26 April 2007

Out of many, one: The acceptance of many views.

I've talked before about the need to accept the inconvenient existence of multiple of truths that exists in genealogy. Incomplete knowledge about the past is unavoidable. The past is gone and we are not getting back to put under a microscope. Even the present is difficult to pin down. We only know what we experience or someone tells us, which is pretty much what we know about the past, only through source material and what someone tells us. We are left frequently with only sketchy knowledge about family history. This leads to different families claiming the same individual, each with their own basket of evidence and story. I've learned to accept this as a reality and moreover, I've learned to accept this as being a Good Thing (or at least the best thing we can expect given the nature of reality).

The net it turns out is very good at handling incomplete information as it rapidly emerges and changes from multiple authorities. The applications emerging ont he web are gradually all taking on a similar shape. They all in one way or another incorporate the acceptance of many views. The wiki synthesizes a single view out of the many views of its authors. Social bookmarking (and other social networking) sites allow multiple "truths" to exist within the same space. The social network creates an ecology where authority can develop implicitly, without saying. Most of the social networks incorporate the many views or truths into some kind of aggregate view that is useful, a kind of single view out of many. This represents a democratizing of knowledge, but I hesitate to call it democracy since that is just one particular method for synthesizing a single truth out of many views. Democracy works in a very crude way by voting and we know that voting systems are subject to gaming by malicious people and other flaws. The kinds of systems, wikis, social networks, voting systems used by various collaborative news sites all represent vastly more sophisticated methods of synthesizing a single view out of many than democracy, which is relatively weak and produces a "tyranny of the majority" when not mediated by some system of individual rights.

I was explaining how social networking works to Tom Davenport today in regard to a farm website we are developing. I explained to him how if he had an account on a social bookmarking site, he would for his own benefit maintain and organize his bookmarks online. He would bookmark sites on pork and beef as he does now in Firefox. To do this he would create tags for Pork and Beef, organizing sites about pork and beef under those headings. Because the bookmarks are shared publicly and the tags exposed to to browse and search, a person can click on the Beef tag and discover his bookmarks (among others sharing their bookmarks). That person might click on his user profile to look to see what links he has on Beef. They might find his bookmarks are highly reliable and useful. Therefore, the user would be likely to turn to Tom's bookmarks when looking for accurate information on beef and cattle raising. They would not necessarily even know that Tom is a farmer, but they would discover him as an authority simply by observing the quality of his bookmarks on the topic. Tom Davenport implicitly becomes an authority. He implicitly shares his expertise with others. All without declaring himself a farmer or an expert on anything. Of course, he might mention in his profile he is a farmer; he might link to his farm site and you might have more reason to trust his bookmarks.

I tell this story because it illustrates the acceptance of many truths that lies behind the way the web works today. There may be ten thousand people on a social bookmarking site who think they know something about beef. Each may have a different idea of how to raise beef. Their bookmarks will implicitly reflect their knowledge, experiences and differences of opinion with others. The gestalt of the social network will reflect this diversity. The more accurate providers of bookmarks will become popular, the ones with less accurate bookmarks, reflecting radical, not very useful or very different views will remain less popular. One might object that this creates a kind of stagnation on popularity, but in reality it relates directly to the idea of the "Long Tail" where more people may be accessing the less popular bookmarks more than the popular. So the social network embodies two kinds of authority simultaneously. The authority of popularity and the authority derived from the long tail...the authority of individualism, of the disruptive idea, gives freedom to both kinds of authority and the freedom to move back and forth between the two kinds of authority...for the disruptive idea to start as a seed and grow to an oak, to move from being "indie" knowledge to "popular" knowledge all within the same framework.

It is fascinating that the web reflects this reality by its nature. That a concept coming from an obscure activity like genealogy is moving to the center of intellectual pursuits. That it can create a framework where out of many views a single truth can emerge without denying all the other views. It reminds me of the vast jumble of "junk genes" that we carry along in our DNA from our distant past, which are there because they might just come in handy some day. It reminds me of how organic the web is and utterly incomprehensible within the old framework of bell, book and schoolhouse knowledge it is becoming.

Only something organic can be becoming. And the web is always becoming. Always becoming something. A book is never becoming, it only was or is. Scholarship is locked into this model since the Enlightenment (oops, the E. slipped in there...was hoping not to mention it), what it means to posses knowledge, to share knowledge, to build knowledge and discover the truth is all changing now that we are connected to knowledge on the network. So strangely different than books. I've rambled enough for now and must retreat to the high tower of Brandymore again for the night.

22 April 2007

Social Science and Folklore

The kind of social science work exemplified by Albion's Seed and the kind of work done by folklorists demonstrates the value of vernacular material, the potential usefulness of photographs of ordinary people and places. The scholarship of Albion is based upon two pillars, the first is social statistics and the second is anecdotal. The latter is used to confirm and explore the culture as it existed, such as Byrd's secret diary. The former is used to verify anecdotal and cultural evidence (from the diaries and art of the time). In the eighteenth century photography had yet to be invented. This means that now is the first time we are beginning to use photographic evidence, the documentary tradition, as scholars have used written documents, letters and journals.

The photograph, and recorded visual imagery in general, which includes photography, video and any new technologies in the future, such as 3d visualization, present us with both a documentary record useful collectively to social science and an individual record similar to the anecdotal one of journals. Photographs are both evidence and require interpretation. What is in a photograph we can measure and aggregate into social statistics, what is happening in a photograph is open to interpretation. This is where context becomes important, since we must rely upon the anecdotal written record, upon stories and recounting of events to understand the image. If we fail to record the social context of the photograph or reconstruct it through providing context, we fail to understand the image.

In any event, there is a connection and relationship between social science and folklore, the aggregate and the particular, the evidentiary and the anecdotal that are required and mix together to create a more accurate picture of the past.

14 April 2007

More haiku

I wrote these last week or so.

The more you do
the more you are able to do
without knowing how

Willful spirits
explain our hates and loves
lightning strikes

Brandymore Castle
a castle
only in the imagination

Three haiku

Here is a haiku I wrote in 2005 after reading about the philosophy of haiku.

seems more than any count
of syllables

Here's one I wrote this morning.

On the beach
I made my mark in the sand
and covered it over.

And one in the afternoon.

My thoughts
are always jostling to explode
in eight hundred directions

The mind as storyteller

Jennifer Armstrong (author, The American Story) said in a talk (BookTv 1/29/07) at the Blue Willow Bookshop, "consciousness moves backwards and forwards in time." I stopped working as my mind dropped into gear and listened as she continued to talk about story telling and history. She had struck a chord in my mind with this observation. I thought how strange it is a thing to say. It seems obvious of course, since we all can move our minds back and forth over the events of our life, consider the future and reflect on the past. But it still struck me as strange.

She followed up her remark with a disclaimer reminding us that at the quantum level time is not very orderly or linear, a thought that occurred to me almost simultaneously with her first remark, a little voice rising against the implied linearity of time. However, the distinction between the mind's comprehension of time and natural time was made clear as was the capacity for the mind to create this construct of linear time in our heads out of the occurrence of events. It is a kind of tape recording of natural time in which we can move time back and forward at will. What gave rise to the strangeness is recognizing the linear conception of time and the ability to move forward and backward in it is a complete fabrication of the mind. We all think of time as obviously linear and fool ourselves into thinking that the time we move our minds back and forth over is the same as the time that exists in the natural world, but the time that exists in our mind is in reality a kind of narrative. I realized there exists a relationship between the mind's ability to move freely backwards and forwards through memory (within essentially a model of natural time) and narrative.

Although I am aware of the debate over the nature of time and that there is an argument that the mind orders time and creates it and that time may not be a physical reality, that what we know of as time is created by the persistence of memory just as a moving picture is created by the persistence of vision, the idea the consciousness moving within time was still striking. Science suggests there may be no "proper order" to the natural world and the linear way in which we perceive events may be an imposition of the mind. It suddenly seemed more important to understand this human view of time than to answer the question what time is in the physical universe, which seemed like a lesser question.

I was struck by the novelty of this idea of the consciousness moving backwards and forwards in time independent of actual time, knowing that one cannot actually move backwards and forwards in time, but the mind can, that it has the power to anticipate and reflect on time. That this storing of natural time as a mental narrative through memory, this ordering of events to comprehend them, is the basis of anecdote (the retelling of a series of events), which is the basis of storytelling. That memory ties in with narrative and natural time.

This reaffirms my belief that stories are the way the mind makes sense of the world, which consists entirely of chaotic sense perceptions. Narrative becomes the basic unit of thought. I believe stories are the way the human mind comprehends and make sense the events and phenomena of the surrounding natural world that come to it through sense perception. I believe storytelling evolved as a way for social animals to explain the world in the only terms they knew, social ones where natural events are caused by willful acts, just as in the social world all occurrences are willful acts of individuals. Storytelling is the most immediate and effective way of ordering and explaining social events. As our consciousness grew more powerful, this mechanism was adapted and extended to explain events of the nature world as willful acts powerful spirits and later people began to separate the events of nature from the supernatural actors, science slowly began to take over the job of telling the story of nature.

It might be said that the mind creates time by ordering events. I would go further than that, that not only does the mind create the ordering of events we know of as time, but that it creates "willful spirits" whose actions explain the events, which become a story. In ancient times, a willful spirit might have been a supernatural being where today the willful spirit may be a conspiracy or some other thing that may rationally be thought to exist. Since we no longer believe in capricious supernatural beings causing natural events, we choose our willful spirits carefully to accord with science and reason. Our mind still looks for the same explanations, we just sugar coat them so they acceptable to a rational society. It is interesting to note that this ability of the consciousness to move backwards and forwards in time arose, science tells us, approximately 50,000 years ago in a small group of humans who began to realize that if they found the tracks of an animal, that it had recently passed and might still be nearby. They could look forward into the future and know that if they followed the tracks they might come across the animal and make it their dinner. We take this ability so much for granted that we do not realize how significant a change this is. It is hardly imaginable, something akin to one of these experiments in simulating disability as part of making the healthy understand disability, what it must be like to not be able to perceive and manipulate time in this way. This underscores how much a part of our mind ordered time and narrative are.

12 April 2007

In Haiku, the tree and the person, are not very separated

I was talking with filmmaker Tom Davenport today and the discussion turned to my observations of a tree outside the window of my apartment, which over many years I have observed to display fascinating changes and cycles in response to climate. The conversation turned to haiku as he likened my noticing a leaf falling outside my window on a quiet day to haiku. I was startled when he said "in haiku, the tree and the person are not very separated."

This is an idea very close to Zen. I won't go into the details of Zen belief here, but one idea of Zen is that individuals can reach a state where they feel as if there is no separation between the self and the things making up the world around them. Scientists and Zen masters may debate exactly how and why this feeling arises in the human mind, but what is interesting is the possibility haiku may represent a kind of expression or record of this kind of merging of the individual with things. I found myself agreeing with his observation. He helped me see where the haiku does in a way bring the haiku writer and the tree very nearly together.

The haiku represents the tree very differently than a Western poem might. A poet might say "I sat under a beautiful tree one day..." but a haiku might say "golden tree; a leaf falls; I hear." The haiku tends to describe the subject and the perceptions of the haiku writer, and in so doing the tree becomes less separated from the person and the person a little less separated from the tree. The example is sketchy, but I think it gets to the heart of the difference between the haiku tradition and what is commonly thought of as poetry.

The poem uses the tree as a symbol. The haiku does two very strange things in comparison to the typical poem. It takes a photograph of the tree...in that it describes the tree instead of using an adjective like "beautiful." By describing and naming what is beautiful about the tree, all readers of the haiku can reconstruct the experience of the haiku writer in the same way a photograph reconstructs the scene for which we were not present. The other thing the haiku does is tell use what feeling was evoked by perceiving the tree. In haiku, words represent the tree as itself. Natural events are represented as they happen, and does not try to tell a story. Haiku avoids telling a story.

When it succeeds, poetry is said to communicate what it is like to be alive in the world. In the Western tradition, it achieves this only while sustaining a great deal of separation between the poet and the subject of the poem (the poem tends to deconstruct the tree more than reconstruct it, in that it does not leave the tree alone, but must apply adjectives to it). In the haiku, the writer and the natural phenomena are joined in the act of happening and perceiving, brought together and recorded as if by a camera. The haiku becomes a kind of photographic record of this merging of perceiver and the perceived.

I remembered reading some years ago to avoid adverbs and adjectives in haiku, because they lead to opinions placing things in context, so that by avoiding them "the haiku is left with images of things just as they are." (http://www.ahapoetry.com/haiku.htm 2005) A strong similarity to photography exists in the haiku. I am left to wonder if the photographer and subject are not very much separated once entangled in a photograph, perhaps they do steal men's souls after all.

08 April 2007

Mapping Card Photographs

Today, I posted the following to the GenPhoto email discussion group. I thought it would make a good addition to the blog as well.

Google has a new service called My Maps enabling anyone to create a public or private map containing descriptive markers for just about anything. The markers can contain rich text and images.

Card photographs make an ideal subject for mapping, since they generally are imprinted with the location of the photographer's studio on the back or front. This makes is possible to create a marker for each studio. If the photograph has a known date (a tax stamp date, indicated in writing or estimated from the card style or knowledge of the subject), studios can be mapped as the photographer moves.

I have mapped the known studio locations for J. G. Mangold, a significant nineteenth-century studio photographer and publisher of stereoviews in the Quad Cities region and Florida.

I encourage everyone to note the photographer's imprint on the back of the card photographs in their family collection and create markers on Google's MyMaps (or other similar collaborative or shared mapping services). It would be a fascinating exercise and could provide useful data on historic studio photographers to map their studios. For example, an overview of studio distribution could be seen; the movements of photographers as they migrated west could be made visible.

It is also possible to do this on wikimapia.org, which is a collaborative project where anyone can describe a location. You may find it a little more difficult to use than Google's MyMaps, but the
idea of an independent non-commercial (at least for now...I do not believe they are associated with the Wikipedia, but seems to be done in the same spirit) mapping project is appealing. I will leave that for others unless I have time to explore this possibility. I have not explored Flickr maps or Picasa albums or the wikimapia for this purpose yet.

It would be nice if Google maps could associate a date with the place, so that historical layers could be shown, so that historical locations and descriptions could be separated from contemporary ones. I made sure I put circa dates on the entries so people are not confused when the map comes up in Google search. It would be helpful, for example, to display locations between a range of dates, so that the studios between 1861 and 1865 only could be mapped. The distribution prior to 1861 could be mapped and compared to before and after the war.

What would be truly powerful is if the collaborative mapping could be combined with shared mapping to allow collectors of photographs and people with family photographs from the nineteenth-century to cooperate and somehow merge this kind of information. So that if I
create a map of studios from my card photographs and someone else does the same, that one could look up the photographer and see a combined list of all the locations. Or the same if everyone located the individual photographs. I suppose this might be possible through
Picasa if it were integrated into the mapping system or through Flickr's geotagging maps system for their albums.

What I need to do is attach an album of photographs to a location, since there can be more than one photograph and more than one imprint per location, but this is a good start. With Flickr or Picasa albums, I suppose it would be possible for collectors to put their photographs online, map them, and the display an aggregate map of all the images.

I hope to revisit the map with more data and pictures and in time explore the other possibilities.

The power to map any kind of data easily could have profound affects on folk studies, genealogy and social history.

01 April 2007

Free Broadband For You

Do you want free broadband? Look no further than Google's revolutionary Comm(on)-(m)ode network.

I want my TiSP !

Most people don't understand Americans ...

"Most people don't understand Americans because they don't know how frightening it had been to leave home completely and to pull up your roots and face the wilderness." -- Alan Lomax

I was startled by how Alan Lomax in the film Appalachian Journeys anticipates David Hackett Fischer's findings in Albion's Seed, discovering evidence of British folkways transplanted to America. Speaking of the poetry and song of the Scots-Irish, Lomax observes "This 70,000 square miles of beautiful tangled green hills allowed this British tradition time to reshape itself ... when it was being cut to pieces by the industrialization of Great Britain, it was finding a new home here ... taking on a new life ... a life out of the corn fields, the feuds and the whisky stills..." Americans were shaped by the unique environment of a new land, but they were were also shaped by the persistence of old world culture.

Although, the unique flora and fauna of America, such as the poisonous snakes, "which few Britains had ever seen," shaped American identity and expression, "much also was carried over from Great Britain like this jumping jack and its jigging step" which was still popular in English pubs as well as the Appalachians when the film was made. Lomax makes many of the same connections between Great Britain and America made in Albion's Seed.

You can see the film Appalachian Journey on the Folkstreams.net website.