Archive | February, 2012

What’s in a name? (Part 2)

28 Feb

cul·ture mul·ching [kuhl-cher muhl-ching] noun, verb

1.     the act of tilling the soil of culture—considering generally the areas of arts, letters, sciences, manners, scholarly pursuits, and any and all identifiers which might constitute the sum total of ways of living built up by humankind which are, or may be, passed down from one generation to the next.

2.     the act of laying down one’s own thoughts (a personalized “mulch”) in written, visual, or audio form upon a cultural moment or juxtaposition; mental tillage.

3.     the act of putting one or more items in juxtaposition to one another, particularly if said items don’t at first seem to have anything to do with each other.

4.     a mash-up; characteristic of the age of new media.

“I would prefer not to”: On Engelbart’s “Augmenting Human Intellect”

23 Feb

I feel the need to re-read Douglas Engelbart’s “Augmenting Human Intellect” to more fully digest both what he is saying and its implications. Pressed for time, I fear I read it too much with what Nicholas Carr refers to in his book, The Shallows, as “The Juggler’s Brain”–skimming rather than deeply engaging. However, I’ll do my best here to employ the inadequacies of the “symbol structure” of the English language to consider some aspects of his text.

Specifically, I’d like to think a little bit about this passage from part III:

“Conceptually speaking, however, an argument is not a serial affair. It is sequential, I grant you, because some statements have to follow others, but this doesn’t imply that its nature is necessarily serial. We usually string Statement B after Statement A, with Statements C, D, E, F, and so on following in that order–this is a serial structuring of our symbols. Perhaps each statement logically followed from all those which preceded it on the serial list, and if so, then the conceptual structuring would also be serial in nature, and it would be nicely matched for us by the symbol structuring.

“But a more typical case might find A to be an independent statement, B dependent upon A, C and D independent, E depending upon D and B, E dependent upon C, and F dependent upon A, D, and E. See, sequential but not serial? A conceptual network but not a conceptual chain. The old paper and pencil methods of manipulating symbols just weren’t very adaptable to making and using symbol structures to match the ways we make and use conceptual structures. With the new symbol-manipulating methods here, we have terrific flexibility for matching the two, and boy, it really pays off in the way you can tie into your work” (103).

As one who has for years taught his students how to read and to write arguments in a sequential and serial fashion by using the symbol structure of language to construct an essay, I find this passage and Englebart’s subsequent discussion of it both interesting and troubling.

In some respects, the serial way of organizing an argument is indeed limiting. In the linear mode of writing to which we are accustomed, various links, antecedents, and overlapping chains of thought can only be alluded to, or cast as an aside, or left out entirely, or else we risk losing our readers. To capture a subject in all of its complexity, the advantages of a “conceptual network” of overlapping linkages and chains quickly become apparent, as Englebart notes.

So then what happens if we augment our intellect by using a computer’s considerable power and memory to track these links and call up quick associations and chains of thought so that we can, theoretically, see the conceptual structures more clearly than we could through the older (written, linear, symbol-structured) mode of argument?

The old concern arises: that the complexity of mapping and tracking these structures in this manner, and the ease of accessing those structures on our computers, causes us to cede the act of thinking to our machines. We risk losing track of the threads. Perhaps we begin to make (more serious versions of) mistakes like one made by one of my very bright students a few weeks ago, when he looked up material on-line about E.M. Forster and then noted that he’d gotten the information from Forster’s biographer, Howard’s End.

In brief, we might risk inverting Englebart’s construction, where the “problem solver” isn’t the human being but is instead the computer, and we, not the computer, are the “clerks.” And at what point might we, like Herman Melville’s famous clerk, Bartleby,  when faced with the need to think for ourselves, simply say: “I would prefer not to.”

Voice Recognition, Part 2

17 Feb

To add to the voice recognition discussion from yesterday, here’s a personal essay from this week that appeared on Salon. It’s by one of my Cal colleagues, Mary Grover, and it’s both hilarious and poignant:

“When I lost the ability to type”


Voice Recognition & Internet Democracy

16 Feb

OK, so this juxtaposition or mash-up is a case of one thing having nothing to do with the other except that both issues were raised in today’s ETS New Media Faculty Seminar at Cal. (Maybe you’ll see a way that these two things speak more directly to each other.)

The first is a link to a NY Times essay, “How to Speak a Book,” by the novelist Richard Powers in which he describes how at the time (2007), despite writing prolifically, he “[hadn’t touched a keyboard for years]” and instead used voice recognition software:

The second link below will take you to a short, well-made video (both visually and textually) that one of my students pointed me toward a few weeks ago. I was reminded of this video when James Rule (it was you, right James?) was saying today in the seminar that the Internet might have developed differently (or not at all?) if the Soviets had won the Cold War and the web’s development hadn’t been fostered in particular ways by our market-based economy.

So:  In the wake of recent Internet-era movements like the Arab Spring, it’s been repeated as a kind of truism that because of the more open flow of information in Web 2.0 social media, people in oppressed societies have greater opportunities to express themselves and work towards freedom. This video complicates that notion:

Here endeth today’s verbiage.

What’s in a name?

15 Feb

When thinking of what to name this blog, I recalled a fictional scene I wrote years ago in which two friends have a serious discussion in an absurd setting:  a restaurant called Tequila Mockingbird. In my scene, I played up the goofiness of the restaurant, which was at once a Mexican food joint and a tribute to Harper Lee’s famous novel.  (Try the Boo Radley Chimichangas!)  I thought I was terribly clever.

Not too long thereafter, my wife and I traveled through Ocean City, Maryland. We were looking for a place to eat, and I let my fingers do the walking through the Yellow Pages (this was when the Web was still a very young 1.0), and then…you know what’s going to happen, don’t you?…my finger alit on a restaurant named, naturally, Tequila Mockingbird.

Nothing new under the sun.

I regret not having stopped by to see how the actual restaurant looked, to see if they had still photos of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch or a first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird reverently displayed beneath illuminated glass.  However, the Web 2.0 evidence suggests otherwise:  (Maybe the Tequila Mockingbird located in New Canaan, CT, hews more closely to my original vision.)

More recently, a few years ago, I was writing a semi-regular column for a local literary magazine, Kitchen Sink. My column was called “Culture Mulcher.”  (The only extant electronic edition of one of those columns is here:

Again, I thought I was being terribly clever, even though a quick web search at the time revealed several other uses of that term, the earliest of which was a reference in a Time magazine article from June 16, 1947 (“…in a letter to culture-mulcher Assistant Secretary of State William Benton.”).  In the past several years, the term has only proliferated, showing up on multiple blogs, including one at Forbes.

So, not terribly original, but that’s one of the things the Internet reveals to us–the ways in which we are like-minded as well as the ways in which (one hopes) we are distinct.

So, The Culture Mulcher? Of course not.  A culture mulcher?  Yes, but then who isn’t?  So let’s dispense with the noun and go instead with the action–culture mulching–and see where it goes.