The Burnt Book by Marc-Alain Ouaknin

What do you get when you cross Derrida and Kabbalah? Something like “The Burnt Book”, a postmodern interpretation of Talmud and other traditional Jewish texts by Marc-Alain Ouaknin, a French rabbi and philosopher from a Sephardi rabbinic family and the French postmodern tradition. Ouaknin is a disciple of Levinas; he brings Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, Blanchot, and other European thinkers to his reading of traditional Jewish texts; and he brings the Rabbinic tradition, including Kabbalistic and Hassidic mystical traditions to his understanding of postmodern philosophy; the combination is a distinctive and wild fusion.

This post is part of a series exploring the work of thinkers who explore the resemblances of traditional Jewish thought and post-modern theory. Like David Kraemer, in “Mind of the Talmud” Ouaknin reads the Talmud’s rhetoric as the expression of a philosophical approach that explores truth in multiple voices and un-resolved arguments. Like David Frank, in Arguing with God, Ouaknin shows have this approach is different from the tradition of Western philosophical dialog, contrasting the multi-voiced argument in the Talmud with Platonic dialogues, where one of the characters is present as a foil for the other.

Engaged interpretation

Unlike Kraemer, who uses a historical approach to trace the origins of Talmudic rhetoric, Ouaknin rejects the historical perspective, and prefers an immersed and interpretive style of reading (Chapter 6). Ouaknin’s ahistoricism appears to draw from a common orthodox perspective; from this perspective, a historical reading is alienated and impersonal. “To whom are the texts of the Tradition addressed? For the historian the answer is simple: to everyone except himself”. By contrast, the ahistorical view allows for living, personal engagement. “The existential approach is based on the personal involvement of the interpreter in the event of understanding.” In contrast to traditionalists, though, Ouaknin wants to use the ahistorical approach to generate innovative interpretations.

The first five short chapters provide an accessible summary of traditional Jewish literature and its interpretive methods, from the perspective with which the tradition sees itself. “We will not be giving a description of the history of the Tradition, but the tradition of the history of the tradition.” In the tradition of the tradition, Moses hears revelation from God, writes it down, and conveys in oral teachings more context than is written in the bible. The point of view of traditional self-perception yields sentences like this: “since Hebrew is a consonantal language, no vowel that would provide for a more precise reading should appear”. From this traditionalist perspective, Hebrew is a consonantal language in order to deliberately enable ambiguity of interpretation; rather than as an accident of the evolution of writing scripts. As someone infected by modern notions of history, the unbracketed perspective seems a bit jarring. The historicist and charitable way to say the same thing is that the Rabbis took advantage of the consonantal language of the script to create fruitful interpretations.

If you are familiar with the tradition of the tradition, you can skim this section; though it has some tasty snippets of midrash and interpretation. If you are less familiar, it’s a nice intro, if you prefer or can tolerate the traditional self-perception.

Post-modern talmud

Drawing the traditional interpretive framework, Ouaknin highlights a variety of aspects of Talmudic rhetoric that exemplify post-modern traits. Ouaknin draws on Blanchot and R. Nachman to highlight the importance of the open-ended question in the Talmudic genre; Talmudic discussions start with questions (rather than definitions), as is common in Greek philosophy and its descendants. Ouaknin elaborates on “Makhloket” – the classic form of Talmudic dispute between pairs of sages in each generation who are continual opponents – Hillel and Shammai, Rav and Samuel, Abbaye and Rava, etc. In Makhloket, reconciliation is not sought… we would have to talk of an open dialectic, since no synthesis, no third term, cancels out the contradiction.”

Following Levinas, Ouaknin reads the Talmud’s classic interpretive method, “gezerah shavah”, “analogy by common term” as a process of interpretation that opens up a vast amount of creative space by bringing the context of each quote to inform the other.

Like Kraemer, Ouaknin uses the familiar story of the Oven of Aknai to make the point about dialectic. In homiletic style, though, Ouaknin creates his own interpretation. The Talmud says of Talmudic discussion “The words of one and the words of the other are the words of the living God. Ouaknin’s own take” “The sentence should be understood as conditional” “*If* there are words of one *and* words of the other, *then* they are words of the living God. This is nice, and an example of Ouaknin acting as a participant not an observing analyst.

Opening up, incompleteness, instability

Ouaknin’s style melds the serious play of Jewish mystical tradition, and the wordplay of Derrida and other French school postmoderns; words, letters and meanings are combinatorially re-assembled, exploring themes of presence and absence, intertexuality, multiplicity, incompleteness. In the section on “Openings”, Ouaknin reads and interprets midrash on idiosyncrasies in the passed down scribal tradition of the writing of torah scrolls. Various dots and symbols in the text are interpreted like pre-GUI typesetting codes, erasing, transposing, cutting, pasting, and otherwise transforming the meaning of the coded text.

Ouaknin describes the paradoxical effect of these erasures: “Once effaced, these two verses no longer exist, but, as a result, their effacing and the meaning of this effacing are themselves effaced, forgotten. Therefore the effacing should be done without effacing, and we should perhaps write indicating the effacing, leaving a trace of the existence of this intention of an impossible effacing” This echoes Derrida, in its style and content illustrating a shimmering indeterminacy of meaning. Trace is a Derridian technical term, referring to ways that the meaning of language always depends on things that are not said.

When I read Derrida back in the day, I wondered whether he was at all familiar with the play of Midrash; his family was assimilated, his education was Western, and his life was secular. Regardless of Derrida’s intention (!), Ouaknin reads the Midrash back into Derrida. There are similarities and differences that are more complex than they may appear – deconstruction works to destabilize authority and gives the critic the last word; Ouaknin’s midrash insists that there is no such thing as the last word; and gives creative power to each reader who can innovate. Ouaknin’s radical theology insists that the presence that animates the play of meaning is only visible in its absence (the burnt book theme); but his normative orientation and reading of postmodernist themes back into sacred texts creates a gravitational pull that adds back reverence where Derrida would not find it.

The Mystical Tradition

Ouaknin approaches postmodern rabbinics with distinctive background in Kabbalah and Hassidism. Ouaknin uses the mystical sources and techniques to generate meanings; he plays them off of postmodern sources to create a unique take on these ideas. I can’t count the number of times in undergrad when the teacher said that text comes from the latin Tissus, to weave (this was Yale in the 80s.). Ouaknin brings a section of the Zohar, in which a phrase is broken into horizontal and vertical columns, and read both vertically and horizontally. “Here we are really confronted with a “text” that must be understood in its etymological meaning: fabric, texture, built by interweaving of vertical threads (warp) and horizontal threads (woof). The Gaon of Vilna, speaking of this diagram, explicitly uses the term “woven.” Ouaknin then segues to Julia Kristeva.

Mysticism isn’t my primary disposition, I confess. Whereas text interpretation sets up interplay between the reader and the text, mystical readings strike me as arbitrary and unmoored; pretending to being interpretation but being fully self-expression. I like abstraction in art, but I’m puzzled to the pretension at coded messages. The same techniques that can be used to compute hidden messages from the text of the Torah can derive messages from the text of Tolstoy, or the phone book. It’s not a matter of belief in one text or other – getting messages from an source of alphabet material is a matter of algorithm not source text. It’s a matter of esthetics, I suppose. When the readings are insightful (as Ouaknin is), and the emphasis is more on interpretation than on literalism and “proof” (as Ouaknin does) I can enjoy mystical interpretations as tours de force.

Rabbi Nahman and atheism

Ouaknin draws the image of the Burnt Book most strongly from the work of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav. This Chassidic master is best known for his stories; Ouaknin reads him in his more neglected role as a philosopher.

Rabbi Nachman wrote several esoteric works, and then had their copies destroyed, believing that their existence endangered his life and the life of his family. Ouaknin connects the burning of R. Nachman’s own books with the Chassidic Master’s take on the classic myth of Lurianic Kabbalah. In order to create the world, God needed to constrain Godself to leave enough room for the world to be created. The world as it is, is devoid of God, other than little divine sparks scattered in toxic container fragments, as a result of a sort of explosives accident during the creation. The burnt books are analogues of this self-constrained divinity, they are present only in their absence.

The Kabbalistic myth, and the tale of the burn book both serve as powerful illustrations of the Derridian trace. The picture of assembling truth out of a million scattered sparks of Godstuff is a different image of the postmodern fragmentary alternative to systematic truth. WIth these ideas of presence-in-absence, Ouaknin gets to be engaged with the atheism and decenteredness of modern/postmodern thought, while maintaining the gravitational pull of God and meaning. He can be an atheist in thought, while keeping God on the other side of the screen.

What’s hidden behind the screen?

The image of the screen that hides the divine from sight is a core image in the central section of the book on eroticism and transcendence. In an upcoming post on the Burnt Book (part 2 of 3) I’ll talk about this section. Things will get strange. To be continued…

Variants of the golden rule

There are different versions of basic ethical principles that are common across cultures, and may have roots in the evolutionary advantage of cooperation.

The famous New Testament version is “do unto others as you would have done unto you.” A Talmudic version has a subtle, but notable difference, “what is hateful to you, do not do unto others.” The difference may relate to differing attitudes toward proselytizing. Someone who would want to have been converted to Christianity would offer the same benefit to others. By contrast, someone who would prefer not to be proselytized would recommend against inflicting others with one’s beliefs.

In many situations, I like the Wiccan version of the golden rule, “do as ye will an ye harm none.” The cautionary clarification is that “harm none” includes the self – so practices that are pleasurable but self-destructive would be discouraged.

There’s another variant that I wish existed but haven’t seen anywhere. “Do unto others as they would have done unto them.” This assumes that what the other person wants may be different from what you want, and encourages you to treat them as they would wish to be treated. The other ones are easier, the roots of empathy and avoiding harm are found in one’s own feelings – this one requires reflecting on how another’s wants are different.

Wikipedia has a whole catalog of cross-cultural variants, here. What do you think?

Social recommendations and the Eliza Effect

In a post on on Algorithmic Authority one of Adrian Chan’s key points is to displace the critique of the authority claim from the recommendation itself to the users’ acceptance or rejection of the recommendation. “Authority, in short, depends perhaps on the user, not on the algorithm, for it is only on the basis of the user’s acceptance that authority is realized. It is subjectively interpreted, not objectively held.” However, there are a number of problems in severing the communication from its reception.

The example at hand came from Facebook’s flawed friend recommendations. These suggest that you friend or re-contact people, apparently based on an analysis of your social network and communication patterns. These recommendations are particularly annoying because of visual design, and even more so because of social design. The recommendations are featured prominently in the interface, and impossible to suppress without effortful, power-user techniques like Greasemonkey scripts. The big problem is social design. Dennis Crowley, co-founder of Dodgeball and later Foursquare, described the classic flaw with social network based recommendation as the “ex-girlfriend” problem – when an algorithm detects a person that you haven’t communicated with in a while, there is often some very good reason for the change in communication pattern.

The flaw in social network based friend recommendations is related to Adrian’s recent critique of social network analysis. The social network map is not the territory – the visualization of lines of connection based on explicit communications leaves out critical information about the directionality and the content of the communication. A gap in communication may be an unintentional lapse in attention or a rupture; frequent communication may be a sign of closeness or flamewar.

One problem with this misreading of social network analysis results is that the more personalized and personal recommendations, the more likely they are to trigger the Eliza effect, which is “the tendency to unconsciously assume computer behaviors are analogous to human behaviors.” The more a computer impersonates human, the more people will tend to anthropomorphize the computer, and have a strong emotional response to that computer which acts as a human. The converse reason for a strong emotional response to a poorly personalized recommendation can also come into play. The “Uncanny valley” is the name of the disconcerting effect when computer simulations that are nearly but not quite human. People find simulations that are close to human much more annoying than simulations that are more cartoonlike.

It is risky to simply dismiss the effect of pervasive messages, even messages that are not acted upon. Marketers have long considered the psychological effects of communication; marketing messages and frames affect consciouslness even if the listener does not take immediate action, even if the listener superficially ignores the message, even if if the listener superficially disagrees.

You can’t unsee and you can’t unhear. This effect is most visible at the extremes; thus the disturbing effect of chatroulette, the random-navigation chat program that has attracted people in search of random conversation and entertainment, and plenty of flashers. If someoene doesn’t want to see the private parts of random people they should stay off chatroullette; clicking past the flasher doesn’t solve the problem, because you can’t unsee.

Sure, bad social system recommendations are merely annoying; they don’t make us take any action we don’t want to do; but just because we haven’t taken action doesn’t mean the recommendations have had no effect.

The holy grail of internet marketing has been to make recommendations that are powerful and compelling because they are personal, based on a wealth of information based on the user’s personal behavior and actual social network. The lesson for social designers is that it is possible to make recommendations that are not-quite-right, that are more annoying to users because they are more personal. Being personal can be touchy; requiring care and caution, and avoiding overconfidence.

Adrian’s post on Algorithmic Authority has a broader scope, dealing with the larger sociological implications of the idea of algorithmic authority proposed by Clay Shirky, and refining some distinctions on the topic I proposed here. If you haven’t read it, it’s worth consideration.

Buena Vista Social Club and Calle 54

This past weekend I watched the Buena Vista Social Club movie. I had never seen it before for no good reason. I loved the album when it first came out, had it on repeat(n) for months. The Amazon reviews for Buena Vista also referred to Calle 54, a film about Afro-Cuban jazz directed by Spanish directory Fernando Prueba (La Belle Epoque), who is a big fan of Latin jazz. Many of the Amazon reviewers liked Calle 54 better. I thought that judgement was unfair – they were quite different films.

In Buena Vista, director Wim Wenders shows the shabby beauty of late-90s Havana, and the joy and skill of the musicians’ performing and interacting. The movie cuts among travelogue scenes; stories of the musicians in their 70s-90s who were stars in the pre-revolutionary “son” style, returning from obscure retirement, and snippets of music footage. The highlight of the film is a blazing performance of ”El Cuarto de Tula” led by singer Ibrahim Ferrer.

The story telling is implicit and simple on the surface. On the one hand, translating into words cheapens the effect (triumph of the human spirit, universal language, ageless zest for life). On the other hand, the musicians are portrayed as characters in a fable. It’s the way they are interviewed and tell their stories, “I was born in poverty, in a mountain town.” It’s in the way their material and social circumstances are portrayed – jazz pianist Ruben Gonzalez no longer owns a piano and plays at a gym for competitive gymnastics hopefuls. Singer Ibrahim Ferrer continues the folk spiritual tradition as he gives daily librations of rum to his santeria altar; the image is a carving given to him by his mother. A PBS “making of” essay has an interesting perspective about the fable-like quality of the musicians’ stories – as entertainers and performers of folk-derived popular music, they contributed to the mythical flavor of their own stories.

The language and class barriers make a difference. You can see it in the way the musicians talk about Ry Cooder. Ferrer is surprised that a song he tossed off as a warmup was recorded and used on the album – “Ry Cooder liked it.” Throughout his career, Ry Cooder has searched for great music as a student and seeker, and collaborated with musicians from a variety of traditions in various parts of the world. He endured a lot of hassle from the US government in making this film, and tries pretty hard to stay in the background in Buena Vista, instead of taking center stage, white-guy-hero style. Part of the reason the Buena Vista album is great is Ry Cooder’s musical sensibility. Either I am a philistine vulnerable to his accessible cross-cultural raidings, or Ry Cooder has a great ear for affecting music, perfect songs, and clear, unsentimental production. I’m not going to dismiss the movie on political correctness grounds. Still, the economic and political situation shows in the relationships; Cooder is obviously the person giving the Cuban musicians the opportunity to play again and to travel.

The movie has very little overt politics (at the end of the movie, it shows revolutionary slogans on the walls, which have clearly failed to deliver). This is a strength and a weakness; you know that some combination of US and Cuban government activity has contributed to the musicians’ hardships, but you don’t know what or how. The portrayal of Havana has a faded romanticism; which, to be fair, isn’t distinctively colonialist on Wim Wenders’ part, he applies his romantic view of landscape equally to European cities viewed from the eyes of strangers (Wings of Desire) and dusty, declining American rural towns (Paris, Texas).

Unlike Buena Vista Social Club, which highlights the music but places the characters, landscape and story ahead of the music, Calle 54 shows complete, extended musical performances. This makes it less of a filmic work of art, but allows viewers and listeners to get more of the music and the musicians.

Calle 54 doesn’t have the same language and class barriers that affect Buena Vista Social Club, and represents musicians in a different set of circumstances. Calle 54 highlights a set of musicians active in Latin/Afro-Cuban jazz — the flavors of carribbean-jazz fusion that evolved along with early jazz, flowered in new york in the 40s and 50s, in the 70s alongside the salsa craze, and continues until today. Most of the musicians in Calle 54 had continuous careers, with ups and downs. Gato Barbieri had retired for apparently mostly personal reasons, but had already returned to performing by the time the film was being made.

Prueba is from Spain; the film is in Spanish with subtitles. He interviews the musicians, who, in snippets in the movie, and especially in an excellent DVD add-on, talk about their careers and the history of the music they play. In separate interviews, the musicians share similar answers, about the African traditions and rhythms that are the foundation of the music, and the bidirectional networks of collaboration among US and Carribbean musicians that formed this fusion.

I love the stories of the interactions among the musicians and traditions – how the different African traditions contributed to Cuban music – how New Orleans musicians would come to Cuba, march in the parks during the day, and play in the clubs at night – how Dizzy Gillespie sought out Cuban musicians to forge the style, and much later gave a phone call to the young starstruck Jerry Gonzalez to fill in for a missing percussionist. Gonzalez later took the lessons to found his own Fort Apache Band. Wherever one looks, cultural collaborations are always (always) more inter-related and weirder than romantic myths.

One of the artistic tensions shown in the film is between the musicians desire to play popular dance music, and more musically challenging jazz. Big band leader Arturo O’Farrill says that he was motivated to write music by the desire to add compositional interest to the simpler structures of Cuban popular dance music; Paquito D’Rivera talks about the tension in Irakere between making hits like Bacalao con Pan and jazzier, more complex pieces. Another of the tensions is in the musicians efforts to combine traditions with integrity and interest; Prueba talks about attempts to combine flamenco and jazz with varying success.

I am no expert or connoisseur; and have no special technical or cultural background, I just listen, but to my ears the tensions result in plenty of interesting and lively music for further listening. My favorite moments were the piano duet between formerly estranged father and son, Bebo and Chucho Valdes; the Paquito d’Rivera band, the Fort Apache band. Gato Barbieri’s tone just kills but his band wasn’t that interesting to me. Eliane Elias’ piano doesn’t do much for me. I can’t tell if it’s her playing, my taste, or if my ears have been ruined by film scores and hotel lobbies.

Like Buena Vista, calle 54 is mostly apolitical on the surface. The part that seems to me like visible social commentary is the interviews of the Gonzalez brothers of the Fort Apache band, named after the rough Bronx neighborhood they grew up in. The myth in American media is that the neighborhood was an irredeemable wilderness; the reality was more complex, with lively culture, poverty, and social problems co-existing; in the DVD add-on, Andy Gonzalez tells the story of an attempted mugging at a subway station coming home from a gig, by some junkies who were after his bass, the junkies were chased off by the sight of a cop car. His brother tells a story about leading a pack of young teenagers sneaking into a local amusement park to hear a jazz band play.

in summary, Buena Vista Social Club is more of a fable, and Calle 54 is more of a music film. In part because of the film-making, and in part because of circumstance, in Buena Vista the story is largely about the musicians, and in Calle 54 the story is largely told by them. I liked and recommend watching them both, and then raiding the discographies if you haven’t already been big fans.

Trust is contextual

As healthcare reform passes, I’m having a strong but respectful disagreement with a friend over twitter on the nature and impact of this change. I know him through professional circles and I’d recommend him for jobs; and I’d trust him to pick me up on the highway if I was stuck in his town. But I wouldn’t trust him for advice in political matters. There are friends whose political judgement I trust and seek out, but whom I wouldn’t trust to take me to a concert or a movie I’d like. There are people who’s advice I’d take personally but not economically, and vice versa. Trust is faceted. Trust is contextual.

Craig Newmark, who combats untrustworthy behavior every day on Craigs list, believes that distributed trust is the next big problem for the internet to solve. If Google, Facebook, and Amazon got together, they might be able to address this problem of untrustworthiness online. Jay Rosen, who I trust and think is wise about many issues, agrees a distributed trust network is needed.

I am a huge fan of distributed solutions to many problems, but not this one. Trust is contextual. Even trust within a specific online service can’t be generalized. The other week I was scouring the music recommendations of a prolific Amazon reviewer with deep musical taste in areas I like. That same reviewer’s opinions about religion and politics are 180 degrees away from mine. He could buy me a recording sight unseen and I’d probably love it, but I couldn’t read most of his book recommendations without throwing them.

Bruce McVarish believes that the trusted circle will start with people we trust in real life. But even in a close personal circle, trust is contextual. Even among my family and closest friends, there are different people I would trust for different things.

Trust can be extended along specific and faceted lines. In the important area of transactional trustworthiness, ebay-style ratings are critical. A distributed solution for transactional trustworthiness could be quite useful. It would be handy to have distributed trust metrics that could be extended across services in a given domain – I’d love to follow the Amazon music recommender across his various music services on Last.fm and Spotify and so on. But trust in any one domain doesn’t extend to other domains. Someone might be a meticulously reliable seller of used books and electronics, but they might be a horrible filter for news, which is the area that Jay Rosen cares about; or they might be personally unkind, so wouldn’t make personal trust list.

There is no general distributed trust solution to be had. Trust is always contextual.

Postscripts

Update 1: a few more thoughts, in response to some questions on Twitter and in comments

Trust, here, is the inverse of reputation.

For the facets of trust where there might be some tractable technology help, the facets need to be addressed with different kinds of technology augmentation.

* In the area of transactional trust – do I trust you to deliver this used book on time in the condition you promised – trust may be represented as a number. If your trust score is 99/100 I’ll buy the book. If your trust score is 62/100 I won’t buy the book from you.
* But in the context of opinions and tastes – would I like your movie recommendations – the number is not so useful by itself, but only as an indicator about similarity of opinion. So, if an algorithm says that our tastes are 75% similar, then I may want to subscribe to your movie recommendations.

So, for transactional trust, a distributed trust solution might aggregate a reputation score. For opinion trust, a distributed trust solution might calculate a score based on actions in multiple services, but then aggregate the actions (like movie recommendations) across services. Last.fm’s music similarity scale works along these lines already, based on aggregating listening information. Last allows users to scrobble their listening across services, shows how similar your taste is to others, and then allows you to explore the listening of these others.

Also, to anticipate another question, in social media, recommendations and other such trust-building actions are social gestures, not just quantitative ones. I recommend a movie to show off my own taste, to be generous to friends, to amuse, to give a gift, to express my similarity or difference with a public, and so on. And within this social dynamic, it would be helpful to be able to identify people who have enough similarity to want to share these gestures; to aggregate the identification across services, and to aggregate the recs across services.

Update 2 in response to comments from Thomas Vander Wal and Charles Green.

It’s important to consider that the set of circumstances where technology help with trust problems is really constrained. Both Vander Wal and Green spend much of their time helping with people to communicate better in groups – in these situations, the responses are largely about people, customs, culture, values, leadership, facilitation, tummeling. Tools are small part of the response, compared to the human aspects. Charles Green summarizes well: “The things that can be scaled up through numbers on the internet are important, but limited.”

From the perspective of technologists, numbers and tools are hammers, and social concerns may look like nails. Technologists tend to overestimate the set of problems that can be addressed by technology. Part of the job of those of us working in social software and social media is to be analytical enough, and humble enough, to identify the things that are tractable with metrics and tools, and those things that need to be handled by people regardless of tools.

Even the frame of “problems to solve” that technologists bring is part of the problem, sometimes. Even with good will, people are always different, with different perspectives and interests. Buber, Levinas (and other purveyors of wisdom) remind us that people being different is a fundamental condition of life and an opportunity, not a problem. Sometimes there is no “solution” because problem is often the wrong frame.

Eve’s revenge – the snake made us human

In The Fruit, the Tree, and the Serpent: Why We See So Well, anthropologist Lynn Isbell makes the case that humans evolved distinctive capabilities to see and to communicate, in response to snakes, the most dangerous predator of our primate ancestors. The book marshalls evidence across a range of disciplines: neuroscience, primate behavior, paleogeography, molecular biology, and genetics to make the argument.

Isbell’s argument sounds like “Eve’s revenge” against the argument in Terrence Deacon’s Symbolic Species. While Isbell argues that “the snake did it”, the Deacon argues that “Adam did it” – humans’s understanding of symbols evolved to express the sexual ownership of women by men. In his book, Harvard neurologist and anthropologist argues that the understanding of symbols is the main differentiator of human intelligence. Humans invented an abstract symbol and group ritual – such as wedding rings and marriage cermonies – to mark the fact that a woman is the exclusive sexual property of a man. This allowed humans to live co-operatively in groups (which enables more efficient hunting and gathering).

Both stories are fascinating assemblages of scientific evidence making arguments about the origins of distinctively human capabilities. But, as I said in a blog post about the Symbolic Species, Deacon’s argument skips over alternative explanations of the same evidence. The ability to see beyond immediate evidence to consequences remote in time and space can be explained with Robin Dunbar’s hypothesis of gossip, or storytelling in general. Deacon himself argues that language is overdetermined; there are so many advantages that it’s hard to tell what came first.

I enjoyed Deacon’s book for the evidence it brought about how the human brain processes language, and I look forward to reading Isbell’s book, which I read about in the Atlantic review, for the research she assembles about the evolution of vision and cognitive capabilities. But I strongly suspect that I’ll think about Isbell’s argument what I thought about Deacon’s – there is evidence for it, but there are also many other ways to explain the path of evolution, and no solid way to prove these explanations of the distant past. We’re humans, so we search for causes and tell origin myths, even when we’re using the tools of science.

Dunbarred

to be Dunbarred (definition): to have so many people as friends/followers in a social network that one can no longer easily pay attention to new people. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed that there is a limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain social relationships, and that the limit is a function of relative neocortex size; humans can maintain larger relationship networks than other primates, for example. See Wikipedia Dunbar Number. There are various hypotheses about what the limits might be and what they mean – the core idea is that we’re limited in the number of people we can connect with.

Update: the Urban Dictionary had a definition of to dunbaras a transitive verb, posted by judiec on Feb 4, 2010, meaning to unfriend someone because you already have too many friends.

To intentionally remove someone from your circle of friends by avoiding contact, hiding or in extreme measures moving away. This will normally be necessary due to dull behaviour, fun sapping or heightened arrogance.

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So I submitted the intransitive definition, to be overloaded. Thanks, Audrey for the Urban Dictioary reference.

Social media subcultures

Bora Zivovic recently pointed out an interesting study by Christina Pikas, which looked at link and comment connections between science blogs to look for clusters in the community of science bloggers. Her study revealed a few interesting things. Scientists read blogs by discipline, not just their own subdiscipline, but a variety of related subfields. In addition, there is a cluster of science blogs by women across multiple fields who comment on each others blogs especially often.

Ever since the Clay Shirky popularized the fact that there are power laws in the distribution of attention in social media, which focused attention at the top of the fame pyramid I’ve been wanting to see more studies like Pikas, which focus instead further out on the curve, closer to the long tail. Instead of showing who’s at the top of the pyramid – information that many people already know, use tools to discover and understand subcommunities, where a lot of the interesting human interchange, culture, and creativity. Within these subcultures, a closer look can show the distinctive attributes of the community itself. It’s helpful that Pikas herself is a member of the science blogging community – she knows enough about it to interpret the results of the social network analysis in a meaningful way.

A lot of the interesting dynamics in social media is at the level of subcommunity and microfame. More like this please.

Diversity and social design

In a post last week, Adrian Chan called out claims that competitive motivations are predominant in human nature.

One such quote comes from Louis Gray, writing on the need for more meaningful metrics than followers. “Humans have this innate sense of need to be ahead of all others, to measure themselves, and deliver some level of self-assigned worth thanks to what are questionably valuable statistics.”

Adrian rightly observes that, “it’s not humans or human nature that are the cause of this. It’s systems and the design of social experiences and systems…. viewed empirically, societies around the world are organized in wonderfully different ways, manifest in a tremendous range of culturally diverse traditions and pastimes.”

People in different cultures have different preferences with about the expression of value and status. For example, the design pattern wiki for O’Reilly’s Designing Social Interfaces describes differing cultural preferences for ratings. “The very notion of a binary, black-or-white, love-it or hate-it ratings system may not be a natural fit for some cultures. Many locales have stated a preference for ‘shades of gray’ in a polarized scale. (Note this is subtly different than Star-ratings, which imply “I like it exactly this much.”)?

To remedy the situation, Adrian calls for a better understanding of social dynamics. The current understanding gap is exacerbated by a lack of diversity in social design; consciousness of diversity among the user community, and actual diversity among designers. The lack of diversity contributed notoriously to the Google Buzz privacy debacle – Google tested Buzz internally for six months, but Google’s employees – mostly young male engineers – were not concerned that the system exposed users’ list of email contacts. The social networks of Google employees were more homogenous and harmonious than the social networks of the gmail user base. As soon as the product was released, users with different experiences – people who were harrassed by stalkers – consultants who had confidential client lists – quickly objected to this disclosure.

Embedded in the practice of software design is the notion that “you are not your user”; designers need to consider the way that users preferences may be different from their own. Demographic diversity is the most visible sort of diversity – differences in gender, age, ethnicity, geography. Diversity isn’t just a matter of demographics; there are differences in personality and temperament that lead to different social interaction preferences. As social software and social media mature, designers and implementers will benefit from a greater understanding of differences in among users.

The need for diversity in social design is another reason to advance the development and adoption of standards. A monoculture of a few dominant vendors is less likely to generate a diversity of social software affordances that that will meet the variety of needs among social software participants. The spread of standards will make it more feasible to have a diversity of suppliers, creating a diversity of services meeting different needs and preferences.

The revival of groups in the age of the network

In a recent blog post, David Weinberger writes about how networks have surpassed groups in recent years, as ways of defining social connections online. “In the past decade, we’ve gone from talking about social circles to social network. A circle draws lines around us. Networks draw lines among us.” Social network messaging, where communication centers around the individual user (such Facebook and Twitter), have rocketed to prominence, far ahead of group-based tools (such as found in Yahoo Groups and Google Groups, other age-old forums, and special-purpose tools such as MeetUp).

Weinberger implies that groups are obsolescent: “(Yet more evidence — as if we needed it — that networks are the new paradigm. Bye bye, Information Age!)” Networks are more visible and addressible now, but I don’t see groups becoming obsolete. As networks grow, groups are poised for a major comeback, as a way of expressing context within networks.

Scale and context

One of the reasons that social messaging networks have surpassed group forums is that networks scale around the individual. When you join a group, the level of noise depends mostly on other people – when the place gets too popular, the experience degrades for individuals. In a network, each person controls who they friend and follow, and this puts the limit under the control of the individual.

But networks eventually scale out too. The number of people to friend and follow is under your control, but subject to social pressure and information greed – like chocolate you can get too much of a good thing. Keep adding friends, followers, and eventually there is too much information and not enough context.

The solution to too much information is more context. As Clay Shirky says, there is no such thing as information overload, only filter failure. One of the most important ways of filtering is adding context. Context helps people focus on who and what they care about it, when they care about.

Lists

Lists are a way of putting followers and friends into context that is centered around the individual. With the list features in Twitter and Facebook, each person can organize others into sets, using their own personal taxonomy. Lists help individuals manage attention in personal context. Twitter lists have a tiny bit of sharing – it is possible for one person to subscribe to another’s list. A list that is very popular could conceivably provide a shared view of a set of people. But there is no collaborative ability to curate lists or nominate oneself for a list.

Because lists are personal, they don’t create shared identity or enable shared action, which are powerful drivers of context. This is where groups come back.

Groups and identity

As Stowe Boyd and Adrian Chan remind us, identity is socially constructed in social context. Now, the assembly of a social context doesn’t require a formally defined group. Social context is shaped by people’s interactions and mutually recognized signs of affiliation, not by defined membership. In an open network (Twitter), social ties can be inferred from patterns of tag use and replies, more strongly than than mere follow lists, and despite the fact that there is no official group. Networks of replies and posters to a common tag become familiar faces. For example, on Twitter I’ve recently stumbled upon an informal network of Icelandic musicians and their fans.

But people often want persistent affiliation, recognition, and communication in groups. This is deeply human; basic traits that anthropologists catalogued when they decided that the behaviors of people were interesting to study. Within networks there is a basic need for a groups to express a greater level of affiliation, recognition, communication, focus.

Groups and action

Groups are handy for affiliation and shared identity; they are necessary for sustained action. Networks can be very effective for ad hoc action. Think about the way that the call for donations to help with Haiti emergency response spread rapidly on Facebook and Twitter. But to coordinate action over time, you need ongoing communication and longer sequences of actions.

In open source software development, the classic model of self-organized coordinated action in the internet age, a new project sets up a code repository, mailing list/forum, a wiki, and an IRC channel for ad hoc synchronous communication. The basic toolset for coordination includes group collaboration. The best practices in internet self-organization allow for increasing levels of organization, starting at a very lightweight level, where participants can read information, start to ask questions, and make small contributions, on to very high levels of dedicated contributions.

By enabling groups to form within larger networks, people get the benefits of a larger network, with more manageable, lightweight communication, while also being able to communicate and collaborate more deeply with a set of people with shared interests and goals.

Focus, not privacy
Often people consider the topic of social sharing in terms of “privacy”. The information overload symptom of “oversharing” is seen as a privacy problem. As Stowe Boyd and others observe, the issue of oversharing not primarily about information should be kept hidden, and much more about who to share with in what context. Even if you don’t care who knows who else knows your workout routine, fellow fans of rowing or weight-lifting might care more than other friends and colleagues.

Groups frequently aren’t private – in fact, they are more useful for many purposes if potential participants can easily find them, look around to see what’s going on, and join if they are interested. FriendFeed groups were quite popular among scientists and journalists online. Most of these groups were publically listed. Users could choose to join them. Another convenient setup is groups where a member can request to join, and a moderator needs to approve applications.

In most cases, the goal of a group isn’t to keep information secret – it’s to allow people to affiliate, to collaborate. And to focus their attention and communication within these defined social contexts.

Groups and networks – summary

In summary, I don’t think it’s true that the rise of networks is going to wash away groups. Groups and networks are complementary. Networks help people get to know other individuals, and to manage attention by constraining the number of people to follow. Groups help people focus attention, share identity, and collaborate more deeply within networks.

As ReadWriteWeb describes, a big part of the solution to information overload is increased context. And groups are key to re-establishing context in the network era.