Re: Beyond Access and Impact: The Ultimate Benefit of SkyReading/Writing

From: Joseph Ransdell <ransdell_at_DOOR.NET>
Date: Wed, 28 Nov 2001 11:27:36 -0600

In response to the message from Stevan Harnad explaining the benefits of
"skywriting" (or rather "skyreading/writing"), David Goodman wrote:

DG> I confess to never having thought of it before now, but it seems
DG> apparent that we now need appropriate interpretive summaries of major
DG> email message sites, aimed both at the specialist who wants a
DG> comprehensive account, and , probably separately, at the non
DG> specialist who wants to know what going on .
DG> I know this may be met with some skepticism in this forum, but I suggest
DG> (and very strongly) that this is an appropriate activity for human
DG> not computers.

I agree that it would be needful for human beings to do this sort of thing
if it were desirable to do it at all. My own scepticism about this, though,
has nothing to do with possible computer solutions as an alternative but
rather with the fact that people who would be competent to provide such a
service could not be found to do it: in general, the able would not be
willing. Some exceptions might be found, but far too few to justify the
attempt to institute such a practice in a general way.

Why? Because for such summaries to be of much value the summarizer has to
be sophisticated enough in the given field to understand what it is
essential to capture in the summary and what can safely be ignored, and,
moreover, to be able to compose such summaries in an effective and
inoffensive way as well, free as much as possible from any identifiable
bias. For a summary purports to be a statement of fact about a real thing,
in this case an intellectual process occurring in public discourse, and even
at the very best it would introduce into the process it monitors a
redundancy that would in practice be highly prone to introduce unnecessary
interpretational confusion and dispute.

In short, any person who was a legitimate candidate for that sort of job
would have to be an intellectual peer of those whose discourse was being
summarized . But those competent to do that sort of thing will almost
always prefer to participate in such a dialogue as an interacting peer
within it rather than to make the pretense of standing above it, as it were,
providing a god's-eye view of what has really been said.

Then, too, who would be interested in such a summary? Those seriously
interested in the topic at issue -- assuming the topic to be timely and
important relative to the aims of the inquiry process being summarized --
will not be satisfied with such a "neutral" description of what others have
said but will want to read the very words of the participants themselves in
order to understand what is being claimed, suggested, implied, insinuated,
presupposed, and so forth, without dependence on intellectual servants who
will "save them the trouble" of figuring out for themselves what is going
on. Summaries could perhaps be helpful for the purposes of historians of
ideas, but I should think it preferable that historians do the work of
discourse analysis and summary for their particular purposes themselves.
There is already too much reliance by historians on summary accounts by
other historians of important matters -- a practice in which the secondary
literature takes the place of the data upon which the historian should be
basing his or her account -- and this would probably only tend to exacerbate
this problem.

There might seem at first to be an important difference in the usefulness of
such summaries depending on whether we are talking about scientific fields
-- especially the natural and/or experimental sciences -- or about
non-scientific ones, since the relationship of the natural/experimental
scientist to the text produced in professional communication is usually
rather different from that of, say, the humanist. The scientist wants
clarity, precision, lack of ambiguity, brevity, and absence of unnecessary
rhetorical or ornamental verbalism, insofar as that is feasible, given that
this is rarely more than an ideal imperfectly approximated: in effect, the
scientist wants verbal (i.e. textual) transparency in the text communicated
since his or her interest is in the subject-matter which the communication
is about, not the text in its own right, whereas the humanist is frequently
concerned with properties of the text itself, which is often itself an
important part of the very subject-matter under discussion. And it might
seem as if judiciously written summaries of the bare bones of the scientific
discussion would involve minimal creative interpretation on the part of the
summarizer. But insofar as the discussion to be summarized is driven by
disagreement about theoretical matters or about the interpretation of data
it will tend to take on the same characteristics as the argumentative
discourse typical of fields where textual interpretation is a matter of
normal and overt concern. Since it is only such discourse that could be
expected to be of any interest, in any case, this apparent difference thus
seems insignificant.

Now, participants in such dialogues sometimes have occasion themselves to do
some summarizing of what has been said -- though rarely of the line of
thought as a whole -- but both the form and content of this sort of
participant summarizing is determined by the aims of the individual
participants and the way their aims are working out in the course of
discussion, not by any motive of providing an impartial or disinterested
overview. Disinterested overviews do not normally occur in authentic
intellectual discussions where the aim is to test and develop ideas
interactively: this is not an intellectual vice to be remedied but rather a
consequence of the interactivity of the process, where each contribution to
it is occasioned by something an interlocuter has said, provides the
occasion of a further contribution by someone else, and is intentionally
shaped in a persuasive way by each of the participants insofar as they are

David is perhaps misled by state-of-the-art review articles, often
commissioned by editors of journals to provide an overview of the various
positions held by researchers on some controverted topic, along with the
reasons why the various positions have been held or controverted. These do
not purport to be or aim at being summaries of actual dialogical
interchanges, though, but represent the reviewer's attempt at isolating what
he or she thinks is or is not important in what has been said on many
different occasions. These can indeed be helpful at times, though only to
the extent that one realizes and duly compensates for the fact that such
summary reports are to be taken cum grano salis and are likely to be
regarded as biased at times, and sometimes rightly, by at least some of the
participants, if the opportunity should arise for them to register such a

Librarians may have a natural tendency to exaggerate the importance of
keeping permanent records of all professional communication, whenever
possible, overlooking the fact that informal professional discourse is
rarely regarded by those participating in a research tradition as involving
argumentation and assertion with the sort of seriousness appropriate to
something that is said as a final and considered statement of one's view. It
is very important that there be a "lapidary" medium for formal publication
in research -- understanding "lapidary" in the extended sense of a medium
whose content can be returned to at will and for an indefinitely long period
-- but that is because of recognition of the need for occasions when one is
to be held responsible for taking and holding to a certain reason-based
conviction, in contrast with communication in which one is exploring
possibilities by tracking out their consequences without the inhibition of
the need for commitment to them. Those special lapidary communications --
"primary research publications", as they are sometimes called -- are what
provide the anchor points in research as a communicational process that at
once enables and facilitates progressive development in the research

But the importance of there also being much informal discourse, and of
varying kinds, should not be overlooked, as it too commonly is at present,
where the emphasis on formal publication as a commodity in the economics of
prestige has led to grotesque deformations of intellectual life in the
humanities in particular, where entire departments can come to resemble
lunatic asylums at times, with no meaningful and professionally relevant
informal communication occurring at all among what are nominally collegial
peers. Where the dialogue is informal, there is some which should indeed
by recorded verbatim -- as it frequently is, in fact -- for reasons such as
those which Stevan ably describes in his account of "skywriting" and for
other reasons as well.

I agree with Stevan, too, that something desirable but heretofore impossible
is available now, and I suggest that the reluctance to recognize the value
in this may be based on the mistaken belief that little or no importance
attaches to research communication which is not of the nature of primary or
formal publication. In fact, though, one could argue that it is not
infrequently the case that informal communication is even more important
since the ideas that come finally to be accepted by the research community
are generated and refined and rendered rationally persuasive chiefly in
informal circumstances, and the primary publication in which they eventuate,
though essential in the process, actually plays a relatively minor role in
acceptance. But the need for summary overviews of informal discourse, from
the standpoint of a non-participant observer, is nevertheless dubious for
reasons given above.

Joseph Ransdell

Dept of Philosophy
Texas Tech University
Received on Thu Nov 29 2001 - 09:44:31 GMT

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