The Foundations of Context

Context is basically content’s habitat — whether that be paper and ink, pixels on a screen / monitor, bits in the ether, whatever.

The technological basis of content cannot be overlooked. Media is not merely a channel, it is also the technology itself.

In my previous post, I pointed out that the most basic notion of context that most of us have grown up with is actually bogus: Fact vs. fiction … neither exist in reality.

So what does exist?

For the past several centuries, the answer was, for the most part: Paper. Within the past several decades: A whole lot more. Today (and tomorrow, and for the forseeable future): The Internet. I don’t know of a good way of measuring content (Hal Varian has historically measured it by simply counting bits — but as I used to say: it might not be very reasonable to consider a megapixel-sized photo of a black room to be a million times as informative as one big fat zero), but I do feel quite confident that most of it will at least be duplicated online (even if it doesn’t live there exclusively or “in the first place”).

Most people recognize that the habitat of the Internet is networked computers. Yet only a few people recognize that the habitat of the Internet is also alpha-numeric characters (plus the “hyphen” symbol) — and a couple of these people might include the founders of Google (since the original name of the company is equivalent to the number of combinations of such characters which are possible in each top-level domain). Hardly anyone recognizes that the habitat of the Internet includes the governments / legal systems that are responsible for regulating the technology.

If we want to understand online media, we need to understand how the sausage is made, including the languages used and regulations (and similar standards) which govern it.

Fact vs. Fiction = A False Dichotomy

One of the most widepread sets of containers for media is a distinction between fact (or “non-fiction”) and fiction.

Although it is very widespread and also has a quite long tradition, it is based on a fallacy: The scheme of separating content into these 2 buckets is a false dichotomy.

People who follow my writing may be reminded of this quote by Edward Snowden about “how to make facts” … and how I described the way it is a very unscientific approach.

In science, there is not actually “true” or “false” — but rather: “disproven” and “not (yet) disproven”. Indeed, even this may be too harsh. If we leave tautological statements and similar mathematical proofs aside, the notion of proof — in the sense of 100% certainty — is not a scientific concept. We cannot prove anything with 100% certainty, and neither can we disprove it with 100% certainty.

This is not even a matter of debate exclusively limited to ivory towers. Common sense (and common language, too) have many levels of thinking, believing, guessing, estimating, and so on (and of course there is a lot of academic literature on this sort of “fuzzy logic” — in linguistics, this is primarily considered in discussions related to “modal verbs”; in other fields, the concept of “epistemology” is also widely used).

Perhaps the main point to note here is that even the most fundamental containers that have been used since close to forever are at the very least problematic, if not questionable or even downright faulty. We have here a case of “tried and invalidated”, very far from “tried and true”. The contexts which you have so far considered to be infallible are, in contrast, fallacious, misleading, bunk.

It’s time — it’s even long overdue — to head back to the drawing board.

Is medium a platform (or not)?

While not exactly surfing, but rather more like paddling (but at least not drowning) as I was navigating the web via my daily morning read of feeds washing up on the shore of my laptop, a post by medium user “Sophia Sunwoo” floated up among the bubbles landing on my screen. Actually, NOT. I don’t use medium — neither medium, nor twitter. Both seem meaningless to me. The thought bubble I saw was created by wordpress user “Thao Huong” (username “draonguyen” — oops, correction, “blog title/url” #context-is-complicated 😉 ) — namely: “🏆 Episode 187: Why Your Business Has No Future On A Marketplace” (which is a short “abstract” of the article posted by the medium user, including a link to the source). The reason why I prefer using wordpress rather than medium is not so much due to wordpress’ unparalleled global popularity, but rather it’s more a matter of my preference of its “open source” business ethics. In my opinion, “wordpress” is a meaningless brand name — but what about “medium” or “twitter”?

When twitter first start well over a decade ago, I said to my friends that “this thing is going to be big!” — because at that time “twitter” was a (more or less) meaningful concept (there was — and maybe there still is — a definition of this concept in most dictionaries). But its meaning is actually quite amorphous — akin to things like “babble” or “bull” or other such descriptors… all of which (including “medium”) don’t really describe anything specific, but rather are genres for fora (or platforms) for spreading different kinds of hot air. Hot air is not very interesting — at least not in my humble opinion.

Sophia Sunwoo — if this is indeed the real and correct spelling of a real person (mind you, there are quite a few people on Earth whose birth certificates are written in languages that do not use the roman alphabet) — does something quite ironic: she (?) writes an article warning against the overuse of what she refers to as “platforms”… and posts that article on what may very well be a platform. The crux of her argument is based on the following insight:

Even if the algorithm is benefitting you now, when the time comes (and it always does), the algorithm will transition to benefit the platform’s profits first.

Even the link to the article on medium itself seems to be a profit-making scheme — you might think that leaving off the gobbledygook string at the end of the URL would nonetheless display the article, but nada! That code probably tracks some kind of information — and my hunch is: it’s crucial for selling something (and the thing it’s probably selling is you). Another reason not to use “medium”.

Yet even if medium were not spying on you, the fact is that the string is, after all, pretty much meaningless — it provides little or no context whatsoever. Why should I become a member of a “medium” community? Because I can pitch my story to some amorphous mob of users? Sorry, that just doesn’t cut it.

So I will go out on a limb, and say that medium is “distrustworthy” — much like most platforms, including the brand names Google and Facebook, it is worthy of distrust. The article may still be worth reading for you, especially if you have any question at all concerning the meaninglessness of these so-called “platforms” … which turn their users into huge masses of nondescripts, leading online lives of quiet desparation (of course most of their twitter or babble or whatever will simply scroll off the screen and become completely insignificant to the meaning of life).

Introduction to Rational Media: Content vs. Container

Over the years, I have written quite a bit about online media — and most of it seems to be quite controversial. Perhaps one of the most controversial stories I have written has been the story about what I refer to as “outdated media” technology (which I wrote on what is essentially my own “personal” blog). The definition of this more-or-less controversial term has held up quite well, and now I would like to begin delving into the other side of the coin.

I am immediately motivated by the encouragement of an aspiring educator who said she looks forward to “reading more of your thoughts related to this topic” (meaning the topic of “building connections“). Language builds connections — insofar as it is meaningful. Following Ludwig Wittgenstein’s observations, we can say that the meanings we create by using language are mostly circumscribed by those contexts in which we use particular linguistic expressions (versus other contexts, and / or other expressions, respectively): we do not say “cat” when talking about a dog; we do not say “dog” when talking about a cat.

Meaningful expressions exist at various levels. We navigate these contexts without even needing to think about it. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is Herbert Paul Grice’s seminal work on pragmatism (“Logic and conversation”, 1975) — in which he analyzed the meanings of expressions that seem to violate standard (“grammatical”) interpretations. Yet much research in linguistics oddly aims to be “context-free”, which seems to fly in the face of how humans seem to naturally think. To ignore context makes about as much sense as trying to breathe in a vacuum.

My particular focus is primarily written language, another favorite point of ignorance among many more conventional linguists. One particularly interesting aspect of most writing systems is that the technology has evolved to support very explicit contextual information. In school, we learned to write “about” stuff by putting a title above what we wrote. If the title was something like “The difference between cats and dogs” (well, that sounds quite definitive, doesn’t it? maybe it would show more humility to use a title like “Some of the differences between cats and dogs which I think are important right now”, but I expect many might instead coach students to be more straightforward, to forthrightly simply declare something like “Cats & Dogs”) … with such titles a reader reasonably expects to find some particular kinds of information — and by reasonable you might even think “rational”. Rational media, therefore, is about something meaningful… and the thing it’s about is clearly labeled in the title.

Online, these titles are the names of sites — not “page titles”. A page title is merely a piece of metadata about an HTML page. A site is the container for content — in other words: its context.

When we choose our reaction to whatever life throws at us, we become able to shape our quality of life

Life doesn’t have to suck. Our circumstances don’t have to define us. When we are agents that can choose and act for ourselves, we are able to appreciate the growing opportunities that are presented to us. And when those times come, we can remember that It’s Ok To Laugh.