehension and eventually grasp the core concepts of deconstructionism and linguistics that he tossed about with ease.

Aside from choosing Blade Runner as an explicit assignment for visual deconstruction, or his daily call-outs of us “numbskulls” to apply a “bit more apperception to your day-to-day existence,” I’d have to say the strongest, most visceral lesson that stuck with me was the one that centered around the English word “tree” and the Spanish word “arbol.”

An Attempt To Share Knowledge

To monolingual, English speaking people first exposed to the authority of the Spanish translation of “arbol,” a common take is that the two terms for “tree” are representations of the signifier “tree.” Bill quickly made us understand why that surface level assumption was wrong. The signifier of “tree” is much more akin to your personal mental model of the physical representation of this:

tree

Or this:

Landscape-View-with-Tree-and-Red-Leaves-600x375

The choices are immeasurable.

Viewed through the lens of semiology and linguistics, we cannot absolutely assert that the term “tree” = the term “arbol” because the signifier of “tree” has a unique representative interface to each of us, as does the percept of the translation of “arbol.”

In other words, flip the notion of a picture being worth a thousand words— imagine that a single word can be viscerally perceived a thousand different ways, even when the definition is commonly understood. This is because our individual experiences are far too precise to absolutely relate to a singular, explicit paradigm of structured language.

Consider this analogy: Modern cultural constructs consistently nudge us towards silos of explicitly defined knowledge, relationships, and definitions, hoisting upon us universally “accepted” paradigms of world views, ranging from the innocuous to impactful.

In polite society, we’re presupposed to assimilate to relative constructs of our surrounding world in order to find success, happiness, and essentially, contribute towards a shared cultural experience. We feel that the notion of “normality” exists because we assume that there’s an aggregate expectation for how individuals cognitively process and navigate our surroundings.

Back to where we started: how would I know that your mental model of “tree” is as unique to you as it is to me? Or my brother? Or to a person down the street or across the country? Especially when we don’t explore “tree” together?

Language is at the center of all civilization.

About that tree, and the linguistic principles behind what happens when you experience one in the wild, or read about one in text:

Roland Barthes on Saussure:

Until he found the words signifier and signified, however, sign remained ambiguous, for it tended to become identified with the signifier only, which Saussure wanted at all costs to avoid; after having hesitated between some and seme, form and idea, image and concept, Saussure settled upon signifier and signified, the union of which forms the sign.

Whenever I stumble upon a conversation about knowledge and structure—such as Are trees natural? over at David Weinberger’s blog—the Bill Readings inspired information architect within me rests in a state of nirvana.

Each day we rely on our own trees of understanding and navigation—branches sprouting outwards in immeasurable directions and depth, overlapping and crossing one another to form meshed nests of position.

The common sense we feel when connecting with newfound knowledge is through the overlap of our particular understanding of the world with the rest of society. The more we feel overlap, the more we perceive homogeneity, driving civil movement within this complex ecosystem and jungle we’ve created for ourselves.

In the midst of this information revolution, when we engage in the practice of tagging our information objects, we’re not only engaging in an activity to increase the discovery of our position via the use of common signifiers, we’re implicitly participating in a form of expression—painting our personal mental model of our signified constructs upon the sign itself. Enabled by technology, we can now easily add descriptive, structured attributes to objects consisting of words, colors, sounds, and movement, ensuring more direct delivery to the branches of each another person’s… arbol.

In turn, the degree of shared context an individual holds within a receiving interface determines the degree in which her reception of the sign becomes explicit communication.

In this flip scenario of retrieval, we now rapidly stumble across these additions, assigning them as variants of either welcome or disruptive bits of information. Our common trees of knowledge are affected by evolving and exposing opportunities to reconsider position, and more importantly, connect with others, whether for egalitarian, capitalistic, or creative purposes.

These particular words of Ferdinad de Saussure come to mind:

In the lives of individuals and of societies, language is a factor of greater importance than any other. For the study of language to remain solely the business of a handful of specialists would be a quite unacceptable state of affairs. In practice, the study of language is of some degree or other the concern of everyone.

Everyone. Saussure would be blown away by how true that statement reads in today’s connected world.

photo by heather allison
photo by heather allison

If Bill hadn’t stepped into the wrong plane at the wrong time in the fall of 1994, he would’ve witnessed exponentially rapid advancements of the inner-workings of the web—specifically the participatory meshing of topics, interests, desires, and perspectives via social tagging through citizen blogging, vlogging, podcasting, etc., not to mention the retrieval and re-presentation of such sowing.

His post-modern, deconstructing, subversive side would be beaming right about now—just about as brightly as the multinational, cricket playing, pub perusing, career for-hire professor.

So in the name of linguistics, knowledge, connectivity, change, and as a hat-tip to my passed mentor, I’ll be busy late into the evening this October 30th, making a bit of a mess in someone else’s front yard, with someone else’s tree.

The Life Span Of A Perspective

marc-ecko

SOHH.com, Jane Bolden
Ecko Responds to Vegas Mayor’s Thumb Chopping Suggestion…

[…] Last week, (Marc) Ecko, chairman and founder of Ecko Unltd., approached Mayor Goodman about his comments via a letter titled “Re: Taggers, Thumbs and Graffiti Art.”

“You recently suggested chopping off tagger’s thumbs and subjecting them to public canings and whippings,” Ecko wrote in the letter obtained by SOHH. “Your comments garnered national attention. I heard them and reflected upon your frustration and anger. You may be surprised to learn that I share some of your concerns about public defacement and vandalism. I simply believe in a different approach.

“First, graf should be celebrated and encouraged, not demeaned or attacked,” he added. “It is art. It is expression. It is a form of social commentary. It provokes thought and debate,” Ecko continued. “Second most graffiti writers—whom you apparently perceive as being a threat to civilized society—are legitimate and talented artists. Some are entrepreneurs who aspire to design fashion brands, for example, like mine. Many are just searching for an outlet to express their creative energy and establish a name for themselves.”

Ecko concluded the letter telling Mayor Goodman that he would like to meet him next week. “I will be in Las Vegas May 8-9; I’d like to meet you. I’d like you to show me the artistry of your City, while we discuss the finer points of graf and your anti-graffiti ordinances. I’d like to teach you how graf can be a positive form of artistic expression… We can auction off whatever we create, with the proceeds going to the Las Vegas charity of your choice. We can show the people of Las Vegas that graf art, properly created and distributed, is a powerful and effective tool of change.” […]

I do understand why property owners don’t care for graffiti, and why law enforcement (and Malcolm Gladwell) believe that tagging leads to the creation of a social climate susceptable to crime, but I also understand the desire to tag.

Graffiti, in all of it’s various forms, is a complex form of social expression — part peer pressure, part artistic endevour, part shot of self-esteem, part communication. And while a great majority of graffiti doesn’t speak to me personally, when it does, it blows me away — both exposing and reinforcing perspectives and creativity that I might never have become exposed to otherwise.

Look, graffiti artists know that their tags and creations aren’t permanent forms of expression. Tags in the real have a longer average shelf-life than a conversation at a pub, but less than as an expression on canvas. Property owners and municiple government have every right to remove graffiti from their property, yet that legal right is partially what fuels the intent of the artists / taggers themselves. It’s a complex issue.

That is, if you even believe it’s an issue… let alone one to chop thumbs over.

UPDATE: Australia Talks Back covers these very issues.

A Conversation Across Space And Time

World 2.0 seems to have raised it’s periscope within our culture almost 5 years ago, in the immediate post-9/11 world. Who would’ve thunk it possible?

Brad Neuberg on October 21, 2001:

The world seems to be hungry for an ideological alternative to capitalism. I don’t know if this is a rational or simply emotional need for something to challenge what is now the dominant ideology of the age, but I predict that as soon as a semi-credible ideological alternative to capitalism arises that it will spread like wildfire and produce another Cold War type situation. Communism used to be it, but is now defunct and dead, while fundamentalist Islam semi-fills this need in parts of the world. I’ve noticed this need to challenge capitalism while traveling; I can even see it in myself.

I’ve never met Brad—as a matter of fact, I was only introduced to his blog tonight via Messina’s post—yet I dropped a similar perspective on the state of capitalism on the other side of the planet just two weeks later in the fall of 2001.

Coincidence or…?

The collective unconscious has always been a powerful concept, but before blogging, it wasn’t a tangible construct. It took the invention of the permalink and intra-day personal publishing to even begin to generate enough trails of human expression to expose Jung’s concept of unspoken, shared realities and archetypes.

While The Cluetrain gang introduced the concept of a global conversation to netizens back in 1999, what I find so interesting about the blogosphere since that time, is that the very notion of a conversation has the potential to become explicitly amplified and extracted to become findable across new dimensions of length and density.

The web is now chock full of meshed thoughts and dreams, connected explicitly by hyperlinks, loosely by tags and conceptually by discovery. With a shift in search result interface paradigms, the possibilities for more complete, immediate research queries are endless.

Topical themes—or memes—shift intra-day and can last as conversations either as sporadic and finite bunches (Jill Carroll’s abduction and release over a three month period) or prolonged variants (George Bush’s presidency). Imagine what types of conversational connections will become possible when interfaces, such as a Technorati search result, leaves the conservative constraints of separated permalink results based on latest entries or authority, and instead focuses on the clustering of such conversations through visual metaphors across other dimensions.

And no, I’m not talking about a folder paradigm.

I’m talking about dynamic, visual representations of conversations, with the ability to shift in real-time, using attributes such as tags and language co-occurance to drive groupings within oppositional variants such as the length and density of the conversation.

cluster-conversation

The day our thoughts and dreams stop getting lost in the cracks of time and authority, we’ll be one step closer to the knowledge revolution, leaving information in the dust with data. Then the decolonization of cyberspace can begin with earnest.

Newsvine: The Wisdom Of The Crowd

The reviews are in: The people are in the drivers seat.

Newspapers are already hemoraging readership, as the web has created an extremely rich bazaar, allowing us to shop for unbundled content at every turn, while unbundled advertising models begin to sprout up to support this evolution. Well, get ready for the online replicas of the print world to begin to sweat even more. Following on the heals of the mass appeal of social wisdom sites such as slashdot and digg comes a revolutionary hybrid of mainstream media, citizen journalism and participatory editing: Newsvine.

newsvine

Taking the aggregation features of a Yahoo! News, the collaborative properties of a digg and the citizen media aspects of blogging, Newsvine is staged to completely redefine the news. The common man now has stake in the game.

Old School

Top/down delivery of content, beginning with organized knowledge, is a modern construct. Since the advent of television, these organized silos of knowledge have been optimized over the years for advertising to take advantage of explicit media buys—matching business audience demographics, psychographics and geographics to channeled, programed, bundled content. Great for advertisers and the networks/publications, lousy for the “consumer,” as we end up consuming more messaging and less news or interests which match *our* needs and desires.

These constructed, mechanical relationships define false edges of our culture, which in turn raises the value proposition of media and news organizations simply by standardizing on such lexicon. This standardization of topical interests enables a succinct inventory of sales and stories, broadcast on television news and pumped through newspapers, serving as the ying to the entertainment media’s yang.

Is it easier to entertain and pacify a child within a theme park or the natural environment of a forest?

Somewhere between the crafted, paced, 4/4 movement of greased industry palms rubbing against one another, lies our percept of reality, consistently bombarded by messaging. While we struggle with this understanding of our surroundings, back in the news room, editors—the guardians of this construct—find themselves under the thumb of the financial steerings and pressures of this propped reality. Their indoctrinated intuition places constraints on the types of stories generated, the depth of coverage, even the language a writer chooses to employ.

The innovators and early adopters of the web aren’t down with that noise.

New School

Bottom/up constructs, enabled by the personal publishing revolution, delivered with flexible subscription technology such as RSS, have empowered individuals to publish cheaply within our own crafted domains.

  • RSS allows us to digest information passively (in a centralized location), instead of actively (surfing the decentalized web), which greatly increases our level of input and conversely, fine tunes our understanding of the world, which is represented by our output (blogging, conversations, actions, etc.)
  • Those of us who publish our own information objects, apply meta-data to increase the potential of findability, both now and in future interfaces
  • Many of us participate with folksonomies, helping make our POV of all information semantically rich and contextual to our neighbors interests, our future grandchildern’s recollections of us, even the desires of a family on the other side of the planet
  • We create multimedia objects to compete with elite vehicles of capital, and fuel them through the same tactical approaches

This participatory environment is one aspect of the Web 2.0 phrase that gets tossed about. It’s enabling us humans to share our creative impulses with others, helping to constantly define and then redefine the world around us through our personal representations of both explicit and implicit lexicon.

This is an open paradigm, a transparent journey, based in accelerated trust and faith in one another.

So when these two worlds meet — old school vs. new school or modernism vs. post-modernism or proprietary vs. open source — the truth of hierarchy and the truth of individual POV’s collide. Guess what remains?

A truthier truth.

Newsvine has taken a position of mixing mainstream feeds with user submitted, tagged and collaboratively greenlit content. Even more revolutionary, they’re mixing the standardized embedded lexicon of our culture—topical categories—with the co-occurance generated wisdom of the people creating relevant content living within such silos:

newsvine-tags

The secondary navigation points are all dynamic, altering over time as the co-occurance of tagged objects within a topical category shifts. This is how I think—how I search, discover, build my own archive in this blog—so in and of itself, the concept doesn’t blow me away. What does blow me away is that by simply placing this paradigm next to, say, The New York Times, Yahoo! News, my pseudo-innovative hometown Greensboro News & Record and a blog aggregator like Greensboro101, none of these domains can compete if Newsvine gains a participatory, critical mass audience.

Newsvine provides AP feeds (like a Yahoo! News), yet allows anyone to seed *any* story, from *any* site (like digging or del.icio.us tagging). Let me try to clearly paint how disruptive of a strategy this is.

  • With only the AP feed, Newsvine could potentially evolve to become a successful News aggregator
  • The addition of the digg and del.icio.us features completely change the game. Newsvine now becomes populated by the very content from the news sites (New York Times, News & Record, etc.) that it’s competing against for advertising
  • The better the content, say, a New York Times produces, the more likely it’ll end up in Newsvine, but with more context (meta-data) and a thriving, participatory readership.
  • Content will begin to be valued differently at a New York Times — as prices might become reduced at the domain, while new, shared models will be created at sites like Newsvine. Good for the Times, as they have a new market for revenue, but it will effect their organizational structure. The big advantage for Newsvine: they don’t have to completely readjust due to their recent entry into the arena and their nimble stature (compared to large news organizations)
  • Community blog aggregators could possibly fall to the wayside, simply due to the fact that people can seed their own local posts, as well as their neighbors, and leverage unbundled advertising services. The very concept of “community” will be redefined on much more granular levels, moving towards a flickr existence, as explicit tags begin to define groups of interest

The Final Touch

Mike Davidson obviously knows what he has here; not only an opportunity to provide a rich, participatory environment for the redefinition of what news means to us as a collective, a community and as individuals, but this service could very well challenge the embedded constructs of editorialized media.

In the final analysis, if Newswire succeeds, it’ll be because of the participatory nature of people. If Davidson wants to make his mark on this planet, he’ll devise a revenue model to incentivize swarms of citizen editors to contribute to the domain—editors removed from the burden and balancing act of management and politics, reduced simply to individuals focused on making our communities that much more aware, educated and inclusive.

If an incentive program can be devised along these lines—some type of a micro-payment structure based on Karma points and click-throughs for both editors *and* authors—he’ll be responsible for creating the Mechanical Turk of the news world. That could change the news media as we know it forever.

Reputable journalists could become more enabled by freelance opportunities, as news organizations would need to drastically reduce their overhead and change their business models because advertising money wouldn’t be channeled into one out of six corporate funnels. Then maybe the people will get the issues covered the way they need to be covered; maybe then we’ll uncover opportunities to 2.0 the hell out of government.

Tag! We’re It! Part III

I tag like a 15 year-old kid in the South Bronx with a box full of Krylons and a yard full of freshly sandblasted cars.

I tag like I just got jumped by a handful of punks who made the mistake of letting me follow them to their trailer park homes adorned with freshly cleaned aluminum siding.

I tag like I get told who I am, what I’m supposed to believe and how I’m supposed to act on a daily basis.

I go all city, hoping that one day, the vehicles I’ve touched get stitched together to form a complete sentence.

con-men

I tag because I saw you leave your mark and it was dope.

I tag because I know how to freeze, watch TV and (kinda) avoid the kissing bugs.

I tag because the words I drop in time will find a way to form a cohesive rhyme.

I tag because the world may be getting smaller, but it’s damn sure not coming together.

grafitti-truck

I tag your name, your spot, your position, your mood, your frame of mind when it’s too hard for you to see it for yourself.

I tag the expected terms of modern constructs.

I tag the post-modern undercurrents of miscellaneous descriptors.

I tag my tags so that when structure is forged out of chaos, you’ll know how to find me.

I tag so that it’s me you won’t be looking for.

life-is-art

When I tag, I’m regurgitating the meal I’ve caught for the chicks in my roost.

When I tag, I feel one with the universe of the collective unconscious.

When I tag, I can see the pillars of control quaking in their foundation.

When I tag, I experience therefore I understand.

When we tag, anything is possible.

————

Tag! We’re It! Part II
Tag! We’re It!

Tag! We’re It! Part II

A few months back, I stepped out of my dead-bolted existence within the walls of Ameritrade and began to digest the current state of this Web 2.0 explosion; the Semantic Web seems so much closer to fruition than it did just a few years back. Much of the renewed push and entrepreneurial spirit that has driven this industry-wide rebirth of shared data has been driven by our economic recovery from the dot-com crash. That’s a fact, but it’s not a sufficient answer to the focus behind 2.0—something deeper feels at play.

I decided to dig in and head down a rabbit hole of sociological context on a journey for clarity, and what I’ve come to realize isn’t particularly shocking.

dictatorial-democracy

We live in tumultuous times.

The air we breathe is being compromised more and more every day. Poverty around the world is increasing exponentially. Our country is knee deep in another Vietnam, another occupation, another struggle for gaining natural resources at any cost. People are becoming polarized by important and moral, personal and social issues, seemingly on a daily basis.

All of this is occurring during the reign of an administration that has even the staunchest of conservatives questioning whether we, the people, are living within the midst of a dictatorial democracy, rather than a thriving Republic, built on the principles of political discourse, government checks and balances, fiscal responsibility, the separation of church and state and the power of the individual voter.

So where does this leave us as a people?

Personally speaking, I’ve decided to refocus my effort to publish my views, opinions, perspectives, experiences, etc., in an effort to make even the slightest dent in the discourse surrounding our roles as American citizens.

What motivates me? Pick your poison: the War on Terror; the Rove/Plame/Wilson scandal; the Bolton push-through appointment; the Cindy Sheehan vigil. It seems that every day a new flow of bullshit only fuels the righteous indignation I’ve come to hold regarding this administration.

Is it even possible to imagine a more visceral description of an Aristocracy at play?

For me, the complete disregard of the intelligence and voice of the American citizen begins to explain the groundswell of blogging that has occurred over the past four years, specifically the political blogs and mainstream media watchdog sites.

Sure, the potential for capital gains plays a large role in the motivation to advance technology or any other industry. The web, though, is a bit different due to it’s low cost of entry, so I believe that moral conviction plays a role in both driving the evolution of technology and the passion to leverage it to it’s fullest degree.

So what’s the connection between geo-political events, blogging and the tactical fervor of Web 2.0? (social bookmarking, tagging, open source, open content, etc.)

In a nutshell: everything.

Without a true social democracy in the real, we’ve evolved to create one on-line — where boundaries can be broken down, hierarchies can be dissolved, control can be minimized, etc.

I blog in order to get my voice out into the ether of this new social construct; I tag my blog posts to provide context and semantic relationships on numerous levels, yet with a similar purpose:

  1. On the base object level to provide a succinct description of how I perceive this content from a conceptual perspective, perhaps creating a) a greater connection with the reader on a discernible level and b) connections on associative & relational levels with other objects (within my domain and elsewhere)
  2. On the categorization level to establish context within a particularly defined category or across a faceted classification scheme. If I were an actual brand, this would be how I’d ensure my position was reflected within my editorial construct and navigation scheme.
  3. On the retrievable object level to allow for more avenues of findability (four, well-thought descriptive tags exponentially increase the odds of object retrieval rather than none or even one, either in straight queries or in contextual presentation on the base object level)

These are tactical strategies in the information revolution.

The same principles apply to tagging even more granular object such as photographs, video and sound files, as well as the macro-level social bookmarking of URLs. The effort, I believe, is based on the desire of individual voices to be heard amidst the shelling of the mainstream media. While technically speaking, Web 2.0 is about the creation of richly defined object models and attributes — the more good data we entrench within our objects (be it content, files or URLs themselves), the better the chance for a semantic web experience — the movement behind it is much more compelling, much more philosophical in nature.

After leaving Ameritrade in April, I spent a month digesting Noam Chomsky‘s Understanding Power, which introduced me to the specifics of his propaganda model thesis, which I fully digested by watching the documentary Manufacturing Consent. Recently, Dave Sifry (CEO, Technorati) posted a graph on the Technorati Blog displaying the impact that blogs are making within the once dominated realm of entrenched, funded, mainstream media.

I’m only guessing that if Chomsky has studied the progression of the web, he’s smiling up in Cambridge right about now.

The legitimization of the individual (creative and political) perspective is being sustained in the 21st century by the conviction of the blogosphere, passionate focus on the possibilities of 2.0 revenue models and domains, such as Technorati, taking a leadership position. The concept of social dialog, networking and organization and the elemental foundation of capitalism are beginning to shift in exciting ways.

Imagine a near future where:

  • Individual perspectives can be made more readily sustainable through a common revenue model, reversing the big money/power structure of publication and media saturation? How would that impact the politics of our nation? Our wage labor practices?
  • Algorithms and interfaces allow for rich, precise retrievals of topical queries, with just as precisely retrieved contextual objects presented within a usable format, based on better clustering techniques and taking richer and more valuable attributes into account? How would this impact the way we learn and connect to one another?
  • Information domains allow topically defined objects to be rolled up into navigable concepts by users instead of predefined categories by information architects? How could this seamlessly raise the bar for common folk in their efforts to research online? To manage information across numerous domains?
  • Mainstream media articles and blog posts are presented on the same level (query or article), ensuring checks and balances of mis/disinformation, without a partisan bias? How important is it for check and balances to be rooted within the last bastion of traditional governmental checks and balances—the media?

And the great thing is that we’re not too far away from this revolutionary existence.

Blogs are beginning to bridge the social and communication gaps between nations. My peers are thinking differently when developing this medium, even in traditional business development circumstances. The tactical approach to producing, managing, sharing, finding and using information objects — defined from the bottom up — is finally getting it’s due.

Yes, these are tumultuous times, but they’re exciting as well.