Iarpa and the Metaphor Machine

Paul Raven @ 27-05-2011

File in duplicate under both “awesome idea” and “kinda scary”; the US intelligence blue-sky department Iarpa is toying with the idea of building a giant database of cross-referenced metaphors from all sorts of languages… which I guess would lead to the identification of metametaphors, if that’s not some sort of semantic impossibility.

The first step is to identify and collect all those metaphors — from English, Farsi, Spanish and Russian — into a huge database. That means analyzing loads of textual data, identifying all the metaphors (“his life took a left turn”; “you must find your own way”), mapping them onto a conceptual metaphor (“life is a journey”) and then … well, after that, it’s not completely clear.

Social science may offer a clue into what we could possibly do with this gigantic metaphor repository, however. Besides improving communication and interactions in a globalized world, metaphors might help us bridge cross-cultural gaps.

For example, the topic of morality. Americans are likely to think of morality in terms of rights, or things we “possess” or can be “deprived of” — “rights as IOUs.” In China, on the other hand, morality is usually conceived of as bounded space or concentric circles, so you can “overstep boundaries” or “hit the mark.” These two metaphors aren’t really compatible, but if we started talking about a moral right as a “right-of-way” (a path to move along without interference), we might have found a metaphor that carries weight in both cultures.

I wonder how far you could go with this? Maybe we could boil down all human concepts into pure universal metaphors… I’m not sure what use that would be to anyone, but the writer in me thinks it’s a great idea nonetheless.


The Talks We Remember

Brenda Cooper @ 06-04-2011

Last month I wrote about crowdfunding. And I’m now into three projects, all of which succeeded (two books and a movie). When they show up, I’ll blog about them over at my site.

This month, I was questing around for a good topic when the household fourteen-year-old asked us both to watch a video. The speech happened at least fifteen years ago, but it is exactly relevant today. I found myself blinking back tears as I listened, both because the speech was so good, and because it could be delivered to the very same people today. I highly recommend that you stop for a minute and watch/listen to the talk by Severn Suzuki, which will provide some background for the rest of this column. The You Tube video of the talk is called “The girl who silenced the world for five minutes.” Continue reading “The Talks We Remember”


Do you want to know a secret? Social steganography

Paul Raven @ 09-02-2011

Blah blah blah, the intertubes are eroding literacy, kids these days have poor communication skills, blah. Well, if we keep measuring those skills using old metrics, it’s bound to look that way… but kids (a definition that in this instance I’d consider expanding to “web natives”, a demographic that can extend into the younger end of Gen-X, if not further) are actually very sophisticated communicators, primarily because they’re adapting fast to the fact that a lot of their personal communication occurs in publicly-accessible spaces like Facebook. When your mum (or your boss) can be keeping an eye on your wall (or your Twitter stream), you sometimes have to code your updates so that they’re only comprehensible to their intended recipients. And what better an encryption key than your shared cultural references?

Posting lyrics to communicate your mood is one of the most common social steganographic tricks, because teens are fluent in pop culture in a way their parents aren’t. What teenagers are doing reminds me of Washington’s “dog whistle” politics, in which politicians deliver speeches that sound bland but are laden with meaning aimed at their base. For instance, Republican kingmaker Lee Atwater used to advise candidates to use phrases like “states’ rights” and “forced busing” to incite racial fears among white voters without actually using offensive language.

Obviously, one could regard the emergence of youth steganography as yet more depressing evidence of how dangerously overcomplex the web has made teens’ lives. But frankly, I’m kind of awed by the rhetorical sophistication of today’s teens. They are basically required to live in public (you try maintaining friendships without an online presence), but they crave some privacy, too. So they’ve taught themselves to hack language. They hack systems, as well: [Danah] Boyd has also found teenagers who “deactivate” their Facebook account when they log off so nobody can see their stuff or post comments. Then they “reactivate” it when they want to go back online and interact with friends. Presto: They create a virtual club where they control the operating hours. Color me impressed.

I’m tempted to see this as a reappropriation of a (virtual) social space by a generation that increasingly has little access to (physical) social space, though that’s doubtless either an oversimplification of the case or a fractional component of what’s actually happening.

But I think the important thing here is that young people will always find a way to do what young people have always done: distance themselves from the adult-mediated social sphere that they feel oppresses them (c’mon, every kid feels that way, even if it isn’t necessarily true), and create a new space to populate with their own argot, their own ideas and values. Of course, if you’ve always felt intimidated by kids and their weird ways, that’ll be cold comfort… but to me it’s a clear sign that we’re not losing anything essential about our human-ness to the web, we’re just finding new ways to enact it.


Projected success for holographic telepresence

Paul Raven @ 08-11-2010

The Guardian strikes back with a another sci-fi pop-culture reference in a new-tech article; this time the holographic projections from Star Wars: A New Hope get the nod as the “just like that” examplar of new research from the University of Arizona:

Until now, scientists have been able to create holograms that display static 3D images, but creating video has not been easy. Two years ago, Peyghambarian’s team demonstrated a device that was able to refresh a holographic image once every few minutes – it took around three minutes to produce a single-colour image, followed by a minute to erase that image before a new one could be written into its place.

In his latest project, Peyghambarian’s team reduced that image refresh time to two seconds. They also showed it was possible to use full colour and demonstrated parallax, whereby people looking at the image from different angles will see different views of the image, just as if they were looking at the original object.

Note, however, this is not a true 3D hologram:

Whereas the image of Princess Leia in Star Wars is projected in three-dimensional space, the new technology uses a 2D screen to create the illusion of 3D. At the heart of Peyghambarian’s system is his team’s invention of a new type of plastic known as a photorefractive polymer. The material, which is used to make the screen, allows the researchers to record and erase images quickly.

Naturally enough, the predicted market for this technology is telepresence for business meetings… which is the very same market that was meant to have made videophones ubiquitous by now. Given the amount of hardware and expense involved in this holographic telepresence set-up, I figure videotelephonics and/or metaverse meetings will get taken up much more quickly, if at all.

Still kinda cool, though.


Hiding in plain sight: social steganography

Paul Raven @ 26-08-2010

There’s always room for another compound neologism! Via Bruce Schneier, Danah Boyd on social steganography:

Carmen is engaging in social steganography. She’s hiding information in plain sight, creating a message that can be read in one way by those who aren’t in the know and read differently by those who are. She’s communicating to different audiences simultaneously, relying on specific cultural awareness to provide the right interpretive lens. While she’s focused primarily on separating her mother from her friends, her message is also meaningless to broader audiences who have no idea that she had just broken up with her boyfriend. As far as they’re concerned, Carmen just posted an interesting lyric.

Social steganography is one privacy tactic teens take when engaging in semi-public forums like Facebook. While adults have worked diligently to exclude people through privacy settings, many teenagers have been unable to exclude certain classes of adults – namely their parents – for quite some time. For this reason, they’ve had to develop new techniques to speak to their friends fully aware that their parents are overhearing. Social steganography is one of the most common techniques that teens employ. They do this because they care about privacy, they care about misinterpretation, they care about segmented communications strategies. And they know that technical tools for restricting access don’t trump parental demands to gain access. So they find new ways of getting around limitations. And, in doing so, reconstruct age-old practices.

And in doing so, make Google CEOs look surprisingly clueless.

(Incidentally, Schneier does this, too; most people who aren’t sf fans don’t know that Schneier’s an sf fan, but he leaves little Easter Eggs from time to time if you know what to look for.)


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