Tag Archives: Stephen Ramsay

Where Not to Screw Around

In “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around,” Ramsay is very interested in the concept of serendipity – the ways that readers unexpectedly come across just the right information at just the right time.  Of course, one of the things you learn in library school is that serendipity is an illusion created by the infrastructure of the library, as Ramsay acknowledges. Serendipity comes from the fact that someone has put all this information in order so that readers can find it.

Ramsay distinguishes between two ways of encountering information; purposeful searching through the use of indexes and the like, and browsing, which he characterizes rather delightfully as “wander[ing] around in a state of insouciant boredom.” He argues that because the internet is not organized in a human-readable way, search engines are very good at searching, but poor at browsing, which means that it’s more difficult to find that thing you didn’t know you wanted.

I’m with Ramsay up to this point.  One major problem with electronic resources is that they don’t support browsing well. There have, at least among libraries, been some attempts to replicate some of the tools that make browsing work offline, but they don’t work as well. OneSearch has a feature that lets you look at books nearby on the shelf, and I’d love to know whether anyone in this class has ever used this, because I suspect not! Part of the problem is that the process still has to begin with a specific search; part of the problem is that, unlike when you are browsing the physical shelves, you don’t have access to the full text of the book.

What really brought me up short when I was reading this, though, was the very casual way he tosses out the notion that algorithms can fix this problem.

A few weeks ago, Data & Society published a report, “Alternative Influence: Broadcasting the Reactionary Right on YouTube.” It’s definitely worth your time to read the whole thing if you can, but it examines the network of white supremacist/white nationalist/alt-right microcelebrities on YouTube. Because many of these individuals have strong relationships with their audiences and are able to “sell” them on their ideologies, they are considered “influencers.” The report maps out the relationships among them based on their appearances on each other’s shows. It reveals connections between the extremists and those who are or describe themselves as more moderate libertarians or conservatives.

The process by which these YouTubers’ audience members become radicalized is a browsing process; the description of how an audience member moves from one video channel to another isn’t, mechanically, that different from Ramsay’s description of moving from Zappa to Varèse, as different as it obviously is in subject matter.  He happens to come across one who then points him to another.

For example, influencers often encourage audience members to reject the mainstream media in favor of their content, thus priming their audiences for a destabilized worldview and a rejection of popular narratives around current events. Then, when libertarian and conservative influencers invite white nationalists onto their channels, they expose their audiences to alternative frameworks for understanding the world. Thus, audiences may quickly move from following influencers who criticize feminism to those promoting white nationalism. (35)

Algorithms facilitate this process by recommending similar videos, but the report points out that this is really a social problem; even if the recommendations didn’t exist, these YouTubers would still be promoting each other and radicalizing their viewers. Certainly we could argue that the larger problem is not the mechanism of discovery but just the fact that there’s so much of this kind of content out there. After all, older kinds of browsing can turn up similar content, and let’s not pretend that the Library of Congress headings don’t have a ton of baked-in bias.

All the same, there are clearly some problems with the rather blithe suggestion that the problems of browsing online can be solved by algorithms when this kind of content is so common on the internet, and especially when these algorithms are largely written by companies that are making money on this kind of content. I’m guessing we’ll talk about this further when we get to Algorithms of Oppression…

Designing for Difficulty

One thing that really struck me about the readings for this week is the general skepticism about ease of use. Ramsay and Rockman (“Developing Things“) argue that while a tool that doesn’t call attention to itself is useful, it’s less likely to be formally valued as scholarship. Tenen (“Blunt Instrumentation“)  is cautious about tools for several reasons, but his principal objection is that tools hide their inner workings in a way that can compromise the work done with them.  In order to do good, scholarly work using a tool, you need to understand exactly what it’s doing, and the best way to do that is to build it yourself.  Posner (“What’s Next“) takes this argument a step further, arguing that ease of use is often privileged above critical thinking.  The familiar is easy to use, but it doesn’t challenge the colonial point of view that the broader culture promotes.

Posner uses the Knotted Line as an example of a project that presents history in a more challenging way than the traditional timeline.  I spent some time looking at this website. It’s a history of freedom in the United States, and brings together information about slavery, education, mass incarceration, segregation, immigration, etc on a timeline that, as the title suggests, is neither straightforward nor orderly.  To reveal the different events of the timeline, there is a window that the website user must pull and tease until the image becomes clear.

Image of the timeline from the Knotted Line

Part of the timeline of the Knotted Line. Paintings are revealed by pulling on the line. Image taken from http://evanbissell.com/the-knotted-line/

The Knotted Line is more physically strenuous than most websites, and it can also be frustrating – much like the struggle for freedom in American history. Obviously, these things are far from equivalent, but the fact that the reader has to work for this information helps to challenge narratives of progress and emphasize that the struggle is still ongoing.

This is a different kind of difficulty than that experienced by users of NLTK in Tenen’s chapter.  I haven’t used NLTK yet, but according to Tenen, it’s difficult because you have to understand exactly what it does. It doesn’t hide its inner workings behind fancy interfaces, but provides lots of careful documentation to facilitate well-informed (should I say expert?) use.

Ramsay and Rockwell discuss the “transparency” of tools, meaning the ability for tools to fade into the background as the user thinks about the task instead.  Both these projects are specifically against this kind of transparency. Instead, they offer transparency of a different kind, the kind that comes from letting the user look behind the scenes.

I’m a librarian, so I spend a lot of time hearing about how library users want ease of use, how complex interfaces drive people away and nobody cares about how the searches work, and how advanced searching is for librarians only because it requires searchers to understand how a record is put together.  I’m uncomfortable with most of those arguments, so I found Tenen and Posner really refreshing from that perspective, especially since Posner is a professor of library science!

Some of this is audience specific. Both NLTK and the Knotted Line are designed with a very specific audience in mind, and an audience with which the people who designed the tools were very familiar. And then, a lot of it is about designing carefully and intentionally.  It isn’t always bad for users to be confused and even frustrated, as long as it’s for the right reason.