Friday, January 13, 2012

On the Language of Culture and Code

We are coming up on the Chinese New Year so it's a good time for rivals to criticize Republican Presidential candidate John Huntsman for speaking Mandarin. Slipping into Chinese during a New Hampshire primary debate might not have been politically wise, but he might been better off doubling down and adding an instructive coda: given China's ascendancy, we would all profit from learning Chinese. 

I've worked in China, on-and-off, for years and am increasingly struck by the interest there in English-language education. No wonder Reader's Digest. Macmillan, Scholastic Magazine, Highlights for Children, among others, are so engaged in developing English language learning activities in China, especially in Beijing and Shanghai but increasingly in second and third-tier cities. I have consulted with Chinese ereader companies and there is a high interest in bundled English-language content on devices at birth as a differentiator in a very competitive product marketplace. The Chinese government might paint American pop culture influence as demonic--and indeed, has just severely restricted similar fare on national television, but officials are very clear about the need to understand the language of the foe. Obviously, there is a lot of interest in speaking Chinese in America, but it is not as deep-rooted, pervasive and as well-funded as learning English in China.

I have been thinking about what happens when the language of culture, discourse, and vocation fails us.  In her Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, Kathleen Fitzpatrick explores the future of scholarship within the Humanities, calling for a kind of community scholarship she had explored extensively through Media Commons. Digital, of course, is the great leveler and shines the cold light of day on the lone scholar examining the individual linear text. For Fitzpatrick the answer seems to be in social, sharing, and the scholarly version of remix. I think she's on the right track.

My dissertation advisor has spent most of his career assembling a comprehensive bibliography of John Updike. Most of this work was done the old fashion way--by hand.  Given Updike's brand, I see this as a worthy effort and mean no criticism.  But with sophisticated search tools one might be able to do this in far less time.

As an former University English professor I'm not sure if the textual criticism of literature, whether from a psychological, mythological, or archetypal perspective, fundamental to the discipline for more than fifty years, makes much sense any more. I remained amused years later that a fellow graduate student was able to write her PhD dissertation on the medical imagery in John Donne's poetry. More fool me for writing the following dissertation: Aesthetics and the Religious Mind in Three Catholic Novelists: Francois Mauriac, Graham Greene, and Flannery O'Connor.  This august work found its way, along with thousands like it, forever entombed,  in a decaying, undigital file.

I think English Departments would be better off teaching writing, semantics, structural grammar, lingustics, and with help, coding, electronic publishing, and archive construction. The discipline has largely abandoned the structure of language, grammar, and linguistics in favor of publishing literary criticism for job security and tenure.

Not surprisingly interest in programming skills, once considered the province of the geek in the corner office, have taken center stage in an increasing digital economy. Ironically, the Computer Science Teachers Association, reports that the number of high schools in the US offering introductory courses in programming dropped from 78% to 69% since 2005. This might say more about our schools than digital opportunities.

That said, there is a growing interest in the investment community to fund online and physical schools that teach programming and related skills, including Treehouse Island Inc., Competitor Codecademy, and General Assembly. That Greylock Partners, Union Square Ventures, and Jeff Bezos are funding these efforts underscores the seriousness. 

Yesterday I attended a Big Data Visualization event, organized by NYC Media Lab and hosted by Bloomberg LLP.  Speakers included data scientists from, Seed Media, Foursquare and NYU-Poly. I will devote another post to this extraordinary event, but here I want to say a key takeaway was how important the technologist, designer and scientist have become as we try to better understand and visualize massive data sources that for magazine publishers will increasingly come from outside their traditional sectors and relationships, mashed up in ways we have yet to understand.

The next generation of publishers will likely be more scientist and less English major.

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