Saturday, October 27, 2018

The #MeToo Text: From Documents to Distributed Data #el30

This week's Electronic Learning 3.0 task is about distributed data, and it gives me a way to think about the #MeToo document that has occupied me for the past year and that has been the topic of several posts in this blog. In short, I take the #MeToo text (all several million tweets of it and more) to represent a new kind of distributed document that is emerging on the Net. Thus, it may be a manifestation of the kind of shift in how we handle data that Downes discusses.

Downes introduces his topic this way:
This week the course addresses two conceptual challenges: first, the shift in our understanding of content from documents to data; and second, the shift in our understanding of data from centralized to decentralized. 
The first shift allows us to think of content - and hence, our knowledge - as dynamic, as being updated and adapted in the light of changes and events. The second allows us to think of data - and hence, of our record of that knowledge - as distributed, as being copied and shared and circulated as and when needed around the world.
I teach writing--both the writing of one's own and the writings of others--which since the advent of Western rhetoric in Greece some three thousand years ago has focused on centralized documents. By that I mean that the function of a document (this blog post, for instance, or a poem or report) was to gather data, organize that data into a format appropriate for a given rhetorical situation, and then present that data in a single spoken or written text. This is generally what I teach my students to do in first-year college composition. This is what I'm trying to do now in this blog post. This is, at least in part, what Downes has done in his Electronic Learning 3.0 web site. Most Western communications has been built on the ground of individual documents or a corpus of documents (think The Bible, for instance, or the Mishnah or the poems of John Berryman).

This idea of a centralized document carries several assumptions that are being challenged by the emergence of distributed data, I think. First, the Western document assumes a unified author--either a single person or a coherent group of people. Western rhetoric has a strong tendency to enforce unity even where it does not exist (think of the effort to subsume the different writers of The Bible, for instance, under the single author God). The Western notion of author-ity still follows from this notion of a single, unified author, and the value and success of the document depends in great part upon the perceived authority of this author.

Along with a single, unified author, the Western document assumes a unity within itself. A document is supposed to be self-contained, self-sufficient. It is supposed to include within it all the data that is necessary for a reader to understand its theme or thesis. I don't believe that any document has ever been self-sufficient, but this is the ideal. A text should be coherent with a controlling theme (poetic) or thesis (rhetoric). The integrity and value of the text is measured by how well the content relates to and supports the theme or thesis.

And of course, a document should have a unity of content. It should have a single narrative, a single experience, a single argument. Fractured, fragmented narratives bother us, and they never make the best-seller lists. Incoherent arguments seldom get an A or get published.

There may be other unities that I could mention, but this is sufficient to make my point that we have a long history of aggregating, storing, and moving data in documents with their implied unities. And then along comes #MeToo: a million tweets and counting over days, weeks, and months. We have this sense that surely #MeToo is hanging together somehow, but is it really a single text?

Well, not in the traditional sense. It has no unified author. Just when we thought that Alyssa Milano started it, we learn that some other woman, Tarana Burke, used the phrase ten years ago. #MeToo isn't even a unified group. A million women are not a unified group. It has no unified thesis. It isn't even an argument. There is no dialectic or rationale. It has no unified content. We think it does because of the single hash tag, but each woman brings a unique set of experiences to her tweet: some have a leer or catcall, some gropings, others rapes or years of beatings. All of them have something different, something unique. They cover the gamut, the field, the space.

#MeToo is a swarm, and we really don't like swarms. Who's speaking here, to whom, and about what? What's the point? And what kind of document is this? How do I read it? How do I respond?

#MeToo is a rhizome, a fractal, and I'm thinking we will come to write and to read this way. We will think this way. Perhaps we always have, and our documents obscured that for us. #MeToo makes explicit a million neurons firing.

And finally, I must recognize that #MeToo could neither have been written nor read without our technology. This way of knowing, thinking, and expressing is possible only with help--in this case, Twitter to write it and somewhat read it--though reading millions of tweets is rather impossible for a single human to do. We need the data analysis powers of our computers to even approach a comprehensive reading of #MeToo. We need something like Valentina D'Efilippo's reading strategies and tools in her article "The anatomy of a hashtag — a visual analysis of the MeToo Movement".

I'm wondering, then, what happens when not only data is distributed and decentralized, but when documents themselves become distributed and decentralized. Is this fake news?

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