Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Birth of a Text

As I wrote the last post, I had one of those nagging notions that I was leaving something out, that I had not quite said what I needed to say. I kept writing, hoping that the idea would present itself, as it so often does in writing, but it didn't arrive.

Then today at the office I was looking at the new TED-ED site in preparation for a writing lesson about using imagery in documents. I navigated to a page in search of Hans Rosling's quite marvelous video about data visualizations, when I noticed this other video from Deb Roy about how he traced the birth of language in his child by recording his home over a period of several years. I thought I remembered the Roy video and thought that I might review it again after I watched the Rosling video, which was really the video I needed, so I grabbed my mouse and clicked on the Roy video. Of course, it proved to be the video that I was looking for all along. It visualizes the structures I was trying to capture in my last post and not explaining so well.

I think my mind functions mostly underwater, and I am able to see only the surface. Most of my cognition, like the Internet, is submerged and hidden. Things arrive on my screen and in my conscious mind, but I too seldom know how they got there. Usually I don't think about it. It can be too troubling.

Anyway, let's watch this video, and I'll try to make the connection to writing as a function of complex networks. Deb Roy:

What captures my attention first is our emerging ability to capture and investigate large data sets. This ability is critical, I think, for understanding the network nature of texts and writing (or anything else, really). Those who study writing, through either rhetoric or poetic or both, have long had an intuitive sense of the network nature of writing, and we have developed concepts such as genre and process writing and schools such as feminist studies to try to embody those intuitions. Yet, we have never had the ability to collect and investigate texts as Deb Roy and his associates do in this movie where they can position a given television show (a text) within its ecosystems of other TV shows and the resulting social and scholarly buzz. They have access to the computer systems and networks that allow them to collect and investigate an amount of data that simply was not possible to collect and investigate with paper, even though we sensed the presence of those network structures and actions like some great sea creature moving in the depths, not seen clearly enough for analysis or even identification, but definitely felt.

Not only does Roy have the tools to capture and investigate the networks within which a television show emerges or within which a baby learns a new word—both the show and the word are texts to my way of thinking—but Roy can also express those networks in images and movies that help us to see not only the text itself but its emergence, movement, development, and interactions within its ecosystem. In other words, he can visualize with incredible accuracy the patterns that before we could only intuit in the life of the text but could not capture with any accuracy. Those of us who have had children know that our babies develop language, but Roy captures exactly how they develop it, and he contextualizes the text in ways that we could only intuit about our own babies. He demonstrates conclusively that there is no text without a context. Likewise, there is no context with the texts.

Of course, he can also tease out patterns that we can't even intuit are there. This is one of the most exciting promises of the digital humanities, to my mind. At last, we have the technological tools and techniques (and the promise of more) to capture the kinds of data sets necessary to wrap our heads around a complex network structure such as Shakespeare's Sonnet 73, which some researcher will soon think of as a complex strand of DNA, with its own internal network structures, introduced into an ecosystem of complex networks, taking root there, and then growing rhizomatically as it feeds value into that ecosystem and eats value from that ecosystem. That's enough work to occupy the entire professional life of a literary scholar. It will take a university of scholars with massive computing power to map the genome and the rhizomatic development of The Bible. That would be a damned fine project to work on, though. I hope someone does it in my lifetime.


  1. Wow! I never heard of this technology. Absolutely amazing, especially the experiment with his son. It is funny, but it is very much the way animals do. My dog doesn't understand what I say, but she associates the words with an object or specific behavior which allows her to understand what I mean. It would be very interesting to use this technology in animal behavior too! Who knows how far we can get with this technology. We can definitely find out a lot more about the human mind and maybe find a solution to some unanswered questions.

  2. Yes, this is wonderful technology that shows us a pattern in life that we might have intuited if we thought about it, but that we would have found difficult to capture with old pen-and-paper technologies. New technologies allow us to see patterns in nature that have always been there, but that we too difficult to see with the naked eye. But, then, technology has always done that for us.