Prism Proposal: Against Anonymity

Jeremy asked us to offer a Prism exercise that would take the tool in a new direction. Rather than expanding the tool’s parameters, I would like to think about how we can get a more nuanced understanding of the information it already collects. In what follows I offer a vaporware exercise that we will play in person, suggest some thoughts on the disciplinary and pedagogical questions it might answer, and I conclude with some suggestions for adapting the exercise for digital use.

The idea: rather than marking multiple categories, all participants mark a single category. Each person has his or her own unique marking color.

The text: The specific text is not important for this particular idea, but for the sake of the exercise I will use “The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes

The marking: Other(s)

The research/pedagogical issues at stake: The exercise was designed with pedagogy in mind. In the final visualization, the color constellation tells us who marked what in a clearer way: red for Brandon, green for Cecilia, etc. This is absolutely vital if we are going to use the tool for pedagogical purposes. Rather than submerging the voices into a bundle of data with no way back, this approach allows us to see the overlap and disjunctures between different interpretations more clearly. In the vaporware version, we can’t really do this without pulling the transparencies apart again to see them individually, which destroys the collective image. By restoring clarity to the individual voice, we can more easily open up a conversation with students. What did a particular student mark? Why? How does this relate to the aggregate? How does a particular voice interact with the crowd? These discussions of individual vs crowd work particularly well for this textual example: the poem obsesses over the relation between speaker and musician, poetry and tradition, individual and community, etc. Just as scholars would discuss how the lines blur between individuals and groups of people in the poem, the marking activity can open a meta-discussion about the nature of our own marking activity as an intellectual endeavor – a collaborative one nonetheless comprised of individual gestures.

There is also a fairly selfish short-term application to this: it simplifies things. As Gwen mentioned, throwing together eight transparencies all marked for three different things comes across as a big glob of data. Maybe the above approach can declutter things for our short-term training as Prism initiates. In this vaporware experiment, a mark means one thing only—the color tells you who did it. One category might not mean fewer markings, but it would at least be easier for us to process with fewer different systems of meaning on the overhead. I imagine that this (hopefully) simplified exercise is something that we need to just get a sense of what sorts of conversations, interpretations, and gains can come out of Prism at all. In a similar manner, the current Prism visualization only deals with one marking at a time. You sort by marker, and you don’t see all the markings at once.

The above approach is designed for the vaporware transparency game, so it obviously only works with small groups of people. This makes me wonder if it is even a viable option for working with a “crowd.” It seems very useful for pedagogy, but would such a thing even be feasible with a class of 20 students? I don’t think so. You’d have to get a really big packet of markers and a very nuanced sense of the color pallet. So this is really an idea that needs the technology in order to function. Here is a variation on the idea behind this exercise that would work for the online tool.

Users mark as usual and go to visualize. Below or next to the list of markers, we have a dropdown menu with a list of the users. Mousing over a particular username causes their markings to appear in the text, allowing you to compare their markings with the crowd’s aggregate. How these individual markers are visualized in relation to the mass is up for debate. One idea to implement this would be to underline each word that the user marks: a really big word not underlined means that the user did not mark it, but a large portion of the crowd did. A small word underlined means that the user marked it, but the crowd did not. This is not a perfect system, so I’m open to ideas. And this doesn’t even begin to broach the question of how the sorts of conversations I imagine coming out of Prism can possibly emerge when users are not all in a single room together. But I do think this larger question of retaining the individual user’s gesture and their markings is an important one – a step towards retaining their voice and even their humanity, in just the sense that Claire references.

Brandon is Head of Graduate Programs in the Scholars' Lab. His research focuses on modern and contemporary fiction, especially on Anglophone modernisms and the novel in relation to sound studies and musicology. Before coming to the Scholars' Lab, he was Mellon Digital Humanities Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor of English in the Washington and Lee University…

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