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Context on the Web

Summary: Microcontent in the form of sound bites, links and text extracts
are the lingua franca of the Web. But the flipside is that context morphs very easily, so
what are the moral and ethical implications of that?

Following on from my post the other day about Systems Builders, in which I
touched on these themes: synthesis, analysis, visonaries, implementers. Some interesting
trackbacks occured out of this. Let me first mention Jon Udell’s post this
, because his discussion of “sound bites” is particularly relevant to the
points I want to make here. Paul Graham made a speech at Oscon 2004 that caused ripples
of controversy around the Web. Ironically I haven’t heard that particular speech yet, but
I read Graham’s ‘Great Hackers’ essay and
listened to an earlier
he did with Doug Kaye. Here’s what Jon said about Graham’s Oscon

“Consider Paul Graham’s remark. I suspect that most who commented on it
did not actually hear it, but instead read it, or read about it. How much of its impact
is conveyed by the text, and how much by the delivery? Whatever that ratio, access to the
primary source — the words as actually spoken — is bound to affect the perception of
the remark.”

It’s all about context. According to Jon’s quote above, how you take Graham’s remarks
will depend largely on whether you heard them in the original audio or in text form
(transcription, synthesis, extracts, etc). I’d go further and say that how you received Graham’s remarks also depends on whether you listened to just an extract of the speech, or the whole thing. The most reliable context is listening to all of the
original audio.

Jon Udell goes on to say:

“In the realm of public discourse, it’s easy to imagine what this could
mean. The presentation and analysis of sound bites has been almost entirely at the
discretion of the broadcast media. Think how different it will be when we the media can
choose the sound bites that we want to discuss.”

Jon is putting a positive spin on the situation – every Joe and Jane Bloggs can now
put things into their own contexts. We don’t rely on broadcast media to do that so much

But… there’s a flip side to that coin. Before I get to that, here’s a bit more from

“Think about how we “write up” meetings today. Some people try to
transcribe, and fail to synthesize. Others synthesize, at the risk of revising history. A
collective synthesis rooted in the audio transcript seems like the best of both

It’s true that a “collective synthesis” is very democratic and has wider breadth, because it’s not just a
product of a broadcasting elite (i.e. journalists). But let’s not overlook the corollary
of that: the more people you have transcribing, analyzing and synthesizing audio and text
on the Web, the more things get taken out of their original context. For example,
something that makes a great deal of sense within the context of the original source file,
can take on a totally different meaning if you take a snippet of the original file and
put it into your own post which is on a different subject.

Paul Graham wrote a number of controversial things in his ‘Great Hackers’ essay. For
example, this paragraph:

“Hackers like to work for people with high standards. But it’s not
enough just to be exacting. You have to insist on the right things. Which usually means
that you have to be a hacker yourself. I’ve seen occasional articles about how to manage
programmers. Really there should be two articles: one about what to do if you are
yourself a programmer, and one about what to do if you’re not. And the second could
probably be condensed into two words: give up.”

When I read that in the original essay, I understood the point he was trying to make:
that to manage hackers you need to understand their spirit, to be in the same headspace.
That theme was recurrent throughout his essay and therefore it strongly resonated with
me. But when you take that paragraph out of the context of the rest of his essay (as I’ve
done just now), it becomes much more blunt and the meaning changes. In fact when that
paragraph is isolated from the rest of the ‘Great Hackers’ essay, as in Andrew’s post yesterday, I now
find I disagree with what Graham says. I don’t agree that only programmers can
manage other programmers – that’s just plain wrong. In my view a visionary may not be a
programmer, yet he or she can certainly lead a team of programmers in the implementation
of his or her vision. Examples are Mitch Kapor and Marc Canter.

So you see my point? I had two different reactions to Paul Graham’s paragraph on
managing programmers – I agreed with him in the context of his original essay, but I
disagreed with him when I read it again in Andrew’s post.

Incidentally, at the end of his post Jon Udell mentioned Glenn Gould’s The Idea of
North (did he get that link from me, via my link to him?).
The form of audio splicing that Gould did in The Idea of North is one method of putting
things people say into new contexts and creating new meaning out of that. That was
re-contextualizing as art, but what’s happening now on the Web is context-morphing on a
mass scale.

Microcontent in the form of sound bites, links and text extracts are the lingua franca
of the Web. They enable us to bootstrap the Web of Ideas. But context on the Web is much
more fluid and it morphs very easily. So when we link to something (a piece of
audio or text) but give it a different meaning – what are the moral and ethical
implications of that?

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