A Project for Prism

In the last meeting we played the transparency game: Everyone highlights a transparency on top of a text according to a set of categories. At the end of the exercise, all the transparencies are stacked together.

What does this show? In theory, a number of interesting results emerge.  The game could show where there is consensus. It could also show conflicting interpretations or unexplored parts of a text. (This is very exciting stuff. I can imagine using Prism in a classroom to generate debates or in a research setting to mark those regions of a text that are in need of more attention.)

In practice, though, our transparency game generated some pretty confusing results. When we stacked the transparencies together, nothing really jumped out. It was visual chaos. Did something go wrong? Had we not thought about the texts carefully enough? Was our sample size too small? Were our categories misleading? Should we have been more specific? Did we break it? Maybe the transparency game is just supposed to generate more questions?

We also noticed a number of somewhat troubling features of the game. The biggest issue was that some people tend to mark a text heavily. Others tend to mark only a few lines. The result: Those who mark less seem to have less of an impact in the aggregate visualization. Is this a problem? Should we be assigning some weight to the markings?

In all the confusion, a few of us noticed that we began to unstack the transparencies, spreading them out on the table. Although this didn’t lead to any clearer results, we noticed that it was a natural impulse to unstack them. This points, I think, to an interesting tension that is built into the very fabric of Prism, a tension between individual interpretation–something very familiar to academics–and the “aggregate interpretation” that Prism generates.

The meeting ended with an assignment to design a project for Prism.

Here is my project:

Overview: The text I have in mind is Plato’s Phaedrus. The research question would be to use crowd-sourcing to determine the perceived truth-value of Socrates’ statements. There is a long literature about whether and to what extent we ought to take Socrates’ statements literally. Many of the dialogues suggest that there are certain types of argumentative practices–lying, deception, misleading, trickery, confusion tactics–that are inappropriate for the philosopher to adopt insofar as he is concerned with the pursuit of truth. But there is also a long history of viewing Socrates as a trickster, a dissembler, and even a liar. This project would ask readers to decide: Is there evidence to suggest that Socrates does, at times, mislead his interlocutors? And, more importantly, does this occur even in the midst of otherwise serious philosophical investigations?

The categories: A) Serious discourse B) Ironic discourse C) Humorous discourse and D) Misleading discourse. A big question for me is how to frame these categories. Should people be able to interpret the categories freely? Or should I say more? I’m inclined to say more, insofar as I’m interested in particular features of a very old text. Situating the research question in the scholarship might help to shape people’s readings in a productive way and avoid anachronism (Shane’s right!).

The audience: People who are comfortable with Plato’s dialogues, or more generally, with ancient Greek culture. Explaining the literature might make this a project better suited to a mass audience.

Some modifications: 1) A place to explain the research question. 2) A place to explain the categories. 3) A longer text. I would want people to engage with and mark the entire dialogue. Prism is, at the moment, set up very much like the transparency game. Each text is no more than a page long. But this precludes the ability to delve into themes, structures and other features of a work that require a more synoptic approach.

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