The Humanity of Loose Systems

One of our graphic designers returned from Paris the other day with the most extraordinary set of photographs.

Her and I had had a long talk before she went about how the concept of “brand” was overrated in visual design, frequently doing more harm than good. We both agreed our website could tolerate considerably more visual diversity than it currently has.

She came back from Paris with a set of photos to prove that:


Hold on, you say, these Metro signs look different! There’s no BRAND!

Yes, I say. Isn’t it great? That’s why when you say “Paris” people think of love, and when you say “America” people think of Big Macs.

But, wait, you say, what if someone needs to find the Metro quickly? Won’t they get confused?

I don’t think so. My guess is that they’ll just read signs to next flights of stairs that dissappear under the street.

At least, that’s how I’d do it.

Visual diversity is refreshing, and most systems can tolerate quite a bit of it. Yet somehow we still take visual uniformity as the given. We’re forced to make arguments for why things should be allowed to look or act differently.

The Cult of Brand and the Church of the Great Beige Website is very much with us. Modernity died years ago, but its effects linger on.

People may ask: Shouldn’t the Recycling Center page look like the Arts Center page? Shouldn’t these student pages look the same as the college pages?

I really believe the answer is no, unless it can be proved otherwise in the specific instance.

Variety doesn’t make you look slipshod, it makes you look human. And if it can be accomplished while keeping the system visually appealing and “usable”, it’s something to be admired, not avoided.

John Willinsky and the Ten Years War

If you’re interested in education and technology, go (now!) and listen to Jon Udell’s recent interview with John Willinsky. Then go listen to Willinsky’s fascinating 1 hour lecture which deals with everything from Issac Newton as proto-blogger to Wikipedia error rates to why our exam-book culture is selfish and anti-intellectual.

You might want to listen at home. I made the mistake of listening just now at lunch, and I don’t know how I’m going to work for the rest of the day.

I want to march. I want to start a revolution.

But since I left my musket and pitchfork at home, I got off the Willinsky lecture hyped up, and put the energy into browsing the web instead. And I bumped into an old friend in a surprising place.

Back in 1996/97 I worked at Northern Illinois University. And long story short, I sold them on an idea I called visible education. We did this site called The Persona Project, which was supposed to be a student produced encyclopedia of biographies.

Then I left grad school, and the site died a slow lonely death.

Here’s the weird bit. The site still exists. I just found out it’s still on NIU’s servers, here:

Apparently no one had the heart to delete it.

What a time machine that site is. And what a trip to see that I’m saying exactly the same things today, and calling them “Web 2.0”.

I’m not showing this to prove how smart and visionary I was in 1997 (although, come on, it *is* kind of cool).

But rather, reading through the site and seeing how much it matches with the Willinsky pieces, it just really brings something home for me.

We’ve been fighting this battle, off and on, for 10 years now. Some of us more than that. But when I listen to John Willinsky the ideas don’t sound old, or tired. I don’t roll my eyes and say “We’ve pushed for this for 10 years, it has no legs.”

When I hear Willinsky, I think, we’re almost there. One more push.

To some people that might sound like I’m in denial.

So be it. I’ve waited (and pushed) 10 years to get to this point. I can do another 10 years if I need to.

When you believe in something passionately, time just scales differently.

Universal Grammar, meet the Black Swan

OK, so I’ve never been that big a fan of Chomskyan grammar: I just never quite understood what one would *do* with it. Besides, sitting around dissecting sentences like “The large gray man fell on the radio stand” just paled in comparsion to analyzing how people actually talk:

Oh I w’s settin’ at a table drinkin’
And – this Norwegian sailor come over
an’ kep’ givin’ me a bunch o’ junk
about I was sittin’ with his woman.
An’ everybody sittin’ at the table with me were my shipmates.
So I jus’ turn aroun’
an’ shoved `im,
an’ told `im, I said,
“Go away,
I don’t even wanna fool with ya.”
An’ nex’ thing I know I ‘m layin’ on the floor, blood all over me,
An’ a guy told me, says,
Don’t move your head.
Your throat’s cut.

(From a transcription of a tape in Labov Some Further Steps in Narrative Analysis)

I mean, really, what’s more interesting, playing Chomsky-style mind games, or looking at techniques folks use to simulate POV in spoken discourse?

That’s a rhetorical question.

Given this, I couldn’t help but smirk reading this recent New Yorker article that claims Chomsky’s theory may be threatened due to some idiosyncracies in an obscure Amazonian language:

From the article:

Everett’s most explosive claim, however, was that Pirahã displays no evidence of recursion, a linguistic operation that consists of inserting one phrase inside another of the same type, as when a speaker combines discrete thoughts (“the man is walking down the street,” “the man is wearing a top hat”) into a single sentence (“The man who is wearing a top hat is walking down the street”). Noam Chomsky, the influential linguistic theorist, has recently revised his theory of universal grammar, arguing that recursion is the cornerstone of all languages, and is possible because of a uniquely human cognitive ability.

The article goes on and frankly it looks not quite as bad all that for the cult of Noam. Despite the rigor, one black swan is not going to upset his applecart, at least according to Stephen Pinker, who’s quoted.

So TG or Mark VI or whatever it is now will survive.

And be just as boring as ever.

Twittergram #2: Can we plug Jott into this?

OK, so it’s obviously Monday. Here’s twittergram #2:

I’m serious about the question — what if you took Jott and plugged it into Dave’s twittergram idea?

I can imagine getting twittergrams walking down the street, and replying by sending a message to Jott.

It’s interesting how this kind of relates to my post on Phatic Overhead — followed one way what Dave is proposing here is time shifted CBs.

Could be fun. Could be unbearable. Be interesting to see.

Keep on trucking, good buddy.

Messaging, Phatic Overhead, and the Right to Connect

There’s a number of articles, none of which I’ve read, that propose (or assume) that SMS messaging is used as a phatic system.

Under this analysis SMS is like the chatter of the monkeys in trees, a chatter which is primarily used to say

“Are you still there?”

“Yep. You?”

“Yep. Still here. How about now?”

And if you look at the way kids use it, that sounds about right.

It’s interesting to me that I tend to use it for the opposite reason: it cuts through all the phatic garbage and assumes you have the right to connect.

Meaning here’s what asking someone to come out for a drink looks like on the phone:

Phone rings. (Phatic – establishing connection)
Someone picks up. “Hello?” (Phatic – connection established)
“Hi, Ben?” (Phatic – identity check)
“Yeah. Hey Mike” (Phatic – identity confirmed)
“How’s it going?” (Phatic – is channel open, is this a good time?)
“Pretty good. You?” (Phatic – channel is open, go ahead)
“Not Bad. Hey, I’m heading out to Lab and Lager tonight, 5:30, you interested?” (FINALLY… the conative/referential)
“OK, well, see you then” (Phatic – closing channel, OK?)
“Yep, see ya. Bye.” (Phatic – channel closed)
“Bye.” (Phatic – channel closed)

Here’s what it looks like when texting:

“Heading out to Lab & Lager, 5:30. You interested?”
“Definitely. See you there.”

What’s interesting to me is how devoid that is of any channel talk. There’s a couple of reasons for that.

  1. The addressee can choose when to take the message, so there’s no channel talk regarding making the connection or on whether this is a good time.
  2. Identity is clearly established through technology, so that channel talk about who’s who dissappears
  3. With those hits removed, there’s no need to explicitly close the channel either. Checking before you close the channel only makes sense if there’s a hit to opening it.

Of course, the absence of phatic machinery in the conversation can be read the other way as well — a connection not explicitly opened or closed can be seen to be (or felt as) permanently open. And this perhaps leads to the related behavior the articles mention — trading low value information as a means of confirming the openess of the channel.

All of which reminds me of an interesting comment some of our students made in a focus group we had about how the college administration should communicate with them. Most felt that texting was more personal than phone calls and felt the college might be overstepping their bounds if we texted them. I mean, couldn’t we call or email instead? Texting them was just kind of … creepy.

To some, that may seem odd at first glance. We tend to think of written communication as less intimate than verbal communication.

But when seen in terms of channel, the intimacy makes some sense. The way these students are modeling the media goes something like this:

Email: No channel open. Each message a one-off, self sufficient.
Phone: Temporary channel open, explicit permission asked, granted, etc. Closed at end.
Texting: Channel always open. Right to connect pre-established.

At least, that seems to be something like the model. (Us older folks very often use email in a similar style to that of student messaging –kids that have grown up around SMS messaging are more likely to marry the medium with the style in their mind, and move these back and forth exchanges to messaging. To many of them, email resembles publishing more than conversation).