Author: Gregory Palermo

Gregory Palermo is an Edgar Fellow at SUNY Geneseo, where he studies English and Physics. His primary academic interests include African American literature, rhetoric, and the bridging of the humanities and sciences through the digital humanities.

ENGL 340 Group Project: A Quantitative Analysis of Thoreau’s Walden

Fall 2014 Update: While the course project’s preliminary results appear below, the project has since evolved into a more sophisticated effort to co-author an update to Harding’s 1962 article using digital tools: a team of authors is using Harding’s claims to guide a distant reading of Thoreau’s novel using Harvard’s General Inquirer categories and is, in turn, employing distant reading to assess those claims.  Led by Gregory Palermo, this team includes ENGL 340 veterans Michael Gole and Jonathan Pepperman alongside English department students Rebecca Miller, Jenna Cecchini, and Thomas McCarthy, supported by Drs. Paul Schacht and Kirk Anne.

Our group (Christine O’Neill, Angie Carson, Dan FladMichael Gole, and Greg Palermo) used data analysis to explore and verify Walter Harding’s claims in his essay “Five Ways of Looking at Walden.” This was a deductive process in which we isolated particular arguments from Harding’s text and then asked Dr. Kirk Anne (from Geneseo CIT) to extract raw data from the text of Walden using the Python and R programming languages . We interpreted this data, which we complemented with the usual close reading of Walden, to see if it supported or disproved Harding’s arguments. While data analysis can be useful for a number of reasons, establishing credibility (ethos) is among the most relevant to the future of the humanities.

Our process looked a lot like what is described in Stephen Ramsay’s article “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around” and the Culturomics approach. First, we determined what specific type of data would be most useful to answer the questions we had generated around Harding’s claims.  Kirk then coded and ran the scripts to produce representations of the relevant data, which included spreadsheets, histograms, line graphs, and dispersion plots of the linguistic features of Walden and its versions. We were fortunate that he was able to produce such an abundance of data that we had the luxury of browsing through, selecting whatever seemed useful to us (and often asking for more detail about a certain aspect).

Each of the members of the group brought different questions to the data.  Here is how we, individually, dealt with turning the numbers into conclusions:

Christine

I found Harding’s claim that “the unifying device of the book is the year” to be interesting, so I tried to determine how I could quantify this observation. I asked a few questions, like “do the deletions show Thoreau getting rid of stuff that doesn’t have to do with the year, and the additions show him developing the theme of the year?” Eventually, what I really focused on was Harding’s specific delineation of the book’s arrangement: he said that Thoreau talked about his cabin and pine trees in the spring, bean fields in the summer, etc. Data analysis could give us a bird’s eye view of whether or not Harding was right about this “unifying theme” through examining the key terms he identified.

A lexical dispersion plot of Walden
A lexical dispersion plot of Walden

Next, I had Kirk Anne runs some numbers. I was able to access a chart of additions and deletions spanning the versions. Next, I asked Kirk to make a lexical dispersion plot for the key terms from Harding’s claim (and a few others) – in a nutshell, the plot was a graphic showing the concentration of these words across the chapters. So, if the word “spring” was heavy at the beginning and end of the book, or if a discussion of “ice” was heavy near the middle, that would indicate a special focus on the seasons. To take the opposite approach, I decided to look at the chapters first and see if additions/deletions/word-concentrations made sense according to the chapters. Sure enough, chapters with names like “The Bean Field,” or “Winter Animals” not only had high concentrations of season-related words, but showed the most overall addition and deletions.

What did that all mean? I interpret this data analysis to be confirmation of Harding’s claim. His editorial focus seems to have been on season related chapters, and clusters of season-related words appear in the appropriate spots of the text.

In a word, my strategy was: isolate a claim, ask some questions, use numbers to respond to the questions, and interpret the results.

Greg

The claim of Harding’s that most struck me was related to the readability of Walden: despite the size of Thoreau’s vocabulary, Harding says, his writing “cannot be termed ostentatious.” What I wanted to do, in order to substantiate Harding’s claim, was to quantify the lexical sophistication of different passages throughout the novel and compare that to the passages’ readabilities, which could be represented by readability indices like the Gunning Fog and Coleman-Liau.

Readability of different chapters of walden, by version, represented in a box-whisker plot of Coleman-Liau indices.
Readability of different chapters of Walden, by version, represented in a box-whisker plot of Coleman-Liau indices.

This, however, was far too large a project for the scope of our course. If we wanted to quantify the extent of Thoreau’s vocabulary, we’d have to compare his writing to works by contemporary authors. In addition, Harding isn’t specific about to what audience Thoreau’s text is readable: is he claiming that Walden was readable in Thoreau’s time? In Harding’s own time? Text is perceived as readable, in part, because of the norms of its age of reception; likewise, the indices–which were made in the latter part of the twentieth century–make assumptions about a text’s audience, an audience that may differ from a contemporary readership of a certain demographic.

So, I instead set out to see how the quantitative readability of different versions of a passage in Walden would compare with Geneseo students’ opinions of readability. I sent out a survey that asked them to read two versions of the same passage from Chapter 3, each of which scored quite differently when subjected to the algorithmic reading tests. Not knowing which one was supposed to be more readable, the students were to indicate which passage they found easier to read and to briefly explain why.

The results were exactly the opposite of what I’d initially hoped they’d be.  I won’t discuss their full implications, but a small majority (59%) of students indicated that the easier to read passage was the one that the indices indicated required a higher level of formal education. Admittedly, there were some problems with my survey. First, I used two versions of the same passage, so the second passage was more likely to be perceived as readable because it was already somewhat familiar (this is something I anticipated and also that quite a few respondents noted). In addition, most of the people who took my survey were English majors, who are quite used to finding their way through and comprehending intricate texts.

But we can learn something from this iteration of the study. Those who chose the passage that was supposed to be easier to read pointed out the attributes like punctuation and clause length on which the computational tools made their measurements. Those who chose this passage cited aspects of it that could not easily be quantitatively measured–for example, the rhetorical structure of Thoreau’s argument. Does this suggest that there are certain features of a text that cannot be quantified? That we need to be more attentive to what we apply certain algorithms? Or, do we just need more sophisticated ones?

I think that these questions lead well into Angie’s portion of the project.

Angie

My assigned data to analyze was in relation to Walden’s polarity and subjectivity. These two aspects, primarily subjectivity, worked in junction with Harding’s fifth style of reading Walden as a spiritual guidebook; a guidebook is inherently subjective in its having an opinion on how one is supposed to live their life. He had mentioned that there were four key chapters to reading Walden spiritually. Of course, it would make this project too easy if Harding’s key chapters matched up with the data received. Instead, I had the following to work with:

Harding’s Key Chapters:
Economy
Where I Lived, and What I Lived For
Higher Laws
Conclusion

Data Received from Kirk Anne:
Baker Farm (most subjective)
The Ponds (least subjective)
Reading (most positive)
The Village (most negative)***
Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors (most negative)

I’ll start with the polarity data, as it’s the easiest to explain. Thoreau came off as relatively negative throughout Walden. Though he was ranting during “Reading,” he did sound relatively positive compared to the rest of the book when talking about the benefits of reading. After reviewing the data and re-reading the chapter, it was easy to see why this was picked to be the most positive. The negative end of the spectrum was a bit more complicated. “The Village” was, according to the data, the most negative chapter of the novel. But when looking at the numbers, you can see that while this is said to be the most negative, it is also the shortest chapter of Walden. Kirk and I discussed that longer chapters such as “Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors” can have diluted negativity by the amount of excess words in the chapter that don’t coincide with the negative connotations. I took another look at both these chapters, as “Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors” was the second most negative chapter, to see if this was actually the case. I found that Kirk was correct and that “Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors” was, in my opinion, more negative that “The Village.” My reasoning was that in “Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors” Thoreau discusses the house fire that burns the man’s entire life away. In comparison, “The Village” discussed Thoreau’s arrest for not paying the Poll Tax, but his emotions towards the matter were far more indifferent than those displayed in “Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors.” Of course, this being just my opinion leaves room for error and is definitely something to continue studying.

The subjectivity data became my main focus for this project due to its relevance to the Spiritual Reading given by Harding. I took a look at four chapters: “Baker Farm” and “The Ponds” as they are the two our data said were respectively the most subjective and least subjective, and “Higher Laws” and “Economy” since they were the two that I picked to be the most subjective out of Harding’s four Key Chapters. After reviewing all four, I found that I agreed with Harding in that “Higher Laws” and “Economy” were more subjective than “Baker Farm.”

There are a few explanations I came up with for this occurrence. The first is similar to the polarity, where chapters like “Economy” are extensive in length, meaning the subjectivity is diluted by a higher word count. Another possibility I came up with is that the computer only picks up on direct opinions or keywords given by a person. I suggested this idea to Kirk and he believes that it could be a possibility due to his use of a code based on movie reviews as a training set for determining subjectivity and polarity. This indicates to him that there is probably a mismatch between the training set and Walden. This raises a new concern for collecting data from literature. So much of what is written is stated as a fact. When Thoreau is ranting, is he going to say “well, in my humble opinion, I think that the world is corrupted?” No! He states everything he believes as a fact and tells people that his way is the set right way (like any good spiritual guidebook would). I feel that this could make it difficult to create a training set for Walden, along with many other literary works, as they lack “opinion words/phrases” such as “I think,” “you should,” and so on. To me it only makes sense that there is at least one aspect of literature that requires a human mind to analyze it. After all, literature is created for humans, by humans, and isn’t made to be analyzed by a computer. I’m certainly not denouncing this project—I feel that using the technology available to us only can enhance the understanding we already have of literature. However, I don’t see the possibility of us ever fully replacing old-fashioned reading with computer analysis. Books will always need a human mind and eye to understand the human mind and hand that wrote them.

Mike

I addressed Walter Harding’s claim that Walden can be approached as a purely belletristic or aesthetic book, one of his “Five Ways of Looking at Walden.” Harding believes that Walden is an example of “good writing,” and that his generally straightforward writing style separates him from his contemporaries, who often used abstractions, euphemisms, circumlocutory logic and figurative language. (156) I figured that it would be a good idea to compare Walden to some of Thoreau’s contemporaries that Harding referenced. Aside from Walden, I looked at essays and other writings by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, Washington Irving, Francis Hopkinson, and Richard Henry Dana Jr. Unfortunately the majority of the data was not able to be produced in time for most of these sources. However, some very basic data is still worth noting. One of the things I was able to do was compare the length of the average sentence across these texts. If Harding was to be believed in his assertion that some of Thoreau’s contemporaries were overly abstract and circumlocutory, it stands to reason that their sentences would be generally longer and more wordy. This is not entirely the case however. In Walden, the average sentence length is 27.5 words per sentence. In looking at his contemporaries, there is a relatively even spread in terms of sentence length. This would pose an issue to Harding’s assertion if it were not for the fact that Harding also recognized that Thoreau’s sentences were unusually long. (158) Unfortunately, without more in depth data, it is difficult to further address the above claim regarding other texts.

To further address Harding’s claim, I used the data regarding Walden that Kirk Anne produced for our group. I first looked at Thoreau’s use of symbols. I reasoned that, if Thoreau was truly a less abstract writer than his contemporaries, the number of symbols in Walden would be relatively low. Thoreau used 11 symbols in Walden, which seems to be a relatively small amount. This potentially supports Harding’s claim that Walden was a much more straightforward work than those of his contemporaries, although I unfortunately do not have sufficient data regarding Thoreau’s contemporaries to draw any concrete conclusions from this number.

I next wanted to address the allusiveness of Thoreau in Walden. If Harding’s claim that Walden is simply good, relatively straightforward prose is accurate, it stands to reason that Thoreau would have a limited number of references to historical events, classic literature, and other similar things in Walden. While it is difficult to determine this from the data that I was provided with, I think a very general picture can be gleamed from the frequency of proper nouns in the book. In looking at allusiveness, we ideally want to remove locations from the data, as well as non-historic and non-fictional individuals. There are 386 proper nouns within Walden. Although the data could not account for this, it is reasonable to assume that this number would be considerably smaller if places and certain individuals were removed from the list. In general, I would make the argument that Walden is actually not particularly allusive, although there is unfortunately no data from contemporary authors to compare to.

Dan

I was working on verifying Harding’s claim that within Walden there is a “careful alteration of the spiritual and the mundane, the practical and the philosophical, the human and the animal”. I was also tasked with using the program Voyant tools as my tool for evaluating Harding’s claim. I began by uploading each chapter into Voyant tools, taking down notes on such things as the number of words and unique words in each chapter, and then combing through the chapters for the most common words. Voyant tools made this much easier than it would have been. I was able to pick out common words in chapters that I would qualify as spiritual, mundane, practical, philosophical, animal, or human. I spent more time on chapters Harding specifically mentions within his article as examples, so that I could draw upon his observations. However I did look at every chapter to make sure the alterations were continuing throughout the novel rather than simply in those chapters. Having read the chapters, it was sometimes frustrating that I knew these themes existed within the chapter, however the words being used didn’t always match up. For example, it was difficult to finds words that fit into the category of philosophical because many times Thoreau uses metaphor to convey these philosophical ideas. In other words, the words may be seemingly mundane but actually have a deeper meaning in context. However, even with these struggles, it was clear that there is truth to Harding’s claim, although I would say that all of these themes occur and exist throughout the novel, although the main theme being talked about may be alternating. However, even in a very mundane chapter like Brute Neighbors, there are still spiritual elements mixed in. In the end it was up to me to analyze the data given by voyant tools to see if I was able to come to the same conclusions as Harding.

Plot Spoilers: Why is “Downton Abbey” different from “Northanger Abbey?

from xkcd

English majors aren’t supposed to talk about plot. If we do, it’s to classify it or to discuss how it works as a device to achieve some other desired effect. This incilination is, in part, because we’ve been told that ‘good’ English majors pay attention to both form and content. We all know from our introductory coursework that a good paper addresses not only about ‘what’ happens in a book, but ‘how’ the book uses that ‘what’ to function as a work of art. We also know, of course, that the form and content are inextricably linked; how the plot unfolds is a function of what happens, and vice-versa. It’s tough to call plot either solely form or solely content, and one cannot exist without the other.

But there is a pervasive sense, even among otherwise disciplined English majors, that plot is a mere medium used to convey more lofty ideas–it is a neglectable, if necessary, evil. Plot, it seems, ranks lower than literature’s other formal apsects. It is this sort of hierarchy that fuels intradisciplinary prejudice against genre fiction, which, as opposed to “literary” fiction, is pejoratively called “plot-driven” (a distinction that novelist Colson Whitehead snubs with his relatively recent zombie novel Zone One). The idea is that popular authors appropriate, reuse, and recycle existing narrative frameworks without adding anything new of artistic value. More radically, plot is considered an ideological force used to control mass-market consumers who, unlike us enlightened English majors, don’t know any better.

Whether or not it is because of some false distinction between “higher” and “lower” forms of art, I find it difficult to read for pleasure anymore. After all, reading is what I do for work now. I instead find myself turning to TV shows for a break–as though they aren’t texts, and I could somehow watch them without evaluating imagery or characterization or scene sequence (Hint: they are, and I can’t).

Approaching my leisure-watching from this academic perspective, I also could not care less about spoilers. Maybe it’s because I’ve been exposed to a ton of texts that make a joke of chronology and stopped caring about watching anything unfold in order: I’m unabashedly, for instance, watching the most recent fourth season of Game of Thrones at the same time that I’m catching up from half-way through the second season. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been behind on the reading for an English class before in my academic career (Oops, was I supposed to keep that quiet? Oh well…the cat’s out of the bag now), and I have come to terms with the fact that class discussion is going to happen whether I am caught up or not.

In any case, I agree with Madeleine Davies of Jezebel when she argues that people need to “Calm the F**k Down about Spoilers”; responding to those who comment complaining about a lack of “SPOILER ALERT” warnings on internet articles dealing with popular culture, Davies portrays the “grief” of “learn[ing] a pivotal plot point before [they’re] ready” as “inevitable,” and therefore ridiculous to complain about. She acknowledges the effects that technology has had on media consumed for leisure and its reception, both the good and the bad: “everyone watches TV online these days,” she says, “so who are we to expect you [whiners] to adhere to a certain schedule?” The cost of this freedom of choice is that one is more likely to come across recaps, responses, and exclamations by excited viewers; Davies recommends “avoid[ing] the internet entirely for a few days” if you don’t want the plot of your favorite show spoiled (not that avoiding the internet would be any protection from my friend’s boyfriend, who, much to the chagrin of our friend group, Googles and resolves a GoT cliff-hanger while we’re still all sitting on the couch).

However spoilers are fated to surface, Davies suggests that “not being caught up on TV is your problem” and–like my own occasional need to catch up on reading–“not anyone else’s.” Her point is that “spoilers don’t have to ruin a TV show for you (and if they do, you probably weren’t appreciating that TV show to begin with)”–a conclusion which surely buys into that idea that there’s ‘more to’ a ‘good’ show/book/whatever than plot. Or perhaps, by contrast, it irons over the distinctions others have made between genre fiction, adaptations of genre fiction, and other more “literary” texts. Not that I expect to see angry spoiler comments on The Reader’s Thoreau any time soon.

What about you?  Do you get upset when your Facebook friends ruin Game of Thrones (a show, by the way, that is an adapatation of a series of genre fiction books) because you were too busy to watch it Sunday night? Is there a reason that most of us don’t complain to our professors about ruining the ending of Northanger Abbey, but still post with idignation when someone on the internet ruins this week’s episode of Downton Abbey? Say so in the comments.

Be Careful (as an Academic) what you Say Online

Co-blogger Katie Allen recently discussed the implications of anonymous comments in public online conversation. But what about when a person’s name is instead associated with a conversation never intended to be public?

Yesterday, Peter Schmidt of The Chronicle of Higher Education covered the story of Rachel Slocum, a non-tenured professor at the University of Wisconson at La Crosse.  Controversy [1] over Slocum’s supposedly partisan email to students, which was about how the government shutdown would prevent them from completing their assignments, eventually bought her a public rebuke by her campus’s chancellor. And all of this was over a message that was, at least intended to be, for a private audience: her class.

Here’s my (somewhat dry) response to the controversy:

You can probably tell that I think that professors should not have to hide their political proclivities from their students.  This is because, to quote Queens College Professor of English David Richter, “there is no politically neutral learning” or teaching anyway; even the position that politics have no place in higher education is itself political. [2] Moreover, I agree with Slocum that her chancellors actions set a dangerous precedent in the use of social media to deride: “Chancellor Gow’s email,” she writes in her own open letter to the campus, “is a signal to students that the university approves of their efforts to publicly shame professors with whom they disagree.”  This is not to say, of course, that criticism of others’ positions should not happen or did not occur before the advent of social media.  But, as Schmidt suggests, never before has that criticism been able to travel so quickly or have such a monumental impact on someone’s livelihood nearly overnight.

What are your thoughts? Do professors have a responsibility not to “impose” their “partisan” views in their classrooms, lest they be seen as having an agenda? And, in the context of digital literacy in academia, do faculty have a responsibility to set an example of tactful diplomacy in online communication?

Technology continues to be a means by which the classroom is no longer perceived as an “isolated space”–a development that is often for the better, as Gerald Graff argues in his 2008 address to the MLA about a problem in higher education that he has named “Courseocentrism”[3]. But what should academics keep in mind as they tweet or send emails to students and colleagues?



1. ^ In the midst of this controversy was a message to the La Crosse campus chancellor Joe Gow from an aide to Stephen L. Nass, a Republican State Representative and Chairman of the Wisconsin Assembly’s Committee on Colleges and Universities; this message targeted Slocum’s email to her students, describing it as “clearly partisan in tone.” According to Schmidt, Nass “had a reputation for perennially looking for reasons to cut state spending on public colleges.” Speaking as a student at a public institution, that infuriates me. But that’s a whole ‘nother post.

2. ^ Richter, David H., ed. Falling into Theory: Conflicting Views on Reading Literature. (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000): 22.

3. ^ Graff, Gerald. “Presidential Address 2008: Courseocentrism.” PMLA 124.3 (2009): 728.

Reading Without Scanning Lines?

We’ve talked a lot about how digital technology affects our interpretation of texts.  We’ve also talked about how it alters the way in which we read texts by changing the medium through which those texts are delivered or on which they are assessed.

But what about changing the actual makeup of the text itself?  Check out this new reading technology called Spritz.  The technology’s developers aim to improve reading speed by making it completely unnecessary for the reader to move his or her eyes from line to line, or even from word to word; each word appears, instead, in a “redicle” (a play on words between ‘red’ and ‘reticle’) in the reader’s field of vision.  In addition, the app centers each word on what Spritz calls its “Optimal Recognition Point” (ORP), which Spritz claims cuts down on the time that takes for the brain to decipher the word.

Spending thirty seconds or so with the demo is certainly an…eye-opening experience (sorry for that one).  This Elite Daily article encapsulates the technology’s efficiency, and the implications of that efficiency, with its headline: “This Insane App Will Allow you to Read Novels in Under 90 Minutes.”  Sounds like a dream come true for anyone taking multiple 300 or 400 level Geneseo English courses.  It’s easy to see how Spritz could prevent fatigue and distraction while reading, since the technology makes reading is less physical work (not to mention, it’s hard for a reader to be distracted by a flashing ad in his or her periphery when the flashing thing is actually the text itself).  Anticipating fears that reading this quickly would prevent readers from actually getting anything out of the text that they’re being presented, Spritz also claims that their technology improves reading comprehension.  The company argues that the time that a reader would usually spend scanning a text with his or her eye is instead spent on processing the content that it conveys.

But what is lost by not having words that are arranged on a page, be that a paper page or digital page?  As English majors, we are aware that the meaning of a text is as much shaped by its form as its content.  Under the Spritz system of reading, poems would lose line breaks and any enjambment.  There seems to be no convenient way, either, to do the returning to previous lines that such enjambment often impels.  And forget about concrete poetry or any other work that relies heavily on graphical codes.  Assuming that the technology is intended for longer pieces of prose that demand (arguably) less attention to sentence-level form, this may not be an issue.  I also wonder, however, how having a constant and electronically-set reading pace will affect the reader’s reception of meter in poetry and prose alike.

Thoughts?

Can crowd-sourced gaming teach us anything about social reading?

2437699-pokemon

Last night, I came across this crowd-sourced version of Pokémon Red, called “Twitch Plays Pokémon.”  The premise is that a bunch of people (reportedly as many as 50,000) control the character 24-7 through a text feed–in other words, by typing “Up,” “Down,” “Left,” “Right,” “A,” “B,” etc.–and try to see if they can actually get anything done.

Can social reading also be thought of as a type of crowdsourcing?  I see interesting resonances between the Pokémon game and our Reader’s Thoreau platform, especially in light of our conversation in class today.  We discussed how social annotations are premeditated by the their posters in a way that individual annotations might not be, and we brainstormed ways that those social annotations might be filtered for both relevance and validity in order to be any sort of productive.

The inputs in “Twitch,” however, are completely unfiltered.  In fact, the very name “Twitch” (despite the game’s 20-second lag) suggests a type of knee-jerk response to input; this action (or re-action) is directly opposed to the more carefully reasoned research and argumentation of traditional scholarship.  The platform also makes no effort to prevent trolling or spamming of the controls that that would intentionally impede progress.  The end result, as anyone can see from the live video feed, is chaos.

Yet, there is some order in this chaos.  The players of the collective Pokémon game, somehow, have managed to progress through the game over the four days since the social experiment’s launch: as of last night, the players have made it to Celadon City and earned four of the game’s eight badges.  Perhaps volume and purpose are not mutually exclusive.

P.S. If you’re bored, the continual (and often hilarious) Reddit commentary on Twitch Plays Pokémon is worth a look.

EDIT (2/18/2014): The platform’s creator has implemented a voting measure that attempts to filter out unproductive input from both trolls and too many earnest people trying to do different things (or the same thing, for that matter) at once. There has been some push back.

[Dis]connecting

One of my friends recently shared a short creative non-fiction piece, written by ThoughtCatalog member Jeremy Glass, that reminded me both of our discussions in the Digital Humanities course and the reading that we’ve been asked to do for this Monday, Joseph Farman’s “The Myth of the Disconnected Life.”

The ThoughtCatalog post, titled “We Can’t Get Lost Anymore,” dramatizes a recurring idea that technology has changed the way that we interact with one another and the world around us in a negative way: we can no longer be spontaneous, the narrator argues, because we are worried about damaging our phones or have them to search business reviews; we can never “get lost”–literally or figuratively–because our devices keep us connected to a wealth of information, including maps of where we happen to be.

The piece, a collection of snapshots between the narrator’s past and present, implicitly elevates the past experiences, in which “the only mobile phone is attached to [his] father’s car, which is parked god knows where” instead of being in his pocket.  The piece evokes a Transcendentalist mindset for interpreting one’s environment on his or her own terms and (supposedly) without filter.  It is, after all, a technological ‘middle-man’ of sorts that forces a wall between the narrator and his [apparently more enlightened] girlfriend in the final scene.  He insinuates that to disconnect would be to connect with her, who is frustrated with the presence of a third voice (the GPS) in the car.

My immediate response to the piece was one of identification.  I rarely don’t know exactly where I’m going when I walk around my home city of New York; while part of this assurance stems from my familiarity with the streets after a little over twenty years, it also exists because I’ve already looked up what side of the street my destination is on.  And when I travel, I will rarely just wander in favor of charting out what I should do; in fact, I am extremely cognizant of how I might look if I didn’t know exactly where I was going (I should just be able to look it up, right?).

But if I am conscious of my appearance to others, I am just as conscious that I’m somehow crippling my experience of a new place by filtering that experience through those of others.  Am I ever really seeing somewhere through my own eyes and not first through someone else’s?  Joseph Farman tackles this issue when he defines what it is for a place to have “meaning” in his article: to him, a place’s meaning is “found in the practice of a place, in the everyday ways we interact with it and describe it.”  Besides deconstructing the idea from Glass’s piece that technology mediating our experience with the world is anything new, Farman reminds his readers that social media, etc. creates the meaning of a place; he sees it as a record of the relationship between it and the people who visit it.  Farman mentions apps like Broadcastr and one from the Museum of London that, he says, offer the “deeper context” of a place and “connect [its] innumerable narratives.”  For him, the wealth of available information about a place doesn’t destroy our experience of it, but rather enhances it.  I wholeheartedly agree–the availability of information about the history of a certain apartment building or intersection in the city satisfies and continually prompts my curiosity.  Historical context, rather than overwriting my experience of a place, sits alongside it as a comment on the original file.  And, for that matter, I would prefer to have a little help finding and eating at the cheap gem of a seafood restaurant that Glass’s narrator finds on Yelp, rather than eating at the DairyQueen that he stumbles upon with his high school friend.

As Farman explains how technology can enhance connections between people over time and distance, however, he does not refute the second point that Glass’s piece raises: that this information, while making an individual experience more collective, is a barrier to another kind of collective experience–an experience with and of the people right in front of you.  I have certainly felt pretty guilty for refreshing my Twitter feed during a lull in conversation with family or friends.

Then I think back to the other night, when there was a scheduled power outage that left my apartment pitch-black for about an hour (the horror, I know).  For this short time, I was not even a little disconnected: my phone still had 4G-LTE coverage, and I could have even tethered it with my laptop and its 8-hour battery if I had really wanted to.  Anyway, I was sitting at my desk on my phone, waiting both for the lights to come back on and for one of my friends to come over and have a glass of wine, when she called me.  When I told her the lights were out right now and that she should come over a little later, she offered ‘well, why not come over here instead?”  I agreed with [only a] little pestering–after all, why sit in the dark?  So, did a lack of electricity impel me to get up and away from my desk a little earlier and to go connect with someone else face to face?  Maybe.  But I had made those plans anyway.