Fun with Prism

Prism could be a tool that we use for scholarly entertainment (like Old Weather). It could also be an extremely powerful tool for research–provided that we make the controls fluid enough.

Earlier this week, Claire and I dreamed up a rather elaborate interface that would showcase Prism’s playful qualities, in order to generate “subjects” interested in participating in the research side of things. While brainstorming, we started casually referring to all the possible projects housed on Prism as “rooms”, each with its own “door” through which users would enter. Among other adjustments that we imagined, we thought a lot about customization, allowing a project leader to make a number of crucial decisions before launching the room. Who would be allowed to mark up the text? And how would a reader be presented with the request? Perhaps the most useful innovation we discussed was the option to remove the fixed “categories” from the front-end experience, so as to provide for freer responses. But then what? Would readers be able to provide their own tags and categories? Would it be desirable to run these tags through some kind of linguistic software in order to generate more general data? Might all of this be left up to the person launching the project?

This conversation led to a shift in my thinking about how different disciplines might approach Prism–I even started to imagine uses in my own field. In the past, I’ve been a bit skeptical of crowd-sourcing in that very few questions in philosophy have traditionally been answered by appealing to surveys or statistical analysis (with the exception of some pretty cool stuff in experimental philosophy). But thinking about these rooms, with fluid controls and the possibility of limiting the number of readers, got me thinking: Prism could also be a powerful tool for experts. I even got a little giddy when I realized that this could be a tool for, say, presenting what the very best living readers of Ancient Greek might have to say about certain portions of Plato’s Republic. (Big fun, right?!) This type of “expert-sourcing” could provide students with an excellent commentary on a given text, and might also serve to define new areas for research. An interpretive void–what the experts don’t mark up–could be just as useful as what they do mark, drawing our attention to passages that have received less scholarly attention.

In keeping with this idea, I’ve also started to think about the possibility of showcasing finished or closed projects. People could visit certain rooms to see the ways that certain groups have marked important texts. I can imagine all sorts of fun rooms:  Classical musicians respond to a piece of Noise Music, Research participants in placebo-controlled trials hash out the informed consent documents, Followers of Kabbalah interpret the Torah, Fourth-graders comment on the US Constitution…

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